Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Adventures in self-publishing

WARNING: This is a long post. It will appear at the end of the sixth Steve Martinez novel, The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, to be published next January 1.

In the authorship game, I’m like a journeyman ballplayer that bounced around the big leagues for a few years before being sent down to the minors for good.
In the 1990s, major New York publishing houses—Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Random House, and HarperCollins—issued my first three books, all nonfiction. Reviews were good (the New York Times Book Review praised all three) and sales were modestly successful (one book made enough to send a son to a private college for four years).
When I switched to mystery writing in the early 2000s, the first three whodunits in the Steve Martinez series—Season’s Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses—were issued by a competent second-tier publisher of genre fiction, Tom Doherty/Forge. They were well reviewed but not heavily promoted.
In 2008, when the Great Recession had thoroughly staggered the publishing industry, Forge let me go. Though my notices had been good, sales of regional mysteries—especially mine—had just been too modest. I joined a host of similarly orphaned novelists struggling to find new publishers.
Finding a fresh vendor wasn’t easy. Publishing houses are loath to take on a fiction series in midstream. Because they don’t own the earlier books, they can’t depend on revenues from them to support taking a risk on new ones, hoping their writers will someday become best-sellers. And so for more than three years Hang Fire, the fourth in the Steve Martinez series, languished in limbo until Five Star/Gale, a specialty house that markets genre fiction chiefly to libraries, rescued it for the 2013 publishing season.
Five Star has been a good choice for young writers seeking to break in as well as older ones hoping to keep their careers afloat. In 2016 it also published Tracking the Beast, the fifth Martinez novel. Both novels have done well enough to earn back the tiny advance payments and generate additional royalties.
At the beginning of 2016, Five Star suddenly decided to stop publishing mysteries entirely, and focus instead on romances and Westerns, both booming genres in the library market. Five Star did not say why, but it was easy to guess the reason: Mysteries were no longer doing so well in its market.
The Riddle of Billy Gibbs had been acquired but not yet contracted for, and so Five Star set it adrift along with a number of other mystery novels.
Rather than ask my agent to shop it around for months and even years, I decided to publish Billy Gibbs myself and get it out into the sun sooner rather than later. Although I couldn’t give myself a fat advance, the royalties I could pay myself down the line might not be so bad.
But isn’t this self-publishing? Only a decade ago, when I was the book review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, there was a real stain to the idea. Professionals looked down on the wares of “vanity presses” as beneath their notice. Reviewers assumed that a book that hadn’t gone through an agent and a genuine publishing house couldn’t possibly be worth reading. Selling such a book was nearly impossible without reviews, and countless authors ended up with hundreds of unsold copies on skids in their garages.
As the recession has slowly lifted, some things clearly have changed. Self-publishing is no longer considered a mug’s game. The advent of easy-to-produce ebooks and publish-on-demand paperbacks have eased the task of creating a book by oneself. Of course, nothing can replace the skill and experience of a good agent and a veteran publishing house, but the alternative is a lot sunnier than it used to be.
I’d had some experience in the book game on the production side as well as the writing. In 2009 the rights to my first book, What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness reverted to me, and I decided to bring it up to date and see if I could get a university press interested in the project. That happened, and the University of Illinois Press republished it in 2010 as an academic paperback.
My agent was then attempting to sell Hang Fire, and I thought its chances to find a new publisher would be helped if the earlier books had reappeared and were building an audience. And so I won back the rights to the earlier novels and brought out Season’s Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses as $3.99 ebooks on and in 2011.
The big job, as with Pig, was scanning the original hardcovers into electronic form and cleaning up the text. I still had the original electronic manuscripts, but the publisher’s considerable edits had been done on paper. It was simply easier to scan than to hand-insert the changes.
Next came interior design—not difficult for an author of several previous books—and then the front covers. I didn’t think I’d ever make enough royalties to justify hiring a jacket artist, so did them myself. They’ve been through two iterations so far, and they’re still not quite right.
The total cost: Nothing, except for my own labor. Amazon and B&N don’t charge a dime for production and distribution of ebooks—they just take a modest cut of sales. What's more, I don’t need to keep a large inventory of copies.
At first those three reissued mysteries brought in only enough money to take Debby out to dinner once a month (twice if it was a good month), but sales have slowly increased to the point where I can now treat her twice a week. I have done no real marketing for those titles, except for a few library presentations, but Five Star’s publicity efforts for Hang Fire and Tracking the Beast piqued reader interest in the earlier books.
In 2012 I decided to get back the rights to my other two nonfiction titles, Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America and Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, and reissue them as ebooks.
The same year I discovered’s CreateSpace “independent publishing platform,” as it calls its print-on-demand paperback scheme. For someone with the skills I’ve learned over the years, it’s an easy way to produce actual printed books of reasonably high quality. Many readers, especially older ones, would rather have volumes they can hold in their hands rather than peer at ebooks on an electronic reader. Two months after the ebooks appeared, Zephyr was also reborn in CreateSpace form. Not Gin Fizz; the market for old aviation books is too small to be worth the effort.
This time I had the sense to use actual photographs as book covers rather than scratch out amateurish art. The toughest part was deciding on the fonts for the title and cover text.
These two forms of self-publishing have been highly fulfilling, for it enabled me to use—and hone—the skills I had learned not only as an author but also as a newspaper editor with training in computerized page design and graphics production.
Gin Fizz has languished—books on aviation no longer command sizable audiences—but the rail buff community loves books about trains, and Zephyr has stayed afloat among it, especially since I’m able to promote the book on railfan web sites and Facebook pages.
In 2016 I republished the first three Steve Martinez novels as one omnibus ebook and as a single print-on-demand paperback called Porcupine County. The latter is a 726-page doorstop of a volume, and despite its $9.99 ebook tag and $25.95 paperback price, sales have been heartening.
I followed that later in the year with three separate $12.95 paperbacks for readers uninterested in an omnibus.
The toughest part of this enterprise, of course, is winning the attention of potential readers. I still have to go out and peddle the product, mostly in presentations at libraries. With one or two exceptions, bookstores have not seemed interested in selling print-on-demand paperbacks, let alone ebooks.
Getting reviews is still difficult. Book review sections have dried up with the rest of the newspaper industry. A few surviving magazines, including those geared to libraries, still review books—but most don’t touch self-published efforts. Neither do most literary blogs and Web sites devoted to mysteries (some will, but only for a fee, and I refuse to pay). Fortunately the five previous novels in the Steve Martinez series provide a built-in readership for every new novel, thanks to my Steve Martinez page on Facebook and my web site, Yes, the web site is self-published; I had to teach myself HTML coding.
Now you are holding the latest example of my efforts—The Riddle of Billy Gibbs.
Being a one-man publishing house has been a gratifying pastime during my retirement years. I certainly am not making a living at it, but it keeps my aging brain limber—and it also keeps all my books in print, gaining new readers every day.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Solly, me, lipreading and Zim

Here’s a Facebook Messenger exchange I had yesterday with Alan Solomon, an old colleague from Chicago journalism (we were both on the Sun-Times before he went to the Tribune as a sportswriter; he’s now freelancing as a globetrotting travel writer).

Solly: Question: When you watch baseball [on TV] and there’s a conference on the mound, have you ever been able to read their lips?

Me: Yes and no. I can catch individual words but not the sense. A lot of lip reading is educated context-guessing, anticipating what will be said. A lipreader well versed in what goes on out on the mound will be able to do much better than me. But now the participants cover their mouths.

Why’d you ask that question anyway? Bar bet?

Solly: I’ve always wondered. The “hiding of faces” is a relatively new phenomenon; it always looks so silly, so I was curious to see if there really is a risk—or if it’s just a bunch of hooey.

Me: It is possible that a skilled lipreader (not necessarily deaf) who’s baseball-savvy enough to know the things that are said on the mound can steal stuff that way.

Solly: With most teams having a “video” coach in the clubhouse now to review close plays and advise managers on whether they should appeal, I suppose they could hire one who lipreads as well.

On the other hand, I know players who don’t want to be tipped off on stuff; Don Zimmer, when he played, was one of them. Having taken a fastball in the head, he feared being told a curveball was coming and leaning into the plate in confident anticipation—and discovering too late that an inside fastball was coming instead. Might be a plot device for you: murder by deliberately wrong tipoff . . .

Me: Hey. Mind if I put this exchange on my blog? Folks will find it interesting. I didn’t know that about Zim.

Solly: Absolutely—use it! Invoice will be sent asap.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Lipreader's Stare

The other day one of those silly clickbait articles about body language one shouldn’t use in the workplace appeared in my Facebook news feed. It suggested avoiding a steady gaze at another person standing close by, for that might be taken for an attempt at dominance or aggression.

As a lipreading deaf person, I absolutely need to fix a laser stare upon an interlocutor’s face—especially if that person is a stranger—if I am to understand their speech. I’d never thought about it before, but there have been occasions in which folks suddenly squirmed away in apparent discomfort.

And so I decided to survey other deaf lipreaders on my Facebook friend list to see if they have encountered this phenomenon. Their responses ranged from the brief and flippant to the thoughtful and concerned, and I suspect say much about the kind of people they are.

Think of this blogpost as my lightweight contribution to scientific research into deafness.

L.G.: If the person is talking, no problem. If he isn't talking, it can feel weird.

K.G.P.: Yup, I've had people tell me that it makes them uneasy at first. I think I've subconsciously developed techniques to break that gaze now and then . . . "Oh look, a kite!"

E.R.: that's a tough one—I have not experienced that but have often wondered if my "stare" makes people uncomfortable. I try to look away while people are talking every now and then.

C.G.: I've wondered the same. Turn your head and you miss a key phrase or change in topic. Give a friendly approachable smile and then you find out their mother just died. There's the continuous effort to keep up with the content through watching the other person's body language and facial expressions. That probably does make some people uncomfortable to be scrutinized like that, but there’s not much we can do about that.

D.M.: Oh, that's a great question. I have been told that it makes some people feel listened to! Of course when I hear that I just let it ride, as I am listening but not in the way they probably mean. I imagine that taken to the other extreme it might be unsettling to some. Too, culture plays a role.

C.L.: It depends on the person's cultural background. Many farm workers won't look at me directly when I'm asking questions. Some women, especially in Muslim countries, shy from looking at a male's face for fear of inviting unwelcome advances. Most people get it that I am deaf and need to look at facial expressions and lips and realize that I'm not seeking a personal attachment. It shouldn't be more than “seven seconds too long" a gaze, as Dave Davis once said of his gaydar abilities.

C.W.: I stare at the mouth and I've had people start picking their teeth. I'm usually up front about my hearing loss and tell people I lipread, so I think that makes it okay. People who have bad teeth or cleft lips or whatever are the ones who are most uncomfortable with it, I think.

A.Z.R.: I've always wondered if people find it strange that I'm looking more at their mouth than their eyes. Are they trying to make eye contact, while I'm busy looking a few inches below their eyes?

R.C.: I agree I've made people uncomfortable. Men in particular think I'm overly interested in them. Such big egos they have! Never know what color eyes they have, but always know the state of their teeth.

B.K.: I shift my gaze constantly between the lips, eyes, eyebrows, expression, hand movements, boobs, etc., when someone's talking to me, so it's not like I'm staring.

J.W.: Yes. If the person doesn't know you, you have to be aware of the effect you may have and, if necessary, explain.

F.C.: I think most people find it refreshing—someone is actually paying attention to them! Other people take it as interested and that person may squirm away if they feel uncomfortable about your supposed interest in them (either sexual or romantic).

K.K.: Well, for starters, deaf/hard of hearing folks use eye contact especially for lipreading. It is common courtesy to face someone when communicating. As for staring, we do this at school as non-verbal cues to students to stop  disruptive behavior.  I have always found this useful as students don't like to stand out when called on verbally.

C.P.: It may be disconcerting but with a quick explanation of the need to lipread it's not an issue.

J.S.: Sure. And fuck 'em. 🙂

D.P.G.: That lipreading stare can be so powerful and bring out unexpected responses from increasing the gabbing to freaking out. Over time I’ve tended to not look directly at the person, or to say “No” when asked if I can lipread. It’s a superpower I prefer not to have.

A.D.H.:  I’ve had more positive than negative experiences with regard to my lipreading gaze. It’s due in part to culture—Israelis and Catalans both tend to gaze directly at a person’s face—so my lipreading gaze does not come across as unusual.

S.A.P.:  I would have said that it’s not staring if you blink every so often.

M.T.L.: Yes, I'm totally a lipreader and I've encountered many people who are unnerved by my need to watch them speak so intently, and I also tend to want to get as close as I can (though I don't feel I invade their space) to read their lips.

I've had people physically move away from me because they were unnerved by my concentration on their speech.

I see it more as their problem than mine.  One particular memorable incident was a new neighbor of mine in Atlanta.  I had met Peyton, the wife of the couple, but one day, Dave, her husband, came over and knocked on my door and introduced himself (can't remember what he wanted, I think to borrow a tool or something) and I invited him in and started talking to him standing in the entryway.  He was very unnerved by my standing close and watching his every word, and he physically backed up and got a strange look on his face.  Again, I don't think I was invasive of his personal space at all.

After I got to know both of these wonderful people and Dave realized I couldn't hear (I don't think I told him that day), we talked about our first meeting and how was weirded out by me.  We became good friends.

Most others who have done the same were not people I came to know well.

Now, if someone does shy away for this reason, I tell them right away that I'm reading their lips and it takes concentration and explain, "That's why I'm watching you so intently."

T.S.: I think  you are right about other people feeling uncomfortable with the gaze of lipreading, though with some qualification. I think this feels more threatening when coming from a man. And in fact if one is a woman looking at a man to lipread him, it is sometimes misinterpreted as being interested in him. Which leads to a whole different can of worms.

L.S. I agree. People aren't used to such contact, esp. these days with technology.

T.E.F.: Make sure you have cow eyes.