Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gen Y readers and Blood Flats (I)

I want to thank everyone who has read Blood Flats so far, whether in the paperback or Kindle format. In this post, I want to thank one group of readers in particular.

Since the Kindle downloads of Blood Flats started selling, I have been especially grateful for some of the feedback that I have received from younger readers regarding the book’s two youthful protagonists: Lee McCabe and Dawn Hardin.

One reader said that he couldn’t stop thinking about Dawn Hardin’s character for days. Another reader told me that Lee McCabe’s response to his own circumstances compelled him to make some critical changes in his own life.

As the author of a novel, those are the kinds of emails that you live for.

As most readers will know, I am in my forties; so I make no claim to being a part of the “younger generation.” My formative years took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, when today’s younger generation was busy being born.

Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of being young that transcend generational differences.

Take the Blood Flats character of Lee McCabe, for example. Lee is a former U.S. marine and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the age of 23, he is eager to get on with his life. He plans to attend college while he works part-time at a blue-collar job. Even though he is still young, he is troubled by the vague notion that he should be farther along by now. He doesn’t want his life to pass him by.

All of us, when we are young, go through a phase in which we have a strong desire to get on with things already. That feeling of straining at the bit—wanting to make your mark in this world—is universal. What I felt in 1990 or 1991 is basically the same feeling that so many young people are experiencing today.

But things don’t go as planned for Lee McCabe. His hometown has been taken over by violent meth traffickers. One of them lives next door. Lee knows that it will only be a matter of time before he is drawn into the traffickers’ web of violence.

And to make matters worse, Lee cannot appeal to the law. Sheriff Steven Phelps, the primary legal authority in Hawkins County, Kentucky, bears a grudge against Lee.

Why does Phelps despise Lee? Well, as they say: It’s complicated…

Years ago, before Lee was even born, Phelps had a youthful affair with Lee’s mother, Lori. Ultimately Lori spurned Phelps to be with the man who would become Lee’s father. As Lee’s parents are both dead, Phelps has one target for his anger: Lee McCabe.

In our youth, we all occasionally have the feeling of having to bear unearned guilt and unearned grudges. While few of us will suffer because of the romantic entanglements of our parents, there are other ways in which we become the center of misplaced anger when we are young.

When I received my first post-college job, I was working in a factory with a number of older men who resented the fact that I had acquired a university degree. They repeatedly referred to me as “that &%$# college boy.” (I now wonder if any of them actually knew my name.)

While I laugh at it now, a situation like that can be intimidating at the age of 22 or 23. For most of your life at this point, you have been accustomed to thinking of people of the older generation as your mentors and protectors: teachers, parents, coaches, etc.

When you are young and someone of the older generation vindictively turns on you for the first time, the effect can be disorienting. You realize that you are now an adult, and you are basically on your own.

If you’ve read Blood Flats, you will know that much of Lee McCabe’s struggle is generational in nature. He is forced into a private war against older antagonists on both sides of the law. Being older and more established, his enemies usually possess greater resources than he does.

In my next post, I’ll address this theme as it relates to the character of Dawn Hardin---a former honor student whose life takes a wrong turn into a downward spiral of addiction and street crime.

Thanks again to the readers of Blood Flats---especially you younger readers!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Blood Flats: regarding the novel’s portrayals of the U.S. military

A number of readers have noted that Blood Flats generally portrays the U.S. military and its veterans in a positive light.

I think that this is a fair valuation. I have never served in the military myself, but many of my friends and relatives have; and I am grateful for their service and sacrifices.

But a few readers have asked if my (generally favorable) portrayals of U.S. military veterans reflects some wider political agenda. (The hero of the novel, Lee McCabe, is, after all, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

I wouldn't describe Blood Flats as a politically oriented novel. It is primarily a crime novel, and there are elements of what might be termed the “Southern Gothic” genre mixed in as well. Despite the large number of U.S. military veterans in the book, the entire story is set in rural Kentucky. The only detailed scenes that involve military engagements are flashbacks.

Nevertheless, I can't deny at least some intention on my part to portray military veterans in a light that runs counter to the clich├ęs of modern film and fiction.

Since the Vietnam era, moviemakers and novelists have gone out of their way to portray the U.S. military and its members in sinister tones. You have no doubt seen the Oliver Stone movies, which have virtually nothing good to say about the U.S. military. Stephen King's novels––which have a wide readership––frequently portray members of the U.S. military as the bad guys. (This no doubt springs from Stephen King's youthful affiliations with the 1960s antiwar movement.)

Closely related to the U.S.-military-as-villain genre is what I might call the “mentally unbalanced veteran” genre. The textbook example of this sort of work is the 1976 film Taxi Driver. In the movie, Robert De Niro portrays a psychologically unstable Vietnam vet. (This type of film and novel became quite popular in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.)

The hero of Blood Flats, Lee McCabe, has been affected by his experiences in Iraq. However, in the context of his struggle against the meth runners and organized criminal elements of the novel, his experiences as a veteran have also made him more resourceful. Although only 23 years old, Lee McCabe is more mature than the average person of that age. This maturity shows up in that ways that Lee handles the extreme circumstances that he must face in the novel.

Of course, he also has his share of internal demons. These are a product not only of his war experiences, but also some of the troubled aspects of his childhood.

So to answer the reader’s question: I have a fundamentally positive impression of the United States military, and yes, that probably shows up in my fiction. But Blood Flats is a crime novel first and foremost. The novel is not intended to be a standalone statement about the war in Iraq or any other contemporary geopolitical events.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book prices, Kindle & reading rates

In this video I make the point that the Big Six publishers are missing a historic opportunity by refusing to lower their ebook prices to reasonable (i.e. below $9.99) levels: The Kindle could make the reading of new books an affordable form of entertainment once again. But this won't be the case if publishers insist on clinging to old economic models. 

For example, observe the Kindle price of Empire Falls, a novel that is now 10 years old. The Kindle price is $11.99. The discounted version of the novel sells for $10.20 on Amazon.com.

I could maybe understand if this were a hot-of-the-presses, much anticipated new release. But why should a 10-year-old novel be higher than the print version?

This was, incidentally, one of the reasons that I chose to price the Kindle versions of Blood Flats and Hay Moon at $2.99. A book should not be a major investment. 

And yes---I also wanted to coax readers to try something new. It was partially a marketing decision. Nevertheless, I think that the prevailing ebook pricing scheme among the Big Six publishers represents a betrayal of the readers (and, more importantly, would-be readers, who are presently spending their entertainment time and dollars elsewhere.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Another reason why the Big Six publishing houses fear Amazon

If you work in publishing these days, you are probably more than a little ambivalent about Amazon.com.

On one hand, with the demise of Borders and other brick-and-mortar retailers, a working relationship with the online retail giant is not exactly optional. Amazon makes a lot of money for New York publishing firms.

On the other hand, it is clear that Amazon seeks to bring about a partial or complete disintermediation in the publishing industry. Amazon has already begun this process in some significant ways, with the Kindle direct publishing program and CreateSpace, among others. Amazon also has its own publishing imprint, AmazonEncore.

And now, as this article in the NYT reveals, Amazon is strategically acquiring existing titles from outside publishing houses. 

I am personally a fan of Amazon.com. But then, I don't work for a Big Six publishing house. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

A few words on ebook pricing

A few fellow writers e-mailed me recently to ask my opinion about the appropriate price for e-books in Amazon.com's Kindle store.

When it comes to e-book prices, there are two extreme viewpoints. As it so happens, I disagree with both extremes, and I am going to tell you why.

"Price 'em as high as possible! Don't disrupt our business models!"

The first extreme is best represented by the actual pricing schemes of most of the traditional publishing houses.  The traditional publishers  (what some indy writers are now calling the “legacy publishers”) were never really very enthusiastic about E publishing to begin with. 

After all, electronic publishing was a threat to their business model from the outset. Electronic publishing lowered barriers to entry that were required to publish a book. What traditional publishing houses most fear is that the price of e-books will permanently fall below the $9.99 range.

This will destroy the economics on which their business models are based. As many other writers have pointed out, the traditional publishing business is not exactly efficient. Legacy publishing is plagued by an excess of middlemen who consume too much time and too much money to perform what should be relatively simple and straightforward tasks.

Traditional publishing houses have therefore responded, for the most part, by pricing e-books at or above the prices of paper books. 

This accomplishes two aims. 

On one hand, it assures that e-book sales do not cannibalize paper book sales (where barriers to entry still favor traditional publishing houses, despite the advent of new technologies such as print on demand.) Also, high e-book prices prevent any disruptions of the traditional publishing model. In other words, if an e-book costs $12.99 or $15.99, there will still be plenty of money to pay for what is an antiquated business model.

The problem, of course, is that this is not what consumers want and expect. When a consumer buys a Kindle, he or she assumes that this purchase will result in a subsequent per-book cost savings. This only makes sense. The electronic delivery of books does result in the avoidance of certain real costs: paper, transportation, etc.

Many consumers are therefore outraged when e-books are priced at or above the price levels of paper books. 

If you look at some of the review threads on Amazon.com, you'll see clear evidence of this. Over the past several years, numerous readers have used these threads to vent their frustrations at publishers who did not fulfill their end of the implicit bargain. (By the way, I don't think this is the appropriate place for Kindle readers to express their ire over high ebook prices; but that is another discussion for another day.)

"E-books should be free...Or almost free!"

At the other extreme are those who believe that e-books should be priced as cheaply as possible, which in the world of Amazon.com usually means $.99.

I am also not a big fan of the $.99 pricing scheme. To begin with, while I agree that $12.99 for an e-book amounts to gouging the reader, I am not entirely sure that $.99 represents a viable price structure for writers and publishers. In addition, a $.99 price point encourages a new and unsettling phenomenon known as “e-book spam”.

How about half of the paperback price?

So what is the appropriate price point? In my opinion, the ideal price point for an e-book is about one half the price of a paperback. In most cases, this is going to mean a price point of at least $2.99, and no more than about $6.99. (I would make exceptions at the low end for special promotions, and exceptions at the higher end for academic and technical materials that do not have a wide readership.)


I am taking the middle ground. I don't believe that it is necessary to shortchange either readers or content producers. My formula of one half of the paperback price leaves room for efficient publishers to realize a profit, while still giving readers the savings they expect from electronic books.