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To KDP Select or not to KDP Select

In my first novel, The Other Alexander, it took me a short while to build up a head of steam (or so I've been told by several discriminating readers who my wife tells me I cannot remove from our Christmas card mailing list). That may be the case here within this post. If you've no time to waste, to read my evolving views on whether or not to join Amazon's KDP Select program, skip down to the œ.'s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select program has been batted back and forth from every independent author and publisher from here to Singapore and back. Is it a sellout or a way for struggling artists to be seen and sold by the Jupiter of our solar system's publishing planets? If you sign one of your books up for KDP Select, you must agree not to publish that ebook with any other company: not Apple, Kobo, Smashwords or the six-year-old kids selling paperbacks with lemonade on the corner.

If you join, your books can be loaned out in the Kindle Lending Library, and each time that happens, you get about two bucks. You can also select five days during each 90-day sign-up with KDP to list your book for free, which will hopefully skyrocket your ratings and subsequently increase your at-money sales. Finally, you will be eligible for 70%, not 35% royalties for books sold in India.

uneasy spirits
Every struggling author already knows all this. I was spurred to write this entry when I read an article in this month's Association of Independent Authors, "7 Things Joining KDP Select Can and Can't Do for You," posted by M. Louisa Locke, a quite successful author of San Francisco historical mysteries. Here's a plug and a link:

Ms. Locke argues that if your book is on one of Amazon's bestseller lists or high up in one of the popular browsing categories, then members of Amazon Prime can borrow your book for free and you can cash in. In 2012, she earned over $8,000 in this way with her two books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits. Imagine how well she did with regular sales! Congratulations, Ms. Locke! The author also says that offering certain books for free (which Amazon will only let you do if you sign up for KDP Select) has brought her increased revenue through additional visibility.

œ If you are just getting started, as I am, KDP Select is a way of admitting that you need a leg up, and Amazon's program is a generous lift in the right direction. No one, by a factor of about 10, can come close to matching the marketing power of, so while I am building a following, I don't believe I am hurting the self-publishing industry as a whole by cutting my books off from Smashwords (whom I deeply respect) or from any other venue. I don't sell that many books to begin with (between 100 - 200 a month), so giving Amazon the "monopoly" of my books means losing only a couple of sales at most at those other virtual stores.

However, in my opinion, an author that has achieved a certain level of success, and each knows what that must mean monetarily, ought to leave KDP Select. In the long run, books should be available everywhere in every format. If the reader is the true leader of this new revolution in publishing, then she and he ought to be able to find
any book they want wherever they want in any format. If and when my writing feathers become stable enough to fly on my own (they won't, if I keep writing pathetic metaphors like this), I'll tumble from the warm, nurturing nest of Amazon's KDP Select program and find my way back into iPads, Nooks and Sonys. Splat.

You Get What You Pay For

Here is some interesting anecdotal evidence. With A Mixture of Madness, book two of The Bow of Heaven series about to be released, I decided to drop the ebook price from $2.99 to 99 cents, both as a celebration that the blessed thing was finally done and as an incentive for folks who might want to play catch-up.

Why didn't I give away
The Other Alexander for free? When I first started publishing a couple of years ago, I thought it was a good idea to get my work out there, but I have since changed my mind. Writers deserve compensation for their hundreds of hours of hard word, even if it's only a buck, and discerning readers understand that.

So, I lower the price on Smashwords, on Amazon, everywhere, expecting to see some kind o
f bump in sales. And boom! In the first week, sales drop off a cliff, a big cliff. Oh my gosh! What have I done? Apparently, the wrong thing. So after a few weeks I admit it, I did something shameful—I reneged on my promise and raised the price back up to $2.99. You won't be surprised to hear that The Other Alexander is selling briskly once again, not proving, but at least indicating that "you get what you pay for."

I certainly hope that's true, because
A Mixture of Madness is weighing in at over 140,000 words and I'll be pegging it at $4.99. One thing's for sure—if readers don't think it's worth the price, they will let me know in short order.

The dove which you'll find on the cover of the paperback editions and in one way or another in all
The Bow of Heaven books appears courtesy of my favorite illustrator and fine artist, Lynnette Shelley,

To Be or Not to Be Self-Published

Carrie Slager has asked me to offer my thoughts about self-publishing, why I chose that route for my series The Bow of Heaven, and what I think about the self-publishing industry in general.

If you were an author trying to get your novel published the old-fashioned way around 2005, but wound up instead going the self-publishing route, then it’s almost a certainty you had been rejected by every traditional agent and publisher on the planet. How do I know this? From experience. The stigma clinging to the word “self-published,” much of it warranted, was palpable.

Times changed, from the publishing industry’s perspective, almost overnight. So much so that now, I don’t think it matters what Carrie or I or anyone else thinks about the rise of self-publishing. (Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, network television was up-in-arms over something called cable and pay-per-view. What? Pay for TV when you can get it for free? Yeah, like that will ever catch on.) There is no stopping this tidal wave of words, and ultimately, I think it’s a good thing.

My Dad used to tell me, “Look, son, I know you’re scared to pick up the phone to ask Peggy to the movies, but think of it this way: if you ask 100 girls for a date and 90% of them tell you no with a capital “Are you nuts?” you’ll still have dates with 10 different girls.” 100 girls? I knew Peggy. What was my father thinking? Plus, he was a charming cross between Ronald Reagan and Dean Martin. I was a cross between Woody Allen and another Woody Allen. You see my point: there may be tons more worthless words yakking for our attention, but there will also be more worthy, entertaining offerings of eloquence by authors who otherwise would have had the mahogany double doors of traditional publishing slammed in their faces.

Self-publishing has given the old chestnut “power to the people” brand new relevance. Until very recently, traditional publishers hoarded that power like Scrooge hoarded farthings. They’d peer over their
pince-nez glasses and with a Dickensian sneer be very pleased to tell the rest of us just what we ought to be reading. Those days, in my opinion, are almost over. For good.

True, we are going to be wading through fields of chaff to find a few grains of wheat, and as readers, we’re going to need help sorting it all out. Traditional critics have their hands full just keeping up with those New York Review of Books titles, and I can guarantee you they will sniff and turn their backs on 99% of everything else. 89% of the time, they’re probably making the right decision. Twisted analogy coming up: but what about those ten worthy girls stamping their feet out in the cold? At least for the time being, we have to rely on all of the rest of us to know what to read and what to leave sitting on the virtual or print-on-demand shelf. Whether you hate a book or love it, review it! If there are more writers, there need to be more critics. Book bloggers and just plain old readers will see us through these new and wondrous times.

Carrie caught about 15 typos in
The Other Alexander. I was appalled. Because before she got her hands on a copy, I had
chimp typing
picked through that final manuscript like a hungry mother chimp grooming her baby for snacks. And I had two other people do the same thing! We owe it to our readers to be as grammatically, typographically perfect as possible. Having said that, I don’t think it’s quite as big a deal as Carrie does. I’ll give a book three typos before I start grumbling. But here’s the best part – self-publishers can go on taking corrections from their readers forever. It doesn’t cost a thing to upload a revised, error-free version of their oeuvre. Just don’t let as many nits slip through your comb as I did.

boh2 72CS
A word about cover art. I have heard from a smattering of readers and reviewers, Carrie included, who found the original cover (on the left), to quote one critic who otherwise loved the book, “bizarrely hideous.” I hear and I obey. Very shortly, new versions of both the ebook and paperback editions will be released with professionally designed covers. Unless you’re a graphic designer, get help. (The fine artist whose work you are admiring on the right is Lynnette Shelley. Go to her website; you will find a little of the bizarre, but nothing remotely hideous.)

Proofreading, it must be said, is not editing. The original version of
The Other Alexander was so far removed from the copy you’re going to rush out and buy when you finish reading this it would be unrecognizable as the same novel. I had a lot of help. I needed a lot of help. I would love to have gained from the wisdom of a professional editor holding my hand throughout the entire process, but then I would have had to type much more slowly. And it wasn’t in the budget. But I did have several people whose opinion I trust tell me the many places I had gone wrong. The first book in the series has been out almost a year and they’re still telling me. Here it is in a laptop case: if you haven’t revised your novel from top to bottom at least three times, odds are you’re at least two times shy of getting it right.

I’m afraid I do not agree with Carrie that aspiring authors ought to go the traditional route. It is no small thing to have control over your work and to earn a far greater percentage than you ever will with the big houses. The trick is to recognize you cannot go it alone. Other eyes, preferably trained, need to vet your writing. Of course, if the main reason you’re sequestering yourself for hours at a time over the span of any number of years is to be able to go to a bookstore, point with pride to a display window full of hardcover copies of your bestseller and say, “I did that,” start polishing those query letters. And good luck with that.

For the rest of us, and by that I mean everyone minus nineteen, write the best book you possibly can, self-publish and see what happens. If it’s as good as you think it is, it will get noticed. And if the big houses come knocking, you can decide if their advance is worth the loss of control. We should all be so lucky.

One last thought: whatever you do, be sure to publish an ebook edition. Here are some stats from publisher
Robin Sullivan. In May of 2011, Amazon sold more Kindle ebooks than paperback and hardcover combined. At the end of 2010, ebooks accounted for 8.3% of total trade sales; by February of last year, ebooks constituted 29.5% of the total, higher than any other category (hardcover, mass market or trade paperback).

Whether you decide to self-publish or go the traditional route, it’s a great time to be a writer … and a reader.

The Slager Interview

Doesn't that title sound serious and august? Good, that's what I was shooting for. Below is an interview I did recently with Carrie Slager, The Mad Reviewer, in which I talk about motivation and some background for writing Bow, self-publishing versus the traditional route, and other soap-boxy things. You can find Carrie at

1.  Why did you choose to focus
The Bow of Heaven on Marcus Licinius Crassus?  Out of all the figures in Roman history, why him?
I think Crassus may have gotten a bad rap. Rome hated nothing more than a loser, and in the eyes of historians like Plutarch and Cassius Dio, he was right up there at the top. Crassus lost the standards of his seven legions to the enemy. It took Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus) 27 years to negotiate their return, and the day they were returned to Rome there was a celebration as great as if Caesar had earned a triumph.

There are two reasons historians put forward for Crassus' ill-fated war: greed and jealousy of Julius Caesar and Pompey. There may be some truth to each of these, but in my opinion, not enough to leave the life of Riley he was living. Crassus was one of the most respected, honored elder statesman of Republican Rome. He was known as “the richest man in Rome,” so to me, the greed argument doesn’t fly. As for his generalship, if not for Crassus, Sulla’s overthrow of Marius and Cinna would have failed, and Pompey stole the “glory” of the victory over Spartacus when it was Crassus who deserved the credit. Still, I can see where, as a Roman thing, he might have wanted one more shot at military success. But of those two explanations of why he went to war, he already had plenty of one and a sufficient amount of the other. Plus, he was
so old.

The average lifespan for a Roman was around 35-40 years. Let’s call it 50 if you’re wealthy and have a good HMO. Crassus was
60 when he led a host of 50,000+ (including non-combatants) on a 1,500 mile trek across the Adriatic, over Asia Minor and into the wastelands of Mesopotamia.

By the way, Roman politicians were divorcing and remarrying almost as often as they changed clothes. Marcus Crassus was married to his wife, Tertulla, for 35 years, and whatever japes may be found in the historical record, there is nothing that says they were not happy together. (There was a report Crassus was after the property of a Vestal virgin – Plutarch puts this in the very
first paragraph of his Life of Crassus. Suspicious? I think so.) I believe history’s take on Crassus may be ill-founded, that the negative taste left in our mouths is the result of spurious attacks meant to demean the man who lost the standards.

There had to be something else to jolt him into leaving an idyllic, powerful, wealthy, happily married life, and I believe there was. It’s in the book.

One last point. I began writing in the third person, but quickly came upon the idea that Crassus' story would be much more interesting if it were told by one of his countless slaves. The story of Alexandros and Livia is a foil for Crassus and Tertulla, and I hope gives the novel some balance and symmetry.

2.  What would you say are your biggest writing influences?
Unfortunately, I had to toss my biggest influences out the window to write this series. Imagine this kind of narrative told in the style of Woody Allen, Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut? I’ve tried to give Alexander the dry, sarcastic kind of wit I learned when I lived in England my junior year of high school. There was another choice, however.

The voice that sang to me in dulcet, sweet refrains, that urged with wily japes and introspection, to turn my narrative Elizabethan, till perforce all language lost its comprehension. Nope. ‘Didn’t go down that route either, writing as if I held a quill in my inky hand and was married to Anne Hathaway. No, the other one.

3.  Where did the idea for The Bow of Heaven come from?

This is going to make no sense at all. When I saw Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with Russell Crowe, it rekindled a long-standing puzzlement over how a society as advanced as the Romans could also harbor such a wide barbaric streak. I read books, watched BBC videos and quite by accident came across Crassus, “the unknown triumvir.” What on earth was he up to? And why? The result: not a single gladiatorial combat takes place in The Other Alexander. I guess I got sidetracked. There will be none in A Mixture of Madness, either, but none will be necessary, I promise you. If I can get through it without crying, it will be a miracle. I hope my readers will hang in there with me, because the urge to enter the arena will probably overwhelm me by book three.

You can’t think ‘gladiator’ without ‘slave’ following close behind. In addition to discovering the ‘truth’ about Crassus, I also wanted to explore the nature of the relationship between slave and master. In Rome, everyone who was anyone had at least one or two. What must that have been like? How did they survive the trauma of losing everything? How could they find love and keep it when their lives were not their own?

4.  Why did you choose to self-publish?  What was the self-publishing process like?
Years ago, when Bow was three books jumbled all into one, I did make the rounds and kept at it until I had been rejected by every single English-speaking agent in the known world who handled historical fiction. I’m nothing if not a glutton for self-punishment. Truth to tell, they were right – the book was a mess.

I suppose I could have gone back and been successful going the traditional route once the book was revised (for the 12
th time). But having control, retaining all the rights and mostly, knowing that my work need never go out of print, those are some heavy weights to throw on the independent side of the scale. And no, I didn’t throw ‘making more money’ clanging into the balance, because let’s face it, nobody who loves to write these days can be in it strictly for the money. There just aren’t that many disappointed, self-obsessed, embittered writers out there. Wait a minute ….

Smashwords made the process, in spite of their name, almost painless. Caveat: get a good cover. One of my reviewers called mine “bizarrely hideous.” Oh, the shame.

Join AiA, the Association of Independent writers ( They have an Authors Resource Guide with people who can help with every aspect of the process from A to W. Sorry, if you need something from X, Y or Z, it’s not there.

5.  Would you encourage other writers to go along the same route?
I would say keep your options open. Everybody has their price (he said with dripping cynicism). I would write for the love of writing. Self-publish, and if you’re very lucky, the big boys and girls will find you. Then you’ll be in the enviable position of having to decide what it’s worth to give up complete autonomy. If you self-publish first, you won’t have to wait on pins and needles for the mail to arrive – you’ll be out there, published. So if your goal is for people other than the bedridden maiden aunt living next door to read your work, do it yourself. It’s not that hard.

Now I’m going to say something that would make Dan Poynter and Joe Konrath and dozens of other publishing gurus turn over in their graves. If they were dead. I agree that to increase the odds of becoming successful as a writer you need to market your own work, whether you’re with the big six or going it alone. But enough is enough. I didn’t start writing so that I could hop on Goodreads and Shelfari and spend my days posting on Facebook and Twitter talking up my work. (I
know that’s what I’m doing right now, but did you have to point it out, right here, in front of all these people?)

Yes, that’s what’s happened, and until recently, I found myself spending more time blogging and posting than actually writing. So I’ll keep my website, post a blog every week or so, talk to nice people like Carrie, but do my very best to spend most of my time working on that next book. If I don’t move as much product, so be it. I’m not in it to win it, I’m in it to pen it. Not even close, I know. But you see where I’m going.

6.  So who is your favourite figure in Roman history and why?
I guess we’re talking after Crassus, since he will be ahead by about 1,000 pages by the time I’m done with him. I guess I can’t say Colleen McCullough. Or Ray Stevens (he played Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome). This is hard! I can’t go beyond Octavian, because all my research has been within a very narrow time frame, from 90 BCE to 20 BCE. Pompey, no – he was power hungry, but when he got it he couldn’t handle it. Cicero, no again. He was brilliant, but politically his principles and positions waffled more than _________ (enter the politician of your choice, from either party). So I’m going to go with Publius Crassus, Marcus’ son. In Gaul, Caesar trusted him to lead legions, conquer less than cooperative tribes, make political decisions, all without any help from the great general - at an age when today he’d just be getting out of grad school. Hail, Publius!

If we can go a little farther afield, let’s hear it for Sappho as well. I wish more of her poetry had survived. She must have been something to be remembered through the millennia, chosen as one of the nine lyric poets in a world dominated by men.

7.  Do you have any other projects planned for after you finish The Bow of Heaven series?  If so, can you give us a hint as to what they might be?
I may work on a spinoff that looks at the war and its aftermath from the Parthian point of view. Or a paranormal, time travel romance with werebies (zombie wolves), if I actually want to sell anything.

8.  What advice do you have for any aspiring writers out there?

Publish more than once. If I could change one thing about my writing style, it would be to type faster. Okay, I have a day job, too, so there is that. But I do believe that letting your readers know you are in it for the long haul will help you sell more books. Oh, and when you’re just about to release that second gem, give the first one away for free.

Get someone other than the bedridden maiden aunt next door to proofread your work. Well, get her if she’s any good, but get at least one other person who knows what she’s about. And if you’re self-publishing, which you should be unless you’re Ryan Gosling with an urge to write your memoirs, you need an editor. Someone you trust, who understands your vision. One pair of eyes just isn’t enough. We’re all too close to our own work to see what might be some awesome suggestions.

Are there any gorillas in the Amazon? Maybe they should have named the company Uganda. Anyway, Amazon is the silverback of publishing, and they have changed the world of writing forever. Although their policies are, at times, let’s be nice – dictatorial, the market they can reach is unrivalled. Publish there.

Definitely give Smashwords a try, too. It’s free, and they have great tools for vetting your work so that it will display correctly in e-readers. They will also distribute to just about everyone (silverbacks excepted for the most part). I also recommend publishing a trade paperback edition of your book. It adds credibility, and there are still 14 people out there without e-readers. You want to sell to them.

Lastly, thank you, Carrie, for giving me the opportunity to talk with your followers. I can always be reached at or at alevkoffatgmaildotcom. Now can somebody please tell me why email addresses are being written like that? I’m clearly out of the loop.

The Noncorporeal Author

I was at the "Un-Named Bookstore" yesterday buying shelf space for my novel. This forward-thinking store allows indie writers to get their books seen in a brick and mortar establishment without being vetted by agent, publisher or editor. From there it goes downhill. The charming employee who took the 5 copies of my paperback with something less than disdain, something greater than apathy, said this: "Tell me your three-minute elevator speech; no, I don't have time for that, do it in less than a minute." I complied, trying to control a pesky facial twitch.

Then she inquired, "How are you marketing your book?" I replied with the usual, "I do nothing but market - website, blog, twitter, FB, email, phone; I hardly have time to work on the next novel."

She tapped her paperwork on the table surface to square all the corners and, in a tone of conspiratorial comradeship said, "Yes, even real writers have to do that now."

I loaded up my verbal 12-guage, my imitation of Captain Queeg now complete save for the metal balls (is that significant?), but in the end smiled as if she hadn't just slapped me hard across the kisser. After all, I didn't want her throwing my books into the incinerator after I left.

What's a poor indie author to do? Like another maligned Caesar and his followers, played to a fault by Andy Serkis, our day is coming. Ooh-ooh.