Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Overlapping Circles of Experience

I want to welcome Malcolm R. Campbell to our PODBRAM review team. He is quite an experienced asset to our little operation. It has taken me several weeks just to get my mind around exactly what I wanted to say to introduce Malcolm to our readers. From what I know of him, he and I have a few things in common. We are both Southerners of about the same age, and we have created a variety of different organizational projects and websites that revolve around a generalized literary concept. Malcolm found me in early 2007 when he requested a review of his iUniverse fantasy book, The Sun Singer. I discovered a multi-faceted talent when I researched his book for review, and when I began planning the expansion of the iUBR review team, Malcolm immediately came to mind as an experienced reviewer with interests in genres in which I was not particularly adept.

Mr. Campbell has an established cluster of websites, so I shall direct you to these if you want to learn a lot more about this talented author, writer, reviewer, and editor. Here is his general biography page. In the same tongue-in-cheek manner of my Tabitha persona, Malcolm is also known as Jock Stewart. He blogs about all sorts of writer's issues and events at Writer's Notebook. Malcolm was publishing book reviews long before I snagged his talent. You can even hire him for various writer's services! As with my own e-tabitha.com, the home page of Campbell Editorial will lead you into the vast online world of a very talented and heterogeneous author. Like I said, we have overlapping circles of experience.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Solemnly Swear

Solemnly Swear
by Joe Porrazzo

(iUniverse / 0-595-44215-7 / August 2007 / 254 pages / $16.95)

This little book by first-time novelist Joe Porrazzo starts off slowly and gains momentum as the story progresses. Although the blurb and hype of Solemnly Swear may accidentally lead you to believe this is a military courtroom story akin to the Meathead Movie Masterpiece, A Few Good Men, only a little of the plot happens in a civilian courtroom. The bulk of the storyline is mostly a soliloquy of nightmares and flashbacks experienced by a retired air force colonel who has inadvertently witnessed a mob hit. Alex Porter is appreciating his early retirement in the company of his new Mercedes SL, with occasional visits with his daughter who is away at college. Driving home one night on a lonely road, he becomes the state's key witness when he sees the local Mafia don murder his wife. Most of the story takes place in the nine-month timeframe between the murder and the trial, with ample threats and suspense supplied free of charge by the mob to Colonel Porter. All he has to say is that he is not certain of what he thought he saw that night.

Alex sits down into the seat of his SL one day to discover through a cassette that has been placed into the car's player that a bomb has been placed underneath the driver's seat. The bomb will explode if Alex lifts his weight off the seat or if anyone is seen approaching the car. Alex does not know for certain if his car is being followed visually or with a GPS tracking device or both. Most of the plot involves Alex's precarious operations as he drives around contemplating his predicament. More characters are slowly absorbed into the story through flashbacks as Alex tries to learn as much as possible about his remote captors and their ultimate plan for him.

Mr. Porrazzo has definitely written what he knows. Solemnly Swear is all about characters and places the author knows well. The campus ROTC program plays a significant role in Alex Porter's life, just as it has done in the author's real life, and Mr. Porrazzo actually is a retired USAF officer. The editing and proofreading of Solemnly Swear are up in the stratosphere with the best. I had to give my own Campus Comma Cops the night off out of sheer boredom. I have only two complaints about the book, and both are minor. The lesser of the two concerns the cover. The style and design are fine, except for the dark text of the back cover blurb, which is quite difficult to read. My second complaint is that the book is too short. Although I love the taut editing, Joe Porrazzo's compositional style could easily have retained my interest through twice the page count. Solemnly Swear is a very technically competent book, certainly professional enough to sit with its peers on the B&N shelf in Tucson, as displayed on the author's website.

I know what you're thinking at this point: Come on, Mr. Nitpicky Book Critic, drop the other shoe. Surprise! The second shoe boots Solemnly Swear into the five-star bracket! Up until the final quarter, the book is a competent four-star runner, but as Alex Porter begins to defog his brain and take the offensive against his mobile captors, the author picks up the pace and heads for the goal line. Don't you dare pick up this book and begin reading in the middle, particularly toward the end! You will seriously regret spoiling the story for yourself. When Joe Porrazzo whips out the plot twists from Alex Porter's brain, Solemnly Swear kicks some serious butt.

See Also: The B&N Review
The Author's Website

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Aquarius Key

The Aquarius Key: A Novel of the Occult by Keith Rowley (iUniverse / 0-595-39373-X / August 2006 / 296 pages / $18.95)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for iUBR(Editor's Note: A bio of Malcolm, our newest reviewer will be posted soon at iUBR.)
Author Keith Rowley wastes no time playing the first of many Hitchcockian cards in this masterpiece of occult literary fiction. On page one, svelte, blonde, thirty-eight-year-old Sue Williams is window shopping on a beautiful sunny day. On page two, a man with “unfathomable eyes of naked darkness” and a cold smile envelopes her thoughts with his thoughts before maneuvering her into a waiting taxi.

Later, she tells her husband Bill she was mugged. Her blackmailer has pictures of what really happened, threatens to expose her if she talks, and is soon demanding a greater act of betrayal. So here it begins: an everyday couple is thrust into a dangerous and incomprehensible arena of lies, twisted loyalties and occult schemes with world-changing consequences.

Neither Bill nor Sue has ever heard of Aaron Steen, much less his quest for the Aquarius Key which he seeks via the misuse of rituals from the world of ceremonial Magick. (The “k” in the word “Magick” differentiates its rituals from the mere tricks and slight of hand of stage magic.) Neither of them knows that Bill’s brother Peter has been deeply involved in Qabalistic theory and rituals for years. And finally, when they first learn of such Magick, they don’t believe it’s real.

Rowley writes well and moves the plot forward by unfolding the story through the viewpoints of Bill, Sue, Peter, Steen and the other principals. His language has a fine snap, crackle and pop to it and is well suited to the fast-moving sequences of “every day reality,” the terrifying descriptions of rituals and to the mind-bending images found on higher planes of existence.

Readers of The Da Vinci Code will remember that author Dan Brown used a fair amount of space in his novel having knowledgeable characters inform others—and simultaneously the reader—about the secrets of the Holy Grail. Keith Rowley uses the same technique: characters who are well-versed in the cosmology of the Tree of Life, the principles of the Hermetic Qabalah, the Thelema philosophy and the associated ways and means of ritual Magick also utilize a lot of similar “instructional time” throughout The Aquarius Key.

The challenge for both Brown and Rowley is that while some (perhaps most) of this information will be over their readers’ heads and/or outside their readers’ belief systems, the plots of the novels don’t make sense without it. The extent to which readers of The Aquarius Key view theories of Magick as exciting material that enhances the plot or as tedious detail that delays the action may well depend of their frames of reference.

Readers who love hair-raising occult thrillers will enjoy The Aquarius Key with only minimal study of the philosophical passages. However, students of astrology, tarot, alchemy, mystical Kabbalah, and related paths will find that Rowley’s decision to explain the Magick as the plot unfolds makes the novel a much richer book. To this end, he has also included appendices with additional information about Magick, Qabalah, the Tree of Life and the work of the historical, adept Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who makes an appearance in the book.

Perhaps, in future editions of the novel, Rowley will expand the appendices to include references to the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), Argenteum Astrum (A.'. A.'.), Cor Lucis and other organizations whose teachings include ritual Magick and the Thelema philosophy. This will help readers find the fragile boundary lines between the inner journeys of real non-confrontational Hermetic practice and the stuff of good occult fiction.

In her book The Mystical Qabalah, adept Dion Fortune wrote that each symbol on the Tree of Life represents a cosmic force and that we establish a union with that force through our concentration upon the symbol, resulting in a “tremendous access of energy to the individual soul.”

Aaron Steen and his compatriots know well the pathways and forces hidden away upon the Tree of Life from all the Bills and Sues of the world, and how through personal will and the rituals of Magick to wrest from them sufficient energy to do great and horrible things.

Rowley’s highly imaginative plot and exceptional prose have, to the potential delight of Alfred Hitchcock—who surely reads The Aquarius Key from beyond the grave—extracted Bill and Sue Williams from their safe, sunny world and placed them without mercy into a much darker landscape. And as for you, dear reader, your roller coaster ride through the dangerous landscape of the novel will be accompanied by the realization that that you have more in common with the pawns in this cosmic game than with its masters.

See Also: Malcolm's B&N Review
Keith Rowley's Authors Den page
Keith & Hettie Rowley's Homepage
Malcolm Campbell's March of Books
Review at Blackwell (UK)
Writers Notebook review

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Interview with the Author

Janet Elaine Smith

Janet Elaine Smith is the most experienced POD author I have ever encountered in my vast exploration of the Internet wasteland over the past eight years. You can visit her blog or see her personal marketing plan or even read another interview with Janet before you continue reading this one. I cannot even remember on which message board I first discovered Ms. Smith. What I do remember is that among all the disparagement of each other as real or unreal authors, she was out there meeting booksellers, readers, and even POD company founders through her marketing quest. When the going gets tough, many people want to just stand around and argue about whom to blame for their problems, but Janet is one of those tough-get-going people. Including the reissues with different publishers, Janet’s eighteen books have been published forty-three times! Her entire published catalog is listed at the end of this interview.

PODBRAM: I understand that your first four books were self-published in the ‘90’s, before POD was even invented. Tell us how your long writing career began.

Janet: My husband and I were missionaries in Venezuela for nine years. When we came back to the US, I wanted to write down the experiences we had had there. By the time I finished that, I was "hooked" on writing, and I began my first novel, which started out to be a "simple little regency romance," but which grew into my first published novel, Dunnottar. It only took about twenty years for it to get published. Meanwhile, I kept writing more books and I stumbled into some pretty good magazine gigs. I knew that as long as I could keep writing, I hoped that one day I would succeed. I have never run away from a challenge.

PODBRAM: When you stated self-published for certain early books, did you mean the stacks of thousands in your garage type of deal? Do you still have them available for purchase?

Janet: The first book I "published" was The Hallett Family History. My dad asked me to put all the data and stories I had found on The Halletts for him for Christmas. I managed to get the book finished, and one day I was talking to the editor of Heritage Quest Magazine (now merged with Genealogical Helper) where I was a contributing editor and had a regular column as well as many feature articles. Now I never planned for this book to go anywhere except to my dad, but the editor wanted to feature it in the magazine. I took the original manuscript over to Kinko's and had a copy printed and put a black plastic spiral binding on it. He liked it and did a book review of it, and the next thing I knew I was getting orders from Halletts all across the country, as well as from quite a few libraries that wanted to add it to their genealogy section. I sold over a hundred copies that way, running them off one at a time when somebody ordered one. About six months ago the Hallett History showed up as a listing on Amazon. I have no idea how they found it. It never even had an ISBN!

A little publisher in Michigan, Kinseeker Publishing, sent me a contract for two genealogy books I had done and was using in my genealogy classes, which I had taught for sixteen years. I was ecstatic! There was no advance, and I never got any royalties, and they soon went out of business. I did get a few copies of the books, and I have one of them left. There are a couple of copies here at our public library. When I got the books, they looked exactly the same as my Hallett History that I had done at Kinko's. I think that's probably all they were doing, too. They are listed on Amazon (I have no idea where they found them, either) and once in awhile there is a used copy available. I think right now there is a copy of Tickling Your Ancestral Funnybone that was in some library and it is listed at almost $60! I wrote these books (as well as the Hallett History) before I had a computer, and I can't even find a copy of Digging in the Dirt: A Guide to Digging Up Your Family Roots to retype it onto a disk. Maybe one day...

The next one was The Flood of the Millennium. When we had our horrible flood in 1997 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, everybody heard about it. My husband and I had run a charitable organization here for about twenty-five years when the flood hit, and we were evacuated to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. When we went into the office to find out where to go or what to do, the colonel in charge asked us what we did in Grand Forks. I told him we had already been heavily involved in dealing with people from the moment the possibility of a flood was announced. The colonel told me to record the medical history of the nearly one-thousand evacuees! As I recorded their medical histories, I also heard how each one of them had gotten out of Grand Forks. I kept detailed notes of their stories during the nearly six weeks that we were all refugees on the base twenty miles from home, and then I compiled the book from these notes. My editor of the regional magazine Memories & Mysteries, where I'm the associate editor, heard about it, and he put a big write-up in the magazine about my flood book. I started getting orders from all over the country, as people were watching our experiences on Good Morning America, Today, CNN, Schuler's Hour of Power, etc., and many newspapers picked up on the fact that the book was available. I got a call from The Weather Channel in Atlanta and they asked me to send a copy of it to them. They announced it on the air whenever they ran footage on our flood. Again, I made one copy at a time at Kinko's when I got an order for a book. It got to the point where they just kept the manuscript there and called me in the morning to see how many books I needed. I would tell them, and by noon I would take the addressed manila envelopes over there, stuff them, then head to the post office to mail them. I sold books to people in every one of the states, as well as to Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the UK. That book sold over 3,000 copies, all printed and bound at Kinko's, in probably about six months. And then it pretty much died.

PODBRAM: I know you must be having a hissy fit to tell us about your Promo Paks, so go ahead and tell us about your latest release, the one so obviously published to aid other POD authors in their marketing efforts.

Janet: When my first book came out, I had no idea that an author had to market her own book. I had no background or training in marketing or sales. Maybe that was an advantage. By that time I had a computer, so I tried finding ways to let people know about my book. The things I did were very simple. I think that was a big key as to why they worked. I was too stupid to know they shouldn't work, and amazingly, they did. In fact, it worked well enough that in just a couple of months, Dunnottar was the No. 1 best-selling Scottish book on Amazon, out of over 8000 competitors. It stayed there for almost three months, and it got up to a sales ranking of 90 on the overall Amazon list. As these things were successful, including my being able to eventually get my POD books into the bookstores (another thing people said you can't do, but I have always loved a challenge!), people began to ask me how I had done it. That's when I decided to do my Promo Paks: Nearly Free Marketing for Authors. It was available for quite awhile just as an e-book, but I am thrilled that it is now out in print as well. They are very simple, mostly free things that authors can do, even if they are physically handicapped or relatively "financially challenged."

PODBRAM: Few authors have had the varied experience with several different POD companies that you have had. Which companies have you had experience with?

Janet: As I mentioned before, my first books were completely self-published. Then I had the genealogy books from Kinseeker Publishing. After that, I had five books that were published by FirstPublish, a POD publisher. Even though they went bankrupt in less than a year and I have my own suppositions (sheer guesses) as to why, they gave me my first real break, and for that I owe them a lot. Dunnottar was not only accepted for publication, but it was the book that they used to launch their entire company. I even ended up with some full back cover ads on magazines like Writers' Digest and The Writer. By the time they fell apart, I had five books out with them. The last one ended up with somebody else's name on the promo materials they sent me! Then I went with PageFree Publishing. Again, they were very good to me, and vice versa. It was great at the start, but I began to hear from other authors who were with them that they were having problems getting in touch with them, as well as some other problems. I was never an employee at PageFree. I got royalties the same as all their other authors. One day an employee that I had never heard of publicly attacked me on one of the writers' groups (one we both belong to, I think). I have no idea where that came from. I had considered the owner of PageFree much more than a business relationship. We were very good friends, or at least so I thought. I have no idea what happened. I hate losing a good publisher, but I hate losing a good friend even more.

Kristie Leigh Maguire and I had been friends for several years. She had asked me numerous times to work with her in marketing the books published by Star Publish LLC. I had been completely loyal to PageFree, sending many authors to them. But the time was right, and I have been delighted to work with Star. In my book, they are at the top of the heap. For one thing, I really appreciate the fact that they don't publish everything that comes along just because an author has some money. They choose their books very carefully. It is a joy, as their Marketing Director, to call bookstores every week to tell them about their many fine books. I now have seventeen books out with Star.

PODBRAM: Have you created any or all of your own cover designs?

Janet: I don't do my own covers. My artistic talent is non-existent. I realized that when our oldest son, now forty, was about three years old. I drew a cute little bunny with big ears sticking up. He turned it every which way but loose and finally put it upside down and said, "Mommy, that is the dumbest looking cow I've ever seen." I haven't drawn anything since. I have had a wonderful local friend who did the original cover art for some of my books. My youngest son did two of them. The others were created by Kristie at Star Publish. She does a fantastic job and has just started a subsidiary business of doing covers and video trailers. You can find the information at Kristie Leigh Maguire. I think a cover is one of the most important components of a book. I had one book that was out for a short time by a small traditional publisher. I had no idea what the cover was like until it was up on their website for sale. I hated that cover! I want some input into what my covers look like.

PODBRAM: Have you attended any writers’ classes or workshops? Have you taught any?

Janet: Unfortunately, living in North Dakota makes the availability of such things almost impossible. My husband recently passed away, but he was in a wheelchair and that made it impossible for us to do any traveling. I have been involved in the Muse Online Conference (both as an instructor and a participant), and it is a wonderful opportunity for people to attend a conference who have similar problems or who have jobs they can't leave, family responsibilities, lack of income, etc. I have taught Creative Writing classes at our local Adult Education Center. Some of them have been for fiction writing and others for magazine writing. Also, I cannot stress the importance of belonging to a local writers' group. If nothing else, it keeps you writing. If you don't have one where you live, start one yourself. There are writer wannabes everywhere these days.

PODBRAM: Which POD publishers have you considered for one or more of your books, but not selected?

Janet: Before I decided on PageFree, after being burned by First Publish, I did a lot of research on many POD publishers. I don't know that I seriously considered any others. I did learn one thing: the best place to find out the true story of what a POD publisher is like is to talk to their authors. That's where you'll find the truth.

PODBRAM: What was your experience as an editor for iUniverse like?

Janet: As I mentioned earlier, the biggest problem I had was with the content of some of the books. I found a few real gems that I would highly recommend to anyone. One of my favorites was The Mozart Forgeries, by Daniel N. Leeson, which is a brilliant book! (Editor’s Note: we have a review of The Mozart Forgeries coming soon at iUBR.) Some of the others, however, were so violent that I had nightmares for weeks after I finished editing them. Others were just plain smut! No, I don't mean because they were erotic; they were just filthy language with no rhyme nor reason to their existence. I think that is the one biggest problem we, as POD authors, have to overcome. That is one of the reasons I am so proud of being affiliated with Star Publish. They are very careful about what they publish. Of course that is not exclusive to POD publishing. I have seen some books from big traditional publishers that I don't think belong in the public domain either.

PODBRAM: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?

Janet: The people I worked with at iUniverse were wonderful to work with. I not only have my flood book published by them (at their request), but I also edited for them for some time. The final quality of the books is fine. The people I worked with (most of them are no longer there, especially since their merger with AuthorHouse) were great. The problems I had was that as I mentioned before, they publish anything that comes in, as long as there is an exchange of money. I argued with the powers that be about some of the books I edited, but I always lost. I have no idea how many times I had the amendment rights a person has quoted to me. The other problem I have with my one iU title is that their discounts to stores are so low and their books are not returnable, which makes it nearly impossible to get them into the brick and mortar bookstores.

PODBRAM: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?

Janet: The most important thing I have learned applies to all authors. Writing the book is the easy part. Getting it noticed and selling is the hard work. I think it is also important to note that POD publishing is beginning to come into its own. It doesn't have quite as much of a stigma of being "a loser's way out" that it used to have. My advice is to believe in your book and in yourself. If you want to try the traditional route first, go for it, but don't spend years chasing a dream when people could be reading your words. Also, there are a lot of advantages to POD publishing over traditional publishing. You can write the book the way you think it should be done instead of bowing to somebody else's ideas; the royalties are usually higher with POD publishers; you have input into your covers; it is released much faster than with a traditional publisher; and finally (and most important to me), the book stays "in print" as long as you want it to. The thought of a book having a shelf life of less than three months scares the bejabbers out of me. I want my books to be around at least as long as Gone With the Wind has been out there. I used to have my sights set on the Bible, but I realized that was pretty unrealistic, even for me!

PODBRAM: What has been your single most successful marketing tool or tactic?

Janet: Oh, my. I have tried so many things, and many of them have worked quite well, but I think without a doubt it has been my actually getting phone numbers of bookstores nationwide and calling the managers to let them know about my books. Now that I am the Marketing Director for Star Publish, I do that for their other books at the same time. I call the big chain stores as well as the independent stores. I am very seldom met with a negative attitude. There were something like 300,000 new titles published last year, and the poor managers have no idea which books are good and which ones will work in their stores. I always ask them what type of books sell best in their area so I know which ones to "pitch" to them. I also have a lot of the managers who ask me if we have any authors in their area for book signings. Our in-store sales are, except for a few titles where the authors themselves do heavy online marketing, much higher than our online sales, as far as we can tell. Still, you know that such actual figures are about as secret as the combination to get inside the front doors at Fort Knox.

PODBRAM: What has been your least successful marketing method? What do you think most POD authors try that is rarely successful?

Janet: The biggest complaint I hear from authors (both POD and traditional) is how disappointed they are in the actual sales when they do a book signing, especially in bookstores. They go in expecting to sell dozens of books, and they might sell one or two, but sometimes none. I guess I look at it differently. I see it as not so much an opportunity to sell books as a way to let people know who you are and what you write so when they see your book on the shelf the next time they are in, something clicks and they pick it up and buy it. Also, a lot of the success of a book signing depends on the store, and the authors themselves. It's like anything else in this business; you have to let people know about the event before it happens. Walk-in traffic is not always that good on any certain day, but if your friends and relatives come to support you, other people will see them talking to you and their curiosity is aroused.

When you have a book signing coming up, contact the newspaper and radio stations in the area to help you spread the word. Make up a nice poster and take it to the bookstore at least a week ahead of time so they can put it up in the window. (VistaPrint does awesome brochures, posters, etc.) Make sure you have a good supply of promotional materials to take with you so people can remember your name. Not everybody has a name as simple as Janet Smith!

PODBRAM: Let’s take a little trip down memory lane. I discovered your exceptional self-publishing success by reading several writers’ message boards. I began communicating via the POD boards in early 2001, and yours was one of the first voices that caught my attention with your positive attitude and common-sense approach to marketing. There are a few other significant names you may remember from that era: Sarah Mankowski, Susan James, Robin Westmiller, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, and, of course, Kristie Leigh Maguire. Would you like to comment on the efforts of these other POD marketing pioneers?

Janet: Networking on the Internet is one of the biggest advantages to the writing world. Gone are the days when a writer was shut in a little office, completely isolated from the rest of the world. I have many fellow writers who have become very dear friends who are all over the world. I think the support that authors give to each other is amazing. For the most part, they are willing to share what they have learned with other writers. It is rare that jealousy shows its ugly head when one has a success. Instead, it provides encouragement for others to strive to reach higher goals themselves. Every author, even if you don't agree with everything they have to say, has something we can all learn from them.

PODBRAM: I understand you have published many articles in well-known magazines. Can you list some of those articles and publications for us?

Janet: I guess the biggest magazine I have been published in was Ladies' Home Journal several years ago; it was a short piece on our flood, probably in mid-1997. I don't remember what month it would have been. I also had one later that year in Woman's World, but I didn't get a by-line for that one. I have a regular column on marketing in every issue of Writers Journal. I had a column in Heritage Quest Magazine for about fifteen or sixteen years. A lot of libraries carry it, so it is fairly easy to track them down. I have had a couple of articles in Genealogical Helper since they merged with Heritage Quest. The editor wants me to do more, but I need more hours in my days! I think there is an article online on The Writer, too. It is about the proper use of names in historical writing. I am listed with both Genealogical Helper and Writers Journal as a contributing editor, too. I was a contributing editor for BBW: Big Beautiful Woman for several years, but they are gone now. I have had hundreds of articles in various religious magazines. I am the Associate Editor for a regional magazine called Memories & Mysteries. I have also done columns for our local newspaper on genealogy, as well as a column called "Folksy Folks" in some of those freebie little papers they give out at restaurants, etc. Altogether, I have had over 3000 articles published in the 30+ years I've been writing. It isn't always the "fun" stuff of fiction, but it pays better!

PODBRAM: In what timeframe were your magazine articles published? Can you give us some idea how they might have facilitated your POD or self-publishing success? Are there tie-ins between the subject matter of your books and these articles?

Janet: Oh, yes, my flood book is a perfect example. If it hadn't been for that, I doubt that I would have been contacted by either Ladies' Home Journal or Woman's World. BBW and Writers' Journal both came looking for me. In the case of BBW, it was because of a little letter to the editor I sent to them. And my genealogy articles, which include several hundred articles over the years just in Heritage Quest Magazine alone, are for the most part what I call my "recycle bin." Several of my books are outgrowths of fun things I find in my genealogical searches, and the things that I had to know about certain families or eras don't quite "fit" in the book, so I use that information for the genealogy articles. In addition, it gives you a built-in readership once your book is published, as you have already established a fan base.

PODBRAM: Have you expended much effort seeking out an agent, and have you had much success in that regard?

Janet: Before I went the POD route I had contracts with eight separate agents, each one with different agencies, all reputable. They say seeing is believing, and I never saw any results (i.e. publishing contracts) from any of them. I hear there is such a thing as a good agent, and I know some writers who swear by their agents, but I never stumbled across them. Playing the agent vs. publisher game is like a game of Ring-Around-the-Rosie. The agent says "Show me your publishing history and I'll consider it," and the publisher says "Get an agent and I'll consider it." Thankfully, POD publishing cuts out the middleman.

PODBRAM: I understand that you have been featured on NPR’s Hear It Now more than once. Could you tell us how you managed to get on nationally broadcast radio?

Janet: I called them up and asked them. A good website is critical for you to try this. They went to my website and were impressed and they have asked me back several times. The same is true with Brain Brew, which is a very popular NPR program run by two brothers from Ohio who are a delight. I sent them an e-mail through the "contact" spot on their website, and they replied, "What do you hope to gain for your business by being on Brain Brew?" I wrote back to them and said, "I am already a little bit famous, and I want you guys to help me get a little bit rich." The whole idea behind that program is for them to give entrepreneurs ideas on how to make their business expand and succeed. I had a call back from them in about five minutes. They said they loved my answer to that question. They also told me they had never had a novelist on before, although they had had many guests who had written non-fiction. And they did have some great ideas that have worked quite well.

PODBRAM: Have you ever considered starting your own small publishing house, as so many other POD and self-published authors have done?

Janet: Absolutely not! I don't know how to do all that formatting or book covers, etc., and I have no desire to learn it. I am very happy leaving all of that to somebody else. Besides, the only bookkeeping/accounting I want to do is for my own royalties. I used to be a secretary/bookkeeper and it's just not my cup of tea!

PODBRAM: Did you submit your manuscripts to traditional publishers in the beginning, before deciding to join the ranks of self-publishers?

Janet: Oh, yes. I'm old enough that I was trying to get my books published for over twenty years before POD publishing even existed. I have some of the best rejection letters you have ever seen, including an eight-page one from an editor of Leisure, which praised the details of Dunnottar, but which ended with, "Unfortunately, historicals aren't selling well these days."

PODBRAM: Have you submitted any of your more recent books to traditional publishers, either before or after they were released as POD books? Have you ever landed a contract with a traditional publisher for one of your books? Could you tell us how you accomplished this highly prized milestone in your career as a writer?

Janet: I have been offered a contract from two major NY publishers for two of my POD books. As to how it came about, in one case an editor at a major NY publisher that had heard about A Christmas Dream offered me a contract for that book. In the other case, it was by winning a contest by a writer from a certain publisher. I wrote the winning paragraph for how to open a book where a fellow was watching a football game and his wife was supposed to figure out a way to distract him. I know a lot of people will think I have a few screws loose because I turned them both down. Why? It goes back to the main issue of the shelf life of the books. They wouldn't be around long enough for them to even make it to the stores in North Dakota! (Things are so slow here that even our river runs backward and ends up in Winnipeg!) There would be no way I could do anything to put them out as a POD book until the rights were returned to me: with one of them it was a seven-year contract and with the other one a ten-year contract. The royalties were also a whole lot lower. The only advantage that I could find was the offer of a modest advance, and to me, that wasn't enough to outweigh the advantages of doing it "my way." Still, there was a certain sense of accomplishment in knowing that I had finally been "accepted" by the big boys, even if I turned them down.

PODBRAM: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?

Janet: I like to read a lot of different genres. I guess that's why I write in so many of them. To me, writing the same thing all the time would be as boring as reading the same thing over and over again. The only ones I don't like are horror/thriller books, police procedural, and (strict) science fiction. There are so many authors I enjoy reading. John Grisham, both Mary and Carol Higgins Clark, Debbie Macomber, Deb Stover, Julie Kenner, LaVyrle Spencer (I hated it when she quit writing), and there are so many great new ones coming on the scene because of POD publishing: Billie Williams, Kristie Leigh Maguire, S.K. Hamilton, and Joyce Anthony, etc. Every time I turn around I am discovering some great new author, and thank goodness for the fact that they have found a way to get those books "out there" for all of us to enjoy.

PODBRAM: What have you been reading lately?

Janet: Actually, I am reading a book called Neither World: Book One, Akiiwan by Scott Baker. I learned about the book when Scott contacted Internet Voices Radio, looking for an interview on my radio program, "Marketing for Fun and Profit”. I called to discuss the book with him, and it completely blew me away. I grew up in a very tiny town (Spring Lake, MN, population 50, if you count the dogs and cats). That was the place where Scott had set the book. He described the places I knew like the back of my hand, yet he had never been there. He is a psychologist in New York City. It is really eerie, because it is like reading about my own back yard. His details are extremely accurate, and he says many of them were things his wife dreamed about. I love it when things like that happen.

PODBRAM: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?

Janet: Actually, that is kind of funny. I have a dual major in music and social work. I have used a lot of the things I have seen as a social worker and missionary in my books. I also was very good in English, which led me to a job as an editor for Bethany House Publishing (I graduated from Bethany Bible College, the parent of Bethany House Publishing) while I was a student. I have been writing and editing ever since, in one form or another. I think no matter what your education or your experience, the best "teacher" for a writer is to carefully observe daily life around you. Everything you see and hear is open fodder for some book one day.

PODBRAM: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?

Janet: I have worked as a missionary/social worker ever since I graduated from college. The best thing I have learned about that is that every single person has a story to tell. It is up to us, as writers, to convey those stories to our readers. I love it when people tell me "I can so relate to…." I want my characters to be so real that people think they are them!

PODBRAM: Do you have any further books in the pipeline?

Janet: Oh, goodness, yes! I have about a hundred of them in my brain. Every time I think that's it, I see something else that sparks a new story. I also hear from a lot of readers who want to know when I am going to tell the story of some minor character in one of my books. I am working on Tuesday Nolan now, the 2nd book in the Women of the Week Series. (Monday Knight is the first book.) I would like to have four new books out this year, but I need more hours in my days, and more stamina to stay awake!

PODBRAM: What’s next for Janet Elaine Smith?

Janet: As I said, Tuesday Nolan is the next book. As for me, the author, I will be moving to Wisconsin shortly and will be living next door to one of my best friends, fellow writer Billie Williams. We have a lot of fun things planned. It is basically the same as it was when I started writing: to entertain people. If I can make somebody laugh a little, I've succeeded. So far, what I've been doing seems to be working, so I will just keep on doing what I'm doing. I'm having the time of my life. I fully believe that life begins at 50!

PODBRAM: Do you have any final remarks to address to your readers or our audience?

Janet: If you think you can write, just do it! Once you start, believe in yourself. If you don't believe you can succeed, nobody else will either. And don't get so bogged down in the whole writing process that you forget to have fun. Life is short. As for to the readers, if you find an author you really enjoy, make sure to watch for future books. Most writers today are multi-titled authors, and if you enjoy their books, make sure you let them know. There is nothing more meaningful to a writer than to hear from readers that the words she has put on paper have in some way reached down into their hearts and changed their lives, even a little bit.

Janet Elaine Smith Bibliography
(Organized by Publisher for iUBR)

Kinko’s (1994-1997)

The Hallett History: Being a Genealogical Compilation of Facts, Fables & History of the Halletts from 1635-1994 (Self-published 1994)
Digging in the Dirt: A Simple Guide on Getting Your Hands Into Genealogy (Kinseeker Publishing, October 1996)
Tickling Your Ancestral Funnybone (Kinseeker Publishing, November 1996)
The Flood of the Millennium: The Real Story: The Survivors (Self-published 1997)

First Publish Group (2000-2001)

Dunnottar (June 2000)
In St. Patrick's Custody (September 2000)
A Christmas Dream (November 2000)
House Call to the Past (2001)
Recipe for Murder (2001)
Marylebone (September 2001)

PageFree Publishing Group (2001-2006)

My Dear Phebe (October 2001)
Recipe for Murder (December 2001 Reissue)
In St. Patrick's Custody (February 2002 Reissue)
Monday Knight (February 2002)
Marylebone (May 2002 Reissue)
Dunnottar (June 2002 Reissue)
House Call to the Past (September 2002 Reissue)
Par for the Course (March 2003)
A Christmas Dream (November 2003 Reissue)
Dakota Printer (June 2004)
A Lumberjack Christmas (October 2004 Reissue)
Pampas (March 2005)
Old Habits Die Hard (April 2006)
And We'll Call Her General Leigh (June 2006 Reissue)

Echelon Publishing (2003)

A Lumberjack Christmas (September 2003 Reissue)

iUniverse (2003-2004)

And We'll Call Her General Leigh (July 2003 Reissue)
The Flood of the Millennium: The Real Story: The Survivors (January 2004 Reissue)

Star Publish Group (2006-2007)

In St. Patrick's Custody (August 2006 Version 3)
Recipe for Murder (August 2006 Version 3)
Old Habits Die Hard (August 2006 Reissue)
Dunnottar (August 2006 Version 3)
Marylebone (September 2006 Version 3)
Par for the Course (September 2006 Reissue)
A Christmas Dream (October 2006 Version 3)
A Lumberjack Christmas (October 2006 Version 3)
Pampas (November 2006 Reissue)
Monday Knight (January 2007 Reissue)
My Dear Phebe (January 2007 Reissue)
And They'll Call Her General Leigh (February 2007 Version 3)
Dakota Printer (February 2007 Reissue)
Bank Roll: A Max Stryker Mystery (April 2007)
A Christmas Dream: A 3-Act Play Scripted by Billie A. Williams (June 2007)
Promo Paks: Nearly Free Marketing Tips for Authors (December 2007)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Making Dead Ends Meet

Making Dead Ends Meet
by Jen LiMarzi
(iUniverse / 0-595-49618-1 / March 2008 / 164 pages / $12.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Cara Peroni is a Gen-X single woman not long out of college, living uncomfortably and unconfidently in Queens, at the scary point where she hopes her early life of dependence and safety will segue into a successful career, a happy marriage, and all the rest. But that isn't happening.

Instead she finds herself in a mind-bending parallel universe when she takes a job as a medical writer with the Ion Group, a mismanaged collection of oddballs whose purpose it takes her months to unravel, and whose politics she only learns to live with after an even longer time. The maneuvering starts at the top, with Pierre O’Connell, who looks like a movie star and considers himself a gifted executive. The truth, Cara finds, is that he hasn’t a clue. He elevates his quirks into virtues, confuses and frustrates the rest of the staff, and creates a virtual hell for everyone. He chooses his division heads, as far as anyone can determine, by picking the best toadies, including, at one time, a woman who has an inordinate fondness for corduroy. The noise it makes as she walks serves as early warning to employees to look busy.

Cara’s frustrations are compounded outside of work by a succession of disillusioning dates resulting from an Internet matching site, as well as by her parents, especially her mother, who tries desperately to rule her daughter’s life over the phone. The nightmare is relieved only by the electronic lifeline provided by several friends, including a dear friend from college on the other side of the country. A gay man with his own problems, his sage advice at regular intervals helps keep Cara sane enough to meet the next day.

There are enough amusing incidents to keep one chuckling, as, for example, when Cara is on a preposterous group morale-building retreat and lures her boss into range to be ‘killed’ during a paintball exercise. Anyone with typical experience in the workplace will find plenty to shake his or her head over. Will Cara survive her enervating depression? Will she ever be able to move on to satisfying work with reasonably sane colleagues? Will she waste her last “silver bullet” at the matchmaking site and find a true companion to share her thoughts and feelings with? If you read Making Dead Ends Meet you will find out.

Jen LiMarzi’s first novel reads well, by and large, mostly smoothly and with few proofing errors. Gen-Xers who would like a fellow’s take on their occasional plight or those considerably older who would like a feel for what the world looks like to one such will find Making Dead Ends Meet an enjoyable read.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
Fingers Crossed, Legs Uncrossed by Jen LiMarzi
Jen LiMarzi's website

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Wolf's Torment

The Wolf's Torment
by S. G. Cardin

(iUniverse / 0-595-41733-7 / June 2007 / 370 pages / $20.95)

This is the only book review at iUBR that was not requested by the author. I specifically asked the author if she wanted a review after I discovered The Wolf's Torment and researched both the author and the book. I did this simply because I am always looking for a good werewolf book, and this one looked promising. I had an intuitive feeling about the book and I was not at all disappointed. This is Miss Stephanie's fifth book, and you can view the others at her website. Her unusual variety of subject matter among the five releases reminds me a little of someone known as Tabitha.

The Wolf's Torment is a soap opera full of romance set in Moldavia during the mid-1860's. A young prince is just graduating from college in London when he is called back home by his father to prepare to rule the kingdom. His father is dying of syphilis he had contracted through a life full of mistresses and affairs. The young Prince Mihai has been betrothed since he was a boy to a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The first of Mihai's problems is that he is bringing his pregnant mistress with him to Moldavia. He had become best friends with a classmate in London, so he is taking Viktor with him to be his close aide and confidant. Prince Mihai marries Princess Theresa as planned, and Viktor marries a servant girl who works at the castle. Both couples go off on their separate honeymoons and excitement begins to happen. The understatement here is quite intentional, since I don't care to give away plot details in my reviews.

Ms. Cardin is a big soap opera fan, and the bubbles just keep on poppin' throughout The Wolf's Torment. Mihai's mom was a witch, as is all of Theresa's family. Viktor is more in love with Theresa than he is with his own wife, Sonia. Mihai cannot make up his mind what to do with his mistress on the side, and of course, Theresa loves Mihai's side order who never seems to vanish from their lives. Everybody wants a baby, so everybody works really hard at making babies. Did I mention the wolf pack? Did you know that werewolves smoked pot after coming down from an excursion under the full moon? A few vampires even make cameo appearances, but it's the werewolves and their witch mistresses who steal the show. This is not your traditional gothic horror story. There is some real innovation in the many subplots of S. G. Cardin's book, in which the reader becomes more entangled and fascinated than frightened by nightmares.

There are a few issues clawing the exquisite furniture of The Wolf's Torment. The error count is a little high, and these are nearly all the obvious result of incomplete proofing of the text, with misplaced and missing common words being the prevalent infraction. Most of the dialogue is a bit too simple and stilted, but I wonder if the author was simply trying to imitate the formal speech of the era. There are far too many short, declarative sentences, the overall effect of which is an amateurish compositional style. These issues taken together keep The Wolf's Torment from being declared as top dog, meaning that it is a four-star book and barely misses the brass ring as the best werewolf book I have ever read. The cover is outstanding, and even the laminated bookmarks Stephanie uses are the best example of the standard template supplied by iU that I have yet seen. She even uses printed ballpoint pens in her promotion, as I do. She has included a Prologue, Epilogue, and Question and Answer section in the book, too, adding to its complete, professional look. A six-page Deleted Scene has been tacked onto the end, too. Although this is an innovative idea, I would much rather the author had simply included it within the text. When I reach the end of a good novel with a surprising, striking ending such as the one in The Wolf's Torment, the reading of a tacked-on, mundane passage dulls the shock.

Stephanie Cardin has created a romance full of werewolves and witchcraft that excels with its plot twists and unusual storyline. I cannot say definitively that it is the best werewolf book I have ever read, but it is bitingly close. The story develops slowly. If you read only the opening chapters and do not continue, you will never know what a mistake you made. The Wolf's Torment is a tale of lust and deceit that you won't soon forget. Keep your silver bullets handy.

See Also: The B&N Review
The Authors Den Review

Stephanie Cardin's Website

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Court-Martial of Charlie Newell

The Court-Martial of Charlie Newell
by Gerard Shirar

(iUniverse / 0-595-44491-5 / January 2008 / 326 pages / $19.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

This is a meticulous and carefully researched novel of a very specific time, place and circumstances, of belief and prejudice and conflicting obedience to conscience and the law. It follows in plain and unvarnished prose, the journey of an innocent and honest young man of strong ethical purpose, wandering Candide-like through an often violent, sometimes unjust and frequently inexplicable world. This is a world that is just now barely within living memory, the United States during the last year of World War One and the half-dozen years thereafter. We would recognize many aspects of that world; there was electricity in houses, cars in the streets, movies in the picture palace and recorded music on the record player. Women came to wear short dresses and hair in those years, and got the vote, too.

But there was one element of this world which would immediately strike most Americans under the age of about fifty or so as totally alien, and that would be the display of racial hostility, of segregation, Jim Crow laws and freelance and organized racial violence by adherents of the KKK. We know ‘of’ these matters, because we have been taught in school, and listened to our elders’ recollections… but they have not been things that we witnessed first-hand. But to the credit of author Gerard Shirar, this is not one of these angry polemics shouted from the pulpit. This is a careful and evenhanded reconstruction of a time not so long past. Characters – black and white – are finely observed by the author, and even permitted to be ambiguous. Some of them are even as principled and ethical as the times allowed, as regards racial matters generally, and specifically in the case of Charlie Newell.

The case is based on that of a real court-martial, of a Negro draftee in 1918, who was a member of a small sect who observed Saturday as their Sabbath, their holy day, on which no work was to be done. The soldier was charged with disobeying a direct order to work on that day, an order motivated at least as much by racial prejudice as it was by the demand of a military martinet that rules and orders be obeyed, no exceptions, exemptions or questions allowed. This is what befalls Charlie Newell, a young sharecropper with a wife and child, and an unshakeable devotion to the word of God. He will not work on the Sabbath, and so winds his way through the slow-working wheels of military justice and imprisonment, through the military prisons of Fort Jay, and Fort Leavenworth, through hearings that he knows nothing about and understands even less, gaining several kinds of freedom, the affection of friends – black and white alike - who come to know and value him, as well as motiveless rancor of enemies – also black and white - who see only the color of his skin. Charlie is tried severely, has doubts; he even wavers once or twice. But although the ending of the book is ambiguous, Charlie is not; he remains principled and in command of himself to the very end. This is a tightly focused and gripping read, at a time not long gone, at once quite strange and yet strangely familiar.

See Also: Celia's Blogger News Network Review & Celia's B&N Review
Note: Charlie Newell is Girard Shirar's third book. His first two are Nantucket Summer and The Many Indiscretions of Arty Boyle (both released in 2006).

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No April Fool

I am reminded of the first movie date I had with my wife, Miss Pamela. We went to see the latest Paul Newman movie of the time, entitled Nobody's Fool. This was a high-quality film that has always had a low profile. The title is so generic that I often forget it, even though it should have been emblazoned into my memory bank. The plot was a slice of life of ordinary folks with little flash and lots of character. Victoria Strauss has stated on her blog that she thinks the latest threat to POD authors posed by Amazon is very real and here to stay. She also says she thinks few will remember all the uproar a year from now. Like the good movie with the generic title, the significance of the issue may have been substantial, but it may nevertheless slide from our memories. Knowing rabid corporate greed as well as I do, I have to think Ms. Strauss is probably correct in her summation of the issue. I would not want to have my books published with PublishAmerica or some of the smaller POD companies today.

This April Fools Day is also the day that iUniverse officially, physically, and completely becomes integrated with AuthorHouse. We have all known since last September that this day was coming, so this change should be no surprise. What we do not yet know is if the corporate leaders of iU have known of Amazon's plans long before now, or have they been surprised, too? One thing is for certain: if iU was the 800-pound gorilla of POD, they are certainly the one-ton gorilla now! Has Author Solutions cut any sort of deal with Amazon? Will their books disappear from the Free Shipping Department? Will the books stay at Amazon while the printing quality slides downhill or the prices or fees climb upward? Will the company tell Amazon where to shove it as they reignite their legendary ties to Barnes & Noble? Susan Driscoll probably knows the answers to these questions, but I don't, at least for now.

As stated in The Latest News of March 21st, iUBR is now open to submissions from some POD publishers outside the iUniverse or Writers Club Press imprints. As of this date, most, but not all brands will be accepted. The accepted imprints definitely include: AuthorHouse, Booklocker, Dog Ear, Infinity, Llumina, Outskirts, PublishAmerica, Tate, Trafford, Virtual Bookworm, Xlibris, and Xulon. I am sure there are many, especially smaller, brands that I cannot recall to mention at this point, too. Lulu is not one of them. No Lulu books will be accepted, at least as long as Shannon's Lulu Review site is in business. All Lulu requests will be forwarded to that site. Will CreateSpace and BookSurge be accepted? That's the question of the day, isn't it? For the moment, I do not, as you certainly may understand, wish to commit one way or the other. Will I still compose individual Amazon reviews? Will copy-and-paste Amazon reviews still be done by the iUBR team? At this point, we shall just have to see where it all goes.