Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Beyond Mars

Beyond Mars:
Crimson Fleet

by R. G. Risch

(Dog Ear Publishing / 1-598-58614-9 / 978-1-598-58614-5 / May 2008 / 224 pages / $15.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Beyond Mars is a fast-moving read with an old-fashioned pulp adventure-in-space aesthetic about it. It is of that sub-genre classified as military science fiction, with lots of blazing broadsides updated to the twenty-second century. There is of course the dashing main hero and his stalwart sidekick, some interesting secondary heroes and heroines, assorted love interests, lashings of political treachery, a collection of eminently hissable and malign villains – military, bureaucratic, and political, as well as a barely seen entity both creepily alien and inimical to Earth and its inhabitants. The story arc seems to promise continuing installments in the best pulp tradition. Beyond Mars is set in a dystopic future, in which the colonists of Mars are the brave holdouts for political and intellectual freedom. As the story opens, they are decamping under fire for another part of the galaxy, far, far away from grasp of an Earth that has become a nightmare combining all the very worst features of Imperial Rome, the Third Reich and the European Union. That this earth government is described as being headquartered in Brussels can only be deliberate.
The writer has thoroughly visualized the technological aspects of this world – a couple of which are truly stomach-churning, so it is a mercy that they are not described too lavishly. He has also drawn many of the battle scenarios from historical naval battles, although again, the brevity of the book ensures that only the high points are touched upon. As I read Beyond Mars, I had the odd feeling that I was actually reading a graphic novel without the graphic element! Further Beyond Mars episodes would work very well as such, if the author could work with an illustrator similarly immersed in the pulp adventure tradition.

According to the author’s biography, he has long experience in technical writing and this is his first novel. This is good, insofar as it ensures that his style is, spare, workmanlike and unambiguous when it comes to relaying information. However, he is rather clunky in his use of adjectives and some of his descriptive phrases struck me as gigglingly inept. (“bloated eyes”?) I kept mentally rewriting some of his conversational interludes, and he depends overmuch on exposition – of telling us what is happening, instead of showing us. It makes for a livelier and more involving story, for example, when a character explains in dialogue what has happened, rather than have the same information dryly interjected by the writer. An editor or some critical feedback by other writers and friends might have been able to help the author polish to a more professional finish. Overall, Beyond Mars is an interesting adventure for fans of military adventure in space; the story fits well within that particular genre and the author knows his tech and history, but his narrative writing is still a little rough around the edges.
See Also: Celia's BNN Review
The Author's Website

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fun with Dick & Jane

Sometimes I have an idea for an article for PODBRAM that has never quite come out of the oven fully baked. I came across this little paragraph hidden away in my files since September of last year. Obviously I was weary of repeatedly reading some of the more common mistakes made by POD authors at the time I composed this little piece. Maybe some of you will enjoy it now.
Years before Bruce Springsteen sang Born to Loose, Fabian Forte sang Turn Me Lose. The high school principle informed the recalcitrant student that he should learn the value of a principal as he questioned his lifestyle choices. Their was a problem with there communication skills. Ripley’s gang of military contractors had enough ordinance to blow up every space alien in the country, but the local ordnance hindered the group’s effectiveness. I paid to see Aliens, to, and they were far to realistic too have been computer generated images. The last thing I want to do is tour The Capital Building instead of seeing the bats fly out of the capitol city. Lie, Lady, Lie is what Bob Dylan should have told his ladylove back in 1969.

Photo courtesy Al Past

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is the American Dream Killing You?

Is the American Dream Killing You?:
How the Market Rules Our Lives

by Paul Stiles

(Harper Collins / 0-060-59378-4 / 978-0-060-59378-0 / September 2005 / 320 pages / $24.95 / paperback $13.95)

This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. Paul Stiles rips through the overtly numerous ways our massive corporate sellout has methodically destroyed our economy, our culture, and the underlying spirit of our once great nation. The author spills the beans on every legal scam in America, from the advertised rebate prices hawked at Best Buy to the way our fast food marketers have made Americans wider. Paul Stiles does not waste any energy trying to name the exact year in which a recession or a depression has become imminent. He hasn’t wasted any time trying to define these terms to satisfy the egos of overpaid economists, either. What he has done is to explain to everyday Americans exactly what has happened to our once great economy.

I’ve been seeking out books of this sort for the last several years, and this one is certainly one of the best of its type. What type is that, you say? The title says it all. The ex-Merrill Lynch bond trader spills the beans on the corporate nightmare that we affectionately call America. The nightmare is terrorizing the citizens, and what Paul Stiles calls the Market is doing the economic terrorizing. I’m not sure why he doesn’t call it The Market. I’ve been referring to exactly the same monster as The Machine since the early ‘70’s. You might remember Pink Floyd singing, “Welcome to The Machine” back in ’74, and yes, we’re all talking about the same thing. Whereas my own Last Horizon explains exactly how we set ourselves up for the corporate powers to feed us a stupid pill for their own short-term profits, American Dream continues the reader’s education in the same vein by explaining all the many ways corporate America is strangling the very spirit out of its citizenry. Mr. Stiles and I obviously have one thing in common: we both have spent our careers in the financial industry, but our hearts reside within the realm of the social sciences.

The first thing I want to say specifically about Mr. Stiles’ book is that its weakest element is when his premise sort of drifts into the spirit world of religion as it drives the reader so adeptly toward its financial market conclusions. The author doesn’t mention Paul Krugman’s excellent The Great Unraveling or Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, but these could be considered bookends for American Dream. Mr. Stiles does pay homage to Thomas Frank, and well he should have. Frank’s One Market Under God is certainly another outstanding primer of research on the subject matter. Paul Stiles really knows his stuff and his writing style is quite engaging when he rants intelligently about what he defines as the hypermarket. However, I cannot help but feel as if he stepped off the boat without a life jacket when he turns his attack on greed to an explanation of how the Market has sapped America of all its good religious spirit. If I had to slap a negative connotation on The Last Horizon, I would describe it as schizophrenic because it doesn’t know if it wants to be a dating manual or a treatise on The Machine. The author of American Dream may be a little confused as to the role of religion in politics. I would describe Mr. Stiles as an author who knows all too well how to keep the reader fascinated with the depth of his knowledge of modern American culture right up until he decides to step up high on the pulpit, at which point all his marbles begin to spill out the bag and disrupt the service. This is my one and only criticism of Is the American Dream Killing You?

America has been swirling slowly down the porcelain fixture like one of those slow, quiet, water-efficient toilets we all hate. Let’s get the crap out of here now! Paul Stiles’ American Dream takes the reader on a fast-paced parade of all the ways Wall Street and its massive corporate powers have taken us all on the big monster ride down the drain. No commercial pattern has been left upright. The megatrend of women joining the workforce probably bothers Mr. Stiles a little too much, but he’s right on the money with his rant about television ads telling us what new malady we have and what new prescription drug will make us all feel better, if only we would take it every day for the rest of our lives! The Market has no conscience, no scruples, and certainly not an ounce of compassion, and the author tells us all about it in satisfyingly excruciating detail. If every American would read this book and take it to heart, the short-term-profits monster would slowly disintegrate and we could all get back to being a compassionate citizenry.

See Also: The B&N Review
Riding the Bull (Paul Stiles' first book)
Paul Stiles' Website
The BNN Review

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Crimson Warrior

The Crimson Warrior
by Cathy Dannhauser

(Wheatmark / 1-587-36962-1 / 978-1-587-36962-9 / January 2008 / 140 pages / $12.95)

Reviewed by Dianne K. Salerni for PODBRAM

In a post-apocalyptic world where plague has killed off all human beings, new civilizations of cats and dogs have risen on the Animal Isles, remnants of our own continents. On Cat Island, Clans of cats live in peaceful harmony with one another, until an army of grotesque Hounds swims out of the ocean, led by their evil and bloodthirsty Queen Schkria. Her goal: to wipe out the inhabitants of Cat Island and conquer the land for her own descendents, a race of mutant canines shaped by toxic wastes of the former human inhabitants of the earth. Clan Inishkairie falls quickly and violently to the surprise attack of the newly arrived Hounds. The red-faced cat Riptorn, also called the Crimson Warrior, escapes the slaughter with two friends and flees to warn the other Clans. Each will risk his life to reach the strongholds of the diverse Clans and lead them to a secret valley where they can unite against the foe—and where, unbeknownst to them, they may just find surprising allies.

The background behind this world of animal civilizations is given to the reader in a six-page prologue. It is unfortunate that this information is presented in exposition, when it could have been revealed gradually throughout the book, adding depth to the plot and a mystery to enhance the reader’s interest. I would have enjoyed development on the theme of a cat civilization, but this is not explored, and there is no explanation for how animals without opposable thumbs are able to build structures, make fires, and construct such items as backpacks and eyeglasses. Although the author has attempted to portray the playful nature of cats, this sometimes manifests at inappropriate times, making the characters seem far too silly under dire circumstances.

The Crimson Warrior may interest middle grade readers who enjoy the “Warriors” fantasy series by Erin Hunter, which is also about the adventures of cat clans. The reading level is just about right for ten-year olds, and editing errors consist chiefly of verb tense mistakes that will be overlooked by the juvenile reader. For most of the book, the level of violence is equivalent to the Warrior books and reflects the typical action expected in fights between animals. However, the first chapter contains a brutal and graphic scene involving kittens that may not sit well with young readers who, if they have chosen this book, probably love cats. Even considering that this is “sci-fi violence” (to borrow a term from the movie industry), a greater respect for the sensibilities of the target audience would have been prudent.

See Also: Cathy's Wheatmark Page

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dunking Tank

The Dunking Tank:
an Epistemological Rumination
by Dr. Al Past

The phrase “dunking tank” comes from an email I sent to the worthy editor of this blog some months ago to characterize an author who seemed leery of having his book reviewed by an impartial reader. We all know what a dunking tank is: that staple of county fairs where a local celebrity will risk being dropped into cold water by a well-aimed softball, thrown by someone who has paid for a chance to do exactly that. I’ll come back to this analogy shortly.

Most self-published authors are well aware of the dozens (hundreds?) of websites that will review a book for a fee, and most are also aware that by far the great majority of the resulting reviews are favorable if not fawningly laudatory. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this should be: if a site consistently low-rates the books it reviews, fewer authors will submit theirs, and if the site is ultimately designed to make money, then being honest only reduces the take.

Let’s do some math: $50 to review a book is typical. Assume two submissions a day, surely a low estimate given the hundreds of thousands of titles self-published annually, and you have an annual take of over $18,000. Four submissions, or six, a day, and you have a nice living. You can even pass the books out to other people to review, for nothing more than the “fame” of having their names on the review. Or you can sell them on eBay! Even more income!

To be fair, the people behind these for-pay reviewing sites may have a clear conscience about what they do. Some offer reviews for nothing, if the author insists, though they may take their own sweet time about getting to them. The fee, they can claim, helps “expedite” things. The site owners can say with straight faces that they do not soft-pedal paid reviews, and it’s possible they may even believe that. But I stand by what I said: money makes the world go round. I have heard authors say they feel using the fee option will result in a faster and better review! To cite another example, physicians are honest, 99% of them, but studies show that they prescribe more tests for the equipment they own than for equipment owned by others. It’s just the way the world works.

PODBRAM is one of a small number of reviewing sites that take no money for doing reviews. (There are a few others, and PODBRAM has links to some.) We work much as reviewers for major magazines do: however we make our living, it is not affected in the least by the opinions we have of the books we review. This fact is apparent to anyone who studies the PODBRAM site. In that sense our reviews are completely impartial.

This impartiality has to make some authors uneasy. After all, they have an enormous investment in time, money, and emotion in their work, and exposing it to the world for all to see, naked, as it were, can be a traumatic experience. That’s the genesis of the dunking tank metaphor: the fear of being suddenly dropped into cold water and not being able to do a thing about it.

It’s worth noting, however, that the members of the PODBRAM reviewing team are all authors. We have all taken our turns in the dunking tank, and we know how it feels. While we are honest, we are also tactful. I have never seen any mean-spirited or snide comment in any review on this site.

Which is not to say that all our reviews are perfect, or will completely satisfy all potential readers. People are different; readers are different; tastes differ. A recent post on this site, by Dianne Salerni, discussed the debased currency of the all-too-common “five star” review, found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She makes an excellent point. Counting stars is a poor way to select one’s reading material.

For example, I am a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s twenty volume Aubrey/Maturin sea novels, which are world-class classics by any estimation. Yet if you look any one of them up at Amazon, you will see plenty of two- and three- (and some one-) star reviews. Maybe those readers do not like sea stories. Maybe they can’t get comfortable with such elegant, eighteenth century-style prose. Maybe they’re put off by the nautical terminology. Maybe they prefer space aliens or throbbing bosoms. Who knows? Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but for my money those books are ten star reads. The bottom line is we all have different tastes, and a potential reader needs to actually read, and judge, the reviews, regardless of stars.

I have written a fair number of reviews for Amazon, and I have my own criteria for awarding stars. I base it on the system I used when I taught college English. If a student essay was competent, sensible, and readable, I gave it a B. That equates to four stars for a book at Amazon. If there were a major shortcoming with an essay, it would get a C (three stars). I reserved the A for those essays that had something extra: memorable ideas, articulate expression, novelty, entertainment value, or whatever. They stood above the rest and could hardly be improved, in my opinion. That is how I define my five star books. Still, I repeat: counting the average number of stars is a poor way to choose one’s reading.

We don’t use stars at PODBRAM. Nonetheless, the attentive reader will be able to tell not only the degree to which the reviewer enjoyed the book but also gain some insight into whether he or she might as well. In my own reviews, I try to allow for the possible tastes of others, whatever my opinion. I gave a rave review to one book but I mentioned features that others might find daunting. I gave a less-than-glowing review to another but pointed out that fans of the genre might enjoy it anyway. The entire PODBRAM team does the same, and it works. I myself am now reading and enjoying a novel well reviewed earlier right here. A good book is a better value than a good movie as far as I am concerned, but it is not free (unless you find it in a library). Knowing which reviews I can trust helps me even the odds.

PODBRAM has always tried to find and promulgate worthy but little-known books. It’s a noble goal, and money should have nothing to do with it. Authors of quality books need not worry about the cold water below. The informed reader should appreciate its cleansing qualities.

See Also: Dr. Past's Website
Interview with Dr. Past
Volunteer for the Tank Here
Marsha Ward's Interview with Dr. Past

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Porta-PODdys

In consideration of all the discussion concerning five-star reviews, error counts, and anonymous reviewers, I feel compelled to step into the fray. Everyone knows that I do, indeed, count errors when I read a book for review. What you may not know is that I count them because I realized soon after I founded PODBRAM that the count was so astoundingly high for many POD books that I needed to track the errors in order to compose accurate, comparable reviews. The simple fact is that all POD authors must edit and proofread their own books, whereas traditionally published authors generally have the benefit of professional assistance. This makes the editing and proofing of POD books a special issue for legitimate reviewers. If we don't evaluate this issue, we are not being fair to the readers of those books lacking polish. You can defend your right to abuse poetic license and write your book in any manner you wish, but any conscientious reviewer is obligated to tell the truth as he sees it to your potential readership.

Counting errors is one thing, but analyzing the results is quite another. I try to do a lot of analyzing and soul-searching every time I write a review. That's some of the extensive personal service an author receives at PODBRAM. I try to take into account a variety of factors, even as I take notes on the errors. Yes, some errors are much worse than others. Some are the result of laziness, some are spawned by stupidity married to arrogance, and some are just missed by an author in a hurry. Some error types trip up the reader so repeatedly that the error count all but ruins the reading experience. Others are so benign that they can be easily ignored by a motivated reader. A lot of the errors are simply a difference of opinion between the author and the reviewer. Sometimes the difference of opinion stems from the author's poetic license speeding out of control. The reviewer must give the whole issue extensive thought after reading one book, while another presents a clear case for the reviewer. If there ever was a time to use the phrase case by case basis, this is it.

I shall not give any book I review for PODBRAM less than three stars at Amazon or B&N. No book will ever receive a distinct star rating for its PODBRAM review, either. As many have said in this discussion, why would I choose to read a two-star book in the first place? Let me add, why would I go to all the trouble to create and edit PODBRAM just to damage, instead of help, the marketing of books I so carefully select to review? That's what the selection process is supposed to accomplish before the book is even accepted for review at PODBRAM.

We do things the right way here at PODBRAM. You know my real name and that of all the reviewers on the team. You can look up the titles of any of our own books anytime you wish. You may have noticed that the rules for commenting on a post here are minimal. The only comments I have removed have been those of blatant spammers. You don't have to identify yourself or type in a series of funky letters and numbers to comment at PODBRAM, but I certainly hope that all of you will continue to identify yourselves when you comment. We are an upfront, non-business here at PODBRAM. We are not trying to hide anything from you. If you want to read about or buy any of our books, we shall love you for it, but we are not making a cent from this operation. We are doing it for the love of books, reading, and the appreciation for the massive amount of effort necessary for you to publish a quality product. You could say that we are acutely aware of your efforts.

Several years ago, a blogger known as PODdy Mouth was extremely lucky to be the first well-known POD reviewer to be recognized in the national media. Nevermind that she was a certified smart-mouth who treated most POD authors like something stuck on her shoe, PODdy became an overnight legend. Many POD reviewers treated her like a POD goddess. I was not one of those reviewers. Not only would she never reveal her identity to anyone, she refused to even add a link to this site from hers! I found her arrogance to be despicable, as well as childish. Unlike many other POD reviewers, I say good riddance to her snotty anonymity!

More recently another PODdy Mouth popped up to smart off at her readers. Although the second PODdy was more interested in the business side of the POD industry, her attitude toward the disclosure of her own identity was as guarded as that of the first PODdy. Were the two actually the same person? She claimed they were not, but I can certainly say the idea crossed my mind numerous times. I tried to get PODdy #2 to join me at PODBRAM for an interview, but she accepted only with the stipulation of the interview being conducted through the comment section of her own site. Hmmm. What did she have to hide? As many of you already know, the whole PODdy #2 affair blew up with a confrontation between her and a few of her less constrained commentators.

As you can see for yourself, they both ended up as Porta-PODdys, anonymous dust in the wind blowing across POD, the stench carried off somewhere else, where it could no longer offend our noses. Anonymous bloggers may in some ways be the bane of all of us. If you can't stand upright and state your name when you post something on a public forum, why should we allow you any credibility? If you question something I have been saying, go buy one of my books and make up your own mind. There are plenty of them for sale cheaply at Amazon, if you don't mind paying a $2.95 shipping charge. Go ahead. I dare you. I have copies of all of them that I can offer for free reviews, too, if anyone is interested. I am relatively sure that that goes for most or all of the PODBRAM team members, too. We are all in this together. If you want to truly gain respect as an author or book critic, you cannot hide behind anonymity. A Porta-PODdy is not a pleasant thing to stand behind, either.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Five Star Review: What's It Good For?

The Five Star Review: What's It Good For?
by Dianne Salerni

Readers seem to be incredibly cynical these days, and a positive review for a book will not get you the respect that it once did. In a recent online discussion about what readers look for in a review, one of the participants claimed that she examines the profiles of reviewers on Amazon before deciding whether or not to trust their reviews. “If I see that a person only writes 5-star reviews of newly released books,” she said, “I assume he is getting the books for free and feels obligated to write a good review.” I admit; I was taken aback. What a suspicious frame of mind! And yet, as I read through the numerous responses on the discussion thread, it became apparent that many, many readers no longer trust 5-star reviews. When they find a reviewer who writes numerous positive reviews, they suspect an ulterior motive, and when they find a 5-star review written by a person with a blank profile, they know they’ve found a shill.

It is true that the review system—on Amazon in particular—can be compromised. There are countless instances of authors using sock puppets (fake profiles) to write glowing reviews of their own work, start discussions about their books, and comment angrily on negative reviews. In some cases, it is believed that authors have managed to get negative reviews deleted by enlisting a small army in a “click” campaign to report the review as abuse. The “helpful” votes for reviews are shamefully manipulated; readers tend to vote based not on helpfulness, but on whether they agree with the review, and sometimes the reviewers themselves will engage in warfare—voting down their rivals in an attempt to raise their own ranking!

So, what’s a poor POD author to do? Clearly, we want to acquire reviews of our books, and since most of the mainstream book reviewers have barred the doors against us, online sellers such as Amazon are an important market for us. However, readers have become jaded, and although many of the authors engaged in unscrupulous shenanigans are traditionally published, POD authors unfairly take a lot of the blame. Apparently nothing is more suspicious to a reader than a self-published book with an average rating of 5.0!

Discerning readers expect to see a balance of reviews on a book; they want to know the best and the worst it has to offer. Some readers report heading straight for the 3-star reviews, which generally identify strengths and weaknesses—something the potential buyer wants to know. Others look for the 1- and 2-stars, to check out the “worst case scenario” and decide if it’s something they can live with. In many cases, a well-written “average” review will sell more books than a 5-star review which foams at the mouth with unadulterated praise that hardly anyone believes.

Now, I am NOT suggesting that POD authors should put socks on their hands and start anonymously bashing their own work! However, as a group, I believe we need to get over our own insecurities and welcome reviews that present a less-than-glowing assessment of our work. I’m as guilty as anyone of moaning and whining about a lackluster review. A teenage reviewer at Flamingnet said my book was “long and drawn-out”, with people engaged in “tedious scamming”, and she had trouble finishing it. Yeah, my feelings were hurt, but a review like that one provides a counterpoint that shrewd readers use to make their buying choices. At the time, I was relieved she didn’t post it on Amazon, but now, I wish that she had. It would provide a needed balance for the positive reviews already there. As authors, we need to trust that readers know what they like to read and are capable of picking through both positive and negative reviews to find the books that will entertain them.

See Also: Dianne Salerni's Website
Dianne Salerni's Blog

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Adventures in Publishing

Adventures in Publishing
by Celia Hayes

I came into writing and publishing through having been a contributor to a military-oriented blog, “Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief” which I was invited to join in mid-summer 2002. The creator of this particular blog had gotten tired of producing content all by his lonesome, so he put out a call for other contributors from those who read and commented frequently. All that he required was that we be active-duty or military veterans; other than that, we could write about whatever we pleased, however often we cared to. I began by setting myself the task of writing three original essays of about 800 words, three times a week, on whatever I felt like writing about – political commentary, essays about historical events, oddities about the military, and now and again some nostalgia pieces about my eccentric but amusing family. Those particular essays became very, very popular, and my parents were charmed to discover they had unknown friends and fans all over the place. Eventually, enough readers commented or emailed me, asking when I was going to put it all into a book. I never considered taking a memoir about my childhood to a regular publisher, or even getting an agent. This was just something I was doing for the website fans, and it was one of them who recommended Booklocker as an affordable and ethical publisher.

Of course, they are affordable because their schedule of services includes only the set-up fees for the text, a template or custom cover, and distribution through Ingram; just the basics. They do not offer editing or marketing services, and there is no enhanced placement as some of the other subsidized publishers offer. They do the set-up and cover design, give you a page on their website, and a place in the Ingram catalogue if you choose that option, and there you are. You do most of the rest of the work. This was fine with me, I couldn’t afford any enhanced features such as those offered by other publishers, anyway. Angela and Richard do offer all sorts of suggestions to their authors for publicizing and marketing their own books. I didn’t follow up on most of them for my first book, Our Grandpa Was an Alien. I marketed it through the website, originally, swapped reviews here and there. It was my training-wheels book. I think I made back about two thirds of what I put into it.

The next year, I wrote a long series of essays about a certain wagon-train party that I had always been rather interested in. I thought wistfully that it would make a terrifically good movie, and one of the readers suggested that if I do a movie treatment, she would show it around to some of her friends in the business. Nothing ever came of it – but it did have a nice assortment of characters already sketched and a rough plot outline with most of the dramatic incidents included. One of the people she showed it to was terribly impressed. He suggested I do it as a book instead. He’s a writer and editor, done freelance magazine work for years. He coached me into doing a proper outline, had many helpful and inspiring suggestions for what would become To Truckee’s Trail. He thought, and I hoped, that it would be terrifically appealing to mainstream publishing. I had been let go by the large corporate entity that employed me full-time in July 2006. I was about two chapters into the first draft of Truckee and didn’t mind, much – it meant that I could stay at home and write on it full-time, in between various temp assignments. Having a plot outline and a good idea of the characters, I could write at full tilt. I finished the first draft in three months flat, and edited and revised in another month. For a while I even had an agent interested in reading the whole thing, after being intrigued by some sample chapters. Alas, he passed on representing it and so did the two or three other agents who read it. All of them said wonderfully complimentary things about the story, and my writing… but all said that it just wasn’t ‘marketable’ – whatever the heck that meant. This left me terribly puzzled, since everyone else who had read all or part of the original draft had two reactions: “Wow!” and “Why have I never heard about these people before!?” Since a fair proportion of them were not related to me, and were, in fact, fairly disinterested consumers of popular fiction, I began to suspect that there was something rotten in the mainstream publishing world. Nonetheless, I gave it a year to get published, or at least, find an agent the old-fashioned way, which is what “Grumpy Old Bookman” a book-blog originally recommended by the reader-fan who had referred me to Booklocker suggested. At the end of a year, I had the usual collection of rejection slips, so I went back to Booklocker – this time, as a return author, I got a break on the text set-up fees.

I really wanted something special for the cover. I had a thought to market it through various frontier museum bookstores. Truckee was all painstakingly researched; I think I tracked down about every shred of information available anywhere about the Stephens-Townsend Party, so I thought it would stand up to the scrutiny of experts – and what better way to acquaint people with one of the great unknown stories of the frontier than by making a ripping-good adventure novel out of it! The cover had to look really, really top-drawer. Being only semi-employed at that time, I certainly couldn’t afford a fee for the rights to a piece of 19th Century artwork, or to commission something original. A photo of some kind would have to do. Just by coincidence, I was reading the paperback copy of Memoirs of a Geisha. This had a really striking but elegant cover design: a vintage photo with appropriate typeface. So I thought – ah-ha! A photo done in sepia tones with an ornate 19th Century font for the titles. Todd Engel, the Booklocker cover designer did a fantastic job. A reader and fan lent me the use of her photo, which she had actually taken of the Truckee River on a train journey a couple of years ago.

I also put Truckee into the Ingram catalogue, so that I would have the option of being carried by the various brick and mortar bookstores. The discount offered is not as deep as the 40% that bookstores usually demand, but they are returnable, and those bookstores with a local angle for stocking Truckee are able to do so. The big challenge was in getting reviews, and in locating publications, websites and blogs who would commit to a review. I only discovered all the ins and outs of getting them after Truckee was finished and available for sale! (oopsie) Many of the high-end outlets for reviews would prefer doing a pre-release review, and some of the others, like my local newspaper, will not touch POD books with a ten-foot pole. Even some individual reviewers at Blogger News Network will not consider POD books! The big surprise to me this time around was how long it did take for the review to appear. So lesson learned; allow four or six months in between the time the review is requested and the time that it will be posted… and to delay the release date long enough to accomplish this. As regards reviews, it was a bit of a surprise to learn from one of the other IAG members that getting just one review for every four copies sent out was a very good rate of return. In one way, I can understand: most of the big newspapers and magazines receive thousands of unsolicited book submissions; of course, they only have the time and space to review a small portion of them. What was a little disheartening to me was the number of review sites and blogging contacts (some of them personal and of long standing!) who specifically offered to do a review of Truckee, and I sent a copy to them… and then never heard another word. I was not the least surprised to learn from an IAG discussion last week that some reviewers are ripping off writers by harvesting a pile of books and turning around and selling them second hand.

On the third time out, with the Adelsverein Trilogy, I delayed the release date for six months, to allow enough time to get advance reviews from those places like Booklist, and the Historical Novel Society, which prefer pre-release materials. I am also marketing the trilogy through Strider Nolan, Mike Katz’s small publishing house – even though Booklocker did the book design, and will handle the printing and distributing. I had asked Mike and some other IAG members for blurbs and pre-release reviews, and Mike liked it so much that he offered me ISBNs thorough Strider Nolan, and permission to use his mighty publicity-making machine… er, his letterhead and logo… on the grounds that mainstream publications might be a little more receptive to the Adelsverein Trilogy. The review copies only went out two weeks ago. So far I have had some good responses, but I hate to say they have been successful until I actually see the review in print and posted.

Indy book publishing has changed incredibly, just over the short space of years that I have been at it, and I think the Amazon imbroglio is indicative of how many books in the aggregate are being published as independent and subsidy production. It all came down to money. Amazon wanted a chunk of the profits. As the major on-line retailer they were in a position to realize just how many books that they distribute are printed on demand and drop-shipped to the end customer! Not terribly many copies, considered by individual title, but considered all together, it must be a huge portion of the publishing pie. There has been nothing much in the way of developments since filed suit, so perhaps wiser heads inside Amazon reconsidered. I don’t think we have heard the last of it, though. There are too many good writers, who are fed up with the old way of publishing. The costs of publishing independently and inexpensively are too readily available. The mainstream old-line publishers can go on ignoring them for a much longer time than an online retailer can.

See Also: Celia Hayes' Website

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New POD Reviewer in the UK

A new reviewer of POD books has just launched a website on August 9th. The Self-Publishing Review plans to read and review submitted books in the near future. The proprietor of the site says that she (he?) plans to begin accepting submissions in most genres. To many of you out there in Amateur Authorland, probably the most shocking statement made on the site so far is that she will stop the reading of any submitted book once the error count reaches fifteen. To that I say, wonderful, great, more power to you, and I hope you receive a ton of submissions with less than fifteen errors. I seem to be laughing too hard to write this post! Where are the proofreaders? You say they are out to lunch? My guess is that if this rule is enforced, Ms. SPR will be starting a lot of books, but she may not be writing a lot of reviews.

Note that this new site is located somewhere across the pond and she does not accept PDF's. The genres accepted and other details will be posted at PODBRAM in the POD Review Ring Chart as soon as the new site owner sends them to me. I look forward to reading her reviews. She does, after all, claim to be an editor by profession. I, for one, hope she does not break her own rule. I fear that I shall be the only one.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Hummingbird's Daughter

The Hummingbird's Daughter
by Luis Alberto Urrea

(Little, Brown and Company / 978-0-316-74546-8 /
0-316-74546-4 / May 2005 / 512 pages / $24.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

The following review is of one of Dr. Past's favorite books. The cover you see here is on the original hardback published in 2005, currently available at Amazon for $16.47. The Amazon link above is to the 2006 paperback version with a different cover and a slightly higher page count for $10.19.

Among the many outstanding qualities of Luis Urrea's magnificent novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, is that the story is substantially true. It is based on the historical record of his great aunt Teresa Urrea. The dialog and the personalities have been reconstructed, but anyone who cares to research the matter as I have will learn that the incredible life of the Hummingbird's daughter, Teresita Urrea, is accurately depicted.

Born out of wedlock to an illiterate Indian mother, she has no idea that her father is Don Tomás Urrea, rich landowner and freethinker in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. At about age six she is taken under the tutelage of an elderly Indian healer named Huila, whose name means “hummingbird” in the Indian language. From her, Teresita learns the uses of healing plants and prayers and discovers an even greater gift: she actually has the power to heal by her touch.

This causes problems. The ranch becomes crowded with thousands of pilgrims bearing the most pitiful ailments and afflictions, and the Mexican government, watchful to suppress any threats to its power, is suspicious of her growing fame. The shattering climax of the story calls that old cliché to mind: you can't make this stuff up. It wasn't! Unbelievable as it is, it happened.

The Hummingbird's Daughter is the story of a girl coming to terms with her destiny, with the power of faith and miracles, and with a father's and daughter's discovery of what love is and the sacrifices it sometimes requires.

The book is densely populated with cowboys, outlaws, wild Indians, men who drink too much, cantina beauties, mercy and cruelty, bravery and cowardice, and nature at its rawest. There are a fair number of Spanish words, untranslated, but these will not detract from the enjoyment for those who do not care to look them up. To add a historical note, the story is a wonderful snapshot of revolutionary Mexico along the American border.

Finally, the prose style is marvelously poetic: easy to read, but magically evoking the character of Mexico in all its color and contradictions. The description of the various ways Mexicans prepare coffee as the sun dawns gradually across the country could be excerpted as a fine poem all by itself. I have read the book three times, and in its own way it has influenced my writing as much as Huckleberry Finn, with which it shares many qualities. I even bought a second copy to lend, so as not to risk my own, precious, annotated copy. I grew up in El Paso. Teresita lived there briefly, yet I had never heard of her. This is a shame: her story and this book deserve to be better known.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
A Brief Biography of the Author
The Author in His Own Words
The Author's Daily Blog

Monday, August 04, 2008

Stray Not Beyond

Stray Not Beyond
by Michael B. Pinkey

(Writers Club Press / 0-595-26001-2 / 978-0-595-26001-0 / December 2002 / 228 pages / $14.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Irving Carlisle, age and occupation unstated, has spent years refining his pipe smoking habit. Perhaps his biggest challenge has been to find a truly satisfying pipe tobacco. One day he receives a piece of junk mail. Addressed to “Occupant,” it offers for sale a tobacco with the odd name of “Suttlespyce (Number 17),” which he orders on a whim. When it arrives weeks later he finds it transformative: it is the life-changing blend he has dreamed of, a true miracle. He becomes a regular customer for two years, until suddenly all his orders and further communications with the address are ignored, leaving him utterly desperate.

He takes leave from his job, and he and his cat Tweedler drive to Otterwood, North Carolina to get to the bottom of the mystery. He meets a succession of increasingly odd characters and bizarre situations that eventually become almost psychedelic in their strange randomness. I found myself thinking of Alice in Wonderland, except the present characters and situations are not nearly as endearing or totemic. Alice in Wonderland, after all, is a universally familiar worldwide treasure by an eccentric mathematician, written for children and adults who retain a measure of child-like wonder. The fictional territory of Stray Not Beyond's never-never-land part of North Carolina is more disorienting and threatening than charming.

As I plowed through the hallucinatory episodes that constitute the bulk of Stray Not Beyond I kept telling myself it might all be worth it if there were a point ahead, either a plot-related or other thematic justification. I have nothing against novels which do not fit existing genres (I am the author of several), but I do ask that a novel have unity, and that the parts of it be there for a reason. Thus I was rooting for the story to come together at the end, and hopefully disclose the raison d'etre of the strange conceits that predominated throughout. The book's cover offered no clue: is it an odd melange of North Carolina forests, or perhaps a close-up of pipe tobacco? I have no idea. If I were browsing a book store it would not cause me to pick it up and read the back cover.

I can say several good things about the book. There is a conclusion, at least to the mystery of the disappearing tobacco, though I cannot say that that conclusion made the odyssean, fantastic ramblings of the main character any clearer. The prose was cleanly written, even though in my opinion the story was not tightly conceived. There was minimal profanity, sex, and gore. I don't reject those things out of hand, but in this case on top of all the bizarreness they would have been too much.

I'll have to be content in the knowledge that Carlisle did find his pipe tobacco. I was also pleased to see that my favorite character, Tweedler, survived despite being sadly neglected in the middle of the story. Whether that says more about my character or Irving Carlisle's lack of it, I do not care to contemplate.

Stray Not Beyond is a work of considerable imagination, and as such might appeal to readers who enjoy sheer fantasy. For my part, I prefer my fantasy (or whatever style) assembled with a little more discipline.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
Devon Kappa's Review at None May Say