Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Have You Ever Read a Self-Published Book?

"Capitvated" - Adolphe-Alexandre Lesrel
There is so much talk about self-published books in the writing-o-sphere.

But have you actually read one?

Poll below - please click through to the actual post if you're reading in a feed reader or via e-mail.

Also, your further thoughts requested in the comments section. Did you like the self-published book you read? Would you read another? Do you only read traditionally published books? Etc.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon Kindles an E-book Fire

The Kindle Fire tablet
Huge day today for the e-book world as Amazon has announced three new Kindles (links are to CNET I work at CNET, all opinions are my own):

- A $79 Kindle with Special Offers (and keyboard)
- A $99 Kindle Touch with WiFi
- A $149 Kindle Touch with 3G

And a tablet:

The Kindle Fire for $199, featuring a 7" display, Amazon's own Silk web brower, and wireless syncing of books and movies -- you can pause a movie on your TV and start watching on your Kindle Fire.

Huge implications: B&N is going to be feeling the heat as these are compelling e-ink reader prices (per Mashable their stock dropped 9% after Amazon's announcement), Apple is going to be feeling some pressure as there is finally a viable device that undercuts the iPad on price, and having now crossed that magical sub-$100 price point, methinks this is going to be a huge holiday season for e-readers.

Four new devices, one big day. E-readers and tablets are getting more affordable, and it's going to open up e-readers to new audiences.

What do you think of the new Kindles and the new Kindle Fire? Are you going to get one? (Or more?!)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Using Contradictions to Develop Character

As I was (finally) starting to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I had been warned gets off to a notoriously slow start, I was pondering whether I would have agreed to represent it if I had read it as a manuscript.

And, you know, if I were actually still an agent. Which I'm not. (Please, no more query letters!!).

And... honestly? I don't know that I would have sent it out in its present form. That first chapter (note: the actual 1st chapter, not the prologue) is one of the slowest chapters I can recall reading in a book that's extremely popular. It's almost as if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with "No, I swear it gets better!!"

It does get better. And that banal, antiseptic chapter ends up serving useful purposes. But wow. Had this book not traveled its own unique path, for better or worse I can't imagine it being published first in the United States with that chapter intact.

It's About the Characters

Now, I'm writing this having read only about fifty pages, which I think may actually be a benefit for the purposes of writing this post. I don't know what's to come in the plot and I have only had the briefest of introductions to the characters.

But already I feel like I have a sense of what would have kept me reading as an agent had I made it past that first chapter.

And it's simple: These are extremely interesting characters.

But it's complicated: The reason these are interesting characters is difficult to pull off.


What makes these characters interesting is that they are seeming contradictions. Lisbeth has all the outward appearances of a surly, irresponsible youth, and yet she's wildly competent at her job. Armansky is simultaneously attracted to, vaguely repulsed by, and paternal toward Lisbeth. Blomkvist is buttoned up and seemingly honest, and yet he lives a cavalier private life and he seems to have been improbably set up in a conspiracy.

(Again, I've only read 50 pages, none of this may turn out to be true. What's important here are first impressions)

And why that's difficult to pull off is that it's rarely believable when characters behave in ways that appear inconsistent, especially when we don't know them very well. When someone we know to be buttoned up is taken in for a scam, we'll say, "Wait, that doesn't seem right, I thought that guy was too cautious for that." When someone who seems irresponsible and surly turns out to be wildly intelligent and competent, it feels like the author is trying to force something that can't be real.

But I haven't felt that way so far. These characters are immediately compelling because of the contradictions, not despite them.

The Clinic

And, circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I actually think this is a case where the cold, detached, clinical prose, the same prose that nearly bored me to tears in Chapter 1, works to Larsson's benefit.

Precision has an oddly reassuring effect on the reader because it completely hides the hand of the author. There aren't literary flourishes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there aren't artful similes, there aren't moments that remind you that there was an actual author who chose the words you're reading. It's just facts, rendered straightforwardly. (At least, it should be noted, as it's translated)

So ultimately: It's believable. The prose doesn't leave room for questioning because it's so authoritative and airtight. It's not the only way to make contradictory characters believable, but Larsson uses it for all it's worth.

Not only that, but when you can pull off making contradictions believable the reader is prompted to ask questions that pull them through the book - Why is Lisbeth so focused and driven? Why was Blomkvist blinded?

We want to know which of the contradictory qualities we've seen in the characters will win out, we want to know how the characters ended up that way, and it makes for an incredibly engaging reading experience.

That's where I'm at now, at least. I have to say there may be some genius in that tortuous First Chapter and the banality of the prose and descriptions. I believe what this author tells me, and these characters are more interesting because of it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

This Week in Books 9/23/11

These past few weeks! In books!

As you may have been able to tell from my somewhat sporadic blogging I've had a rather bananas couple of weeks, so these links are somewhat spotty. But! I still aim to please with the link love.

First up, wow, some massive news out of Facebook yesterday, as they unveiled a whole slew of new changes that are going to seriously impact the way we live online. It's a lot to keep track of, and my friend Sharon Vaknin has a really helpful article on the five things you need to know about the changes (links are to CNET, I work at CNET).

Perhaps the biggest change is a complete overhaul of profiles. Facebook unveiled Timeline, which will basically be your entire life (photos, status updates, changes) on Facebook, scrollable. And the new Ticker (aka the Facebook within yo Facebook) is now rethought to basically share with your friends what you are reading/watching/doing. You'll even be able to share what you are listening to, and your friends can click on it, the song will sync, and you can listen to it together.

For someone who mused openly about the permanence about Facebook yesterday, I have to say I'm deeply impressed with the changes. Timeline is a whole new way of chronicling and visualizing your life. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that and I'm sure it gives some people the willies, but I think a lot of people are really going to like seeing their whole life and their friends/family's life all in one place. I wish it had been around when my grandparents were alive.

As for the other changes, we'll see how much people really want everything they watch/read/listen/do sent to a Facebook Ticker and whether they really want to see everything their friends watch/read/listen/do on Facebook. I have my doubts.

What do you think of the new Facebook?

Book news!

I'm late to this controversy, but there has been a whole lot of discussion around the topic of LGBT subjects in YA literature, and some wildly intelligent responses. What kicked off the discussion was a post by two authors who said an agent urged them to de-gay their novel (UPDATE: some further background and counter-claims on this is summarized here). This kicked off what started out as a pretty anguished discussion in the YA book world, but there were two great responses I wanted to point out.

First, Malinda Lo brought some actual stats to the discussion, tracking LGBT books over time, broken out by publisher, and by gender. Some very helpful context. And agent Michael Bourret has a post with an inescapable conclusion: If you want to see more LGBT novels, the best way to ensure that there are more is to seek out and buy more LGBT novels.

Amazon has kicked off its library e-book lending program, joining B&N and Sony (and others) in offering access to e-books from over 11,000 local libraries, and GoodReads launched book recommendations.

In agent advice news, Call My Agent talks about what it takes to become a literary agent, and Rachelle Gardner gives some insight into agents as editors.

The great Tahereh Mafi (whose novel SHATTER ME is less than two months away from taking over the world), has some of the best possible advice for writers: Don't be afraid to write a bad book.

In other book news news, the Man Booker shortlist has been announced, Levar Burton revealed he's working on a followup to Reading Rainbow, Roni Loren writes that even if blogging is (supposedly) dead there are good reasons to do it anyway, and a new from-slush-to-publication website has launched called PUBSLUSH Press. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Comment! of! the! Week! goes to John, who I thought had an interesting counterpoint to my post on how imprints could be important to consumers in the e-book era. He disputes whether it does or will matter:
On Amazon many of the large publishers are demolishing their street creds with the Agency model of pricing ebooks. Perusing the Kindle forums will show you that resentment runs deep and is growing deeper.

I'm pretty sure the big publishers are doing more now to make sure the public views them as money-grubbers more than bastions of quality control.

And as any new author knows, they really don't do much for you in terms of marketing. Much of that is left to the author--they have to make connections with readers and get the word out.

Once you've done that, it's your name that matters. The author will be the brand in the mind of most readers. Reviews on Goodreads and Amazon will either add or detract from that name brand.

Let's face it. The traditional model of printing and distribution is dying. Borders is the latest victim.

I'm an avid reader and I probably couldn't tell you who the publisher is on half my books. I use Goodreads reviews more than anything else to determine what's worth reading and what isn't.

I also download samples to my Kindle to see how I like it.

Otherwise, indie, traditiona, it really doesn't matter to me so long as I enjoy it. And then I'll be yet another grassroots link to boosting or lowering the quality of that author's brand.

And finally, the Andy Samberg/Mark Zuckerberg comedy routine at the f8 event. Yes, really:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Is Social Media Like a Party?

Hofball in Wien - Wilhelm Gause
Amid all the uproar over Facebook's latest redesign of the newsfeed and some possibly huge pending announcements today (disclosure: links are to CNET, I work for CNET, and all views expressed herein are completely my own), there were some... well, murmurs in my feeds about Facebook having jumped the shark. Myspace was a trending topic on Twitter for much of the day and even my mom complained about the changes.

Facebook has seen its share of blowback from customers before, but this is its first backlash moment at the time when there's a shiny new alternate social network waiting in the wings: Google+.

I don't know that it's as bad as all that and it's seriously difficult to imagine Facebook going the way of Myspace (which, by the way, isn't dead yet), but I do think it's still an open question whether there will ever be such a thing as a permanent social network.

My metaphor for social networks: It's like a party.

At first you're there because you got an invite from someone you really like, it's just your close friends, you have a great time catching up and you have the run of the joint. Then a few more people show up, and it starts getting a little crowded, but hey, it's still fun and you play some fun games. Then that person you barely know shows up and pretty soon that person you never really liked in high school has trapped you in a corner and is forcing politics down your throat and eventually you look around and there are so many people you can barely move.

And then your parents show up and the party is over.

Facebook may well be too big to fail and people have definitely invested a lot of time in their presence there. I can't imagine my mom jumping over to Google+ just because the news feed changed.

At the same time, early social media explorers are already busy colonizing Google+, Tumblr, and other emerging social media platforms. There is definitely some appeal in regrouping with your closest friends and starting a new party.

At some point those friend lists that you built... well, they get messy and unwieldy, it's awkward and time consuming to unfriend all the people you don't really want to follow, and there's a lot of appeal in just starting over from scratch. I've already done it with Friendster, then Myspace, then Facebook, and now I'm enjoying starting over yet again on Google+ (my profile is here btw).

What do you think? Are the (relative) social media veterans Facebook and Twitter here to stay or will we always be looking for a new fiesta?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

E-Books Are Easily Changeable After Publication. Is That Good or Bad?

"The village tailor" by Albert Anker
As we endure the angst around the Blu-Ray release of Stars Wars and the fact that George Lucas changed the original trilogy... again, it's worth pondering how this could also very well happen in the world of books.

Reader Tucker, author of the Sarcastic Creatures e-book series, wrote to me about how he's seeing tinkering on the rise and authors having trouble letting go of their books: "Just because the book is published doesn't mean the author is finished with it anymore."

Tinkering could be a good thing - I would love to be able to correct the typos in Jacob Wonderbar, for instance, but those are stuck in ink.

But could we lose something with authors not letting go of their stories? Should there be a final version? Does the tinkering even help books?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

Cover of "Songs of Innocence and Experience" - William Blake
Most of us know the difference between good and evil, but have you ever really stopped to think about why the things we think of as good are good and why the things we think of as evil are evil?

Why is it that we know we should try to be selfless, honest, diligent, compassionate, and kind. Why are these things known as "good" qualities?

Why is it that we know we shouldn't be immodest, spiteful, dishonest, careless, violent, and cruel? Why are these things known as "bad" qualities?

We've internalized these moral codes so innately that we rarely stop to think of why it's so. Virtues are things that we associate with preschool or Sunday School or our parents lecturing us as kids.  They're things that we know we should do but how much do we consciously think of them as adults?

When we do think of it at all, most of us chalk up virtue to making the world a better place. We all would be better off if everyone lived according to the good principles and avoided the bad principles. We could avoid crime and war and brutality and terror if we all obeyed our better natures.

But I think virtue goes farther than that, and I think it's an important reason why virtue is such a paramount concern to storytellers from time immemorial: Virtue works.

When you stop to think about it, virtue is almost always about putting others before yourself and setting aside short term temptation in favor of long term rewards. I think the reason we've internalized these qualities as doing the right thing is because this is what we know actually works. We've known it as long as we've told stories.

Popular culture loves to celebrate short term vices ("Greed is good," "I'm not here to make friends," "I'm looking out for Number One"), but those temptations come back to get you. There's a reason we're drawn to the good sheriff goes riding off into the distance and the good knight slays the dragon and Harry Potter beat Voldemort. It's not the way the world should be, it's the way the world really is.

I'm not naïve enough to think that only good people succeed and only bad people fail or that bad things only happen to bad people. Clearly there are evil people in the world who have been quite successful.

But haven't we seen evil catch up with enough people and virtue and hard work rewarding enough people to see that good wins in the end at least most of the time? Haven't we all had our greatest successes and satisfactions when we did the right thing and triumphed after a stretch of diligent work? Haven't we all helped people and felt our efforts return tenfold?

The hardest part, of course, is living up to our better selves, and I don't know anyone who succeeds 100% of the time, least of all me. But in a culture that too often tries to make the easy path appealing and glamorous, sometimes it's worth remembering that the long, difficult road is the way to the greatest rewards.

Parts of this post are excerpted from an interview I did with Writer Unboxed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Are You Reading?

Every now and then I like to check in to see what people out there are reading.

So what about you? What are you reading?

I just finished China Mieville's Embassytown, and will be starting The Invisible Bridge soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New Wordplay Podcast!

New episode of the Wordplay Podcast! James Dashner and J.Scott Savage and I talk to agent Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich about the current state (and future) of publishing and self-publishing.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Should Agents Respond to All Queries?

One of the perennial topics of discussion in the literaryosphere surfaced this past week: The no response means no policy on queries.

On the one hand agent Rachelle Gardner discussed the reasons for her no-response-means-no policy (though she often will respond, just not always), and Janet Reid explained why she responds to everyone.

When I was an agent I responded to everyone, but it was by no means an easy task, and sometimes in retrospect I wonder if I really should have had that policy. But regardless of which policy agents pursue, I still maintain that agents don't owe authors a response. I know it's frustrating as an author to send queries into the ether, but agents have every right to set their own submission policy, and if an authors doesn't agree with it they are more than welcome to query someone whose policy they prefer.

That, ultimately, was one of the main reasons I had a always-respond policy. Like Janet Reid I hoped people would look kindly on that and give me first shot at their projects. But it was by no means easy to maintain, and I certainly would never pass judgment on agents with a different policy.

What do you think? Should agents respond to everyone or is it too much to ask? Do you check an agent's response policy before deciding who to query?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints

"Demonstration on October 17, 1905" by Ilya Repin
As we move forward into a new digital era in the publishing world rife with self-published books, there is theoretically one area where publishers could offer significant value to authors in an e-book world: Cachet.

Despite what the publishing naysayers say, the endorsement of a publisher really does mean something to consumers. I've heard way too many people tell me they only want to buy books traditionally published to believe it doesn't matter. People want the quality control, they want the traditional process, and I think people are willing to pay a premium for it. The mark of a known publisher could be a powerful differentiator in what will only be a more and more jumbled space.

But there's one problem with this: Publishers are squandering their brands on imprints few people outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn have heard of.

What's an imprint? Basically it's the name on the spine of a book, usually a division or a group within a larger publisher. The major publishers are made up of literally dozens of imprints, and they're not all ones that most people know.

People have heard of Penguin. They've heard of HarperCollins. They know Random House and Knopf and Doubleday and Harlequin and a few others.

I'm not going to name the ones people haven't heard of because I don't want to offend anyone, but you know who they are. Or rather, you probably don't know who they are. Even ones that have been around for fifty or a hundred years - not all of them have name recognition. And that's a huge problem.

Imprints matter to publishers and agents and somewhat to booksellers as they help organize the company into various divisions. You can get a sense of the "flavor" of a book by knowing who is publishing it, and agents know where to send projects.

But these distinctions matter next to zilch to consumers unless they've actually heard of the imprints and unless the publisher actively cultivates recognition of the imprints and what the "flavor" of an imprint means.

If a consumer hasn't heard of Unknown Imprint but they have heard of the bigger company, why insist on putting Unknown Imprint on the spine and in the Amazon metadata? How are consumers supposed to distinguish between a book published by Unknown Imprint and a book self-published under Imprint a Self-Published Author Made Up?

If a self-published e-book has a polished cover and presentation, the only thing separating it from a traditionally published book is the imprint. And if the consumer hasn't heard of the imprint (but has maybe heard of Random House or Penguin): Opportunity lost.

Publishers have cachet. Consumers want to buy books published by the major publishers. But consumers can't and won't do that if they've never heard of the imprint.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Is the First Book You Remember Reading?

Books are an incredibly formative part of all of our lives.

The books we read as children stick with us forever - many of us can remember trying telekinesis after reading Matilda, imagining living on our own in the wilderness after reading Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain, searching the backs of closets for a door to Narnia after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or dreaming of escaping into the Met after From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

But what is the first book you remember reading? Not being read to you, but actually reading yourself?

For me it's The Little Engine That Could. What about you?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Self-Publishing and Literary Fiction

"Ancient of Days" - William Blake
Self-publishing is often denigrated in some circles as a dominion of poor quality, but even among people who don't sneer at it, what springs to mind when they think of self-publishing is usually genre fiction. People just don't often think of self-publishing and literary fiction going hand in hand.

I think this is increasingly going to change - and the great thing about it is that it's actually a very old tradition. None other than Marcel Proust got his start by, (vanity publishing alert!), paying a publisher to put out SWANN'S WAY, and he was by no means alone - just ask Ben Franklin, William Blake and many others.

Major publishers have been a tad wary of literary fiction for some time, and while reputable small presses have picked up the slack, when I was an agent I saw too many great literary books languish for lack of a publisher.

The infrastructure is developing - already you have thriving online blogs communities devoted to literary fiction, like The Millions, HTMLGIANT and Bookslut, and with review space declining in print anyway, who's to say that you have to have the imprimatur of a publisher to find attention.

You still seem need a publisher to be nominated for major awards--to my knowledge, a self-published book has yet to be nominated for a Pulitzer or National Book Award or NBCC Award--but could that really be far behind?

And I blogged recently about my former client C.Y. Gopinath e-publishing his novel THE BOOK OF ANSWERS through Smashwords in the US (it's published by HarperIndia in India), and I think it's a model for the future. There is great literature out there and self-publishing isn't just for genre fiction anymore.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Last Week in Books 9/5/11

Happy Labor Day, everyone! Here are some links to help you pass the holiday.

First up, I am doing the Tumblr! I think for real this time! I have given my page a fresh look and hope to be updating much more often with photos, art (not mine, don't worry), links, clips, and etc., along with links to my blog posts as well. Fun fun.

Second! If you have not yet tired of the sound of my voice there are two new places where I am speaking the words. First, the second episode of the Wordplay Podcast is live, with special guest Ally Condie:

Click through to the post to find out how you can win a signed copy of Ally Condie's MATCHED. Also, I was interviewed by Moses Siregar III for the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast (interview starts around the 20 minute mark), where we talk about living the ups and downs of the writing and publication process and how important it is to be a part of the community of writers. Also, Moses' novel THE BLACK GOD'S WAR just came out, so give that a look-see as well.

Now then. The links!

Amazon is on a lot of people's mind this week. First, TechCrunch says they've gotten their hands on a prototype of Amazon's upcoming tablet and have some early specs: 7 inches, could be released in October for $250, and a custom Android interface. Among those responding with analysis, at the LA Times Carolyn Kellogg starts with the breathless headline The hypothetical Amazon tablet will take over the universe, before pointing out that the Nook Color... is a 7 inch Android tablet that costs $250 and is already on sale. And writing for CNET (where, disclosure, I'm employed) Eric Mack wonders if the Amazon tablet will succeed where other Android tablets have failed.

And (yes there's more), writing for GigaOM, Matthew Ingram analyzes the new @author program, where you can tweet at authors as part of the reading experience, and the way Amazon is further disrupting the traditional publisher's place in the reading ecosystem.

Speaking of disruption, guest posting at Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, picture book author Lindsey Lane talks about the digital transformation of a picture book over to an app.

Cory Doctorow has been a prominent freevangelist and digital innovator for some time, so after he self-published a short story collection I was mildly surprised to see this great post defending publishers and reaching an inescapable conclusion: Self-publishing is hard. (via Victoria Strauss)

Writing for The Millions, Kim Wright takes a look at a really significant trend in the world of literature: Literary writers moving to genre fiction.

In writing advice news, Brian Wood has an interesting interview on writing humor, agent Rachelle Gardner reminds everyone that we have to write for our own times rather than bemoaning that publishers don't publish books like X classic, writing at Wicked & Tricksy, Sommer Leigh writes about the Courage of Writers, and Shrinking Violet Promotions talks about writers finding their voices, not just on the page but in life.

You may have gotten a rejection letter this week, but chances are it wasn't as mean as this one.

And the Onion profiles a novelist who has his whole $^&@%& world plotted out (via JohnDurvin in the Forums).

This week in the Forums, an ode to Fantasy Football, waiting is the WORST, thoughts on designing a blog, whether to smile or not in author photos, how to develop a unique plot in each book in a trilogy, another NaNoWriMo success story, and you are worthy of success.

Comment! of! the! Week! I had a seriously hard time choosing a comment of the week this week because there were so many great ones. So I'm going to duck choosing just one and give the thread on whether the Internet is making us better or worse a collective comments of the week. Awesome discussion.

And finally, sometimes it's important to take a walk in the park, which I did on Saturday:

Have a great week!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On the Internet There Is No Such Thing as a Brand. There Is Only You

Self-Portrait - Vincent van Gogh
I believe this strongly about the Internet: There is no such thing as a brand.

To me, a brand is a cultivated fiction, it's an image spun from a grain of truth. You hear about athletes and celebrities cultivating brands, whether it's a tough-guy image or a nice-guy image or one of dispassionate competency. Is it true? Doesn't really matter. It's a public front.

As I alluded to in my post on LeBron James, brand sorcery used to work in the TV era, but not anymore. The Internet doesn't tolerate a false front. It loves loves loves nothing more than to expose the truth and stomp all over "brands," as Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner have discovered all too keenly.

The only, and I mean only way to approach a world of social media is with honesty, transparency, and authenticity. You can't fake out the Internet for long.

And it's not even about morality - look at how the Internet has (mostly) embraced Charlie Sheen and denigrated LeBron James. The key difference is authenticity.

For me personally, this blog reflects my real life. The personality I express here is me, the opinions are my own, and the topics I post about are the things I'm thinking about. Sure, I maintain a certain professional decorum (usually) and I don't divulge my deepest darkest thoughts (usually) but this isn't a false front. This is me.

Now that I'm an author, people have suggested that I should change up my "brand" - I should start a blog that appeals to a more middle grade audience, I should start a separate blog for self-promotion, I should stop talking so much about my own book.

And sure, I could try and change up my "brand." But I don't think it would work, because it wouldn't be real. This blog has always reflected where I am in my personal and professional life. I was an agent, so I blogged about agenting. Now have a book out, so I talk about my book. That's where my head is at. I can only speak with authority on the actual things I'm thinking about.

My advice for people who are trying to carve out their own space in social media is not to think about what you think your blog or your Twitter presence should be, but rather to embrace who you really are. Be yourself. Let your own voice shine through. Lots of people have ideas about what you should be, but you can only be who you are.

The only brand you've got is you.

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