William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, May 27, 2011

In E-Reading, Nothing Beats True Love

In researching an article for PC Today this morning, I came across an OverDrive marketing sheet directed toward library purchasing agents. The document is a bit dated (2008), but even at that relatively early time (before the Kindle and iPad crazes, after all), the writing seems to have been on the virtual wall. OverDrive notes that "a statewide digital library's eBook collection turnover rate was nearly six times higher than the state's average print turnover rate. If you buy eBooks, patrons will download."

Presumably this means that patrons are consuming books more quickly in digital format than on paper -- a curious observation. Why would this be? I was on a plane recently, reading "The Big Short" on my NOOK Color. I know that most people believe LCD screens are more difficult to read on than paper, but having got nearly half-way through the book in two days -- an almost unprecedented event for me in recent years owing to my schedule -- I couldn't help but wonder if I was actually reading faster on the screen than I do on paper. I would love for someone to publish a study on the impact of various viewing devices (paper included) on reading speed and/or content retention.

As a writer, though, what really caught my eye in OverDrive's document was this:

"Overall, what’s popular in print is often successful in the eBook format. The 10 most-circulated OverDrive
eBook titles are often the same best sellers you see in The New York Times or on Amazon.com. However,
across all OverDrive libraries (and consistently over time), romance has been the most popular subject.
Romance readers consume many eBooks and return to their library’s ‘Virtual Branch’ again and again. The chart at the right illustrates the loyalty of romance eBook readers."

If these patrons were average top volume readers and not hand-selected specifically for their romance title borrowing, the implications are stunning. Those who read most read romance. Admittedly, romance novels may be quicker reads than the average non-romance, but this is still a prodigious consumption rate within a certain genre, and it makes a clear point: Even if you don't write romance, having strong romantic elements in your stories is imperative if you want to reach the broadest possible audience.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stay Tuned

I'm not a fan of "sorry, I've been busy" blog posts, but...sorry, I've been busy. This has been an insane month on the work front, and I just returned from a several-day trip to Silicon Valley. Those of you who enjoy my tech-related posts will be enthralled at the epic fruits of this trip when they appear on Tom's Hardware soon. I'm going to give you a whole new look at Wi-Fi technology unlike anything you've ever seen before. And for those of you who enjoy more of my reading/writing-related content, stay tuned for a PC Today magazine story on library lending to e-readers.

Until then, let me offer one practical tidbit for you. I just reviewed an app called Evernote for CPU magazine. I can describe this free tool in one sentence: Evernote is a OneNote-like app synchronizes notes (containing a wide array of content types) across practically any device running the app that you have linked to your account. For example, when I first looked at Evernote, I said, "Ah ha! At last! This is a way for my wife and I to maintain a synchronized shopping list across our two Android phones." I installed Evernote on both phones, associated both with my own account, and now the list stays current on both phones as well as my PC. But Evernote can do so much more. If you do research and need to access information across a range of computers or mobile devices, this is bar none the most flexible tool for keeping that research organized and at your fingertips. Google Docs wins for collaboration, and OneNote has better Office integration. But Evernote makes my (very) short list of must-have work tools.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How It's Done Interview: YA Zombie Author Rusty Fischer

I'm going to try something a little different and new for me. This blog usually focuses on my thoughts about technology, but there's another side of me that loves speculative fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and all crossover points in between) and has dreamed of being a speculative fiction author since my teens. I'm now working hard to develop that dream. You'll see more about that later. For now, I want to spotlight another guy with a very similar dream: Rusty Fischer.

I just posted an interview ebook of the Q&A I wrote with Rusty here on Scribd. You can check it out and download at your leisure. Or, if you have a bit, read on...

Zombies Don’t, But Rusty Fischer Does

There are those who love zombies...and those who love to write about them. Rusty Fischer adds on one more layer. He’s made it his mission to teach others how to write about them, too.

OK, there’s a bit more to it than that. Much of Fischer’s writing, especially his blog, Zombies Don’t Blog, focuses on sound advice and how-tos for the modern genre writer. If a little zombie theme shambles in along the way, so much the better. Fischer has published a wide range of books over the years, much of it through his ghost writing “day job.” His first zombie novel to reach print, Zombies Don’t Cry, is now out from Medallion Press. That part is cool, but the part that really intrigues me is the path he took leading up to this novel and his first break into popular publishing.

I found Rusty Fischer through a holiday poem called “Oh Tannenbrain, Oh Tannenbrain” he’d posted on Smashwords. I left a review, he added me as a favorite Smashwords author, and I was so flattered that I continued looking up his material—no small lesson there. But the idea of zombie literature for teens intrigued me. I downloaded his Vampires Drool! Zombies Rule! for free from Smashwords and was instantly hooked by his style, characters, and irresistible sense of fun. Where were these zombies when I was a kid, huh? I had to wade through half a dozen snoozy Poe tales just to find the occasional gem. With Fischer, the stories may not qualify as classic lit, but that’s probably why they’re so consistently awesome.

How does a person with no street cred in the horror genre or young adult (YA) markets go from zero to a book deal? Rusty Fischer is a study in how it gets done in the 21st century. Through his blog and many free advice ebooks, he lays open the road map for any and all to follow. He makes it sound and look easy. But those of us who write for a living, including me, know better. There is always a side to the story you normally never see.

Aspiring writers always want to know how the pros achieve their success, but the hard truth is that most of us would give our left arm (and maybe an ear, a few toes, a pulse...you get the idea) to reach even semi-pro status. Fischer hasn’t hit the big time yet, but he has the book deal and fans to show that he’s clearly headed in that direction. Between nowhere and Dean Koontz, you probably have to pass through the place where Fischer is now. I wanted to know how he got there in only two years. The first steps in any big journey tend to be some of the most difficult and loneliest. Through an interview conducted over several email exchanges, I sought to shed some light on those steps and how Rusty Fischer goes about the business of being...Rusty Fischer.

WVW: Writing is fun, but you can’t write without food and electricity, and I’m guessing that your fiction isn’t your primary income. How do you schedule yourself to balance “real work” against your creative fiction?

RF: You’re right. The genre YA fiction stuff is definitely “take your wife out to dinner” money but little more. I consider the ghostwriting my “day job,” and that’s pretty much how I treat it. I’ll work eight to ten hours per day on the ghostwriting clients, which typically means I can work on behalf of two or three clients per day. Usually two. By about 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening, I can begin writing on my own stuff, which might be:
·         A chapter in a current YA zombie/vampire/werewolf book
·         Revisions from a publisher
·         A blog post or two for the zombie blog I keep up
·         Writing a guest post or answering interview questions for a YA blog
·         Writing a free story, poem, or excerpt to give away on Scribd.com or Smashwords
·         Designing a cover to go with the above on Picnik.com
So I basically get to write “my” stuff when the clients’ work is done. Sometimes I’ll get a break and finish with the clients’ work early and have a whole afternoon just to really go to town, which is nice. Or the weekends, or slow periods, or whenever for some reason it seems to work out. Plus I can work really quickly on my stuff because after a day full of writing mostly adult nonfiction, it’s actually fun to write the zombie, werewolf, and vampire stuff!

WVW: What is it about the zombie concept that calls to you? Why is it your chosen niche?

RF: Ha! Funny you should ask. I just did a guest post on this for a British YA blog. I’ll copy and paste it below:

Write Like No One’s Reading: A Guest Post On Zombies, YA & Trusting Your Own Writing

Do you trust your own writing? When you sit down to write, are you confident about what you’re putting on paper or constantly looking over your shoulder wondering if it might find a home? If people will like it? If it will be “popular” or not? These are questions I think every writer has to answer at some point in his or her career, and ones I hope to put to rest – at least a little – with this post.
When people hear I wrote a book called Zombies Don’t Cry, the first question out of their mouths is usually, “Why zombies?”
The answer is simple: I’m a big fan of underdogs. At this point, I’d rather see a movie about Robin than Batman; I’d rather watch Tonto’s exploits than the Lone Ranger’s.
            So when I started writing YA about two years ago, I was instantly anti-vampire. Not because I don’t dig vampires – my next book, in fact, IS about vampires – it’s just that they were the Batmans at the time; they were the Lone Rangers.
            I wanted to write about Robin and Tonto, you know? So I looked around the Teen/YA section and tried to find the most underrepresented genre on the shelves. There were vampires, there were werewolves, there were faeries and goblins and demons and ghouls, but…where was all the zombie love?
            At the time, there were only a handful of zombie books to choose from. That’s not really the case anymore, but I still feel that, compared to vampires and werewolves, faeries and ghouls, zombies are still the ultimate YA underdogs.
            So, back to the question: “Why zombies?”
            It’s all about confidence. I figured this was a “blank canvas” niche, one where there weren’t a ton of rules laid out yet, one where I could open a blank page and start writing and make up my own rules.
            Vampires have the whole sunlight, mirrors and stake through the heart thing. Werewolves have full moons and silver bullets. Zombies? All we know about them is pretty much you take off the head, they stay dead.
            Fine, I can work with that, but…but…what would it be like to go to school as a zombie? What would zombies wear? Would they date? Could they date? Were there good zombies? Bad zombies? Zombie laws? Zombie cops? It was YA so I certainly couldn’t have my MC running around chopping other zombies’ heads off, so…how to put them down without decapitation?
            It was a challenge, it was a fun one, and knowing that I could write my own rules gave me a lot of latitude. Rather than sticking to the accepted rules for vampires and werewolves, I could play by my own rules.
            The only problem was, most agents and publishers were as anti-zombie as I was anti-vampire and werewolf. There was a ton of rejection but, at this point, I was so into my zombie world I couldn’t give up!
            And here comes the confidence part: the more I got rejected, the more I said to myself, “Well, shoot, if nobody’s ever going to see this anyway, why not really go to town?” So I quit worrying if New York editors would like it, or if it would “fit” on the bookstore shelves, or if “the cool kids” would like it.
            I wrote a book that I wanted to read—not necessarily the 42-year-old graying beard me, but the nerdy spazz 16- or 17-year-old me who still listened to the Star Wars soundtrack and read Stephen King behind his math book. It was really freeing because I was literally writing for an audience of one.
            You know how they say “dance like no one’s watching”? Well, when it comes to zombies and YA and picking a genre or a word count length or even a publisher or an agent, here is my advice: write like no one’s reading!
            Write for yourself, write for your friends, write for the small, not the big; write for the underdog, not the hero. Write the story you want to read and somebody, chances are many somebodies, will want to read it too.
            I don’t think publishers and agents want to read the same old thing anymore. I know kids don’t. As Zombies Don’t Cry nears its publication date and it gets in the hands of more and more reviewers and I’m seeing more and more feedback, what I’m finding is literally hundreds of avid, excited, encouraging, honest, unabashed YA readers and bloggers who are not only enthusiastic about their genre of choice but absolutely sophisticated in their reading tastes.
            They are a market who, I believe, welcomes the new and shies away from the trite. They may devour vampire book after vampire book, but even in that I can see the trend veering more toward sophisticated, far-reaching series and also kind of the anti-sparkly vamp set with Fat Vampire and the like.
            It’s an exciting, vivid and bold time full of opportunities for YA writers who can find their voice, speak to this sophisticated audience and write with absolute, utter confidence.
My advice to YA writers (and zombie lovers)? Know who you are, know who your audience is, know what you want to write, tell a great story and do it in a new way. To me, those are the keys to writing for YA.
            And always remember, don’t just dance like no one’s watching; write like no one’s reading!!!

WVW: Your story here strikes me as smart marketing: find an empty niche and fill it. But that still doesn’t answer the other side of the question. What about zombies appeals to you on an emotional level? Vampire literature is wall to wall proxy sex—teeth penetration, bodily fluids, etc.—and has been since Le Fanu. But zombies appeal to us along different vectors. What are they? How and why do zombies speak to you?

RF: I get asked this a lot, and I always say there are vampire people and then there are zombie people. I write both, by the way—my next book is called Vamplayers—but my Twitter and Facebook friends, etc., they tend to be in one camp or the other. For me, zombies are more down to earth, less flashy. I don’t have to worry as much about the mythology. Instead, I can be myself and just write the story.

Vampires are so political. You have to be careful about the whole sunlight/not sunlight issue and all the other mythology/baggage that comes along with writing about vamps. Zombies let me write my own mythology because there’s really no one defining source book like, say, Dracula. It’s a little more freeing. However, not to diss my vampire books, I enjoyed writing those as well because I had to work within that structure and still try to do something unique and original.

Last but not least, zombies are the underdogs of the immortals. They can’t fly or float or materialize or disappear like vampires. They don’t have super-strength or super speed like a werewolf. They’re just humans who can’t die. Okay, I make my zombies extra-strong as the fat turns to muscle over time, but not like Superman strong. There’s something kind of charming about being the lowest rung on the undead food chain, and still finding ways to overcome, adapt and even flourish. That appeals to me a lot.

WVW: Are you willing to share revenue numbers? I’m currently doing my first co-writing project for 30% of future income, but this is different than ghost writing. How does an average ghost writing gig work?

RF: Congratulations! That’s a great setup, and 30% is pretty generous. I’m usually not so lucky. Typically, I am paid a flat-fee on a work-for-hire contract. So, for instance, a busy CEO or VP or management consultant or social media guru might pay me $5,000 to help them write their business book. That would be the extent of my profit participation with them—no points or royalties or rights, etc. I’ve tried it other ways in the past, but unless you and the author/client share the same literary agent, which is rare, it’s hard to keep track of that and just easier to keep things flat-fee. For me, anyway. This scenario keeps things simple, the client likes it, it works for me and it’s kind of how my business has evolved as I inch into my second decade as a full-time ghostwriter.

WVW: How did you get into ghost writing?

RF: Totally by accident, as it turns out. I ran across a classified ad one day looking for a local author to help collaborate on a history book. It just so happened that one of my freelance writing gigs had resulted in a book on the Shootout at the OK Corral. I brought it along and gave a copy to the client, who wanted to write a fictional diary of Robert E. Lee. That was my first ghostwriting job. Before that, I never even knew such jobs existed.

WVW: You “just so happened” to have done a freelance gig that resulted in a published book?! (The OK Corral one.) Most writers have never published a book—any book. And it “just happened?”

RF: Okay, well, maybe I’m being modest. It “just happened” because I applied for and got a freelance writing job that turned out to be for a library book for teens/tweens about the OK Corral. What I guess I meant was, it wasn’t long after I got a few author’s copies of that book that the ad for a “history writer” appeared in the local paper. It was kismet, I guess! (And I’m forever grateful.)

WVW: If you’re putting in 2x the hours on ghost writing compared to fiction, what is the ratio between the two in terms of income? Sorry to harp on finances, but we all worry about this stuff, and nobody seems to talk much about it.

RF: Oh, so far there really is no ratio. (And it’s more like 5x the hours on ghost writing compared to fiction. I’m just not there yet.) Right now, ghostwriting is really my only income. I’ve made some advances on the young adult books, and am proud to say they’re getting bigger every time, but I couldn’t pay my mortgage with the fiction pieces just yet, and that’s kind of my barometer for that type of thing.

However, just as in my ghostwriting business, where I’ve worked up to a certain level gradually, I’m doing all I can with the YA fiction to create the same kind of degree of skill, proficiency, and income where, hopefully, the ratio will one day even out. I think that’s my advice to any new writer in any genre: it takes time. It’s easy in our culture to celebrate the “overnight” success of a suddenly popular book and its author, but if you dig a little deeper, oftentimes that author has spent years, decades even, working up to that point.

Try to think in terms of a career in writing versus scoring that huge bestseller right away. I can say frankly that the sales for ZDC aren’t exactly “blistering,” and it’s clear to me that it will take time to build my brand as an author to where paying customers can start to feel more and more comfortable plunking down six to eight bucks for an ebook or nine or ten bucks for a paperback.

WVW: I know it’s a little absurd to compare sales between writers because their work and lives are inevitably very different. Still, as somebody who just netted $11.54 from his first three months in self-publishing, I suppose I’m looking for a ray of light. How long have you been e-publishing, how many e-titles do you now have for sale (not free), and what is your average monthly income from those titles?

RF: I don’t know yet. Honestly, Zombies Don’t Cry is my first traditionally published book (of my own, I mean), and the Kindle version only became available on May 1, so I can’t compare/contrast yet. I do have two ebook-only titles coming out this/next year, but I won’t know the sales ranks for them for a while, either.

I will say that, going purely by Amazon sales rank alone—which I’m not sure is always effective—but even though the Kindle version of ZDC just released, it still seems to outsell the paperback version by a smidge. I’m not sure if this is because the ebook version is $2 cheaper or because folks prefer the e-reading versus old style, but I don’t think I’m the only one having that debate right now!

WVW: If you don’t start creative writing until after dinner, that doesn’t leave much time for family or friends. Where do you squeeze them in, and how understanding are they of your schedule?

RF: It’s funny, but I just did a guest blog for a great blogger who asks visiting writers a simple question: “What do you do when you’re not writing?” I wrote maybe 800 words for her and…it was all about how I’m thinking about writing when I’m not actually writing!

I will say my family has been very understanding of my schedule and doesn’t make too many demands on it. I’m fortunate in that, working from home, I can get up a few hours early and make up for a rare “night off” when I go to a family birthday party or dinner with my wife or a neighbor’s cookout or whatnot.

That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does I don’t bring my phone and check my Twitter accounts and all that. I work when I’m at home and I’m off when I’m not. I don’t think I could keep this pace up forever, but I’ve been writing a lot over the past three years and have some good books, stories, and other things in the pipeline, so maybe I won’t have to double-time it forever.

I would also add that it’s a very conscious decision most writers make to live this way. I just couldn’t be a writer and a social butterfly. I know lots of people can, but I don’t roll that way. I actually enjoy my writing time, the trappings of my office, the view from my window, the clacking of the keyboard, the accomplishment of a cute ending or a nice turn of phrase or wrapping up final edits or seeing a new book cover. I enjoy my family and friend time as well, but it’s not a hardship for me to sit at my desk 12 hours a day, either.

WVW: With your insane work schedule, on average, how much sleep do you get at night?

RF: I actually get a good six to seven hours, so I can’t complain. Besides, it’s not like I’m doing manual labor! My work schedule is insane, but right now I don’t have a ton of outside interests beyond my family—and zombies. So I have a lot of time to write!

WVW: I’ll expose my lack of social media savvy here. How does Scribd fit into your strategy given that it would seem at first glance to overlap with Smashwords as a free copy distribution vehicle?

RF: It probably doesn’t make sense, and please don’t mistake me for someone who has any idea what they’re doing when it comes to social media. Basically, I do what works for me, and I blog about what has worked for me.

My philosophy with Scribd.com versus Smashwords.com is that both serve two different audiences. They have two different feels. For instance, I have books that are really, really popular on Scribd that can’t get arrested on Smashwords, and vice versa. As in, my book on YA social media, Zombies Don’t Tweet, has nearly 1,000 reads on Scribd and barely 100 on Smashwords. Earlier you mentioned my free novel, Vampires Drool! Zombies Rule! It has barely 100 reads on Scribd and nearly 1,000 on Smashwords. But I can’t afford to lose either audience, so I use both.

That said, my actual strategy with the free stuff is to use those pieces as promotional tools. Yes, I want to be fun and creative and tell a great story or help someone celebrate the holiday with a cute zombie poem, but it’s also about getting my name out there, hoping folks will take an extra three minutes before or after reading to visit the blog, etc.

I just read the first-ever review of my free YA supernatural novel Vampires Drool! Zombies Rule! and Jess, the blogger over at The Tales Compendium said something to the effect of, “I found that being able to read some of Rusty's work before buying his new novel was really helpful, and I was left craving more of his zombie stories.” I thought that was really validating because that’s been my express goal all along.

I hope to never charge for the poems or the short stories. To me, that’s all promotional material designed to either brand the “Zombies Don’t…” concept or simply celebrate a holiday in a fun way or give me something to post on Twitter and Facebook between reviews and get people to swing by the blog.

Does it work? I will say it works for me, because I can write most of that stuff quickly, enjoy it myself, and make it enjoyable for readers. Most of all, I control it. I can say when it comes out, how often it comes out, where it goes, design the cover, change the cover, and upload a revision. It’s nice to be in control of that part of the promotion.

I’m not saying it works for everybody, but I enjoy interacting with people on both sites, and they’re my type of social media: direct interaction with readers who can rate, review, share, broadcast, comment on, and interact with the stories in real time.

WVW: You used to have rather lengthy excerpts from several novels or works-in-progress available via Scribd and Smashwords, but you seem to have stopped doing this. Why?

RF: Chalk this one up to learning something new every day. I thought posting excerpts would be a good way to get folks interested in a kind of “coming attractions” way. And I still think that. But recently there was a big YA conference and a lot of bloggers came back with some great feedback from the agents and publishers who were there. One of the pieces of advice was to not post long excerpts online. A few agents went so far as to say that if more than 10% of a book was posted online, they considered it “published” and no longer worth pursuing. That was a pretty big revelation to me, so I yanked all the excerpts and stick to just free, stand-alone poems and stories that I’m not trying to sell.

WVW: Writers tend to be a shy breed, but I see you racking up new “friends” on Facebook every day, almost without exception. Where are these people coming from? Are you reaching out to snag these fans somehow, or do they find you?

RF: Oh, I'm very purposeful about approaching YA authors, zombie authors, zombie readers, and YA readers as “friends.” I've been spanked numerous times by Facebook for making too many friend requests, but I can't help it. There are so many authors that write in this genre or read in it or blog about it, I just can’t resist.

More and more, though, I have been meeting “friends” through comments on my blog, folks who’ve actually reviewed ZDC, and so on. It’s really not about numbers for me, but about gathering around this great group of like-minded folks. Sometimes, I confess, it backfires. You can read one of my recent posts, Are You a Thread Killer, to see how.

WVW: To my ear, you nail the narrative style of a teen-aged girl. It sounds so natural and effortless. In reality, how much time do you spend editing this style, and who is your speech model?

RF: It’s funny, because you’re the third or fourth person to tell me that! I will say that I don’t consciously force myself to write like that, or model myself after that. I think it’s just my default setting and the voice that comes most naturally to me when I’m writing in genre. Obviously, I can’t use that voice when ghostwriting for, say, a professional nonfiction client. But most of my YA main characters are girls, and I try to be authentic in whatever world I inhabit. I really can’t explain it other than to say it just happens when I sit down to write for young adults. Not sure what that says about me…

WVW: Zombies Don’t Cry is now out on paper, but previously you seemed waist-deep in the switch to digital. Why go back to paper, and when (if ever) will you get the e-rights for that title?

RF: I am deep in digital because it’s a quick, fast, easy and free way to promote. ZDC is paperback because that’s what the publisher decided.  A lot of those decisions are made at the publisher level and are pretty much out of my hands. Likewise, my other YA supernatural titles coming up from Decadent Publishing (Ushers, Inc.) and Quake Books/Echelon (Detention of the Living Dead) will be digital-only because…that’s also the publisher’s decision.

I thought I’d be coming down in favor of one form or the other, but I’m actually surprisingly neutral about this outcome. I love seeing Zombies Don’t Cry in print. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out. But I’m also kind of anxious to see how the ebook-only titles will do, as well—how different they’ll be to promote and how the numbers shake out.

I can already kind of see two camps forming. Just in sending out review copies for ZDC, a lot of the reviewers still prefer hard copy, and you can kind of tell they frown on sending electronic ARCs, which would be more convenient, I think, and affordable for the pub.

So I can already see that getting reviewers for the ebooks might not be as easy as getting them for the print copies, so I’m looking forward to seeing if that’s actually the case. Who knows? Maybe right now I’m just dealing with print-favorable reviewers because ZDC is print. There could be a whole other set of ebook only reviewers who rock, as well. I look forward to finding out. 

It’s kind of a neat time to be publishing this way because literally half the titles will be paper and half digital. So it’s like I’ve got this great bird’s eye view of how this is all transpiring, and I get to both participate and observe.

WVW: How important do you feel it is to specialize? Your fiction shtick is YA zombies. You rarely if ever go off-topic in your blogs.  Do you worry about pigeonholing yourself?

RF: I’m a big believer in specializing, but I don’t worry about doing YA zombie books forever. For one, my next book is about vampires, and one of the ebooks is about zombies, vampires and werewolves, so…it’s a big puddle to play in. I also think there is a lot to do in this world. For me, the supernatural isn’t just about action and blood and guts, it’s always just a little at that deeper level where you get to talk about death and immortality and mortality. Young adults are at a time in their lives where they’re very open and interested in those discussions, so there is a lot to explore beyond the plot points and story lines. So even if I do get pigeonholed, it’s a good place to be pigeonholed!

Also, I used to be a middle school/high school English teacher and eventually left after eight or nine years to work for a children’s publisher. When I left, I still wanted to “teach” in some form or fashion. I felt very strongly about that. With YA, I can reach so many more kids than I might have in my classroom, and try to connect with them in a way—and talk about topics—I never could as a teacher. There is the fun, frivolous, fantastical side of YA vampires and zombies, but I also like to touch on those deeper issues of mortality, as well.

WVW: You mention using Picnik, but your cover art is totally slick. Where do you get all the assets, and do you do the editing yourself?

RF: I make all my free giveaway covers myself. (I can’t take credit for the awesomely creative and professional covers for Zombies Don’t Cry, Vamplayers or Ushers, Inc.) I typically buy a few royalty-free generic covers from www.fotolia.com at a time, say a zombie- or goth-looking person or an item, like a stack of books or a chalkboard. Then I’ll upload them to www.picnik.com, where I can manipulate them, shade them, adding snowflakes or blood splatters or whatever the title of the book calls for.

That’s nice—and economical—because I can take one zombie guy and crop it until it’s just his bloody hand and make a cover out of that, or just his T-shirt and part of his pasty white neck and use that for an entirely different cover, etc.

It’s an ongoing experiment, and since I’m not getting paid for the books or stories or whatever, I try to keep the costs down. But that’s good because it makes me be more creative about using one picture maybe four or five times. For inspiration or professionalism, I basically just look on Amazon.com a lot and see what my favorite covers look like, then try to recreate that kind of aesthetic with my own stuff.

I have a file on my desktop called “Good Covers to Emulate.” Anytime I see a great new book cover by one of my Facebook or Twitter friends, I will jack it and stick it in that file for “inspiration” later. Finally, I am proud to say that my new YA ebook for Decadent Publishing, Panty Raid @ Zombie High, will be using the original cover I designed for the excerpt so…I can officially call myself a cover designer!

WVW: I’m a huge fan of Winston Churchill. His dogged, never give up attitude is a real inspiration to me. That said, we’re all human. (OK, maybe some more than others.) Do you ever fall prey to fears, self-doubt, and the silent dread that you might someday just look at your fiction efforts and say, “Enough is enough”?

RF: That’s a very apt question as Zombies Don’t Cry is finally available and reviews are coming out and libraries are ordering and…hey, why isn’t it in the Top 100 books at Amazon.com yet? Yes, every single day I doubt that I’ll ever be able to break through that subtle barrier that exists between “below everybody’s radar” and “Oh, hey, isn’t he that zombie guy? I need to check out that book now…”

But I temper the dread with the long tail—having a slow, gradual, realistic plan to roll out a supernatural YA title or two a year, in a very specialized and hopefully branded way (sticking with zombies, vampires and werewolves), until the reviews and blurbs and covers and name recognition slowly gain momentum.

I do believe that the folks who didn’t read Zombies Don’t Cry when it first came out might be tempted to do so if they read Vamplayers and like it. Likewise, I can already see some of the folks who read ZDC kind of getting excited about Vamplayers already, so…I do believe it takes one book to sell two, and two to sell three and so on—and that’s fine.

I think too many authors just expect that magical Twilight, Harry Potter, Blink, 4-Hour Workweek thing to happen, where a book just “blows up” and makes them instant success stories. It happens, but to my way of thinking…so does winning the lottery.

I’m also sincerely doing my best every day—to write, to learn, to craft, to promote, to engage, to form relationships, to network. If it doesn’t ever catch on, well, that’s probably the universe talking to me! At least I’ll go down swinging.

WVW: If you really did read Stephen King behind your math book, then you’re very aware of how many punches you pull in doing YA. It’s all fun and games until an eye gets poked out…and squeezed…and eaten. Are we ever going to see you pull out the stops and indulge in some serious horror?

RF: I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write straight, adult horror in my “spare” time, and…I’m just not very good at it. I think the reason I keep coming back to YA again and again is because that’s where my default setting comfort zone rests. Straight horror is too hard for me. I keep writing asides and parentheticals every time something scary happens, which isn’t very effective in serious horror.

And, as an aside, what has always appealed to me about Stephen King, as a kid reading him behind math books and now as an adult reading him proudly, isn’t so much the spooky, creepy elements but his characterization and the tiny, minute details of personality that bring his characters, settings, and stories to life. That is what sticks with me about King. I remember that even from my earliest reading days.

I think the fun part about writing for teenagers, or as a teenager, is that they question everything. So when I’m riffing on how unrealistic vampires are as a teen, I can joke and laugh and snark about it, but as an adult in straight horror that’s more taboo.

WVW: I suppose one of the advantages of so much zombie work is that you can cover many efforts with a single blog, Facebook presence, and so on. But I have my technology interview collections (Architects of Tomorrow), a personal finance book now in second draft, and sci-fi/horror stories now under development. It’s all over the map, and there isn’t enough time to mount a social media focus around each of them. What should authors with similarly diverse projects do to promote without killing themselves?

RF: I was going to mention this a few questions back on the issue of being pigeonholed, but…I actually have an adult contemporary holiday romance coming out this year from Aspen Mountain Press called Claus Encounters of the 25th Kind. (Get it?) At any rate, in addition to the zombie blogging (zom-blogging?) I’m trying to build a blog/brand/social media presence around holiday romances as well. This is on top of my regular ghostwriting blog, Requested Material, so I kind of feel your pain.

Yes, there are a lot of balls in the air, but in the end it comes down to making choices, personally and professionally. Authors are businesspeople. We are entrepreneurs. We need to remember that and start thinking that way more and more often. It’s not enough just to be creative and “let it happen.” I wish it was, because the social media stuff definitely takes time away from what we’re all really here to do: write!

So, yeah, am I skipping going to the movies more often lately? Sure. Am I going down to watch TV later and later most nights? Absolutely. Am I getting up earlier and earlier to find time for all this? Yes. But…I’m also trying to keep it in perspective.

You can only do so much, so often, without going crazy and getting obsessed. You have to have down time, family time, movie time, walk time, whatever…hobby time. Not only for your health, posture, and eye sockets, but also you come back more creative. If it’s all a chore, then you start to look at the writing as a chore, and that’s not good. That’s where the patience thing comes in. You have to look at this long-term and plan and schedule accordingly.

WVW: What stands out as the single best, most personally rewarding reader moment you’ve had so far?

RF: I would call it a “collective moment” of about a dozen (and still growing) really sincere, encouraging, enthusiastic book bloggers who have reached out to me to say how much they personally enjoy reading the book and never thought of zombies as anything but blood and guts and brains. (One reviewer went so far as to say, “Rusty Fischer made me like zombies!”) That has been a collectively rewarding experience I never expected.

There is just a very active, literate, sophisticated, energetic, and encouraging network of young adult bloggers—most of whom are actually young adults—who take this stuff very seriously and actively get behind an author to help promote, network, and spread the word. I call them “cheerleaders.” They’re totally volunteers and totally engaged, and it’s very, very encouraging to see young adults respond that way. I wish there’d been blogs when I was a kid. I like to think I would have joined them!

WVW: What do you want to be when you grow up? And is this what you’ve wanted to do all along?

RF: I have been writing since I was nine. I feel like I have always been a writer, and that while I've stopped physically “growing,” I have these creative “growth spurts” that occur every few years, where I set aside the life details, the work schedule, the four movies a week and three hours of sci-fi a night and just...write.

Usually that pays off with a polished, full-length novel or two. Then I go out and get an agent and it never goes anywhere! That happened with Zombies Don't Cry, as well—polished manuscript, great agent, but...no luck at the Big 9 or so publishers.

The only difference this time is I refused to give up. I dug my heels in and worked until I found a great publisher, and here I am. Not sure where that is yet, but this is definitely my longest creative growth spurt and that is, finally, by choice!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The "Going To The Great Beyond" Book

I showed my wife the Color NOOK e-reader. It had arrived from Barnes & Noble pre-loaded with about 30 titles for the article I'm doing on ebook borrowing and lending for Smart Computing magazine. One of these titles was Sandra Boynton's "The Going to Bed Book," which we've read to our boys perhaps 100 times over the years. There were two six-year-olds in the house at this moment. Neither had shown much interest in board books for at least two or three years. But the moment that NOOK book started talking...and making sound effects...and moving...why, those boys crowded around the device like ants on a sugar cube.

The Boynton book is actually an app that runs on the Color NOOK, not a regular ebook in the device's library. When you start the app, a photograph of a bed-type scene fills the screen. On the sheet and pillow, there's a pink stuffed pig; tap it and it squeaks. At the top, there's a doodle pad; tap it and you can color on the screen with any of five virtual crayon colors (and eraser). In the middle is a page offering two options: "The big guy reads it." or "I want to read it myself." And on the right, of course, is "The Going to Bed Book." The first page of the book shows a bunch of animals on the deck of a small white ship.

As I said, I've seen that page 100 times. This was the first time I'd ever tilted the book and watched the ship pitch to the left and most of the animals slide down the deck's slope. On subsequent screens, you can turn on a water spigot to make bubbles that fly out of the bathtub. You can take a towel off a hook and throw it onto the adjacent page. You can turn on the hot water, "steam up" the NOOK's screen, and then wipe patterns into the condensation with your fingertip.

The children were riveted, laughing their heads off.

"That's it," I said to my wife. "That's the end of children's books as we've known them. Why would you buy paper when you can buy this?"

Maybe I'm really late to the game, but this was the first time I'd witnessed such a book app in the flesh. I looked up the app publisher, Loudcrow.com, and discovered that the app is already available for iPad and iPhone at $2.99 and $1.99, respectively. Check out the book's video to see how it all looks in real life. I was absolutely blown away. Why would I pay $5.99 for the board book version when I can get this for half the price? This book teaches my kid to read! You touch the word and the big guy speaks it aloud! For less than three bucks? Sold, sold, and sold.

As an independent book author and publisher myself, my next thought filled me with both wonder and dread: If this is how children's books are going to evolve, what about adult books? After all, this stuff takes money. I'm no Flash animator. This entails programming and development crews. I have enough of a challenge just trying to put together a respectable book cover in Photoshop. But this? Like right now, I'm doing a short story mixing zombies into the U.S. Civil War. If the public comes to expect interactive media with its books, how could I possibly hope to craft something even half as intricate as this Boynton project revolving around concepts such as zombies and the Civil War and still hit a price point of $2.99 or less?

Does this mean that good interactive novels will command a $9.99 price point while only half-hearted interactive attempts will hit $4.99 or less and old fashioned "static" ebooks will be capped at $1.99? (And did you think you'd see the terms "old fashioned" and "ebook" used together this soon?)

In one blog post, Joe Konrath mentions that "most publishing contracts drawn up before 2010 give interactive multimedia rights to the author." The books he's placed with conventional publishers up to present have left the publisher owning the rights to the ebook versions of his novels along with the 52.5% of the royalties on those ebooks. However, those contracts don't cover interactive multimedia versions of those books. Authors could create these app-type versions, undercut the publisher's static versions on price, and make far more profit because they retain 60% to 80% of the sale price.

I don't know how to write apps. I don't know how to write stories and books destined to become apps. I do know that, at first glance anyway, I find this NOOK Color experience far more engaging and interesting than books on my wife's Kindle. It seems clear to me that in-book interactivity will become a selling point for many if not most books in the future, but how authors will adapt to this and what it will do to the cost structure of our reading experience remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tossing Your Television: A Trend in the Making?

Is there any people in the world that love television more than Americans? As you can see, Nielsen data shows that over the past decade, the number of U.S. homes with televisions has continued to climb. In the last season, 115.9 million U.S. homes watched their television shows on, well, televisions. That marked a 98.9% penetration of TVs into American homes.

Incredibly, almost unthinkably, that number is now falling. According to just-released data from Nielsen, predictions for the next TV season (2012) place the number of homes with working TVs (defined as being able to tune in at least one channel) at 114.7 million, a penetration rate of only 96.7%.

There are a few causes for the decline, says Nielsen. The trend first started in 2009 with the arrival of both the national switch to digital television as well as the bottom of the recession. More people simply didn't have spare money for buying a digital TV, or even a digital converter box.

The third reason, however, is most telling: "Nielsen data demonstrates that consumers are viewing more video content across all platforms—rather than replacing one medium with another. However, a small subset of younger, urban consumers are going without paid TV subscriptions. Long-term effects of this are unclear, as it’s undetermined if this is also an economic issue, with these individuals entering the TV marketplace once they have the means, or the beginning of a larger shift to viewing online and on mobile devices."

Unclear? Really?

Check out this USA Today article, in which Verizon VP Shawn Strickland is quoted as saying, "Our perspective has pretty much done a 180 to a belief now that pay-TV 'cord cutting' ... will happen." Cord cutting is when people, including me, ditch their subscription TV services and get their content elsewhere, namely the Internet or over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts. My family dumped Verizon FiOS TV in 2010 and we've hardly missed it at all. We use Netflix, Redbox, OTA stations, and the public library -- and we save over $50 every month by doing so.

What did we sacrifice? Something about fancy cakes. Something about people from New Jersey with Tourette syndrome. I think there were a couple of shows about how to clean houses that should have been zoned as landfills. Everything else we thought worth watching, from cartoons to National Geographic, has been replaced at little or no cost.

There's no shortage of drivel to consume on the Internet. TVs aren't going to vanish, because we still want big screens to watch in spaces where we gather to relax and be entertained. But I believe it will be easier to find quality programming on the Internet because there's simply so much more of it, and it's all only a Web search away. How can Comcast continue to charge $5 for an on-demand show in the age of unlimited Netflix? Why should we be expected to keep paying 8% more for subscription TV every year when most of what gets added is hundreds of hours of content you have no desire to watch?

Nielsen's study shows that America needs fewer televisions because televisions are increasingly not the optimal content viewing device. We need one big screen for when we're together. Otherwise, it's the small, portable screens that will play the next generation of entertainment. And that content will not be coming from today's bloated service providers.

Quite often, I regret the Internet killing off this or that business model...but not this time.