New Novel “Solomon’s Freedom” Dramatizes Chimp Rights Controversy

2 07 2014

Should the life of a chimpanzee — particularly one taught to use language — be sacrificed to save a man’s life? That’s the provocative moral question posed by the new novel Solomon’s Freedom by Dennis Meredith.

In Solomon’s Freedom, flamboyant defense attorney Bobby Colter finds himself arguing for the life of a client Solomon's Freedom coverquite different from his usual string of miscreants. Solomon is a chimpanzee, and a unique ambassador for his species. He has been taught from infancy to express himself using a touch-screen computer. His educator and champion is Dr. Abigail Philips, a dedicated scientist who took over research on chimp intelligence after her primatologist father died.

But her laboratory is in financial peril, and billionaire media tycoon Walter Drake seems the ideal rescuer. He donates $10 million to the laboratory, in return for a seemingly innocuous stipulation. He asks for legal control of Solomon, promising to house the aging chimp comfortably in a spacious facility on his property, allowing Abby to continue her research.

That is, until Solomon’s life will be sacrificed to save Drake’s. He had an ulterior motive. Research that Drake funded on tissue engineering will enable his scientists to “harvest” Solomon’s heart to use its extracellular scaffolding to grow a new heart for the ailing mogul, from his own cells.

The success of the transplant would set a stunning precedent, encouraging the sacrifice of a thousand chimpanzees in sanctuaries for transplant donors. What’s more, Drake pledges to support preservation of wild chimpanzees and the breeding and “sustainable harvesting” of countless more for their organs.

The lawyer Colter, hired by animal rights advocate Sarah Huntington — a foe of Drake, but also his estranged mother — finds himself embroiled in the most controversial and challenging case of his career.

“Of course, I wanted to write a novel with engaging characters, surprising plot twists, and a dramatic climax,” says Meredith. “But I also wanted to write a book that explored the complex and emotional moral issues we face in deciding the fate of our closest living primate relatives.”

In researching Solomon’s Freedom, Meredith drew on chimpanzee studies by Jane Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and other researchers, and on the legal writings and advocacy by Steven M. Wise, a leading animal rights attorney. Wise and his group The Nonhuman Rights Project are currently engaged in court battles to attain “legal personhood” for chimpanzees. (Here is  a list of sources that inspired the novel.)

But the greatest influence on the novel arose from the time Meredith spent with the chimpanzees at Ohio State University’s Animal Care Center. Led by psychologist Sally Boysen, the research center was exploring the ability of chimpanzees to learn mathematical concepts.

“The experience profoundly inspired me,” says Meredith. “I’d done all this literature research on chimps, but that didn’t prepare me for the personal experience of hanging out with them — pun intended. Chimps display extraordinary intelligence in the wild, but more revelatory for me was seeing them deftly solve arithmetical problems and show other intelligent behaviors that could only be termed human-like.

“I remember sitting beside one of their outdoor cages and seeing a chimp emerge with a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up his feet and flip through its pages, uttering contented grunts. Sally told me the chimps like to look at the pictures. Of course, he was still a chimp, so he later shredded the magazine for his bedding — a sensible step, I thought.”

Meredith also drew on the results of behavioral studies by Boysen and her colleagues that revealed the depths, and limits, of chimp intelligence. In one telling experiment, Boysen and her colleagues tested whether chimps who witnessed a miniature soda can being hidden in a model of a room could find the real soda can hidden in the actual room. Some of the chimps did find the hidden cans, showing that they possessed conceptual abilities related to language.

Unfortunately for Boysen’s research, fiction turned out to follow a sad reality. The university subsequently shut down her laboratory for financial reasons and sent the animals to sanctuaries. In honor of Boysen’s chimps, Meredith named the main human characters in his novel after them.

While the fictional Solomon is adept at using language, a major question that the novel raises is whether real chimps could possibly master language. There have been studies indicating that chimps can understand and use language concepts. One such chimpanzee was Washoe, who was taught American Sign Language by researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner. In other prominent experiments, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues taught the bonobo Kanzi and others to learn some language using keyboard lexigrams.

“However, there has never been a research project like the one described in Solomon’s Freedom, in which a chimpanzee has been intensively taught from infancy over decades to communicate using the rich medium of the touch screen,” says Meredith.

“And there is some evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, have a ‘critical period’ in infancy in which they could readily absorb language,” he says.

“So, I believe it entirely possible that if language-learning were begun early enough and with the right tool and enough time, chimps could exhibit substantial language abilities. However, given the cost and time involved, I doubt there ever will be such a study — which is a shame because of the scientific insights it would yield,” says Meredith.

Dennis Meredith brings to his novels an expertise in science from his career as a science communicator at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. His nonfiction books include Explaining Research (Oxford 2010), and his previous novels are The Rainbow Virus (Glyphus, 2013) and Wormholes (Glyphus, 2013).





“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.





Self-Publishing Series: V. Key Steps to Marketing Your Book

24 07 2013

(Last of a five-part series)

Marketing your book effectively will be every bit as challenging as writing it, and you should plan on spending a comparable amount of energy and effort.

For one thing, you face the daunting reality that the rise of self-publishing has brought masses of dreck to the marketplace. Your marketing challenge is to distinguish your quality book from that dreck.

The good news is that the most effective marketing techniques are free or very inexpensive; and conversely those that are expensive, such as paid advertising, aren’t all that effective.

A strong online presence is critical to your book’s success. According to this article in The Atlantic Monthly, a Codex Group survey has found that readers are relying more and more on online media, as well as personal recommendations, to find reading material. With that in mind, here’s a sample of what I’ve found to be the easiest and most productive marketing initiatives:

Take maximum advantage of the free marketing platform that is Amazon. Write a amazon logocompelling description of your book. Here’s an article on how to do that. List your book under all the possible categories and keywords, so search results on those terms will include it. Since good reviews are critical, ask anybody who says they like your book to post an Amazon review. Get your book reviewed by Amazon’s top reviewers and other major reviewers. Here’s an article on how to solicit reviews. Activate the Look Inside feature by uploading a pdf of your book. Create an author page, with a photo, and keep it updated. For further information, here’s my article Marketing on Amazon.

Create a web site for your book. It should include full information about you and your book and where to buy it, including

  • Contact information
  • Bio
  • Sample chapters
  • Tables of contents
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
  • A feedback form and message board for comments, advice, etc.
  • A signup form for audio and/or Skype visits with book clubs. For example, see this signup page.
  • Photos of your book covers
  • Media kit, including news releases and photos
  • Video or audio of talks and interviews
  • Links to articles and reviews both about your book and what you’ve written about other topics
  • News and updates on your topic
  • Links to other useful sites
  • Reading guide to suggested books (Make money from this guide by joining the Amazon Associates program and earning a fee for books sold through your site.)
  • A link to purchase your book
  • A description of other products and services you offer

Your book site can be part of your general author web site, but it needs to be a dedicated page. You can make one web site do multiple duties by redirecting a book’s URLs to its specific page. For example, ExplainingResearch.com goes to the page on my web site about that book, TheRainbowVirus.com goes to my novel, while DennisMeredith.com goes to my home page, which changes as new books are published.

Distribute news releases on your book, and send them to appropriate media. You can produce multiple news releases, including one announcing the book, ones pegged to special dates or events relevant to your book, and ones that pitch feature angles on your book topic that might attract coverage. Post the news releases on your web site, on both the book description page and the media page.

Goodreads logoRegister as an author on the reader sites GoodReads and LibraryThing and offer copies of your book in their giveaway programs.

Post your book on the online galley site NetGalley. It’s not free, but it can be a worthwhile step to get your book noticed by reviewers, bloggers, journalists, booksellers, educators, and the media. If you’ve joined the Independent Book Publishers Association, you can take advantage of their discount listing fee of $350 for six months.

Use Facebook, Twitter, a blog and other social media to highlight your book.Social Networking for Authors  You can post periodic updates on your book’s sales and other events, and articles on your book’s subject, in which you mention your book. The book Social Networking for Authors by Michael Volkin contains a wealth of good ideas. Also, here’s  an article with some good tips on using social media and here are ten social media tips from Guy Kawasaki, author of APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) How to Publish a Book.

In his Forbes article on the new era of publishing, David Vinjamuri quotes author Robert Bidinotto, on the power of social media for authors:

Social media has been the great equalizer of advertising, promotion and marketing.  This is essentially asymmetrical warfare.  No customer going to Amazon knows what is traditionally published or independently published–and they don’t care.  They’re interested in an experience that will educate or entertain them. Social Media allow the individual author to become a personality and establish real emotional bonds with his readers. I happen to really like my readers and I deal with them online all the time. By using social media to become a personality to my readers, I have not spent one nickel in paid advertising—and I haven’t had to.

There are, of course, many more steps you can take to market your book. As outlined in part II of this series, you should read the many books, web sites, and discussion groups on self-publishing, some of which are listed in Jacqueline Simonds’ list of books on her Self-Publishers FAQ, to help you decide which steps are best for you.

Here are some other useful sources of marketing advice:

This concludes the self-publishing series. I hope it has been helpful and that my experiences help make your self-publishing adventure a rousing success!

Here are links to other articles in this series:





Self-Publishing Series: IV. Operating the Publishing Machinery

17 07 2013

(Part IV of a five-part series)

The next major step in your self-publishing adventure is to master the machinery by which a finished manuscript becomes an officially published book. Successfully taking this step means that your book will be recognized by the publishing world as a professional work.

As a novice self-publisher, I chose Createspace to produce my print and ebook novel The Rainbow Virus, for its ease of use and ready availability of its books on Amazon, which owns the service. It has also received generally favorable reviews elsewhere. When I checked discussion group commentary on Createspace, I found only rare negative comments, and many positive ones. Also, self-publishing expert Aaron Shepard recommends Createspace for self-publishers just starting out. Although I found Createspace’s instructions easy to follow, for authors looking for more guidance, Chris McMullen’s A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers appears to be the best resource.

Another self-publishing platform worth considering IngramSpark. It’s operated by the book distributor Ingram, which owns LightningSource, and aims to make the LightningSource service more accessible to self-publishers.

I found the Createspace interface to be clear and intuitive, and the service Amazon Createspace logoresponsive. For example, files were processed and proof copies shipped quickly. Edits to data such as book descriptions were also quickly processed. And publication on Amazon was fast. Also, the interface features a smooth pathway to publication of a Kindle ebook.

A caution, however: Createspace is heavily automated, so you should watch for glitches. For one thing, the service may adjust the layout to meet its requirements without telling you, so always order a proof copy to check. For example, when our designer made the gutter margin on The Rainbow Virus a bit too narrow, Createspace overcompensated and shifted the text too far the other way, producing off-center text on the page. Only when my wife Joni noticed this glitch in the proof copy could we correct it with a new layout.

As discussed in the previous post, proofreading at all levels is critical. Even at a final proof level, you will detect typos and higher-level errors in dialog, continuity, and fact that weren’t apparent at earlier stages. Not until the proof stage of my novels did I realize that a character holstered his pistol twice in one scene; that he took off his jacket one moment, only to have it on the next; that Neptune didn’t have a hydrogen ocean; and that I had misnamed an area of San Diego where scenes were set.

BowkerLinkborderA critical step in making the publishing world aware of your book is registering your book with Bowker—the publishing industry’s central provider for bibliographic information, ISBNs and other services. Fortunately, Bowker has created a web site for self-published authors that will guide you through this critical process. Three major pieces of advice:

  • Purchase your own ISBNs from Bowker, rather than using those supplied by a publisher. Owning the ISBNs means you are the publisher of record and retain all rights to your book. Some unscrupulous POD publishers will restrict those rights if you use their ISBN.
  • Enter every bit of metadata possible into Bowker. These are the data about your book that are fed to search engines, libraries, and bookstores—both bricks-and-mortar and online. Besides the expected data, such as title, format, price, etc., you can also enter detailed descriptions of your book and upload the entire manuscript for keywording.
  • Be sure to upload a cover image. Your listing will look amateurish without one.

Finally, if you publish a print book, you’ll want to register your book with the Library of Congress and send them copies.

Now that you’re published, your marketing effort—which you should have begun planning when you began writing—will shift into high gear. The final post in this series will cover some key marketing steps.

Here are links to the other articles in this series:





Self-Publishing Series: III. Choosing How to Self-Publish

10 07 2013

(Part III of a five-part series)

Once you’ve done your homework and committed to self-publish, you’ll next want to decide the level of investment in time and money you’re willing to make. Your alternatives range from zero-cost—creating a Kindle and Smashwords ebook yourself—to expensive professional production of a print and ebook.

In choosing how to self-publish, recall the point from part I of this series that “You don’t make money from a book; you make money because of a book.” If you keep in mind what financial benefits—direct and indirect—you expect from the book, it will help greatly in choosing whether to spend nothing, a little, or a lot on publishing.

The free ebook

Let’s start with zero-cost self-publishing; that is, using the built-in Kindle and Smashwords tools to produce your own cover and format your own ebook.MyeCoverMaker For example, here’s the cover creator offered by Kindle; and the ebook Do It Yourself: Book Covers is a useful guide to producing both print and ebook covers using the GIMP image editing program. Also, the web site Fiverr is an inexpensive source of ebook covers. Here’s a useful blog post on how to design your own ebook cover using MyEcoverMaker. (Note that the blog post has the incorrect name and link.)

To get a good overview of the Kindle publishing process, read author Paul Jun’s The Ultimate Guide to Publishing Your eBook on Amazon’s Kindle Publishing Platform.

While the money cost of do-it-yourself cover and interior design is little or nothing, you’ll expend considerable time to do it right. You have to be willing to learn the tools, and to spend the necessary time designing the cover and doing the layout. And unless you are a highly adept designer, it’s almost certain the result will not be as good as having a professional do the work. I could never have achieved the quality look for my novel’s ebook that my professional formatter did.

Nevertheless, there is a place for do-it-yourself ebooks. If you are testing your ideas and your writing with a limited, friendly audience, a do-it-yourself approach can be appropriate. Also, if you don’t really expect much of a direct or indirect payback from your book, it makes more sense to do it yourself. However, in settling for a homemade product, remember that your Kindle and Smashwords ebook will be publicly available, and a poorly produced ebook can damage your brand.

The professionally designed ebook

By spending in the hundreds of dollars, you can have your ebook professionally done, with a quality cover and layout. A professional-quality ebook is preferable if you want to preserve your brand, and you expect some benefit from your ebook. For example, it’s entirely possible to make money from an ebook, with no print counterpart.

Ebooks are definitely on the rise, given their affordability, convenience, and instantaneous universal availability. In 2011, Amazon reported it was selling more ebooks than print books, and this upward trend will continue. As author Warren Adler puts it in a Huffington Post article “. . . despite the joyful optimism of print book lovers, there can be no denying the impact of the digital reader, whether in the form of a feature or app on a tablet, cell phone, desktop or whatever device the future will bring. Like it or not, the printed book as an economic model is in the process of unraveling.”

However, this unraveling is by no means complete. Despite increasing ebook sales, print books remain important, both in market terms and in terms of an author’s image. As self-publishing guru Dan Poynter says, “Some writers plan to publish digitally only—to save money. This is a mistake. If you publish an ebook, you are perceived as a writer. If you publish a [paper book], you are regarded as an author. Paper books are retained; files disappear in a click.”

Indeed, a recent reader survey by the publisher O’Reilly found that print books are still the major format. The survey of 500 readers found that 40 percent still buy print books, while 26 percent buy ebooks, and 37 percent buy both.

The do-it-yourself print book

The next point along the self-publishing spectrum is producing a do-it-Createspace logoyourself print book, along with your ebook. As with do-it-yourself ebooks, the advantage is that  for no significant publishing fee you can produce a print book through the print on demand companies Createspace, Lightning Source, or through Ingram’s new self-publishing service IngramSpark. Ingram is the largest wholesaler in North America and owner of LightningSource, and IngramSpark is aimed at giving self-publishers an easier route to using LightningSource.

However, as with do-it-yourself ebooks, the disadvantage is that your print book will not present the same quality as a professionally produced book. Indeed, Guy Kawasaki, author of APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) How to Publish a Book  in this article on mistakes self-publishers make lists a key error as designing your own cover. That said, if you are determined to create your own book cover, the ebook Do It Yourself: Book Covers, mentioned above, looks to be a good guide.

In my opinion, it’s also a mistake to try to design and lay out your own interior. Unless you are either a professional designer, or willing to learn professional-level book design, your layout will look amateurish.  This article by book designer Michele DeFilippo lays out the advantages of professional design, and this article compares amateur and professionally designed interiors. Also, see this article on the standards for book typography,, which illustrates the complexity of producing a truly professional-looking book. As the author Dave Bricker, says, “Like quality writing, professional typography is crafted line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page, and chapter-by-chapter; there are no shortcuts.” And as Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print of Self Publishing, so pithily puts it, “He who designs his own cover or interior has a fool for a designer.”

The professional print book/ebook

So, for a cost in the thousands of dollars, you can commission a professional print and ebook cover and interior design and layout. Such a considerable investment makes sense if you plan to publish more than one novel, or if the market for your nonfiction book is significant. And, it makes sense if your book will be a significant part of your professional brand. This article by author services provider Miral Sattar, “The Real Costs of Self-Publishing a Book,” illustrates the range of potential costs for a professionally published book. And while it is generally accurate, you should read the comments following the article to get a sense of the sometimes contentious issues involved in pricing publishing services.

Don’t try to save money by going to a so-called “print-on-demand publisher.” They typically promise that for only hundreds of dollars, youFine print cover can self-publish a quality book. However, in book design, as with just about everything else, you get what you pay for. Such books are more likely to look amateurish, in both their covers and their interiors. Many of these publishers — for example, Arbor Books, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and PublishAmerica — are notorious for producing lower-quality books and/or gouging authors. All of them make their money charging authors, rather than selling books. True, some are quite adequate if you plan to publish a book for family and friends. However in any case, before you get into bed with any of these companies, read The Fine Print of Self Publishing, which offers an independent assessment of the publishers and their costs. The book also includes an excellent primer on self-publishing. To get a sense of their tactics, see this blog post on the class action lawsuit against Author Solutions, the parent company of AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and many other POD publishers.

There are, however, many reputable design firms that can produce a quality product. I used 1106Design to design the cover and interior layout and do the ebook formatting for my novels. Here’s the Independent Book Publishers Association list of book designers. and a list of recommended designers by self-publishing guru Dan Poynter.

For print-on-demand production, I’ve used both Lightning Source and Createspace. The former is less author-friendly and requires that you be listed as a publisher, rather than an author. Thus, it provides little hand-holding. In contrast I found Createspace to be a responsive, author-friendly publisher that automatically lists my books on Amazon, which owns it. While publishing on Createspace is free if you provide your cover and layout, they also sell design and other services. However, in his book Levine ranks Createspace as only “pretty good,” while others, such as BookLocker and Infinity Publishing are listed as “outstanding.”Createspace’s services were also criticized on the Yahoo self-publishing group as being unresponsive because—probably like those of other POD publishers—they are outsourced to anonymous designers, not allowing the author the opportunity to choose his/her own designer, or to work with the designer directly.

Editing and proofing

Regardless of how you self-publish, you should strive to make your copy as perfect as it can possibly be. This means quality copy-editing and obsessive proofreading over and over and over until you are totally sick of looking at your book. Then proof it again. Even the most trivial errors damage the credibility of your non-fiction book, and for novels pull readers right out of the story you’re trying to tell.  One such thorough editing and proofing approach is detailed in this blog post by author K.M. Weiland.

The Rainbow VirusHaving a professional proofreader doesn’t let you off the hook. For my novels, our proofreader found a great many errors that we missed. But we found many errors that she missed. And the proofing needs to be done over and over. We typically go through about nine drafts of each novel, and we still catch nagging errors even in the last proof. The classic case was my discovery of the backwards phrase “she drew lungs into her air,” in a late proof of The Rainbow Virus. Also, even a professional copy editor may miss higher-level conceptual or structural errors in your book.

It’s also important to proofread all the way from the draft to the printed proof copy. We tried to submit the most perfect Word file possible to the designer. Even then, we found errors in the layout and still more in the proof copy. New errors just seemed to jump out at each step along the way. And they were high-level errors. As late as the proof copy, we found dialog that didn’t make sense and errors of logic and continuity that we hadn’t seen before.

So, now that you’ve decided how to publish, your next challenge will be mastering the machinery that turns your book from manuscript into an officially published book. That seemingly daunting process is the subject of the next installment.

Here are links to the other articles in this series:





Self-Publishing Series: II. Preparing Yourself to Self-Publish

3 07 2013

(Part II of a five-part series)

Unless you’re willing to do an enormous amount of homework and preparation to learn the process and business of self-publishing, you’ll waste your time and money. You’ll also likely damage your brand as an author.

As Marion Gropen, a leading expert on independent publishing, puts it:

One consistent theme throughout my career has been that there are two types of new authors/publishers. The first looks at our business, sees skilled professionals working hard, realizes that there is complexity and does his or her homework. He or she learns the ropes, and the best ways to get from barebones basics to the goalposts. . .

The OTHER type of newbie decides that he/she already knows all that is necessary. After all, this is a very simple task, and if it’s not, well that’s because the dinosaurs at the legacy publishers don’t know how to do things in the new world. . .

The first type is frequently successful. The second usually spends a ton of money and time and gets almost nothing for it. And the old hands who tried to help watch in sadness. . . .

Please, be the first type, and not the second. I’m tired of breaking my heart watching lemmings run off of cliffs.

(Here’s Gropen’s hard-nosed essay on whether you should self-publish.)

Also read author James Altucher’s excellent, insightful (and funny!) post  21 Things You Need to Know About Self-Publishing 2.0.

So, this post will aim at helping you prepare to self-publish and to face theComplete Guide to Self-Publishing hard realities of the challenge—and the adventure—you’re about to undertake. It will be a relatively short post, recommending the resources I used in my preparation. If you do your homework right, exploring the resources listed below, you’ll end up with a shelf full of books, subscriptions to a number of e-mail lists and much more insight into publishing.

Fortunately, others have done much of the work for me. For example, here is publisher Jacqueline Simonds’ excellent Self-Publisher’s FAQ  and list of books. And here is novelist August Wainwright’s 50 Best Sites for Indie and Self-Published Authors. I emphatically recommend you spend a great deal of time exploring the recommended books, discussion groups, web sites, and other resources on self-publishing. Of these many resources, here are a few that I’ve found particularly helpful:

Finally, there are the 16 articles I’ve written for the Marketing & Publishing Resource on the web site of the National Association of Science Writers. These cover just about all I’ve learned about self-publishing.

Here are links to the other articles in this series:





Self-Publishing Series: I. Making the Decision

26 06 2013

Self-publishing is becoming an ever more viable option for authors, given the erosion of commercial publishing, economic print-on-demand technologies, and the marketing power of Amazon and other online bookstores.

Since I’m both a self-published and commercially published author, I thought it would be helpful to share my experience, as well as the resources I’ve found useful.

Here are links to the other articles in the series:

As to my experience, my most recent commercially published book is Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010). As an initial experiment in self-publishing, my wife Joni and IExplaining Research produced a supplementary booklet Working with Public Information Officers.

Now we’re in the process of self-publishing my novels, the first being The Rainbow Virus, which came out in February 2013 under our imprint, Glyphus. We’ve also published Wormholes and Solomon’s Freedom, and will soon publish The Cerulean’s Secret.

I’m also collaborating on a nonfiction book, tentatively titled Mysterious Baby, with my pediatrician daughter, Dr. Wendy Hunter. It will explore the exotic physiology of infants and what parents need to know to avoid being scared witless by the weird “symptoms” babies exhibit as a result of that physiology.

Commercial publishing: advantages and frustrations

I’ve had positive and negative experiences with both commercial and self-publishing, and I hope those experiences will help you make the decision. First, my commercial publishing experience:

Working with Oxford was generally a positive experience. The publisher provided excellent manuscript editing, visibility, and the imprimatur and distribution of a prestigious academic publisher.

But there was a downside, experiences that seem to be par for the course in commercial publishing these days. First, came the frustrating contract negotiations, in which their initial contract gave them everything, including the kitchen sink. Perhaps most outrageous was a clause in which they reserved the right to hire another writer—with the fee deducted from my royalties—to do another edition if they wanted one and I didn’t.

The royalties were also terrible; Oxford has adopted a policy now common among publishers to pay royalties on net sales rather than gross sales, significantly reducing royalties. Net royalties are paid based on publishers’ income after deducting production costs; gross royalties are higher because they are based on the retail price. I had to hire a lawyer to negotiate more reasonable terms, although the advance and royalties remained very low.

Perhaps more of a negative for me was the lack of editorial control—which is standard and understandable, given that the publisher is taking the financial risk. This control resulted in a less attractive book. For example, Oxford chose a boring “academic” cover design, even though I provided them with an excellent, dynamic alternative, designed by a professional book cover designer. And, Oxford decided the book needed to be cut by 10,000 words, which meant cutting out a useful section on working with public information officers. Finally, I was disappointed in the index, which was done by an indexer the publisher recommended, but paid for by me. I ended up having to considerably revise that index.

My ultimate decision to self-publish also reflected the fact that I had to do the vast majority of marketing myself, which is also standard in publishing today. And, since Joni and I already knew how to manage the other major component, the editorial process, why not self-publish? What’s more, given the sad economic state of commercial publishing, particularly fiction, the reality was that my novels would likely not see the light of day unless I self-published them.

What finally tipped the balance in favor of self-publishing my novels was my frustrating experience with the unnamed publisher to whom I submitted The Cerulean’s Secret. While the editors responded positively to the book, it took years to go through the frustrating process of submitting initial chapters, more chapters, the full manuscript, and waiting a year for any further response. Finally, although they had indicated that the novel had been recommended for publication, they simply stopped responding to my queries.  This stunningly slow, even unprofessional,  process may well be standard and familiar to veteran authors. However, it exhausted my patience.

A gratifying self-publishing experiment

Working with Public Information OfficersAlso, by this time, my experiment in self-publishing Working with Public Information Officers had shown me how easy it was. I used LightningSource, which is the largest print-on-demand producer. Not only did I have complete editorial and production control, the economics worked well. I priced the booklet at $10, gave Amazon a 20 percent discount, and thus made $8 per copy. Since the booklet’s publication, I’ve received a steady but very small income. However, I didn’t mean for the experiment to make money. I purposely “sabotaged” print sales, in that I posted the entire content online, because I wanted people to have access to the text. For my novels, however, I’ve used CreateSpace for reasons I’ll cover in the post, Operating the Publishing Machinery.

I’m not totally soured on commercial publishing. The advantages of broad distribution and the imprimatur of a commercial publisher are why I will almost certainly seek a commercial publisher for Mysterious Baby.

However, whether self- or commercially publishing, authors must face the hard financial reality that you will not likely make significant income, even with a bestseller. For example, a Nielsen Bookscan study of sales of 1,200,000 books found that only 2.1 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. The vast majority, 79 percent, sold less than 99 copies. Even a “bestseller” won’t bring riches, as described in this article by novelist Patrick Wensink.

To cite a widely quoted maxim in publishing: you won’t make money from a book; you’ll make money because of a book. That is, think of your book as a means of enhancing your brand as a writer/expert. Nonfiction books can build your reputation, lead to writing assignments, and give the opportunity to make money teaching workshops in your subject. I’ve made much more money from my communication workshops for scientists than I have from Explaining Research.

And for novels, building a brand means publishing multiple novels and working to create a following such that readers of one novel will buy others.

A self-publishing trend

My decision to self-publish is very much in line with the times. For example, Guy Kawasaki author of APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) How to Publish a Book—has listed these “Top Ten Reasons to Self-publish Your Book.”

Self-publishing is also very much the wave of the future, contends David Vinjamuri in his overview of the publishing industry, “Publishing is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books—And That’s a Good Thing.” Vinjamuri predicts that “. . . mainstream authors who don’t reach the blockbuster sales of Brad Thor or Sue Grafton—but have an established audience—will choose the favorable economics of Indie publishing.” He also points out that “authors like Edgar-winning mystery author Lawrence Block and Margaret Muir have already embraced indie publishing for the obvious economic benefits.  There are also many authors who started as self-publishers and are making a solid living in Indie-land.”

Here are other recent articles on the subject:

However, there are major cautions that should be added to these writers’ upbeat views of self-publishing: In your marketing, you will be trying to distinguish your book from masses of self-published dreck and battling the still-questionable image of self-published authors—although some of this may be sour grapes, as pointed out by Debra Holland in this blog post.

The decision and the process are complex; and I hope this series helps you to decide whether to self-publish, and if you do, to successfully navigate those complexities.








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