How to make plot ideas pop into your head

15 08 2017

Novelists are often asked how they get their plot ideas. I get many of the plots for my science thrillers to pop into my noggin from extensive reading about science and technology. However, sometimes the idea will come before any research, often as little more than a phrase or sentence. I’ve found “What if…?” questions to be the most fruitful.

My first published novel, The Cerulean’s Secret, arose from the simple question “What if there was a blue cat?” The notion nagged and nagged at me, until I started spinning a plot around it. I realized the plot had to revolve around genetic engineering, so I began doing research, coming up with lots of articles that helped form the plot. As with all my novels, I included a list of those sources on my web site.

Similarly, The Rainbow Virus started with “What if there was a virus that turned people colors?” The plot and details from that novel also grew from research that I ultimately posted on my web site.

Authors have also gotten their ideas from some odd phrase or sentence that somehow pops up when their mind is wandering. My advice: let it linger! My favorite story is how J.R.R. Tolkien got the first idea for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was grading student essays at the time.

“I’d got an enormous pile of exam papers there and was marking school examinations in the summer time, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring,” he recalled in an interview. One paper had a page left blank.

“So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’” At that point Tolkien had no idea what a hobbit even was. But to the enormous benefit of readers worldwide, he let the idea blossom!

For me, sometimes it’s a passage in an article I’ve read that sparks a plot. For example, the idea for The Neuromorphs arose from two quotes. In 2014, Science magazine quoted computer researcher Todd Hylton as saying “We think robotics is the killer app for neuromorphic computing.” Of course, Hylton didn’t literally mean killer robots, but the idea stayed in my head that the kind of robots based on brain-like neuromorphic circuitry could somehow become lethal.

The kicker that really launched the plot was a chilling passage from an article on artificial intelligence by Jason Tanz in Wired magazine:

“With machine learning, the engineer never knows precisely how the computer accomplishes its tasks. The neural network’s operations are largely opaque and inscrutable. It is, in other words, a black box. And as these black boxes assume responsibility for more and more of our daily digital tasks, they are not only going to change our relationship with technology—they are going to change how we think about ourselves, our world, and our place within it.”

Of course, I needed a plot to go with those ideas, so I decided on a theme that no safeguards against artificially intelligent robots escaping control could protect against human greed and depravity. I found lots of good resources to help formulate a plot to support that theme.

In that plot, Russian mobsters bribe the chief programmer of a company that makes lifelike androids to alter the operating systems of androids belonging to wealthy people. Those androids would then kill their owners, be re-engineered to mimic them, take their place, and loot their wealth for the mobsters.

Sometimes, though, it won’t be articles I’ve read, but technology-related experiences that trigger a plot idea. The plot for my latest novel, The Happy Chip, arose when I realized how extensively companies like Facebook and Google were compiling data on my personal habits. That data, I realized, could evolve into a form of control. I wondered “What if people could have chips implanted that would give them data on themselves?” From there, the plot evolved in which corrupt company executives transform data chips into control chips.

My plot-conceiving technique has worked incredibly well. I now have 20 novel plots lined up and more coming. Now, I just have to write the books!

“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, goes to the page on my web site about that book, goes to my novel, while 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 Rainbow Virus, Wormholes,  Solomon’s Freedom, and The Cerulean’s Secret.

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. They still offer advantages of broad distribution and the imprimatur of a commercial publisher.

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.

Presidential Politics Neglecting Science: Seeing a Silver Lining

14 10 2012

As the presidential candidates and their surrogates pound away at each other in the final weeks of the campaign, science is almost never mentioned. The candidates only rarely cover such critical issues as global warming and biomedical research funding, aside from the highly commendable effort by Science Debate 2012 to elicit answers from the candidates to key science-related questions (must reading for any voter).  This Science article contains a good analysis of the candidates’ positions (subscription required).

While many see this neglect as something of a dark cloud looming over science—a view with which I certainly agree—I also see a silver lining that should be taken into account, and in fact taken advantage of.

Obviously, the candidates don’t spend much time talking about science and technology because there’s more vote-getting mileage in haranguing each other about the economy, health care and slips-of-their-silver-tongues.

But another major reason for their relative silence on science is that science and technology constitute Mom-and-apple-pie issues. The public likes and respects science and scientists. As NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators has consistently shown, the public strongly supports scientific research and has confidence in the scientific leadership. And public polls, such as this Harris Poll and this one consistently rank scientists as among the most prestigious and trusted professionals. So, scientists and science supporters shouldn’t worry so much about the paucity of science discussion by the candidates during the election.

But we should worry very very deeply about what happens to science budgets and science-related issues after the election. For example, this report from the AAAS highlights the damage that sequestration could do to R&D budgets.

After the election is the time to take advantage of the silver lining—the public’s support and respect  for science and scientists—to launch a concerted campaign not only to support science and technology budgets, but to advocate for rational science policy on such critical issues as global warming.

Fortunately, there is a legion of science advocacy groups that can help any scientist willing to invest in such a communication effort. (See this list from the Explaining Research references and resources.)

Scientists can also educate themselves about the history and nature of the political neglect of science by reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s articulate and compelling book Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America (Rodale, 2011). Otto is co-founder and CEO of Science Debate.

Otto argues persuasively that scientists must see themselves as a force for political good:

Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, many scientists today see their role to be the creation of knowledge and believe they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical because it takes nothing on faith.

Otto declares that because of science’s relentless reliance on experiment and data, “science is inherently antiauthoritarian and a great equalizer of political power.”

Certainly, scientists would prefer to spend their time doing research, which is more fun than testifying before congressional committees or buttonholing legislators. But choosing not to invest time in advocacy means yielding the political arena to what New York Times reporter Timothy Egan has dubbed The Crackpot Caucus. As Egan so pithily puts it

On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

And this ignorance is not just evident in a general sampling of  legislators, but in the members of the House Science Committee itself, as detailed in this Wired Science article by Brandon Keim, “Todd Akin and the Anti-Science House Science Committee.” Writes Keim of Akin,

. . . a man who, to put it gently, ignores what science tells us about how babies are made, helps shape the future of science in America. It would be shocking, but for the fact that many of the committee’s GOP members have spent the last several years displaying comparable contempt for climate science.

Ironically, scientists have a far greater level of public support and respect than does  the Congress that decides the fate of their research budget. Not to use that “silver lining” to its fullest extent risks damaging not only scientific careers and scientific research, but the very economic health and intellectual vitality of the nation.

Multimedia E-books: Immersive or Subversive?

15 04 2012

It’s a troubling, even agonizing, question: How will authors who are crafters of text cope with the new era of multimedia e-books? For me, three recent articles brought that question into greater focus:

Knapp’s and Wattercutter’s articles cover how publishers are aggressively launching e-books as multimedia apps. Knapp cites three as exemplars of the features of multimedia e-books:

  • NAL’s “amplified” edition of Atlas Shrugged, which besides text Atlas Shrugged screenshotcontains video and audio of Rand, personal letters, original manuscript pages and notes, an illustrated timeline of author’s life and works, and an interactive quiz. The e-book also allows readers to share passages with others.
  • The narrated and interactive children’s book The Gift
  • The “novel” Chopsticks, which is the most non-linear of the three. It’s not a narrative story, but a collection of newspaper clippings, songs, and other paraphernalia that together paint a picture of a teenaged pianist and the boy next door.

A fourth example, The World of Richelle Mead, is not even a book, but a “free community powered, enhanced e-reading experience.” It’s more of a social media platform by which readers can buy the author’s books and interact with the author and each other.

Knapp quotes producers and authors both pro and con on the value of such e-books. For example, he quotes multimedia e-book producer Ian Karr as saying “Just as there can be stream of consciousness in writing, there can be a ‘stream of literacy’ in reading, where reading one thing lights the fire to start something new. The bottom line is just providing that richer experience.”

On the other hand, author Jay Bell declares “The more I think about it though, the more these ‘enhancements’ are probably too intrusive and will potentially get in the way of the story.”

And multimedia e-book author Andrea J. Buchanan declares in Knapp’s article “First and foremost, I’m a reader . . . So I want an immersive experience. As a writer, I was really conscious of respecting that. I didn’t want to put stuff in there because I could—I wanted to support and enhance the story.”

ChopsticksIn the most radical view of e-books, Wattercutter quotes e-book publisher Panio Gianopoulos as envisioning a far more social experience. Writes Wattercutter,

For instance, secret chapters could be unlocked as a person’s friends read a book. [Gianopoulos] foresees readers using a reddit-like model to up-vote characters or storylines they enjoy, or publishers forming partnerships with Foursquare that could reveal clues to readers who check in at certain locations. “Multimedia is more than a tie-in—done right it becomes a new kind of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one else has even thought of yet. . .

However, in a powerful argument for the preeminent value of text, Paul’s New York Times article reveals why unadorned prose is such a powerful medium. She reports studies of the effects of reading on brain activity, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of readers’ brains. The researchers found that reading a text narrative activates not only the language regions of the brain. It also activates sensory-processing regions associated with the description being read. For example, reading descriptions of odors activates the olfactory cortex; and descriptions of textures activates the region that processes touch sensation. Similarly, descriptions of motion or activity stimulate the motor cortex that processes movements such as grasping and running.

Paul also cites fMRI studies showing that the “reading brain” treats scenes of characters interacting as if the reader was experiencing those interactions.

To me, these findings strongly suggest that integrating video, audio and interaction into e-books may not be immersive—keeping the reader engaged in a story. Rather, they might be subversive—distracting readers from the rich internal world that prose can construct within the reader’s mind.

I contend that prose has an “idea density” that video and audio do not. I also believe that prose has an “emotional density” that can be more deeply affecting than that of visual media. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s deep love of reading offers an excellent example of the lure of prose. She becomes so engrossed in text that she reads books while walking and must be guided to avoid lampposts and fellow pedestrians. When I watch her read, I see a young mind totally immersed in the realm of the written word. E-books’ interactivity, sound tracks, and video, it seems to me, would distract from that engagement.

I also worry that interactive children’s books such as The Gift will compromise teaching The Giftchildren to love reading. The interactive process might distract from the warm, intimate environment created when a parent (or grandparent!) reads to a child—an environment that will form a deep-seated enjoyment of reading.

I’m not arguing that multimedia e-books have no place in publishing. The added features of the amplified Atlas Shrugged do not intrude on the prose and offer new pathways for exploring the book’s history. And clearly, video and animation could enhance how-to books and textbooks.

But to repeat the question raised at the beginning of this post, how should authors cope with the issue, some would say specter, of multimedia e-books?

It’s an immediate issue for me, because I’m involved with both fiction and non-fiction projects. One of my science fiction novels is now under consideration by a commercial publisher. And I’m co-authoring a non-fiction book—tentatively titled Mysterious Baby—with my daughter, emergency room pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter, on the exotic physiology of infants.

So as a fiction author, should I offer publishers music and sound effects to accompany my book, as produced by the Booktrack service? Should I develop links to videos or background about my characters, the novel’s setting, or the technology it depicts? My current position is that I will ignore creating such content. I will concentrate solely on making the written story as compelling and rich as possible. If the publisher wants multimedia for the e-book version, a rather intense negotiation will ensue.

On the other hand, the Mysterious Baby nonfiction book might represent a stronger case for such multimedia. For example, parents might be greatly relieved by seeing video of a newborn in the throes of  harmless-but-scary involuntary jitters called benign myoclonus. It’s no more dangerous than hiccups, and seeing such a video might make it less likely that parents will rush their jittery baby to the emergency room.

But in writing this nonfiction book, I will also ignore the eventuality that it may become a multimedia e-book. Given the cost of such productions, the doubtful profitability of multimedia e-books, and the turmoil of constantly evolving e-book formats and readers, for now I’ll concentrate on writing, thank you very much.

“Marketing for Scientists” Charts a Path to Success

1 04 2012

The new book Marketing for Scientists belongs, not on every scientist’s bookshelf, but on their desk! It’s a useful, savvy guide for scientists on how to market their work and themselves, to the benefit of their career, their field, and science in general.

As author Marc Kuchner points out, scientists certainly need to learn marketing, given the uphill battle they face in publishing papers, winning grants, and getting jobs. And society needs scientists to market science, given such adversaries as climate change and evolution deniers, and those who cling to the dangerous myth that vaccines cause autism.

Wisely, Kuchner begins the book by correcting the misconception that “marketing” is a dubious business of selling snake oil. That’s an outdated definition of the word, he points out, offering a new definition that any scientist would be comfortable with:

Marketing is the craft of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways to meet them.

Few scientists realize it, but they are already “marketing” each time they talk to a colleague, publish a paper, deliver a talk, or do just about any other communication. However, in my opinion, the vast majority are abysmally poor at these communications, because they do not heed Kuchner’s definition and consider the needs of their “customers.”

For example, he points out that the very basic concept of giving good customer service is an invaluable marketing tool. This service can be as basic as answering emails and phone calls promptly, and arriving at meetings on time.

However, Kuchner’s techniques extend far beyond etiquette coaching. He explains strategies for turning people who have never heard of your work into advocates. And again, it’s not snake-oil-selling he advocates, but clear honest communications and building relationships. He points out that “There are walls between universities, walls between research groups, walls between one scientist and another.” He asserts that “Each wall between scientific subcultures can only be penetrated by a real, organic human relationship.”

He also offers sound advice on “branding”—another word that might give scientists pause. But he uses the modern definition of branding as “the set of all expectations consumers have about a company or product.” And his strategies aim at helping scientists build their brand; achieving a reputation for creativity and quality. What scientist could possibly object to that!

In his book, Kuchner parses “customers” whom scientists are trying to reach—e.g. students, junior scientists, senior scientists, funding agency staff, and press officers—and details their concerns and how to meet them.

Kuchner also offers practical marketing techniques for getting job offers, writing proposals, producing papers, benefiting from conferences, giving talks, and using email and the internet effectively. And again, these techniques are based on communication skills, not on the old concept of marketing as crass salesmanship.

He also offers excellent insight into communicating science to the public and to legislators, and to marketing science itself to a public that all-too-often harbors wrongheaded myths about science and scientists.

As a final summary “cheat sheet,” he offers a list of marketing tips for scientists. Here are a few choice ones:

  • When you communicate with people, use their names.
  • Carry a prop; tell a story.
  • Everyone is wondering What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)
  • Creating new research questions is as good for your career as answering old ones.
  • Promote your Signature Research Idea and it will promote you; promote the idea, not yourself.
  • Focus your research; become the go-to person in your subfield.
  • Make videos about your work and put them online.