[Guest Post] Self-Pub Corner: I’m Choosing CreateSpace

In the next month, I am going to self-publish my second manuscript of poetry. Pop the champagne cork. Reserve a balcony suite on Hollywood Blvd. This LA writer is going to be hob-nobbing with the big dogs, because with this forthcoming second book, I will not be a one-hit wonder. I will have arrived.

Or I would, if poetry in any way counted like novels do. If I could count on more than 50 sales in a year. This is not sarcasm, just a careful reminder that this article comes from the concerns of a poet. And this poet, after a week of research, decided to launch her second title out by way of CreateSpace.

In 2011, I published my first book, Letters From Nowhere, on Lulu.com. My experience with the publishing process with Lulu was relatively painless.

Lulu offered to walk me through the layout process with templates, offered to convert word files into pdfs, gave me the option to generate a cover in separate pieces. I turned down all of the hand-holding options. Lulu’s templates for poetry–centered lines–were off-putting. Nearly all well-designed books of literary poetry favor left-justified, ragged-right formats. On top of that, my book called for different page layouts: some poems were justified blocks (prose poems); many were left-justified; a few required specific stanzas layouts.

Poetry is just as much experienced as a visual object as it is read as a text. So these layout details mattered. Lulu gave me the option to do everything myself and upload a completed pdf once the manuscript was completed.

Once the book was uploaded, it only took about two weeks to finalize the details on Lulu, receive a proof copy (and then receive another proof-copy when I discovered the cover was pixellated badly, rushed to me), and set the book for its final edition. I received a smattering of sales, cut my first royalty payment through Paypal.com, and spent my hard-earned cash on fountain pens and their attendant catalogs. Fountain pen catalogs, it should be noted, are questionable erotica to me.  Basically, I turned the cash from my first book into gratification money.

I was getting paid. I was happy with my service at Lulu.com. The book listed on Amazon.com after a couple of weeks. But after the opening burst of sales, the title went silent. There were no online sales in the last two quarters of the year. The Lulu store is not set up to sell to poets. And in all due deference to fellow poets on Lulu, their “bestselling” titles were pretty dreadful.

What I found was that I was making more sales directly. I would buy copies from Lulu, and sell to people in person. Poetry has long been a market between beggars. At poetry slam events, books get sold to other poets. Readings set up for the author, ones that actually attract attendees, can move a lot of merchandise. Selling copies from an author website–through mailed checks, requested works, old school commerce–happens more than rarely.

Amazon, on the other hand, made me a grand total of two sales.

For this shiny new manuscript, I decided to do a little research on my self-publishing options. Ebook publishers only like Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing were immediately struck from the list. My main business has been hand-to-hand sales, and an ebook doesn’t suit that type of commerce. I reconsidered Lulu.com for its good service to me, but with its author copies for a skinny 96 page chapbook at more than 6 dollars a pop, I knew I could do better.

The self-pub blogosphere raved about two options: CreateSpace and Lightning Source. The best review of the three options side-by-side is from Blogthority, which makes a good case for publishing directly with Lightening Source. However, as Blogthority notes there are some up-front barriers: you must create a corporation (Lightening Source is a printer, and it does not deal with individual “authors”). Lightening Source requires a cash investment up-front to list the book, and a book of poetry may sadly never recoup the one hundred dollar up-front cost.

CreateSpace seemed like the natural choice. Its low author-copy cost (which can be pushed even lower with an up-front cost) is exactly what I was looking for.

As I design and create my own book interior pdfs and covers, I wasn’t concerned with anything beyond cheap author copies. But I decided to look a little deeper at its offerings, to see if I might recommend CreateSpace for authors who don’t do their own design work. Like Lulu.com, CreateSpace boasts a Cover Creator for authors; they offer templates for books. One enterprising book publisher even decided to use Lulu’s pdf tools to create his CreateSpace book interior. A tool is a tool, after all. As for the peripherals, CreateSpace has grown to include professional services that you can purchase for editing, interior design, cover design, and others services also offered at Lulu.com.

As for its negatives: CreateSpace has been indicted for its difficulty-of-use; it’s withholding of non-US royalties at the rate of 30%; and its inability to handle premium sized prints (at 8.5×11). There is continual buzz swirling about whether CreateSpace (and Amazon) withhold royalties for book sales. It should be noted that most reputable sources say that Amazon reports royalties more fairly than the big 6 publishers. So I take complaints about royalties with a grain of salt.

The negatives, I felt, were ultimately things that I could deal with (if they turned out to be true), so I said “yes” to CreateSpace.

I am currently halfway through the publishing process. The project sits at the “upload manuscript” step. I take my time with this stage. The manuscript will be a physical object in somebody’s hands; I endeavor to make it look professional. The poetry market has a series of specifications that are different from other markets. US Trade size–6×9–is the most common size for poetry chapbooks. Chapbooks published by living poets tend to be smaller that the massive collections of well-respected (and dead) poets–in the 80 to 120 page range. Pages of poetry are pretty sparse compared to their prose brethern. Collections may try to jam more than one poem per page, but most chapbooks take the “one poem per page” route. Design considerations for these kinds of pages are mainly confined to the following set of questions. How should a poem sit on a page, so that its words are away from the spine when it opens? How should page numbers look? Does the book need running headers? Where should they be placed vis-a-vis the poem so pages look balanced? What font should the poems be set in? Should titles be set in the same font? Below are two page layouts based on how I thought to answer these questions.

It’ll be a few weeks before I’m back knocking on CreateSpace’s door to finish the project. So far, my experience has been positive. CreateSpace has already allowed me to choose from four different sources for my ISBN number. Each source has their own benefit/drawback–and I decided to go the low-cost path of choosing a CreateSpace ISBN. This level of customization has already made me appreciative of CreateSpace’s flexibility. Should I be bitten by the Kindle Direct Publishing bug, CreateSpace’s integration with Amazon will make it easy to port the work onto the KDP platform.

But, ultimately, I know that hand-to-hand sales will make up the majority of my next book’s revenue. With a lower cost for author’s copies, and a potentially even lower cost for a small investment of cash up-front, there are two benefits that accrue to this project.  One, I can earn more royalties percentage-wise. Two, I can offer my new book at a lower price-point (8 dollars instead of 12) and still make a good chunk of money.

Well, good money for poetry.

For those of you publishing, how many of you have gone with / are thinking of going with a meatspace publisher? Are ebooks more appealing to your demographic? What would make you choose one self-pub over another?

I Just Didn’t Care: Unlikeable Characters in Fiction

I adore broken characters. The more broken, the better. As long as I find their struggle compelling, I’ll get on board with the most twisted, morally repugnant characters imaginable.

I’ve had many discussions about “unlikeable” characters in movies and books, and whether or not “likeability” is a prerequisite for engaging with a story. Personally, I don’t believe it is. Some of my favorite movies feature unlikeable people doing horrible things.

Further, I think “likeable” is a bit of a slippery phrase that can mean any number of things. For example, people adore Darth Vader — is this because they agree with his moral choices or admire his ideals? For most people, I’d venture to say probably not. So what’s likeable about him, aside from the bad-ass suit, red lightsaber, cool voice modulation, and the ability to choke people with his mind? Well, I guess I’ve answered my own question here.

Let’s move on to a more complex example. One of my favorite movies for character-study purposes is the 2004 Mike Nichols drama Closer, about four horrible people who spend the entire movie hurting each other’s feelings as savagely as they can. The characters run the gamut from the pathetic to the truly loathsome — I’d go so far as to say there’s no one to root for in the story. The main characters are all lying, unpleasant, psychologically broken people. And yet I find their interactions fascinating.

Why? Because Closer is a story about characters being in love, in which each character sees love differently. One sees love like a switch that can be turned on and off at will, a delicate state that shatters at the first sign of trouble. Another conflates love and novelty — for him, losing that first exhilarating rush of a burgeoning relationship and “falling out of love” are the same thing. A third character sees love as possession and an intricate game to be won. The conflict stems from the different ideals each character holds dear and how they run afoul from one another. Like so many romantic comedies, the story derives from frequent and avoidable misunderstandings, except it’s not funny so much as horrifying.

The irreconcilable conflict between each character’s ideals drives them to hurt each other, over and over, and never figure out why — added to which, each of them lies and cheats, often without any apparent remorse. None of the characters are likeable, and yet the story compels, because each of them wants so badly to achieve something they can barely even define, much less share with another person.

Another favorite example of mine is Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane. The story follows Kane from the brash idealism of his youth to his lonely, hollow end. Even though I love Kane as a character, I don’t think he’s conventionally likeable. Young Kane is charismatic and confident, but frequently smug; as Kane ages, he sells out his own ideals so completely that he becomes unrecognizable. He treats people like objects to be bought and sold, and uses his power to manipulate everyone to his own ends. Even at the end, when Kane loses everything, his motives are centered on himself:

Kane: Don’t go, Susan. You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.
Susan: I see. So it’s YOU who this is being done to. It’s not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.

Kane’s story works as tragedy because his younger self was so full of promise and ideals, with so far to fall — and fall he does. Kane even hints at seeing his downward path early on:

Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Thatcher: Don’t you think you are?
Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Charles Foster Kane: Everything you hate.

Conventional writing wisdom tells us to make sympathetic protagonists to whom the reader can relate — and yet great stories seem to flaunt this principle all the time. I don’t think great protagonists need to be likeable; they need to be compelling. A character can have morally hideous goals and still move the reader, as long as those goals can be understood and shared by the reader, even if the reader disagrees with them.

To cite one last favorite of mine: Psycho. Midway through the film, the ostensible protagonist, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), after stealing some money from her employer and then deciding to return it, is murdered by Norman Bates. To me, this is part of what makes Psycho so brilliant. Not only does Hitchcock make the thieving, dishonest protagonist compelling, but he then murders the protagonist in the middle of the story, at the point where she is the most sympathetic.

But then Hitchcock turns it around again. Bates needs to dispose of Marion’s body. He stuffs her in the trunk of her car and tries to sink the car into the lake. The car begins to sink… and then stops.

And the audience holds its breath. It’s an oh-shit moment where the audience realizes Bates’ plight: if he can’t sink the car, he’ll be caught. Does the audience want Bates to get away with it? Well, not really — but for that one moment, the audience understands Bates’ plight and sympathizes with it. The scene compels, despite the fact that it’s the antagonist being set back.

If you can master this sort of thing in your own writing, you’ll have one of the best weapons in the writer’s arsenal for hooking readers. A character who tries entirely too hard to be likeable is often dismissed as a Mary Sue. But a character whose conflicts resonate and compel even when their ends are totally at odds with the reader’s ideals — that’s great storytelling at work.

So what about you? Do you need to like a character, especially a protagonist, to enjoy their story?

Unloved Words

Photo by nodditect on Flickr.

In his 1985 short story “The Unprocessed Word,” John Varley writes a hysterical indictment of the word processor and the encroaching digital frontier threatening the future of heartfelt prose. The piece is mostly farce, poking fun at the fallacious marrying of process and purity that writers so often indulge. One passage in particular has stuck with me in the decades since I first read Blue Champagne:

Floppy disks lack sincerity.

Think about it. When the “word processor” turns off his or her machine… the words all go away!

The screen goes blank. The words no longer exist except as encoded messages on a piece of plastic known as a floppy disk. These words cannot be retrieved except by whirling the disk at great speed—a process that can itself damage the words. Words on a floppy disk are un-loved words, living a forlorn half-life in the memory until they are suddenly spewed forth at great and debilitating speed by a dot-matrix printer that actually burns them into the page!

The story ends with the author so completely embracing the digital age that he replaces his own name with a string of numbers and a barcode, praising the effortless luxury of writing-by-software (MacConflict, MacDialogue, MacMystery, MacWestern, Adverb-Away. VisiTheme, MacDeal-With-The-Devil…), where the writer pens an opening line and the machine does the rest, spinning compelling yarns out of algorithms and cold equations.

In many ways, “The Unprocessed Word” is now a charming relic, a jeremiad against dot-matrix printers, floppy disks, and other technologies rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. Writing software designed to short-circuit the writing process has indeed come to pass, but I think it’s safe to say we’re in no danger of seeing machines snatch the storytelling yoke from humanity. We can suck the life out of our narratives just as efficiently with human focus groups, thank you very much.

I read Varley’s Blue Champagne at a particularly formative time in my life, and for a long while, I actually believed that digital words were “unloved words,” lacking some ineffable virtue that only physical media could bestow. At the age of eighteen, I wrote my first sci-fi novel, Free Enterprise, on a Royal typewriter. (Incidentally, the central plot of Free Enterprise had to do with the pursuit by several parties of a box full of secret battle plans — all written on paper. Apparently, even in my visions of the far-flung future, the dead-tree format persisted.) Even when I had to toss out and retype vast swaths of my own book because I hated the ending, I still believed, somehow, in the inherent superiority of the manual typewriter.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that “unloved words” could be a good thing.

Like so many beginning writers, I suffered from horrific writer’s block, a block born entirely of ambition. I wanted to write deathless, genre-defying, life-changing prose. Prose to make the women swoon and the men shed manly tears — and by God I wanted to write it perfectly the first time and never look back. As you can guess, I spent a lot of time staring at blank pages, and later at blank screens, wondering where the hell all that perfection had gone to.

Unfortunately, this approach:

Step 1) Deathless, genre-defying, tear-inducing prose
Step 2) Publish, receive adoration of millions

Doesn’t work, as much as we would love to eradicate those troublesome intermediate steps.

I learned to fall out of love with my words from reading Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. Elbow introduced me to the concept of the freewrite — simply writing for ten or fifteen minutes without stopping. The freewrite leaves no time to search for just the right phrase — if you can’t think of anything to write, you just type “I can’t think of anything to write” until you run out the clock. The point is to break down the block and accept that forward motion is preferable to poetic stasis.

When he was finished, Elbow confessed, he would just throw the freewrites away. That part in particular filled me with horror — but there might be something valuable in there! My hoarding instinct recoiled at the very thought. I’ve never actually gotten over this — I keep all my freewrites, and have even mined a few gems out of that compost heap of unloved words.

As writers, I think we’re born with an inherent love of words — why else would we give so much of our lives to them? — but we don’t have the luxury of blind, unalloyed adoration. Our love must be tempered by craft and discretion if it is to mean anything. Sometimes we have to be merciless and leave beautiful phrases to die a forgotten death. Sometimes we have to lock words in a dark closet until we find a proper home for them. And sometimes we have to reluctantly admit that our love is actually seething hate.

And that’s why I’m now a firm believer in writing with digital tools. They make the cutting that much faster, if not necessarily less painful.