Friday, July 22, 2011

Welcome Home Books, Goodbye Borders

Before I get into my experience with Borders, I want to clear one thing up. I'm not trying to complain or vent about not receiving payment for a few books. I don't think the world needs to be turned upside down for such things. This is simply my experience and the way I handled it. As a self-published author, I know I am going to take losses sometimes. I just figured I'd share my slice of experience with others.

I took a field trip Wednesday night to my local Borders book store. No, it wasn't to purchase stacks of books before the company goes out of business. I already have stacks of books sitting on my desk that still need to be read. No, I went down to my local Borders to pick up the remainder of my books that haven't sold in the last eight months.

See, I did a book signing in their store in December 2010. The store 'purchased' ten books from me to put on their local author shelf. I was pretty excited at the time. Ten books is a big sale and the sales manager told me Borders would pay full price for my books - which is unheard of by the way. Usually big name bookstores as such will purchase books at a discount, sometimes even bringing a self-published authors bottom line into the red. My sales for this transaction were supposed to come to about $145. Not too shabby for ten books.

Only problem is I never saw any of that money. Zip. Zero. Zilch. 0.

I gave the sales manager an invoice a few days after the signing and she then sent it on to Borders corporate or wherever the invoice goes to be paid. Months went by and I heard nothing. It wasn't the sales manager's fault. She said she contacted Borders corporate and sent my invoice, as I would have expected her to. It was Borders who dragged this out.

Months later I heard that Borders was going to shut down some of its stores and file bankruptcy and I panicked and contacted the store to see if I could get my unsold books back. Each book costs something out of my pocket, so if a store that had my books - and hadn't paid for them yet - was going to go out of business, naturally I wanted those books back. The sales manager told me her store was going to stay open but if I wanted my books back she would comply. I thought about it and leaned toward the realization that it might be more beneficial for my books to have the prime real estate that a major book store chain offered rather than have my books sit on my own shelf here at home and collect dust. I told her I would be patient, at least for a little longer.

More months went by. I sent another email to the sales manager requesting information regarding my payment.
She said she was waiting to hear word back from corporate on when I would receive my check. So I said I would be patient still.

Word broke out on the internet a couple days ago that Borders was in the process of liquidating. I sent an email to the sales manager telling her I wished to get my unsold merchandise back, seeing how I hadn't been paid and didn't see any payment in my future. She understood and suggested I came to the store to do it before they got put in the liquidation pile for this coming Friday.

Considering I only sold three books and had seven to pick up, I figured I'd just call the three books a loss. Well, monetary loss. Not really a loss loss. Three more readers - at the very least - have my books out there somewhere. My stories, out in the world, held by complete strangers. That's got to be worth more than the purchase price of the books, right?

When I arrived at the bookstore, the sales manager gave me a printed out email history that detailed the conversations she had been having with Borders in regards to my payment. Essentially, Borders said my book 'sales' to them were pre-petition debt and that legally they couldn't pay me even if they wanted to. I asked what the legal mumbo jumbo meant and the sales manager told me that because I 'sold' Borders the books before they filed bankruptcy, that the sale is protected under bankruptcy law and I have to go through bankruptcy proceedings to get paid for the three that were actually sold.

Yeah. I'm not all that sure it's worth my time to go through the hassle to get my money from those.

Don't get me wrong. I've had a number of good experiences with Borders in the past. This last issue though wasn't the first 'bad' experience I've had with them. Last year, I had a couple stores in Tucson request physical copies of my books that they could review before setting me up with store signings and I never heard back from them. Neither of those sales managers would even see me in person when I dropped off the books, even though they were in store and their store was an hour and a half from my home.

There was another local Borders store manager who said to me he was in talks with his sales manager to set up a date for me to do a store signing. After a number of emails requesting the date, I realized he had decided to simply ignore me and hope that I would go away like a pesky fly nobody wants at their picnic. No signing was ever set up. The year before that, I had a great signing in that store. It was when the management got changed that I had the communication issues.

These experiences are the main reason I try to stick with the local indie bookstores, mainly Bookmans. I get paid right away, I don't get ignored when I request signings, and they fully support self-published authors.

Oh well. Live and learn. My experience with the the Borders sales manager in the case of my missing payment was positive. I'm sorry to see such good people lose their job positions. C'est la vie. I do wish her the best of luck.

At least my books are back and ready to find new homes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To Be or Not To Be - Edgy Christian Speculative Fiction

When I originally started writing the first book in my Black Earth series, End of the Innocence, I vaguely referred to it as a Christian sci-fi/fantasy novel. In the book, some of the characters are of the Christian faith and there are some faith-based themes that run throughout. After a while though, I kind of fizzled out the idea of labeling my work as Christian fiction, mainly because I felt there was some edgy content that just wouldn't make it very far in the Christian fiction market.

In a 2-star review that was recently given to Black Earth: End of the Innocence, the reviewer commented on how she was puzzled why the book's description or at least the genre it was classified in didn't clue her in that the book was Christian fiction. I get the feeling she thought she might have been tricked somehow, but that wasn't my intention. I'm not here to wrap a sermon in a story. I simply want to entertain others with my fiction. The old adage, write what you know, is exactly why I have some characters that are of the Christian faith and I have some of my themes lean more toward an all-powerful, loving God and His relationship with creation.

Aside from the negative review, I have also received many positive reviews, some commenting on how happy they are to have found some science fiction with Christian themes, or Christian fiction that isn't corny.

All these references to Christian fiction have caused me to pause and think. What exactly is Christian fiction, and does my work fall into the category?

I think Christian fiction has come along ways over the last few years in developing more entertaining stories that can appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike. Some readers view Christian fiction as Amish 'bonnet' stories that are found gracing the shelves of most Christian bookstores. Others refer to Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee, Frank Peretti and Tim Lahaye when the word Christian fiction is mentioned. Some readers even shake their heads when they hear the genre label because they envision a preachy sermon wrapped in book binding.

And I guess that's where I've been at a dilemma.

See, my stuff isn't exactly appropriate for the typical, mainstream Christian fiction market. There are sexual scenes, there is violence, and there are curse words in some of my stories. Aside from those issues, there are alien races, other planets, time travel and other realities...many things that some Christians don't believe should be considered Christian fiction, let alone things that Christians should be writing about in general. Science Fiction/Fantasy and Christian fiction always seems to be at odds with each other, with very few authors taking the risk to bring about the genre mix.

So, since some of my writing has the makings of an R movie, that means it falls into the mainstream fiction slot for sci-fi/fantasy, right?

Not necessarily.

I've been trolling the Amazon forums here and there to see what readers have to say about self-published writers and their behavior online. I've run across more than one forum that discusses how readers thought they were 'tricked' into reading what they thought was a mainstream novel only to find it was a thinly veiled Christian sermon. Some of these acts of trickery I have found to be quite intentional on the author's part. That just gives Christians and Christian fiction a bad rap.Some of those instances aren't all that intentional though. I venture to assume there are other writers like myself that wonder what side of the fence their fiction lies. Although I don't feel I have the makings of a sermon in my stories, they do contain faith-based themes.

Now before any of you leave me a comment to tell me that genre really doesn't matter, it does. It matters a lot. The genre our fiction falls into determines the demographic we are going to market to, the categories that and Createspace are going to drop us in, and will even influence the direction our blog and other social networking endeavors will go. Genre is a sort of target you put on your work so others can see where it really fits in the scheme of things.

Those of us who do write really edgy Christian fiction - and I have no idea who else is in the same boat as me in regards to this - are in a Catch 22. If we say we're mainstream, we get criticized for our religious/spiritual content. If we say we write Christian speculative fiction - let alone edgy Christian speculative fiction - we get criticized by certain Christian circles about how inappropriate the content in our novels is.


What really breaks the dilemma down into a manageable issue is another question. "Why are we not marketing our books for what they really are?". Is it just because we're afraid of criticism? Afraid of the hot debate that might ensue if we show a bit of violence, a steamy scene, or a bit of crass wording? Don't get me wrong, I don't believe these things need to be overdone for them to work in a story - whether that be a Christian story or a secular story - but I do feel they have their place in fiction.

Moving the debate on what is or isn't appropriate in terms of Christian fiction on the back burner for the moment, I'll address my quandary from a strictly marketing point of view. Regardless what genre our book falls in, if we don't market our book as such, we're losing out on the readers who enjoy that specific genre. As narrow as that crowd may be, they should be the first that we reach out to try and gain attention for our books.

Now I know many Christian fiction writers don't want to be labeled Christian fiction writers because we want our work to be read by non-Christians, and the term Christian fiction can sometimes hold a certain expectation. I have a friend who approached that question with a really good answer. He said he markets to Christians, because that is his general audience, and those Christians, once they have experienced his work, pass it along to those who may or may not be Christian who might like the material. My friend relies on word-of-mouth to relay his work to those who would enjoy it. That's really what marketing is all about, at its core, isn't it?

Well, enough monologuing. Here I go. For those who want to know, for those who care, I'll step out and call my work for what it really is:

Edgy Christian Speculative Fiction.

For those who write/appreciate this sort of genre, drop me a line and lets work together to get works of this nature out to those who enjoy their faith-based fiction with a bit of bite and a bit of the fantastical. :)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Best Way to Embrace a Negative Review

Now that self-publishing has taken off like the California Gold Rush, the internet - and bookstores - are booming with self-made creations of literary wonder. Because of this, it's tougher for the readers out there to sift through the mess to find the gems that they will eventually fall in love with.

What is a self-published author to do? How do we rise above the crowd and make ourselves - and our books - stand out? One way is by reputation. Reputation encompasses many different aspects: our attitude toward others online, our involvement in social networking, the quality and content of our books. Reputation is important because without it, people don't know who we are or sometimes even what we do.

One way we establish reputation for our work is through reviews. Reviews are like gold to a self-published author. They give our work weight and legitimacy, and they give the readers out there a - hopefully - honest opinion about our work.

Good reviews are always desired, but what do we do when we get a negative review? How do we react when someone digs into our work with a diamond-plated shovel and pulls everything out only to tear it to pieces in front of you and the watching public?

We take it in stride.

As authors, our online - albeit public - presence is our reputation and our platform. Meaning anything we say or do, any way in which we react with others, adds to the whole definition of who we are to others. Because of this, we can't afford to explode or throw a temper tantrum when someone says something critical - or even outright negative - about our work.

I'll give a very clear example - which most of you might have already seen - of how not to handle a book review. Below the review is a string of comments from the author, blowing up and defending her work, claiming the review was unfair and unjust...

The author of the book reviewed had a complete meltdown when she found out here book was only reviewed with 2/5 stars. I'm not implying her actions should be mocked, but simply used as an example of how not to react to an honest review.

On the other hand, I recently received a 2-star review for my novel Black Earth: End of the Innocence.

Did I blow up at the reviewer? No. Did I argue with the reviewer, citing defenses to shield my work from negative opinions? No. I graciously sent her an email, thanking her for her time. You know why? Because it was her time that was spent reading and reviewing my book. Do I agree with the 2-star review I received? Doesn't really matter. The review isn't for me, it's for the readers.

In that regard, I have a few tips on how to handle a bad review, if you happen to be one of the lucky few who get one. ;) I am by no means an expert, but I think holding your head high and being respectful of everyone online can go a long ways in this business.

First Understand that a review is simply an opinion. Everyone in this world has opinions, and reviewers are expected to proclaim theirs. That's the point of their position. If a reviewer hates your novel, so what? Others may enjoy it. Maybe your book just isn't someone's cup of tea, and that's fine.

Second - Did you request the review? And if so, did you request the review from someone who enjoys books in your genre? I've seen it happen - an author requests a review for their sci-fi/fantasy novel from someone who usually reviews romance books. Odds are, you're not going to get a lot of interest for your material from that reviewer, so make sure to search out reviewers who review in or at least close to your genre.

Third - Every review is a potential opportunity to grow. As much as reviews are people's opinions, they may very well hold learning merit. If a reviewer is complaining about your bad grammar or inconsistent dialogue, then take a moment to look over those items in your work - especially if others have pointed out the same things.

Fourth - Understand that reviewers are taking their time out to not just review your book, but to read it. There are thousands upon thousands of self-published books out there now, and sorting through them to find ones of interest to read is a task unto itself. Those readers then take the time to actually read said book and then to write an in-depth, detailed review. All of that takes time out of a reviewers personal life and time away from others who are waiting in line to be reviewed next.

Fifth - Any news can sometimes be great news. What do I mean by that? Sometimes even a bad review can garner the same - if not more - attention to your work than a good review. I know there are many readers out there that actually skip over purchasing a book on Amazon because the book has numerous 5-star reviews attached to it. The reader wants honest reviews, and even a critical 1 or 2-star review can really build your book into something that is going to catch a reader's eye.

Always remember these simple principles when getting a review, good or bad:
  • Always thank the reviewer for their time.
  • Never defend the review, no matter how harsh it is. The review isn't for your ego, it's for the readers out there.
  • Promote the review to gain attention for your book. This includes asking the reviewer to post his/her's review in as many online locations as they can. Including Goodreads,, Barnes and Noble, Library Thing, etc.
  • Don't request a review from someone if you're not willing to have that review posted everywhere. There are authors who ask to have reviews taken down because they are just too ashamed of them. Don't do that. It's immature and it makes the reviewer not want to deal with you - or self-published authors - in the future.
There are still remnants of a negative stigma attached to self-publishing that many of us are trying to hurdle over. Don't make things worse by blowing up or tearing a reviewer apart just because they were critical of your work. Be mature. Be an author worth checking out, not one that readers want to run from because of your bad attitude. Give the reviewers who are taking their time to read your stuff a pat on the back so they'll continue to read and review self-published work.

Photo credit - Creative Donkey