Saturday, November 28, 2009

Popular Vs. Juried Awards

The whole micro-storm about Harlequin's expansion into self-publishing has brought up a side point that has been an issue for me. The technical side of publishing has been brought under control. Any person with a bit of computer familiarity and a finished story can create and offer for sale a paper book or an ebook with manageable expense. That doesn't mean it will sell.

Traditional big publishers have offered readers the implicit bargain; "We've put our experience and money behind this book, so you can confidently buy it." We can all offer counter-examples, but we can't deny that this unspoken support will make most of us more likely to buy a book labeled, Tor, Ace, Signet, Ballentine, etc. over some logo that we've never seen before. For bookstore buyers, it is even more of an issue. Many small imprints never get stocked on the shelves.

When the SFWA, the MWA and the RWA all spoke against the Harlequin project they explicitly validated the idea that books from big publishers were better than those that are self-published. Unread and unjudged, books were banned from consideration for association awards. Chuckle at that. Author organizations banning books.

So what is a self-publisher to do against this entrenched (and understandable) bias. If you've got a good book, you have to do without the advantage of familiar logos on the spines of books. You have to have sold the book before the reader discovers it as one of many on the shelf. Your book has to have been recommended by a friend, a good book review, or by having won an award.

There are different kinds of awards. In the science fiction world, the big names are the Hugos and the Nebulas. Both of these are popular awards. Books are nominated throughout the year and then a group votes on the finalists. The Hugos are voted on by people with a membership to the World Science Fiction Convention of that year. The Nebulas are voted on by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. In each case there are thousands of potential voters, with a smaller number actually voting. I class these as popular awards because to have a chance at winning, your book has to have been read by a large fraction of the voting population. A small press has little chance to make a big splash here, because the award only happens after the book has already sold well.

There are also juried awards. In these cases, a small group, sometimes as large as a dozen and frequently smaller, reads nominated books from a pool and votes among themselves. While the books may be nominated by a large group, the small number of judges allow a small press or an individual author to make sure that the judges have at least had the opportunity to read the book. This is a wonderful opportunity for a well written, but otherwise invisible book to be recognized.

Juried awards are much more common than popular awards, and their prestige varies by the sponsoring organization and how long they've been at it. I won't even attempt to list them, because there are so many. A couple of lists to get started are here and here. Search the lists and find all that your book is technically eligible for and make sure the judges have copies. I've been lucky to have won a couple of awards for my books and it makes it much easier to confidently introduce yourself and your work when you know that total strangers have linked the reputation of their awards to your books.

There is still a third class of awards that you should know about. Certain organizations essentially sell awards. Read their website and notice these common features: There is an up-front charge to enter your book (in addition to copies of the book itself). There are so many categories and classifications that hundreds of people can win. The judges are not listed, or in one case I know, there is just one judge to make the decision for hundreds of awards over the course of a few days. And if you win or are a finalist, the organization will sell you stickers to mark the covers of your books. I'm sorry to say that I entered one of those contests before I realized what was going on. Never again.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Since When Do Publishers Win Writing Awards?

I've been watching the reactions of the SFWA, the MWA and the RWA about Harlequin's venture into assisted self-publishing. Basically, the fury is that Harlequin would lend it's reputation to novels that are essentially unedited, and charge the novelist for the service. While I deplore the idea and think that it would do more damage to the publisher than they had imagined, I am also appalled at the reaction to these three writers' organizations.

From the mystery writers: "If MWA and Harlequin are unable to reach an agreement, MWA will take appropriate action which may include removing Harlequin from the list of MWA approved publishers, declining future membership applications from authors published by Harlequin and declaring that books published by Harlequin will not be eligible for the Edgar Awards."

From the SFWA: "Further, Harlequin should be on notice that while the rules of our annual Nebula Award do not expressly prohibit self-published titles from winning, it is highly unlikely that our membership would ever nominate or vote for a work that was published in this manner."

From the RWA according to Publishers Weekly: "RWA has deemed Harlequin no longer eligible for RWA-provided conference resources—meaning the publisher is not entitled to enter any award competitions."

Now, I'm scratching my head at this. A publisher does something stupid and writers are penalized by being ineligible for writing awards? Are the awards for the publisher? I thought writing awards were supposed to be for excellent writing? All those years I was voting on the Nebulas, was I supposed to check which publisher was on the spine, or the author?

As a long time member of the SFWA, I apologize for that organization's action.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thumbing Through the Pages

One of the disadvantages of selling my novels via my webpage, or by allowing people to buy them via Amazon or B&N online or any of the other on-line webstores is that people have a long history of picking up a book, and reading a few pages to get the feel for the book. That's one of the reasons I've been sending my books to the Google Books site as they are published. I was also pleased that the Kindle store is set up to send a few pages as a sample for free. But one of the gaps in this process was my own home grown website.

So, this morning, I made partials from the PDFs that I had sent to Lightning Source as the masters for the printing process. I skipped over to page 50 in the text and then advanced a few pages until I reached a chapter end and then chopped off the PDF at that point, just adding a button that would get a reader back to my webstore using the advanced editing functions of Adobe Acrobat.

I added a download link on each of the novel's 'official' pages and may do the same on the webstore itself. I have no idea if this will help, but just as people buying the Kindle versions of my books have the opportunity to browse sample pages, this rounds out the process for the trade paperbacks.

If you're interested, just go to my website home page and click on the covers half way down the page.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Null Experiment: Taking Leonid Pictures

First off; I tried to take meteor pictures and got no results, i.e. a null experiment. But it was an interesting exercise that I thought I'd share.

I have a long history of spending time out at night watching for meteor streaks in the sky, and have many good memories of those times. When I heard that this year's Leonid meteor shower was going to be a dark sky with no moon and with the sky washed clean by the passing of a cold front the day before, I knew I would have a chance even if the projected rates weren't very high.

I also knew what that 20 per hour rate quoted on the internet for North America viewers actually meant. If you had eyes on the back of your head and never blinked while watching from the top of Pikes's Peak, you might see 20 per hour. I also knew I hadn't prepared my sleep cycle for this and knew I couldn't stay up and watch the whole night.

But, maybe I could take a picture. I already had all the pieces. My original iPhone (the one that went into the pool) was in reasonably good shape and I had the TimeLapse app for automatically taking a series of photos. I dug out the old iPhone and charged it up.

From previous experiments of night time photography I knew the chances were slim, but I'm always willing to try something like this. I propped the iPhone up on the table out on the rear deck and set the TimeLapse to take 9999 photos back to back. I started it about midnight and warned Mary Ann not to be disturbed if she saw an iPhone glowing softly in the dark. I set it for Dark Display but even then it glowed.

Best case, I hoped that a large fireball would streak across the field of view during a photo, bright enough to be visible. I knew I was likely to see only the brightest of stars, and those just barely.

After doing some old-school staring at the sky, plus some lounging in the hot tub trying to peer through tree branches, I gave up and went to bed, only seeing one faint streak and one bright one that I couldn't turn my head fast enough to see full on.

For some reason, I woke back up at five and went to check the iPhone. The old battery had lasted for two and a half hours, taking 1031 pictures of the black sky. I copied them off using Image Capture and then peered at the results. Tweaking the brightness and contrast of one photo left me sure that I'd get nothing. The sensor noise was indeed almost as 'bright' as the stars. Using Quicktime Player 7 (it's an optional Snow Leopard install) allowed me to open the whole set of 1031 jpegs and play them like a movie. Playing with the A/V controls to get better brightness and contrast left me with a slow creep of stars across the sky. There were more stars than I'd seen just staring at one image, but this was hardly YouTube material.

And there were no visible streaks on any of the 1031 frames. It was a bust. There might have been something, but it would take a lot more image processing than I was willing to spend trying to get anything useful out of all the sensor noise. (You are welcome to try. Click the black image to get to the full size photo and have fun with Photoshop. There are two or three stars you should be able to see.)

But I learned that this process was a handy way to get a time lapse movie, hopefully in the daylight. And at about 5:30 in the morning I saw a rather nice Leonid streak by, using the old school method of staring at the sky in the cold.