Reading

The Best Books Of 2019 You\’ve (most probably) REALLY Never Heard Of

A week or two ago I saw yet another of those Best Books of 2019 articles in An Important Newspaper. I was surprised by how predictable that list was, but not by the complete absence of indie writers. One of my Twitter followers tagged the article’s author, mentioning the indie scene never getting noticed unless the indie author gets offered a “real” contract. The response was “one of those publishers is a very small indie press”. (I checked. The very small indie press was home to more than 30 authors.) This, unfortunately, wasn’t the question, but once it got clarified the article’s author didn’t respond anymore. An indie writer is not one that has a perfectly normal contract with a perfectly normal publishing house which calls itself indie because it’s not an imprint of the Big 5.

The publishing market has been evolving at the speed of light, single-handedly upended by a certain Jeff Bezos. The monopoly of the agent-editor system is falling apart and unsurprisingly the people who make money out of it don’t like it. The main weapon the Big 5 still have against self-publishers and indie authors is discoverability via The Important Newspapers and The Important Newspapers also know that. Publishers Weekly now offers reviews to indies, except the authors hoping to have their book reviewed have to pay hundreds of $$$ for the privilege. The Best Books Of 2019 You Have Never Heard Of lists tend to be variations on the same fifty titles. What possibly baffles me the most are the well-publicised one-star reviews of really awful books, the only merit of which is that they were published by Simon & Schuster rather than Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

Out of the six best books I have read this year five were written/published by indies. Why don’t those books get press? Because they don’t sell enough. Why don’t they sell enough? Because they don’t get press. It used to just be the publishers who made sure some voices would never be heard. Now that there are ways to go around publishers, media gleefully took over the role.

Here are some great indie books I’ve read this year and would recommend to anyone, and there is a chance you’ve really never heard about them. Before I begin, though, I would like to thank all the book bloggers who put their time and work and dedication into helping indie writers and their audiences find each other.

Cord and Nenn: an awkward interview

Yours truly, a well-seasoned journalist and writer, greatly enjoyed Clayton Snyder’s River of Thieves and decided to interview the main characters, Cord and Nenn. Unfortunately some notes might have been misplaced… An awkward, unedited transcript follows.

BL: Welcome to LRSN FM! Today we have the most special guest for you: Mademoiselle Nenne du Corduroy talking about her new memoir, “Lotus on the Lake”. Uhm, mademoiselle, you can’t smoke in here. And… this… person… is, uh, your current husband, the Duke, I gather?

Cord (C): Wait. You wrote a book?
Nenn (N): I do a lot of things.
C: “Lotus on the Lake”.
N: Eh, the publisher thought it’d sell better with the Hestians.
C: Funny.
N: Why?
C: Most of them are illiterate.
N: *rolls eyes*
N: Wait. Did you say husband?
C: Why? Why would someone say that?
N: I don’t really like…
C: Penises. She doesn’t like penises.
N: Well, I was going to be more tactful, but yeah. In a nutshell.
C: *giggling*
N: Sigh. Next question.

The evolution of my reading habits

For those who have read Storytellers already, this is Doctor Brynjólf’s bookshelf.
(Árbærsjafn Open Air Museum)

 

The always amazing Lydia Schoch:

My reading habits have evolved a lot over the years. In today’s post, I’m going to start with my earliest memories and share some stories about how my interests and habits have changed over time. […] How have your reading habits evolved over time? If anyone decides to borrow this topic and blog about it, I’ll edit this post to include a link to your response if you’re interested in that.

Challenge accepted!

Kid A

I taught myself to read at the age of four. I kept forcing my mum and grandparents to re-read the same children’s books to me over and over and over again, until they told me that by now I must have memorised them. Since they refused to re-re-re-read them for me, I took things in my own hands and discovered that 1) I had indeed memorised them, 2) I was able to figure out what letters meant, how they composed into words, then sentences. I didn’t know it was unusual for a four-year old to read, but I also didn’t know that some books were not suitable for kids.

I read everything we had at home. Once my grandparents and mum noticed, they bought more kids’ books, but not before I went through multiple crime stories, lots of sci-fi, various romance books, magazines such as A Woman and Life, catalogues – if it was written word, I read it. My biggest achievement was a MASSIVE tome Four Tank-Men and a Dog (I’m not sure whether that’s a correct translation, but the word does not appear in dictionaries), which I read for the first time around the age of six/seven. (A lot of it was Soviet propaganda, which of course I missed.) I also loved a series about a teenager who travelled around the world, discovering things, saving others, basically a teenage Indiana Jones. I had no idea racism even existed, so the disdainful descriptions of all races other than white completely passed me by. Winnetou was wonderfully homoerotic and my re-reads of that coincided with the period I discovered I was gay myself. The difference between my favourite books and all the others was that I read the favourites more than once. Generally if it had printed text in it, I read it.

I only became more discerning later…

Why reviews are important

At the end of my book (NOT pictured above) you will find the following:

Thank you for reading Storytellers – I hope you enjoyed it.
I would be most grateful for a review or a comment on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other website of your choice. Takk fyrir!

You might have noticed similar requests in other authors’ books. Not just indie authors like me, but traditionally published writers whose books have their own shelves in Waterstones. Oddly, we don’t say “only leave GOOD reviews”, so… why? Is this some sort of a competition?

Why, it is! As of March 31, there were 3.4 million books in the Kindle store. That’s a lot of competition. Average sales of a debut novel are 100 copies within the first year and 500 copies within the book’s lifetime. This includes both J. K. Rowling and Jane Smith, whose sad story I tell below…

(in)Visibility

Jane Smith just self-published a novel called Rabbits Attack. The novel, which she worked on for eight years, sold 30 copies in its first week, 15 in week two, 2 in week three. Her heart sinks as Jane watches her sales drop. With a sigh, she opens her book’s page and notices something odd. Her book’s Amazon page lists… fifty-five other titles – and that’s with an ad-blocker! Those are divided between so-called “Also boughts”, “Customers also shopped for”, and “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” sections. So, on her own book’s page, Jane has fifty-five competitors. That’s more than the number of books she sold.

Reading: a cautionary tale

Reading is dangerous. Addiction to books – expensive and time-consuming. Keep your kids away from books. Or they will fall in love with them and nothing will drag them back to Snapnite, Instabook, and drugs anymore.

My first book

I really wish I could remember more than that it was a kids’ book. Large print, illustrations, etc.

Every evening my Mum would sit with me and read me a book. Those were Communist days, which – you don’t see it coming – meant that there were PLENTY of books, they were cheap, subsidised by government, and a print run of 50 thousand meant the publisher was testing the waters. There was a series of kids’ books called “Poczytaj mi, Mamo” (“Read to me, Mom”) available. I had them all, as in all six or so, and Mum had to suffer through the same ones over and over again. I was a regular Calvin, knowing when she skipped even one word, and she worked two jobs. Eventually she got frustrated, told me “you know each of those books by heart, there’s no need to read them for you” and left me alone.

She was right – I really knew those books by heart. I quickly figured out how letters corresponded with phonems, then with words, and pretty soon I was reading other books. I didn’t know this was unusual – or that there were books that were not suitable for humans my age. I was four years old.

Norse mythology: three takes

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology became a bestseller last year and continues to sell well today. Vikings spawned a range of movies and TV series, some of them absolutely cringe-worthy, some just about watchable. One could argue whether the true beginning of Norse reign (hoho) over TV and cinema screens was caused by Chris Hemsworth’s chest or Clive Standen’s chest, but one thing seems certain. Soon the Vikings will go the way of sparkling vampires and billionaires owning Red Rooms of Pain. But, luckily for me, not yet.

In the first season of Vikings, before History Channel gave up pretending it’s actually showing Norse history, Aslaug tells her children fairytales. Those fairytales are Norse myths, ones more suitable for kids. If you’ve found them interesting, you might try and read a bit more, including bits that are very much 18+. What did the Norse Gods actually do when they weren’t busy just, you know, being Gods and ruling the Nine Worlds? I could spend the next ten years writing about it, but I don’t have to, because other authors did it already… Here’s a very short primer to what’s easily available and, in my opinion, worth checking out.

Interview: Delaney Green

I loved Delaney Green’s “Jem: A Girl of London” and “Jem: A Fugitive from London” so much I decided I would like to ask the author some questions, and she agreed! Here we go…

Hello Delaney, how would you introduce yourself?

First of all, Bjørn, thank you for this invitation.

I write whatever story comes, which means I’m not married to any particular genre, although I lean toward speculative fiction. I worked as a newspaper reporter, a copy editor, a professional actress, a Broadway theater, concessions manager, a high school English teacher, an adjunct professor, and a farm laborer. I am the mother of a soon-to-graduate-from-college son majoring in computer programming. I am a good cook, and I am known for my home-baked cookies, cakes, bars, and pies. I really, really love visual art, especially sculpture, both looking at it and making it myself.

My ancestry is English, Norwegian, Swedish, and Swiss in equal measure. The farthest-back ancestor I can find is Aviet, who was born circa 1070 in England. One English ancestor in the late thirteenth century may have murdered a neighbor to acquire land for his sons; that’s a story I may write one day.

One thing you would learn about me if we started talking is that pretty much anything you say will prompt a story about something crazy that happened to me.

Books I want to read

I taught myself to read when I was four years old. This is neither an exaggeration nor a joke. I was one of those kids who wanted one out of three books (very short ones, but still) read every single evening over and over and over again. Eventually, my grandparents and mom had enough and told me “you memorised all those books by now”. They were correct. I was smart enough to notice there was a connection between the written words and the ones my mom said out loud. I became a minor sensation in the neighbourhood, but I had no interest in fame and fortune. I just wanted to read, and once I was done with my three kids’ books I found out that there were hundreds of books in our house.

I started plundering through the adult library without anybody really noticing – how would a 4-year-old manage to read science-fiction or blood-dripping thrillers? In the beginning, the answer was “slowly”. When I got to school and we had to learn each letter separately, then read sentences along the lines of “Anna has a cat” I couldn’t figure out what all that was about. I decided that probably we had to memorise the texts, because otherwise what was the point? Once I memorised the two lines that were our homework, I went back to my Kir Bulychov books.

I remember being seven or eight, reading a book that had a sex scene of some sort in it, and being bewildered as to why someone would want to do ewww-y things like this – or even write about them. Hello? SENTIENT ROBOTS! Stop the stupid thing and tell me more about the murderous robots! Nobody noticed I went through my stepfather’s entire collection of thrillers, horrors, crime stories before turning 10. But then what books were suitable for my age back in the 1980s? Dumb ones, I decided, then went back to Stephen King.

Around the age of 13, I discovered the local library had THOUSANDS of books available. It was free, and you could borrow six books per person, or per library card. I got three cards – for my mom, my brother, and myself. That gave us a total of 18 books. Every month I would borrow 15 books for myself, three for my mom, and, er, my brother liked football. I didn’t go by genre, I went alphabetically section per section without paying much attention to the genre. I ate those books. Once I discovered Julio Cortazár’s Hopscotch I went to the librarian and asked innocently what would happen if someone, theoretically, of course, lost a book. The librarian somehow guessed that someone would be me and told me the person would immediately lose their access to the library.

What kind of hateful monster! (The book was, of course, out of print.)

How I learned to stop being judgy and love Outlander

Confession: I have a Scottish fetish. To be more precise, it’s Scottish accent/dialect fetish. I need subtitles to understand what, say, Sharleen Spiteri says in interviews, but damn, does she sound amazing! When I found out Outlander, the TV series, existed I just had to jump in. Scots! Kilts! Someone called Jamie that apparently is worth watching!

I managed three episodes. I think the first moment when I winced in second-hand embarrassment was when Claire consumed a mug of broth as her only meal for the day, then refused breakfast. In the next scene she brought Jamie a nice picnic basket. While I understand that Claire is magical, since she travelled back in time… oops… spoiler alert… I was not prepared to see her magicking a lunch basket out of thin air. Scottish accent or not, my writer’s mind kept screaming “this makes no sense!!!”.

The second and last bit that made me facepalm so hard I gave myself a bruise was Claire’s excellent plan to become the best doctor she possibly could in order to prove to the Scots they should get rid of her as soon as possible. I would compare this to a mouse going to hang out with a cat in order to prove that cats don’t eat mice. It actually made me yell at the screen the same way I used to when watching True Blood and yelled “y u so dumb Jason Stackhouse!!!” I couldn’t go on after that.

None of those things happen in the book. Claire is more or less forced to become a doctor, and she’s just doing her thing while waiting for a good moment to escape. The lunch basket is explained in one sentence – she goes to the kitchen and asks if she could get some lunch for Jamie. I don’t see how magical baskets and amazingly stupid plans improve the story, but hey, I only managed three episodes. There’s a good chance she hit herself on the head as I blinked, or something.

On book piracy

Let me begin with a confession. I pirate books regularly. Here’s why: I use a Kobo Aura One reader, which is advertised as compatible with EPUB and MOBI files. It isn’t. But Kindle and Google Play that I use for buying books come with DRM (Digital Rights Management). I use software to remove DRM, then convert the books to KEPUB (Kobo format), then read them. This is how I ended up buying Marian Keyes’ “The Break”, and THEN downloading it from a pirate site because my DRM removal tool didn’t work and I couldn’t read the e-book I paid for! I call this “Sales Prevention Team”. And yes, Kobo has its own book store, which has maybe half of the selection of Amazon and Google Play, much higher prices, and also some books bought from Kobo do not work with Kobo reader. And this is how I both pay for books AND commit illegal acts, since it is not actually allowed to remove DRM. From legal point of view stripping the DRM is just as illegal as me downloading the book from a pirate website…except the pirated book is much easier for me to read. Because I don’t need to remove DRM in order to put it on my reader. Does this picture look right to you?

While I love paper books, my back injuries mean that a thick book is never going to be read by me for a simple reason – it hurts. Physically. E-books are my saviour. The reader is the absolute best I have ever seen, but the software – regularly updated – isn’t. Epubs don’t render correctly. Mobis just don’t appear at all (or didn’t last time I checked). While Google Play and Adobe Digital Editions allow me to upload the epub files, they don’t render correctly. But this is not the sort of piracy that is harmful.

Here is a very useful and informative article by Maggie Stiefwater:

It’s the story of a novel called The Raven King, the fourth installment in a planned four book series. All three of its predecessors hit the bestseller list. Book three, however, faltered in strange ways. The print copies sold just as well as before, landing it on the list, but the e-copies dropped precipitously. […]

I expected to see a sales drop in book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, but as my readers are historically evenly split across the formats, I expected it to see the cut balanced across both formats. This was absolutely not true. Where were all the e-readers going? Articles online had headlines like PEOPLE NO LONGER ENJOY READING EBOOKS IT SEEMS. […]

I asked my publisher to make sure there were no e-ARCs available of book four, the Raven King, explaining that I felt piracy was a real issue with this series in a way it hadn’t been for any of my others. They replied with the old adage that piracy didn’t really do anything, but yes, they’d make sure there was no e-ARCs if that made me happy.

Then they told me that they were cutting the print run of The Raven King to less than half of the print run for Blue Lily, Lily Blue. No hard feelings, understand, they told me, it’s just that the sales for Blue Lily didn’t justify printing any more copies. The series was in decline, they were so proud of me, it had 19 starred reviews from pro journals and was the most starred YA series ever written, but that just didn’t equal sales. They still loved me.

This, my friends, is a real world consequence. […]

The Ronan trilogy nearly didn’t exist because of piracy. And already I can see in the tags how Tumblr users are talking about how they intend to pirate book one of the new trilogy for any number of reasons, because I am terrible or because they would ‘rather die than pay for a book’. As an author, I can’t stop that. But pirating book one means that publishing cancels book two. This ain’t 2004 anymore. A pirated copy isn’t ‘good advertising’ or ‘great word of mouth’ or ‘not really a lost sale.’

Pirating books is easy and tempting. When you google a title, more often than not first hits are pirated copies. Not even Amazon or author’s website. When I type a song title into Google, I get, again more often than not, “mp3” as autofill. This is not so that Google can redirect me to a legit store.

I originally decided to stop making music when I sold less copies of my album Deviations than there were pirate sites I found offering it for free. There were tens of those sites on the first page of Google results. After diminishing returns I only make music nowadays if I really feel pressing need to do so. Some of this music never even sees Spotify. I’ve recorded a 19-minute triphop cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. I was aided by a wonderful bass player, and my brother who is a great guitarist. I love that song so much I play it for my own pleasure. So does the bassist, and the guitarist. Other than them the only person to have a full copy is the keyboard player I hope to get to add solo parts to the second song for this two-track album which will in all probability never be released. Because in order to publish a cover version I have to pay for that. Last month I earned $3.65 from my back catalogue of music. Publishing a cover version costs $10.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The picture above is the cover art for ‘I Want You’. Oh, hang on, there is no picture. That’s because ‘I Want You’ exists mainly on my hard drive. It might be awful or amazing. I don’t know whether anybody but the four of us who worked on it is ever going to find out.

I’ve never been a pop star, despite having had a proper radio and TV hit 15 years ago (I am ancient and just began to decompose). That radio hit earned me about €2000 within 15 years, largely because it was used in an ad three years in a row, and every year I earned €500. The follow-up didn’t become a hit. The label who was supposed to release the album stalled so long that the record finally came out digitally a few years ago, more or less ten years after we recorded that first song. I spent tons of time promoting it, designing the cover art (it was supposed to be a digipak with a thick booklet). I would estimate my earnings from music, including production and remixing, to be around €5000. Within 15 years. Rappers put up photos on Instagram bragging about how much money they have. My photo would be extremely unimpressive, unless I exchanged the money to kronur first, asking for 100 kronur (less than one euro) notes.

Writers in general do not get rich, with exception of book stuffers (who publish 2000 page “books” with “additional novels added”, then get rewarded by Amazon since Kindle Unlimited pays per page) and those who manage to release a book every month (yes, they exist). I can’t possibly imagine a good book being written in a month. Not one. Much less 12 a year. I’ve read some of them. My eyes still hurt. John Grisham, JK Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Dannielle Steel, Stephen King are the only living authors I can think of that are actually properly rich. Very few writers get to make comfortable living from their work. I’ve now been working on “Storyteller” (the first work in progress) for 19 months and counting.

Sales of #1 novels in 2018 are counted in thousands. Not in tens, or hundreds of thousands. The publisher has to market those books. Editor has to, er, edit them. Cover designer. Person responsible for layout. Agent. All those people work on the book. It’s not just the author who essentially loses money. Just supporting the author directly, as some people suggest, doesn’t help the books to actually get published. What’s the point in having €50 monthly from Patreon if I am going to get dropped by the publisher because of low sales? This is what piracy causes, and this is why quality level of self-published books is either very high…or very low. The music industry caught up with this a few years ago, and now streaming can earn you money. Or not, if you aren’t Drake or Justin Bieber. I am awaiting Spotify for books, and I’d be happy to pay €30 per month for it. (Scribd does not work on my reader in any way at all.) I, too, would like to not have to pay €18 for a Kindle version of a book I really want to read – or €250 for a second-hand copy of a book that’s been printed in 2000 copies in 2014, doesn’t exist in e-book form, and is now impossible to buy legally. This book wasn’t printed in more copies than 2000, because it failed to earn its advance.

Speaking of an advance. I believe the average advance for a first-time author is somewhere in the region of $6000. This is for two or three years of work, research, querying, waiting, waiting, waiting, writing more, hoping someone will want to publish us at all. This advance includes tax we have to pay, is split into two or three parts (€2000 when signed, €2000 on delivery of manuscript, €2000 on publication). Tax here in the Netherlands is between 32 and 41 per cent. Let’s go for the lower 32%. That €6000 turns out to be less than €4200. Split into three parts that are paid within two-three years after the book has been completed. And the first book generally makes or breaks the author. If it doesn’t sell, it’s probably going to be the only one to be published. Once you get through the “gatekeepers” – i.e. agents, editors, etc. (See Maggie’s article above.) The “gatekeepers” goal is not to stop me from ever releasing my book. Their job is to figure out whether there is a chance for the publisher not to make a loss.

Writing books hoping to become rich is really a stupid idea (unless you publish a book a month, again, and add “10 additional novels” to it to get more pages). Amazon is now trying to remove some of those stuffed books. The results are mixed. My second work in progress, tentatively called ‘God of Fire’, is supposed to become a trilogy. Trilogies sometimes sell. Sometimes the first book sells 10 thousand, second – five thousand, and then the third never gets published because the author is dropped because of low sales. This is the actual effect of book piracy. For someone who sells millions it’s not a huge problem. For a new author struggling to earn out the advance (which is the moment publisher finally stops bleeding money on advertising etc., and the moment when the author has a small possibility of getting published again) 1000 lost sales can equal the end of writing career. This is why almost all writers need to have day jobs. This is why you have to wait for the third part of the trilogy for four years, because the author has one hour per day to write between work, chores, and simply dying of exhaustion – and that’s assuming this third part will ever be released at all.

If you are the person who says “I would rather die than pay for a book’” you contribute to those books not actually existing. Sure. You saved €4.99 (average Amazon price). The author, in the meantime, found a really good job as a barista in Starbucks, and stopped writing altogether. Was it worth it? Do you feel proud now?

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