A Reading List for Writers

I’ve continued to play around with the new Books2Read reading list option and put together this reading list of all of my favorite writing books. These are the books that are physically on a shelf in my office that I really liked. Definitely not all the writing-related books I’ve read over the years, but the ones I really enjoyed and found valuable.

There were a few that I couldn’t link to because they don’t exist in an ebook version, which I find strange in this day and age. But it is what it is.

I went ahead and created a separate account to do this because I have so many of my own books in my main B2R account, which means pretty much anyone could create an account as an “author” and then put together a list like this.

So, check it out if you’re looking for ideas on more writing books to read or if you just want to see how it works.

A Reading List for Writers

 

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

6- Me 2

A Little Link Fun

I spent the last two days doing Strengths coaching for writers and it was wonderful and awesome, but now I’m supposed to be turning back to the third cozy so I can release it on what would have been my dad’s 70th birthday. (Crazy to think about since he’s been gone for 24 years and he’s just frozen at that age for me forever.)

Anyway. Me being me, I of course am not actually working on finalizing the cozy. Instead I got distracted by Books2Read’s new reading list option.  You can go on there and create your own reading list that you can then share with others. As an author I have all of my books listed with them, but it’s not exclusive to authors as far as I know. I think anyone could go on there and list books and create a reading list out of it. So, for example, books you’ve reviewed or that you recommend, etc.

(Now that I’ve said that, I might try that myself, just for kicks.)

For authors, there’s also an option to edit your author page and provide a link to that.

So, here’s a page I put together for the Excel books.

And here’s one I put together for M.L. Humphrey.

Pretty cool, huh?

I’m not sure it saves more steps than having people come here to see what books are available, but it is a bit more slick.

 

AMS and Pricing And Experiments

About a month ago I decided to take my romance novels out of Kindle Unlimited. Not because I necessarily expected them to sell on the other platforms, but because I just grow sour on KU and how it operates at times and I think there’s a growing schism in self-publishing land that somewhat revolves around KU and I’d rather be on the “people pay for my books specifically instead of borrowing them because what the hell” side of things.

(No judgement here on anyone who chooses or feels differently and not saying that there aren’t authors in KU who have name recognition and a loyal fan base, there definitely are. If you’re making money at this, go you.)

Anyway.

One of the things I try to do when I advertise a book that isn’t in KU is to also only target books that aren’t in KU. I do this because I think it cuts down on the number of clicks without buys that my ad gets because I’m not attracting buyers who are looking for a title to borrow.

When I was going through the list of authors who’ve been good targets for AMS ads on that first romance novel, I noticed that many of those authors were priced at $6.99 in ebook. My price on that novel at the time was $4.99.

Now, if you were to go to any of the author forums and suggest that you wanted to list your romance title for sale at $6.99 as a self-published author, you’d be laughed out of the building. Who on earth is going to buy a self-published romance novel at $6.99 when they can buy a box set of twenty romance novels for 99 cents? The market just doesn’t support that. Maybe you can get away with $4.99, but $6.99? No.

Well…

It turns out there are some readers out there who will buy a self-published novel at $6.99. And that I can still run successful AMS ads on a romance novel that’s not in KU at that price point.

I’m not burning up the charts by any means, but the outcome I’m seeing is pretty much the same as when this novel was in KU and priced at $4.99. In the 30 days before I pulled the novel it had 13 paid sales at $4.99 and 21,000 page reads. (Keep in mind this is a novel that’s been out for over four years and where I only have two titles out under that name and the last novel was published two years ago.)

In the 30 days after I pulled the novel it’s had 28 sales at $6.99.

The only problem is that the ad doesn’t result in borrows/buys as often as when it was in KU at a lower price, so I’m not sure the ad will continue to run. AMS likes success and if you fail to hit that level that it deems successful, you get shut down.

I do think, though, that this highlights an important issue to think about with respect to AMS. There are a number of moving parts to running an AMS ad. One is how much per click you have to bid to have your ad shown, another is how much you have to pay for clicks on your ad, another is how many clicks to a purchase or borrow, and another is how much you make on a purchase or borrow of your book.

All four of those factors come into play in determining whether you can successfully run AMS ads long-term. It’s easy to bid really high and get visibility on a title. You might even get sales. But if you’re paying $1 per click and it takes 5 clicks to a sale and you only earn $2 on that sale, you’re very nicely losing yourself $3 per sale of your book. If you instead make $5 on that sale, you’re at least breaking even.

It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes raising prices makes your ads more profitable. At each price point there is very likely a differing number of clicks that will lead to a sale and if you can find that sweet spot where the number of clicks needed is smaller relative to the income from a sale, you can increase profitability even if sales or the number of readers go down slightly.

Of course, you have to back that up with a good product, too, or long-term a poor customer experience will take you down. But that’s a whole other discussion…

I should also add here that when I looked at prices for fantasy novels that the price point I was seeing a lot of was $9.99, but I just couldn’t bring myself to try it, so even I have my psychological stopping points when it comes to pricing ebooks. (I put those books to $7.99 again because they actually do alright there and that is yet another pen name I am not actively adding to at the moment. Sigh.)

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

In the comments on the last post I made about copyright, onereasonableperson asked about plagiarism and how that fits into all of this. For example, can you plagiarize an idea or is it only plagiarism when you copy someone’s exact words (which is generally where copyright comes into play).

I had my own gut feelings on the matter, which is that you really need to be copying words not just taking an idea and putting your own riff on it, but I also knew that there have been some pretty big scandals that alleged plagiarism that weren’t for exact word-by-word copying. So I went digging.

(And I’m hoping that Dave Higgins, who is an actual lawyer, will jump in on the comments here with some further insights. When in doubt, listen to the lawyer.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Plagiarism is not a legally defined term. It is an ethical and moral issue and generally defined within the context of an institutional code of ethics. For example, in academic writing using the ideas of another academic without acknowledging their contribution is a big no-no. Hence the large number of footnotes and citations in that kind of writing.

(See Wikipedia.)

Because it’s an ethical issue not a legal issue, the definitions of plagiarism do in fact include ideas. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of what it means to plagiarize:

“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” or “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

The problem is, this is easier alleged than dealt with, especially in trope-heavy genres like romance or LitRPG. When does it move from following a standard progression of story elements to essentially copying the creativity of another?

When this question came up on the other post, my immediate thought was that Cassandra Clare had been sued at one point by Sherrilyn Kenyon for “plagiarism” for essentially too much similarity in terms of story elements between their series. I found an article about it in Slate that you can see here.

But when you go look at the actual court filing, which is posted here, you’ll find that the actual lawsuit alleged copyright and trademark infringement that impacted the value of Kenyon’s property (goodwill).

So while the ethical allegation was one of plagiarism and that’s what showed up in headlines when the case was filed, the legal allegation had to be for copyright and trademark infringement because those are the legal standards that come into play.

And, to add to this point, you can see in this post here on Clare’s website that the copyright portion of the case was eventually dropped from the suit (likely because there was no word-for-word copying that occurred, but that’s just my personal speculation).

Also, according to that post, the trademark portion was eventually settled. In other words, it wasn’t litigated and so can’t be used in any way to show a point where common elements between novels or the marketing of those novels becomes grounds for a trademark violation.

You can see this copyright vs. plagiarism issue play out again in the recent situation involving Cristian Serruya. Here’s a post where Courtney Milan (a highly competent lawyer in addition to being a talented author) tells other authors how to address the situation.

Note that the first item recommends making a report of an ethics violation to a membership organization (RWA) where Serruya is a member. But that the second item goes back to copyright.

In the Serruya case there was word-for-word copying of other’s works, so that made it very clean.

If there hadn’t been word-for-word copying then I suspect that would’ve made the legal basis for challenging her very difficult, but she would’ve still been crucified in the court of public opinion because authors and readers don’t appreciate seeing someone take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as their own.

I remember a situation a few years back where someone had taken an erotic short story and rewritten it in their own words, but kept everything else about the story the same. (I honestly thought the rewrite was better, but that’s just me.) It wasn’t a copyright violation. It wasn’t a trademark violation. But it didn’t matter because it upset a large pool of authors who made it their mission to go after that author until the book was taken down. (And the author name probably permanently blackballed.)

There was another situation a few years back related to an author who’d done very well in urban fantasy and then someone came along and published a book that basically copied the intent and format of their blurb, named the main character after the other author, and copied elements of the other author’s book. Once again, lots and lots of uproar over that one. It didn’t destroy the second author’s career, but it certainly blackened their name. I looked just now to see if there was a lawsuit filed and am not finding anything, although I know the first author did discuss doing so and that their publisher’s legal team was involved but I can’t even find discussion of it now, so I assume that one was settled as well.

Heck, I’ve run into this one myself where someone took a blurb on one of my books and basically switched the words around just enough to not be copying what I’d said while still saying the exact same thing. If I’d had a big, voracious following for that book it would’ve been ugly for the person who did that. Because I didn’t they just got the side-eye from me.

So bottom line for an author: Legally it’s going to come down to copyright, trademark, or, as Dave mentioned in the other post, moral rights. Ethically and in the court of public opinion it’s probably best to find your inspiration from a wide enough variety of sources that your book doesn’t look like a thinly veiled copy of another’s work.

A Little Lesson on Copyright

I just saw someone who should know better ask if a work becomes public domain (i.e., available for anyone to publish and make money from) if an author markets that work without registering the copyright with the copyright office.

NO.

I put that in large, bolded letters because that comment was horrifying to me. That’s the kind of comment that leads to an author stealing another author’s work and not understanding what they’ve just done.

So let’s talk copyright real quick.

First, at least in the U.S., the official source of information on this is the U.S. Copyright Office. Here’s a nice FAQ they have available. If you are a creator of any sort of artistic work, read it. If you intend to sell any sort of artistic work, read it. If you want to share someone else’s artistic work, read it.

So, let’s summarize a few of the answers available on that site:

  • A work is under copyright protection as soon as it is “fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”
  • Copyright covers “original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”
  • Copyright registration is voluntary. A work is protected whether you register the copyright or not.
  • You don’t even need to use a copyright notice on your work to have copyright protection.
  • But if you want to bring a suit for copyright infringement, you do need to register your copyright.
  • Depending on when you register a work you may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees if someone infringes your copyright.
  • The U.S. has reciprocal relationships with a number of countries to honor one another’s copyright registrations, but that is not universal. There are many countries who do not acknowledge copyright protection.
  • If someone reproduces, distributes, performs, publicly displays, or makes a derivative work of someone else’s copyrighted material without permission, that is considered an infringement of the original author’s copyright.
  • There is a fair use exception to copyright infringement. It is “permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports.” (However, be very careful with song lyrics. There is no number of words that are deemed safe. It’s based on context.)
  • Works do eventually fall out of copyright and into what is called public domain. When a work is in the public domain others can publish it or write derivative works based on it. A work published today would be under copyright protection for at least 70 years and likely longer than that.
  • If you want to protect a name, title, slogan, etc. that does not fall under copyright, but may fall under trademark protection.
  • When you register a copyright that registration information is publicly available. You also have to submit a copy of the “best” version of the item that is available at the time.
  • If someone infringes your copyright you can file a civil suit against them. Also, “in cases of willful infringement for profit, the U.S. Attorney may initiate a criminal investigation.”
  • “Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. Anyone found to have infringed a copyrighted work may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed and, if willful infringement is proven by the copyright owner, that amount may be increased up to $150,000 for each work infringed. “

In summary. Don’t mess with another person’s creative work. With respect to writing, that means don’t copy someone’s blog, don’t take sentences they’ve written and use them in your own work as a “homage” if you don’t have permission, don’t steal their book and publish it as your own, and don’t download books off some sketchy site where someone is “sharing” their version of a book. All of that is a big no-no.

Just because someone doesn’t choose to go through the time and expense to officially register their work does not let you off the hook.

Same goes for photos you find on the internet. If you didn’t take the photo or arrange to license the photo for your own use, not yours to use.

If you’re a writer, read through that FAQ I linked to above. And if you really want to dig in buy The Copyright Handbook from NOLO.

An Unforeseen Challenge

I’m working on my third cozy at the moment, but earlier this week I found myself stuck and unable or unwilling to move forward with it. The reason behind that is what I find the most interesting…

The cozies are pure self-indulgence where the main character and her dog are very much like me and my dog if we were to live in the Colorado mountains and trip over dead bodies every time we turned around.

And it occurred to me as I was writing this most recent one that I was giving the dog in the books a better life than I was giving my own dog. The dog in the books has friends to play with and a stream to wallow in and gets far more attention from people than my poor dog who is always sleeping away in the hall while I write.

It stopped me cold. Because I was like, “Why am I giving this fictitious dog a better life than I’m giving my own dog?” So I spent a lot of the next couple of days hanging out outside with my pup and reading while she watched the world go by rather than locking myself away in my office and writing.

I can’t do that all the time, of course, or else the bills won’t get paid, but I figured sometimes you have to step back from the fake reality you’re creating and pay attention to the real world around you and the actual people (and dogs) that you love.