Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Smashwords Reconsidered

I wrote an article in February regarding self-publishing on Smashwords.  The conclusion I came to was that in most cases there were too many problems with the site to make using it a viable option.  I still stand by what I wrote then.  Formatting a document for submission to Smashwords is tedious and frustrating and the end product often unsightly.  If the only ebooks I intended to self-publish were those I planned to offer for sale, i.e., my three novels, I would skip Smashwords altogether and go with only Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the two major players in the ebook market.

Recently, though, I've been thinking of offering my two photo books, Pictorialist Models and Era of Vice, to readers at no charge.  Both are fairly short works, too short to allow any reasonable expectation that anyone will actually purchase them no matter how high the quality of the photographs themselves.  On the other hand, if offered for free, they might work as marketing tools that would create enough buzz to interest readers in purchasing my novels.

The problem is that neither Amazon nor Barnes & Noble permits authors to list the price of their books as $0.00.  The minimum price that can be set is $1.99.  This makes a certain amount of sense, of course, since retailers earn no profit from giving books away no matter what the advantage to the individual author.  Smashwords, on the other hand, does permit authors to offer ebooks for free.

Even if an author does not want to make a book free on a permanent basis, he or she can still publish the work on Smashwords and then periodically offer a "giveaway" (yes, another marketing ploy) for a limited time.  At the end of the set period, the author can then raise the price back up to the original amount.

Authors who decide to go this route should bear in mind that my reservations regarding Smashwords remain intact.  The site lacks the resources of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and its interface is accordingly much less user-friendly.  Reading through the lengthy (103 pages) Style Guide is an ordeal in itself.  Moreover, the Guide lacks certain pertinent information.  For example, I can't recall having seen anywhere in it the necessity of saving one's MS Word manuscript in .doc rather than .docx format.

Finally, while Smashwords's "Meatgrinder"- their term, not mine - did an acceptable job of converting a Word document to mobi (Amazon Kindle) and pdf formats, it botched the conversion to epub (B&N Nook) format on the two occasions I attempted it.  If one wishes to offer one's work to readers in epub format, one should do the conversion beforehand using the free Calibre tool and then upload the resulting document separately to Smashwords.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Opinions on RAW:artists

I recently received an unsolicited email from one Ryan Smith who described himself as "the Showcase Director of an international arts organization called RAW:natural born artists."  It was fairly lengthy but the gist was that Ryan wanted to "call and discuss featuring your art in our February 18th showcase at The Warsaw in Greenpoint."  He described how he had come across my work:
"I discovered your work through Behance then made my way to your website. Your photography is haunting, mercurial, and visually striking. I would be honored to give my audience the chance to see your expression in person and I'd be thrilled to see it myself."
I wrote back:
"I think you're confusing me with someone else.  I never put any of my work on Behance."
I did take the time to do some (very) brief research on RAW:artists.  I found a discussion board on Etsy that had quite a bit to say about them.  Apparently, in order to be in one of their shows, it's necessary to sell a few hundred dollars worth of tickets to the event.  If the artist is unable to sell the tickets, he or she has to eat the cost and pay for the tickets themselves.  The shows, according to what I read, are not juried but are held in nightclubs often too dimly lit for the artwork to be properly seen.  While it seems the organizers shoot headshots, feature the artists in a video and give them a plug on their website, the quality of the artists shown is questionable.  One woman who had second thoughts wrote: 
"I don't think they 'curate' the shows now, as I previously did. The 'artist' they added to their website right after me, is a balloon artist. Seriously? They 'curate' and can only come up with a balloon artist?" 
To be fair, the reviews on Etsy were mixed; but even among those who had positive things to say I didn't see anyone who claimed to have made significant sales through participation in the shows.  

Whether or not it's worth taking part in such an event is up to the individual artist to decide.  Personally, it's not the way I want to market my work.

Caveat emptor!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Publishing Advice from a Top Selling Author

Like many other authors and book lovers, I'm a member of the Goodreads site where I recently took part in a discussion hosted by the Crime Detective Mystery Thriller Group.  The talk focused on the novels of David Morrell.  David is an extraordinarily successful suspense/thriller writer whose most famous book is First Blood, the novel on which the highly successful series of Rambo films was later based.  Over the years, I've read several of David's books and took advantage of his participation in the discussion to ask him a question that had come to mind when reading the foreword to the uncut edition of The Totem, a truly excellent horror novel I've long admired.
"David, the first of your books that I came across was Totem. I still think it was one of the all-time best horror books I've read. What stuck with me, though, was the foreword in which you spoke about the changes your publisher wanted you to make. In general, do you feel publishers are unreasonable in the demands that they make on new authors in order to make a novel "sellable"? Would today's new authors be better off self-publishing on Amazon instead of going the traditional publishing route?"
David replied almost immediately with a highly detailed response:
"Frank, THE TOTEM was one of my early novels, and I didn't yet have the confidence that I've now acquired. I should have stood my ground and said that I was willing to make changes within the context of the book I'd delivered but that I wasn't going to rewrite the book from page one. That's the only time in which I encountered this problem. As for going the indie route as opposed to the traditional route, with the contraction of the number of major publishing houses since 1999 (from dozens to five), the limited marketplace has made it difficult to get the attention of those big five. But if an author can manage to get that attention, it's a terrific environment, with (usually) excellent editing, cover art, distribution, online marketing etc. I emphasize "usually." Many traditionally published authors have their favorite "how could things have gone so wrong" complaint. Nonetheless I believe that a new author should first try to acquire an agent and an established publisher, because of the support group and the wisdom that can be learned. If that fails after a genuine attempt in that direction, then becoming an indie author is the way to go. I say this with experience in both camps. I was one of the first established authors to e-publish an original novel (in 2010 at the start of the e-book revolution), and I continue to e-publish my backlist, so I have considerable experience in both areas. I believe that it's essential to have a serious professional advisor, such as an agent and an editor, who provides an outside view of a project. And the effort of self-promoting an indie book can be exhausting. I know many indie authors who spend half of each day promoting themselves. True, a traditional publisher expects authors to promote themselves, but at least that traditional publisher can provide advice, along with (more or less) help. This is a volatile issue. Authors who feel abandoned by the traditional route respond angrily to someone who says there's merit to the traditional system. I have the benefit of a long career behind me and have the luxury of a choice. To put this in perspective, one of my upcoming books, a collection of my non-fiction magazine articles about books, movies, and music, isn't suitable for today's traditional marketplace, and I'll self-publish it myself. Not all books are for a big market. I should add that so many new authors are now publishing e-books (400,000 this year), it's difficult to get the attention that indie authors received from 2009-2013. The e-market for romance novels and erotica remains high, but otherwise, I've spoken to many indie authors who say that with increased competition, their sales have declined."
I was, to say the least, extremely impressed that a writer of David's stature would take the time to give such a thoughtful and in-depth reply to a writer who was after all a total stranger to him.  He displayed true courtesy and altruism in his willingness to help new authors achieve success.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Photoshop's Glowing Edges Filter

In general, Photoshop's native filters should be used sparingly and with a great deal of caution.  When they are put to use, they should almost never be used at full opacity.  The "Fade" command is the photographer's most useful tool in such situations.  Applying the Watercolor filter to a given image at 100% opacity will not make it look like a watercolor painting - it will make it look like hokey piece of kitsch.  Having said that, one can sometimes use the Glowing Edges filter to great advantage by masking a brightly lit area and applying the filter to it in order to give it a neon glow.  For demonstration's sake, I applied the filter to the entire image at top.  The result is an abstract neon pattern that, in this instance at least, I find quite attractive.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Museum of Feelings

I went downtown on Monday afternoon to visit The Museum of Feelings.  Although I don't think the organizers were deliberately trying to create a retro experience, the exhibit nevertheless reminded me quite a bit of the many "mind expanding" shows I attended in the 1960's.  The high tech light displays could very well have been successors of the old Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East.  But the location was incongruous - staid Battery Park City is the last place I would normally have expected to encounter any form of psychedelic experience.

The Museum is a temporary installation and closes on December 15th.  Admission is free.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Photo Book Review: Diane Arbus: Revelations

Diane Arbus: Revelations is one of the most lovingly designed monographs I've seen. Its reproductions are uniformly excellent and faithfully reproduce the warm tones of the original Portriga Rapid prints. Unfortunately, the book designer is nowhere credited in the volume, though I did search. 

Any large format "art book" that reproduces the photographer's contact sheets and provides technical information is to be commended. When photographers peruse monographs, they are looking not only for inspiration but also for insight into the means the photographer used to create his/her individual style. This book provides that. There are detailed discussions of the cameras with which Arbus worked as well as the differences the use of these cameras made in the final images. There is also a detailed essay by Neil Selkirk on the methods and materials Arbus used in the darkroom that is unusually informative. Arbus's technique was somewhat idiosyncratic (e.g., no dodging or burning) and allowed her to make prints that were immediately recognizable as her own and that complemented her shooting style very well.

It is only in the "Chronology" section that the book's design fails. The layout here makes the biographical content difficult to read, and the tiny reproductions of an arbitrary assortment of images become increasingly annoying. I suggest readers skip this section and instead purchase the biography by Patricia Bosworth. Although that biography is unauthorized and its reliability has been questioned, it contains details of Arbus's personal life that are essential to understanding her development as an artist and are not to be found in the thoroughly sanitized "Chronology."

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Changing Soho

While walking through Soho recently after a long absence, I took a few digital street photos on my Lumix GH2.  To a native New Yorker, it's so sad to see how completely the neighborhood has gentrified.  If one looks carefully at the photo below, the Corner Deli's overdone attempt to recapture some of the neighborhood's grit by painstakingly reworking its marquee to look old and neglected is readily apparent.  Unfortunately, it's a total fail.