Wagging the Long Tail

A few authors sell vast numbers of books, while most authors sell very few. If you could amass accurate data on that, it would probably look like a decaying exponential curve. It would have the Pareto property, where 20% of the authors sell 80% of the books—those on the left. However, today we’ll focus on the right side of the curve. Statisticians, with their penchant for arcane, hard-to-understand terminology, call that part “the long tail.”

The curve I present here is approximate and intended for illustrative purposes only. Note the vertical red line. Believe it or not, the number of books sold to the left of that line equals the number of books to the right.

Out on the tail of that curve are many, many authors who sell very few books. Looks a little lonely out there, doesn’t it? Most of those authors would love to move left on the curve, ideally all the way left. Readers only have so much money to spend on books, though, and they’re more likely to read books by authors they know.

Very few of those “long tail authors” will move much further left from where they are now, and only a tiny fraction will make it near the vertical axis into the stratospheric heights of the best-seller lists.

That may sound depressing, but let’s squint and take a closer look at that long tail. Each author represents a single point on that curve, but book distributors look at the curve differently. These days, they see the near-infinite length of the long tail as a new profit opportunity.

Distributors have realized we now live in the age of instant and easy searches for obscure information. With the ability to print books on demand, it doesn’t matter how few readers seek, for example, alternate history books about trips to the moon. What matters is that the book “A Tale More True” pops up in response to that search and a sale ensues.

In Wikipedia’s article on the long tail, they quote an Amazon employee as saying, “We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”

You might have to read that again and let it sink in. I’ll wait.

In fact, now is the best time to be a long tail author. Let’s consider the set of those readers searching for steampunk books about planet-threatening comets. They easily find my book, “The Cometeers.” Among that admittedly small set of readers, I’m a best-selling author!

Here are a few more examples included for instructive purposes, and certainly not for crass self-promotion:

Readers search for books about: They find and buy:
Alternate histories involving the Ottoman Empire To Be First  
Romance stories taking place in Ancient Greece Against All Gods  
Stories involving Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions Leonardo’s Lion  
Sequel to War of the Worlds After the Martians  
Shakespearean clockpunk Time’s Deformèd Hand  

If you’re a long tail author, don’t despair. You have plenty of company; readers can find your books more readily than ever before; and book distributors now regard you as a profitable part of the book-selling enterprise. Happily wagging my tiny part of the long tail, you’ll find—

Poseidon’s Scribe

½ Price Sale on Many of My Books!

You’re looking for some great beach reads for your Kindle this summer. You keep hearing about that author—what’s his name?—who everyone is talking about. That’s right, it’s Steven R. Southard, the one who calls himself Poseidon’s Scribe.

You’ve been meaning to read my books, but you keep thinking they’re so darned expensive. Well, you’re in luck. Your wait is over.

For the month of July only, Smashwords is offering many of my books (the ones in the What Man Hath Wrought series) for ½ price! That’s right, get two for the price of one.

Here’s how to take advantage of these great prices. When you click on any book at my Smashwords site, a message will appear telling you to use a specific code at checkout to get the discount.

Here’s the list of stories and their prices during July:

AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians
$2.00

 

RippersRing5Ripper’s Ring
$2.00

 

TimesDeformedHand3fTime’s Deformèd Hand
$2.00

 

TheCometeers3fThe Cometeers
$2.00

 

ToBeFirstWheels4To Be First and Wheels of Heaven
$2.00

 

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry and Last Vessel of Atlantis
$2.00

 

ATaleMoreTrue3fA Tale More True
$2.00

 

TheSixHundredDollarMan72dpi-1The Six Hundred Dollar Man
$1.50

 

ASteampunkCarol3fA Steampunk Carol
$1.50

 

AgainstAllGods4Against All Gods
$2.00

 

LeonardosLion4Leonardo’s Lion
$2.00

 

AlexandersOdyssey3fAlexander’s Odyssey
$2.00

 

WithinVictorianMists4Within Victorian Mists
$1.50

 

WindSphereShip4The Wind-Sphere Ship
$1.50

 

Better take advantage of this limited time offer before Smashwords wakes up and realizes what they’ve done. Heck, you could buy all 14 books for a cool $26. How’s that for value?

Remember, go to Smashwords and grab these deals while they last. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing Blurbs

Whether readers buy books online or in a bookstore, they look at the cover first and the blurb second. If the blurb doesn’t grab them, they move on. Don’t kill that sale with a bad blurb.

BlurbA blurb is defined as a short description of your book, written for promotional purposes and appearing on the back cover. That definition sucks all the life out of the word, though. Scratch out “written for promotional purposes” and substitute “written to seize the prospective reader’s attention and imbed an irresistible desire to possess the book and read every word.”

My primary publisher, Gypsy Shadow Publishing, asks for two blurbs for each book—a long one that’s less than 150 words, and a short one no longer than 25 words. Both of these are difficult for me to write, but the short blurb is the toughest.

What should be in a blurb?

  • Hint at the plot or main conflict.
  • Name and mention distinguishing trait of main character(s).
  • Describe the setting or ‘world.’ This is vital in science fiction and fantasy.
  • If available, include quotes about this book or your previous books.
  • If space available, include an author bio.

How do you write one?

  • Study other book blurbs in your genre. Learn the common words and language.
  • Write a summary of your book (if not done already), then shorten it down to its essence. What’s the book’s “elevator speech?”
  • Use image-laden words, those powerful words that speak to readers of the book’s genre.
  • Ensure the tone of the blurb matches that of the book.
  • Write several blurbs and combine the best features.
  • Set it aside for a few days, then read it again. If meh, rewrite.
  • Ask your critique group to comment on it. You are in a critique group, right?

Further Reading

You can find out even more about blurbs from Amy Wilkins, Marilynn Byerly, and the master of writer advice, Joanna Penn. I’ve shamelessly stolen from them in writing this post.

Examples

Here are three of the 25-word blurbs from my most recent books. These don’t contain all the elements noted above, but the 150-word, lengthier versions do:

  • Ripper’s Ring:” The ancient Ring of Gyges grants the power of invisibility to Jack the Ripper. A Scotland Yard detective tracks a killer who can’t be seen.
  • Time’s Deformèd Hand:” Time for zany mix-ups in a clock-obsessed village. Long-separated twins, giant automatons, and Shakespeare add to the madcap comedy. Read it before it’s too late!
  • The Cometeers:” A comet threatens Earth…in 1897! Of the six men launched by cannon to deflect it, one is a saboteur. It’s steampunk Armageddon!

With some practice and creativity, your blurbs should be even better than any written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Recalling the Moment

When people ask, “how did you get the idea for that story?” it’s useful to be able to remember that exact instant when the lightning struck, when the light bulb glowed, when the muse whispered. For some of my stories, I can. For others, I have no idea.

People expect you to remember. They want to hear about the light bulb moment. After all, that’s a bit of a story in itself.

220px-Suzanne_Collins_David_Shankbone_2010Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games series, has a great story for how she came up with the idea for the first book in the series. As reported here, she was channel-surfing between a reality show involving a competition among young people, and some news coverage of a war. The two TV shows blurred in her mind, and she came up with her book idea. She also claims that the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read at age eight, became the inspiration for the plot.

This is often how it happens. Two or more ideas get merged in your mind, and they can be widely separated in time. Some of these ideas could be something half-remembered from childhood.

On occasion, an entire story coming to a writer in a flash, so that it becomes a race to get it written down before the memory degrades. Other authors refine and mature a basic idea over time before they are ready to write. Whichever method you use, it’s still a good thing to write down the initial idea right after the bulb illuminates, perhaps in a daily journal. That way you’ll be ready when people ask.

What’s that you’re thinking? You’re wondering how I got the ideas for some of my recent stories? How nice of you to ask.

A Clouded Affair” came from a clash of two ideas. I was in a dieselpunk mood, having never written in that subgenre. Then I saw the call for stories for an anthology titled Avast, Ye Airships! Clearly, they wanted steampunk. What to do? How about a battle between a steampunk pirate and a dieselpunk pirate?

For “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” I was responding to a planned anthology of Steampunk Shakespeare stories. I wanted a lighter tale, so I reviewed the Bard’s comedies, and selected “A Comedy of Errors.” Clockpunk seemed a better fit than steampunk, so I went with that. While my story didn’t get picked for the anthology, it found a happier home as part of my What Man Hath Wrought series.

The Cometeers” is one story whose genesis I don’t recall. For some reason, I must have been thinking about save-the-Earth-from-destruction plot lines, and thought about how I could set such a story in the steampunk era.

Here’s a sneaky notion, to wrap things up. Since you won’t always recall the “ah-ha moment” when a story idea occurred to you, and since your zillions of fans will demand to know how it actually happened, it’s probably okay in this instance to make up a story. After all, you’re a fiction writer—making up stories is what you do. Moreover, who would say your explanation is wrong? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Votes Are In

predlogoTheCometeers72dpiTimesDeformedHand72dpi

 

 

 

 

 

I owe a great big thank-you to those who voted for my stories in the Critters Workshop Annual Preditors and Editors Readers Poll for 2014.

My story “The Cometeers” came in 3rd of 7 among Steampunk Short Stories, and “Time’s Deformèd Hand” tied for 3rd out of 25, in the All Other Short Stories category.

Thanks again for voting for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

January 17, 2015Permalink

Vote for Your Favorite Story of 2014

Happy New Year! That must mean it’s time for the Critters Writers Workshop to conduct their Preditors and Editors Poll (the 17th annual one this time) to see which newly published e-book readers prefer.

critters_headerYou can vote for your favorite book in a wide variety of categories. It’s not really a scientific poll, but winning it (or landing in the top ten) gives each author some bragging rights.

TheCometeers72dpi Someone has entered two of my own stories in the poll. “The Cometeers” is in the Steampunk Short Story category and is currently running 2nd out of 6 in the poll. Also, “Time’s Deformèd Hand” is in the All Other Short Story category and is currently running 3rd out of 22 in the poll.TimesDeformedHand72dpi  The links in this paragraph and the story cover images take you straight to the correct poll category to vote.

If you wish, you could vote for my stories. All you do is click the button beside your favorite story’s title (for example, “The Cometeers” and “Time’s Deformèd Hand”), then scroll to the bottom, enter your e-mail address, and type an author’s name from a book cover image to prove you’re not a spam robot. Then you’ll get an e-mail to confirm your vote; just click the link in the email and you’re done. Please vote before January 14, when they close the polling.

Once again, our good ol’ Earth has reached the beginning of its orbit and started another elliptical swing around the Sun. That’s worth celebrating! The astronomers and calendar manufacturers have declared we get to start a new year, so that’s not a bad deal. Happy 2015, everyone, from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

How I Inspired an Expedition

According to news accounts here, here, and here, divers will use a special diving suit (called the Exosuit) to explore off the coast of Antikythera Island near Greece. The site is a debris field left by a Roman merchant ship estimated to have sunk around 60 B.C. in 200 feet of water.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1They’ll be looking for more pieces of “the world’s oldest computer.” It’s a geared calculating machine, discovered by divers in 1900. No one credited the ancient Greeks with much knowledge of gear technology, until the discovery of this machine.

The question you’re probably wondering is, why now? The mechanism has been known about for more than a century. Why are scientists and explorers suddenly interested in finding out if they are missing some parts of the machine, or if they already have extra pieces and there were two devices aboard the ship? What prompted this new expedition?

I might have had something to do with it.

ToBeFirstWheels3fYou see, I wrote a story about the Antikythera Mechanism called “Wheels of Heaven,” and it just got published (by Gypsy Shadow Publishing) a couple of months ago. In my tale, I explain what the machine is and how it came to rest at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

You’d have to agree this can’t be a coincidence. Obviously someone read my story and got to thinking, “I wonder if he’s right? Is that how it happened?”

No one associated with the expedition is likely to admit it, of course. They might even deny it if asked. After all, no scientist wants to confess to being inspired by a mere fictional short story.

But we know the truth, don’t we? The connection is too strong to ignore. They can refute it all they want.

At this point you’re probably curious what the fuss is all about. You can purchase “Wheels of Heaven” along with another story “To Be First” here, here, here, and other places too. Sail along on the ship Prospectus with the Roman astrologer Drusus Praesentius Viator, and a common sailor from Crete named Abrax as they argue over whether the machine can tell the future.

Once again we see mysterious parallels between the breaking news of today’s world and the worlds depicted in my stories. A few weeks ago, I told you about the upcoming landing on a comet, an event similar to the one in my story “The Cometeers.”

The question we must ask, then, is which will be the next story of mine to have some strong link to the news headlines? Which of my other books of alternate history will prompt the next scientist, explorer, or engineer to undertake a grand investigative effort? You can offer your own answer to this question by leaving a comment to this blog post.

Strange how this keeps happening, isn’t it? If you want to know the science and technology news of tomorrow, simply to turn to the works of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2014Permalink

First to Land on a Comet?

This week the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they will choose from among five sites on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the Rosetta spacecraft’s robot laboratory Philae to land, as reported here, here, and here. Crop_from_the_4_August_processed_image_of_comet_67P_Churyumov_Gerasimenko300px-Rosetta

Philae_over_a_comet_(crop)They claim this will be the first time a human-built spacecraft has landed on a comet.

I beg to differ.

I’m aware of an alternate universe very close to our own, a universe in which an actual manned—not robotic—landing has already occurred.

In 1897.

It’s all documented in my story, “The Cometeers,” a story to be launched tomorrow by Gypsy Shadow Publishing. Yes, that’s tomorrow. The 1st of September.TheCometeers72dpi

That means you don’t have to wait for the ESA to take their sweet time choosing a landing site and preparing to send down the Philae probe. They’re not even attempting their landing until mid-November. That’s not for two and a half whole months!

Who wants to wait that long? You can be witness to a manned landing on a comet as soon as tomorrow.

Also, in my story, the comet isn’t some benign rock way out there at some safe distance.  Not at all.  It’s huge, and it’s hurtling toward Earth.

A planet-buster.

Further, the heroes of “The Cometeers” don’t have fancy computers, or Ariane 5 rockets, or robots, let alone nuclear weapons. All they’ve got is gunpowder. And a big cannon. And their ingenuity.

And a few sticks of gum.

I’ve got nothing against the fine folks at the ESA. Really. The Rosetta mission is exciting, and it has the added benefit that it’s really taking place in our own universe.

Sometimes, though, alternate universes can be fun, too. Read “The Cometeers” and see if you agree. Jules Verne said, “Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” It looks like the ESA will soon make something real, something that first blasted like a cannon shot from the imagination of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Interview with a Cometeer

Today I’m interviewing the protagonist, Commander Hanno Knighthead, from my story, “The Cometeers,” scheduled for release by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in early September.

TheCometeers72dpiPoseidon’s Scribe: Greetings, Commander Knighthead, and welcome to our blog—er, newspaper. I’m Poseidon’s—I mean, I’m Steven Southard, the Editor in Chief.

Commander Knighthead: Thank you, Mr. Southard. I’m pleased to be here.

S.S.: Can you tell our readers about your upcoming mission?

CDR K.: Well, I think most people already know we’re travelling into outer space to blast Comet Göker with gunpowder to divert it away from the Earth.

S.S.: Can you remind our readers when the comet is due to collide with Earth, if not diverted in time?

CDR K.: Yes, on September 9th.

S.S.: Of this very year, 1897, is that correct?

CDR K.: Yes.

S.S.: Very interesting. Let’s get to some personal matters. How old are you and where did you grow up?

CDR K.: I’m 35 and I was born and raised at a farm near Emporia, Kansas. Born one year after Kansas became a state, in fact.

S.S.: But you didn’t stay to work the farm when you grew up?

CDR K.: No. After reading Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, and other such books, I felt the call of the sea. I received an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and graduated from there in ’84.

S.S.: Pardon me for asking, but how did your parents pick your first name—Hanno? It’s most unusual. Is it a family name?

CDR K.: (laughs) No. My name is Hanover. Hanno is just a nickname.

S.S.: What was your most recent command in the Navy before being selected for the comet mission?

CDR K.: I was captain of the torpedo boat, USS Hopkins, home-ported in Newport, Rhode Island.

S.S.: Are you married, Commander?

CDR. K.: No.

S.S.: Come now. A good-looking man like you, in the prime of health, with a successful Navy career going? I’m sure there are scores of young ladies who—

CDR. K.: I preferred not to subject a wife to the difficulties of dealing with my life at sea.

S.S.: I understand, though our young, female readers will likely wish you’d make an exception.  How were you chosen for this mission?

CDR K.: That was the shocking part. I’m told President McKinley selected me personally.

S.S.: Really? Why? Did the President know you?

CDR K.: No. When I had the opportunity to meet with him in the White House, he told me he wanted someone able to lead a small group of men in a confined craft on a long mission. I’m honored he chose me.

S.S.: As you should be. I understand the rest of your crew for the comet mission was hand-picked as well.

CDR K.: Yes, hand-picked for their expertise in various disciplines needed on our mission—explosives, mechanics, orbital mathematics, comet geology, physics, and other specialties. They’re from the nine countries that contributed the most to finance the expedition.

S.S.: A multi-national crew, then. Do you foresee difficulties in communication?

CDR K.: Not in communication. They all speak English.

S.S.: Your answer suggests you see difficulties of another kind. Do you?

CDR K.: We’re sending twenty three projectiles into outer space, three of them manned. We’re trying to guide the ones filled with gunpowder so they hit a comet travelling very fast, and we’re trying to keep that comet from hitting the Earth. Of course, I see difficulties. I see nothing but difficulties.

S.S.: I meant, do you see problems with your crew, other than communication?

CDR K.: (hesitates before answering) I think it’s no secret that leading a crew of well-educated civilians experts presents different challenges that leading a crew of a few officers and dozens of enlisted men. Having said that, I look forward to the mission and have full confidence every crewman will do his job.

Steven Southard: I know you’re a busy man, so I’ll end here by wishing you and the rest of the Cometeers complete success. The rest of us are depending on you.

CDR Knighthead: Thank you. We won’t let you down.

As a reminder, my story, “The Cometeers,” will be launched in early September. I think you’ll find Commander Hanno Knighthead has, if anything, underestimated the challenges he’ll face on this mission. Challenges imposed on him by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Story behind “The Cometeers”

As I mentioned in my News page, Gypsy Shadow Publishing has accepted my story, “The Cometeers” which will be published as part of the What Man Hath Wrought series. The intended launch date is in early September.

TheCometeers72dpiHere’s the marvelous cover, designed by Charlotte Holley.  Yes, that’s a planet-destroying comet headed right toward the Earth.  But if you look closer, you’ll see an silvery man-made projectile on an intercept course.  Just possibly, its occupants might save the entire world.

Inquiries have been streaming in from every corner of the planet (and from some of the comets), asking what this story is about. Far be it from me to deny my fans information about my latest tale.

Here’s the book blurb: A huge comet speeds toward a devastating collision with the Earth, but no one will launch space shuttles filled with nuclear weapons. It’s 1897. Instead they’ll fire projectiles from the Jules Verne cannon and try to deflect the comet with a gunpowder explosion. Commander Hanno Knighthead isn’t sure he can motivate his argumentative, multinational crew of geniuses to work together. It turns out one of them is a saboteur. Then things get worse. Only a truly extraordinary leader could get this group to cooperate, thwart the saboteur, and jury-rig a way to divert the comet. Lucky thing Hanno brought his chewing gum.

Armageddon-poster 1998If you recall the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” then you can think of my story as Steampunk Armageddon.

I don’t recall the exact inspiration for this story. As stated in this post, and this one, I use the “seed and twist” method of coming up with story ideas. In this case the seed is the standard save-Earth-from-destruction idea, and the twist is to set the action in Victorian times.

My problem became one of technology. They just didn’t have sufficient know-how in the Nineteenth Century to divert or destroy a comet. It’s an open question whether we really have the technology today.

640px-From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneTherefore, I assumed the world of Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon.  In that world, men had already achieved space travel in 1867. With funds from many nations, the Baltimore Gun Club had built a 900 foot long cannon outside Tampa, Florida, and launched a projectile containing three men.

My story is set thirty years later and no one has used the cannon since, due to the enormous expense. With a giant comet on the way, however, something must be done, so every country contributes what it can.

You can’t simply launch projectiles full of gunpowder at the comet and expect to hit it. The target is too small, the distance too great, and the calculations too imprecise. You must send men up also, in separate projectiles, to travel with your gunpowder bombs to make the necessary course corrections along the way.

That plan should work.

Unless something goes wrong.

“The Cometeers” will launch in September. For further updates, keep visiting this blog and reading the posts by—

Poseidon’s Scribe