Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Smashwords Launches Ebook Affiliate Program

Smashwords formally launched an affiliate program today that offers independent web marketers generous 11 percent commissions simply for linking to Smashwords books, publisher pages and author pages.

With big box and independent bookstores in decline, authors and publishers need to replace physical shelf space with digital shelf space. The Smashwords Affiliate Marketing Program makes it possible for ebook stores to appear virtually anywhere on the web - on blogs, author web sites and special-interest communities.

Affiliate programs are nothing new to bookselling. Amazon has had enormous success with its own Amazon Associates program, which, according to some old reports I've seen on the web, has close to one million participating affiliates and drives close to 40 percent of Amazon's sales (if any readers know sources of exact numbers, post them here so I can reference). Despite the success of their affiliate program, Amazon earlier this year removed Kindle ebooks from the program, which means Amazon Affiliates no longer earn commissions on ebook sales.

Read our press release for more information. Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch also has a brief story out today.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Speaking about the Future of Ebooks at IBPA's Publishing University and BookExpo America

If you're headed to New York next week for the Independent Book Publisher Association's Publishing University or for the huge BookExpo America, I'm speaking in three separate sessions. Stop by and say hello. The sessions are:

Publishing University Thursday, May 28
#1. 8:30-10am, "Turning Printed Books into Downloadable E-Books: Creating Digital Reading for Those on the Move"

I'm honored to do this presentation alongside the one and only Dan Poynter! I'll share my views on the past, present and future of ebooks. If you haven't purchased Dan's latest greatest book - The Self Publishing Manual Volume 2 - buy it now at Smashwords (it's our #1 bestseller!).
Once your book is written and ready to be printed, it is time to think about other profit centers. E-books do not have to be printed, inventoried, or shipped. E-books are never returned. You will discover how to prepare the file, convert it into the five popular e-book formats, and submit it to resellers (dealers) such as Amazon.com, Palm, and Yahoo! A resource handout includes a step-by-step plan plus contact names and phone numbers. Learn from the industry guru, Dan Poynter, who has been selling e-documents and e-books since 1996.

#2. 12:00-2pm, Keynote Luncheon, "Give the E-Readers What They Want — Content Delivery in a Digital Future"

For this roundtable panel moderated by IPA president Florrie Binford Kichler, I'm accompanied by Neelan Choksi of Amazon/ Lexcycle, Daniel Albohn of Sony, and Tricia Roth of ReadHowYouWant.
In an era that in recent times has seen print book sales steadily declining, e-book sales are on the rise. “It’s the content, stupid” has been the mantra, and nowhere has that been more evident than in the growing numbers of e-book readers that range from the Sony e-reader to the Apple iPhone and beyond, and ebook READERS who are migrating to their cell phones and devices for everything from the New York Times to their favorite novel. As a publisher, how do you create your own digital strategy to reach consumers who now have more choices in HOW they read than ever before? Join this panel of experts who have revolutionized the reading experience as they talk about the brave new world of publishing and how publishers can best take advantage of new and ever-changing technology. How can you reach this growing market? Learn the answers and more in this must-attend program presented by companies whose names are synonyms for technological innovation and leadership.

BookExpo America (BEA) Friday, May 29 (Happy Birthday to me!)
#3. 9:30-10:30am, panel, "Digital Debut Tool Time"

This panel discussion is moderated by Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical, featuring me, Peter Clifton of FiledBy, Hugh McGuire of BookOven and Neil Jones of Coolreaders.
An insider’s presentation of new and soon-to-be-mainstreamed web-based entities providing innovative digital services and tools to authors, publishers and readers.
See you in New York!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Inside the Smashwords Community Filter

When we launched Smashwords one year ago, our mission was simple: Provide a free service that allows any author anywhere to publish their book online in 5 minutes or less, and allow the reading community to determine what's worth reading.

Last week we expanded our focus to include titles from publishers as well.

At Smashwords, we do not apply an editorial filter. We publish (nearly) everything that comes our way, provided the author or the publisher is authorized to digitally publish it with us. Consider Smashwords a virtual slush pile of undiscovered brilliance, dreck and everything in between.

As readers interact with the books, their actions and reactions filter and curate the content. Readers leave trails of virtual bread crumbs that help other readers navigate the content. The best content rises to the top and the less desirable content disappears out of sight.

We refer to the system as the Smashwords Community Filter. The filter becomes more accurate every month as our sales, content and traffic grow.

The Smashwords Community Filter is not rocket science. What we do is really no different than YouTube with videos, Digg with news links, or countless other online services that trust their community to filter and curate content.

Here are some of the elements that comprise the Smashwords Community Filter:
Purchases: When a reader buys a book, it's like a vote for the book. The best-selling books rise in best-selling ebooks rankings on our home page.

Ratings, reviews and favorites: Once a reader purchases a book, they're allowed to review it. Books with the best reviews rise in our highest rated ebooks category. If you appreciate the quality of a review, you can click on the reviewer to view other reviews by the same reviewer, or to view authors they have personally "favorited."

Click streams: We track aggregated and anonymous click streams and use this data to suggest alternate navigational paths for book discovery. For example, if you visit the book page of one of our authors, you're presented with
other books viewed by the same people who viewed this book.

Contextual hyperlinking: From a book page, you're presented with links to other books purchased by the same people who bought this book, as well as other books written by the same author or published by the same publisher.

Inbound links: Hyperlinks are the digital analog to word of mouth advertising. Approximately 80 percent of Smashwords web site visitors arrive to Smashwords via deep links, meaning they arrive to an author page or an author's book page because someone published that link on a website, blog, email, message board or social networking site like Twitter or Facebook.
Our community filter isn't perfect. It's subject to gaming, such as when authors using coupons or discounts to drive sales and traffic, or when they organize friends and family to give artificially glowing reviews. Yet the system is also self-correcting. If fake reviews fool an independent reader to purchase a title, and the reader feels suckered, they're likely to write an unusually negative review that restores balance and warns off potential readers.

Our community filter is also subject to unexpected "disturbances in the force," to borrow a phrase from Star Wars. What happens when a lesser quality work receives unusual promotion by someone mocking a title, as happened last week when ebook enthusiast Mike Cane performed a real-time Twitter review of dozens of Smashwords titles? He applauded good works and eviscerated works he considered of lesser quality. Each time he Tweeted a hyperlink, the title's book page received a flood of views within minutes from his Twitter followers. To the extent the Smashwords Community Filter considers a page view an implicit endorsement of the book by the community (see click streams above), it can render the filter less valid for a period of time until the self-correcting mechanism kicks in to restore balance.

Similarly, a few weeks back one Smashwords author posted a book with a book cover that set bloggers, message boards and Twitterati abuzz because some considered it one of the most curiously disturbing book covers ever published. Over the course of a couple days, the book listing received nearly 1,000 views. Did all this attention help the title's sales? Not really.

We will continue to introduce new community filters the months and years to come. If you have ideas for additional community filters you'd like to see at Smashwords, contact us. Your suggestions drive our development.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Exploring the Outer Reaches of Literature with Author Mel Keegan

We live in a world where everything and everyone demands a label. Labels define what we read, eat, believe and even how we define our own identity.

Yet labels by definition are limiting. In today’s exclusive interview with popular Australian author Mel Keegan, we’ll explore what happens when authors and readers alike find themselves marginalized by the limits of labels.

Keegan is an award-winning Australian author who in the last 20 years has written 26 commercially published sci-fi, fantasy and action/adventure books with over 75,000 copies in print. If these categories are your kind of thing, you’d probably enjoy Keegan’s work.

But what if I told you most Keegan books are categorized as gay lit? Would you read the books? Or would you click away from this interview right now? If so, why?

Mel Keegan - a pen name - is one of the more prolific and outspoken gay lit authors on the scene today. In this interview, Keegan examines the past, present and future of gay lit, and shares why he (or she?) believes ebooks will democratize literature and enable the world’s authors and readers to connect in ways that were previously impossible in the traditional print world.

Keegan also comments on the recent #Amazonfail fiasco, in which thousands of gay-related books were accidentally misclassified and removed from some Amazon listings (the problem was later corrected).

After reading what Keegan has to say, you might never view literary labels the same way again.

[Mark Coker] - When I asked for your headshot for this interview, you supplied me pictures of stacks of your print books. In your Smashwords author profile, your headshot - one of the most creative I’ve seen - shows a camera on a stack of books wearing a hat and sunglasses. Why no picture?

[Mel Keegan] - Let’s let the books do the talking, rather than using the classic head shot. I recently saw a marketing article that spoke of the risks involved in showing your face … some folks out there take an instant dislike, because you remind them of someone they hate! That’s an argument I hadn’t even thought of -- but I can tell you, there’s been an amusing and quite charming debate going on among my readers for 20 years: is Keegan a man or a woman?! Apparently, no woman ever wrote military, maritime and science the way Keegan does, so MK is automatically male … and also, no man ever wrote human relationships and characterization the way Keegan does, so MK is automatically female. The endless debate is very good for business, and I don’t want to deflate the balloons of either party just yet! Any photo I could post would ruin someone’s cosmic perspective.

[Mark Coker] - You were originally commercially published, but now you’ve reacquired your titles as an indie author. How are the economics of indie publishing different?

[Mel Keegan] - The beauty of self-publishing is that one’s “royalty” from the sale of the product can be more than 10x higher than the royalty paid by a publisher, so when 500 privately-marketed books have been sold, it’s as if 6-10,000 books have been sold via the publisher/bookseller system. You don’t reach nearly as many readers (yet; this will surely change), but the income is more than enough to keep you interested!

[Mark Coker] - Is “gay” really a niche?

[Mel Keegan] - This is a huge question which trails tendrils into issues about cultural values and what I call “literary apartheid.” It’s difficult to tackle this subject briefly (someone could get a book out of it), but let me give it a shot.

In terms of literature, the “gay” niche is more of an umbrella category, a catch-all … even “quarantine zone!” You have gay romance, gay thrillers, gay science fiction, gay mysteries, but it all reduces to the common denominator: gay. All niches are gathered up into the Master Niche -- the umbrella category.

Publishers, bookstores and marketers in the States, Canada, Australia and a few parts of the UK, are still very concerned about giving offence to clients, so “anything gay” tends to be segregated. Some countries still have strict regulations about content. Scotland, for instance, has an actual law which states (in so many words) that publications “promoting” the GLBT lifestyle cannot be sold at venues where minors may be present. This must make life interesting for the bosses of news agencies and magazine stores, in these days when Doctor Who and Torchwood are massively popular, and the “omnisexual” Captain Jack Harkness (portrayed by out gay actor John Barrowman) has become a cult icon for youth, as well as the GLBT community. Torchwood and Cap’n Jack feature in piles of regular media magazines, and according to the strictest letter of Scottish law, it’s not legal to display them in shops where people under 18 can walk in! Why? The character is openly bi, and the actor is out, which is extremely gay-friendly.

So, “anything gay” is a convenient catch all which is actually being over-used in a lot of cases. It’s very true that some elderly customers are likely to be influenced by the rather outworn prejudices of former decades, and bookstore managers segregate gay titles with the object of protecting their sensibilities. It’s equally true that where you have kids under, say, 14 wandering at whim, you need to think about protecting them too -- though not from the concept of “gayness” as such. Kids who’re growing up gay know their own hearts, long before that age! However, some gay magazines can have cover material that leaves little to the imagination -- which is no more appropriate for kids to be seeing than the corresponding covers on straight magazines.

However, the inequity of the situation soon tends to make itself felt in the segregation. A store can effectively hide gay titles -- or refuse to stock them at all -- while straight magazines which push the envelope of “decency” to the absolute limit (and beyond) are too often left on display. Very few folks in the GLBT community would utter a protest when kids and the elderly are being protected … but most would he much happier if the same young and old patrons were equally protected from all objectionable materials, regardless of orientation. The issue isn’t about censorship; it’s actually about double standards! “Objectionable” is (or should be) a word without gender associations.

Whether “anything gay without a hint of anything objectionable” on the cover should be segregated is a very different question, in which religion, cultural bias, regional taboos, and even politics play a part. Everyone seems to hold an opinion, and the topic remains an emotionally-charged morass. Suffice to say, public opinion -- even in places otherwise as liberal as Scotland! -- is so widely divided, we’re a long way from an answer. At the moment, the book trades (publishers right through to retailers) can only hold to something approximating the Hippocratic oath: “When in doubt, do no harm…” In other words, make sure vulnerable customers are protected.

So, as a niche, “gay” is more of an umbrella, under which you find a host of sub-niches, which get ever more complex: gay historical romantic thriller!

[Mark Coker] - Is there a crossover element? Do straight readers purchase books with gay characters or gay themes, and if so, to what extent?

[Mel Keegan] - Yes, there’s a big crossover ... though some readers might blush to admit it! This is where ebooks have their great strength. You can buy, and read, anonymously. I’m predicting that ebooks will be the great liberators, as soon as the reader gadgets drop in price, and people can afford to buy them. (They’re still up around a thousand bucks in Australia, which smarts.)

My own readers are split 50/50 between men and women; some of the guys are straight men who read Keegan for the SF, the paramilitary action, the tallship stories, whatever. Some are gay men who get the full bang for their buck. Some are straight women who find it refreshing to have a virtually mainstream plotline enriched by the undeniable thrill of having two handsome heroes who’re, uh, intimate. A few are gay women who find it something of a relief to read a mainstream narrative with a gay love interest, though the romantic aspect is m/m. There are many reasons why women find gay books attractive.

No surprise: straight men are the smallest part of the readership -- and I suspect a blend of basic prudery and self-defence is the reason. They’re embarrassed to buy a gay book, though the story is something they’re dying to read, because swathes of our culture still associate gayness with being a wuss with a quiche in the oven. Straight guys might assume (wrongly!) that the book will be 50% sex, just because the love interest is m/m, and they pass on it because m/m love scenes don’t do anything for them. This is fair enough, and very different from prejudice, but the assumption the book is 50% sex is very wrong indeed. Also their mates might give them a hard time if they were caught reading a book where the love interest is m/m -- never mind that the rest of the action is tallships or starships, sea battles and space battles, massive storms, exploding planets. In the end, the straight guy passes on the book, which is a shame, because it would have turned out to be 5% sex, or less -- turn the page, start the next scene! The remainder of the narrative should be as thrilling as any mainstream book.

Admittedly, only a couple of my own tales even touch on traditional “gay themes” (coming out, conquering depression, gaining self esteem, surviving in a world that seems dead against you, fighting with parents, hanging out in gay clubs, indulging in the less salubrious activities which the words “gay bar” bring to mind). These stories have been written so often, I honestly have nothing new to say. Other writers have done it better -- and when I write, I write for escapism. I want to romp in a future or a fantasy world where humans are at liberty to be whatever nature designed, and where I can tell a massive story without the cultural fetters. To me, this is the fun. This is the whole reason I’m a writer.

Straight male readers and women readers tell me they’re attracted to my novels because they’re different. I write a lot of SF in which gender and orientation are obsolete issues. I also write in a lot of fantasy lands where orientation was never an issue. The main love interest is m/m: so what? As I said, turn the page, continue with the adventure. To put this into perspective -- gays read piles of straight books -- but don’t usually plod through the love scenes. Pages were designed to be turned. In either case (gay reading straight, or vice versa) the reader simply accepts that Hero A is romantically interested in Hero B, and then focuses on the story. If a reader genuinely has no gender prejudice, and is hanging on every word of the story, it’s so easy to skip any material that was crafted for the benefit of readers who do get a thrill from the same-sex romance. Speaking purely from the perspective of my own novels, there’s a lot in them that appeals to straight readers who have no bias. I have a good many readers who fall into this category.

As e-publishing gains popularity, straight guys will find they can “take a chance” on an ebook, which is bought anonymously … and so long as they don’t deliberately inform their mates what they’re reading, they’re home free. As I began, I do see ebooks as the great liberators, as soon as the technology catches up, price-wise.

Of course, many gay books are dedicated to purely gay themes, and I honestly don’t see straight readers finding long-term interest in these, just as few gay readers beguile away their evenings with Harlequin romances. Horses for courses. The magic of e-publishing is in the vast range of material which can be published as soon as one escapes from paper. Everyone can read exactly what they want.

[Mark Coker] - GLBT books are invisible to me at bookstores because I'm not looking for them. And if I stumbled across one clearly labeled as GLBT, I probably wouldn't look at it, only because that's not what I'm interested to read about. Yet if the book was marketed as action/adventure or thriller or whatever, and the premise interested me, it wouldn't matter to me if the characters were gay or not.

[Mel Keegan] - Exactly. Gay titles are not something you’ll stumble over in the store -- if they’re even there at all. Frequently, you’re not seeing them because they’re just not there. Chain stores dominate the current book retail industry, and they seldom stock gay titles … for which there’s a sound economic reason! Challenge the buyers and they’ll tell you it’s not about prejudice, prudery or even customer protection; it’s about economics -- and in context, they’re dead right.

As a niche, “gay” is not a major seller, for many reasons. About 25% of the book buying public would probably enjoy a gay title (conditions apply, obviously! It has to be a story they’re interested in, not just “gay”). But the average shopper would be lucky to spot one in their usual store. Such titles are shelved high, low and out of the main traffic corridors, both to protect delicate clients and (just as importantly) because they don’t sell enough copies to be worth space on the main shelves. Sales are poor because they’re so hard to find -- and also, because gay titles are “double-niched.”

As far as mainstream stockists and readers are concerned, gay themes and/or major characters plunk a book into the “gay” niche … but in fact this Master Niche is much too wide. Nowhere else in any bookstore would you find a Western, a contemporary love story, a political thriller and an Elizabethen historical shelved together. When a potential gay-reading customer arrives, they’re looking for -- say -- a romance. They don’t even like Westerns. Someone wanting Westerns won’t buy paramilitary thrillers. So, any individual title will sell a comparative handful, since it was “double-filtered.” The stockist says, “Gay books sell poorly,” and it’s true, if you consider any single title. The stockist then displays the Master Niche, “anything gay,” in little-noticed corners, which further jeopardizes sales; and eventually gay titles are not even ordered in.

Due to the extreme marginalization of gay novels, they can be a tough sell -- and chainstore booksellers don’t function as support crews for starving writers! They exist to sell, sell, sell. They want bestsellers -- not “niche bestsellers,” but real ones. Wilbur Smith, Steven King, Maeve Binchy, Jackie Collins, what have you.

The mechanisms that help to create bestsellers (advertising, window display, priority shelving, talkback radio, TV chat shows, reviews in major papers) are off-limits to gay publishers. Selling significant numbers of any one title is an uphill battle, so printruns tend to be short. Gay publishers are, per force, “small press” operators; some are already extinct (GMP, which was my publisher for more than a decade; Knight’s Press, and others). Some are struggling (Alyson, in the US, has had a rough time). Some mainstream publishers have gay lists (St Martin’s Press, Running Press, and so forth), but the gay book that sold a million on the mass market remains a dream.

The marginalization of gay fiction is just as much the product of poor sales figures as of the continuing prejudice of certain parts of the community. How can this be overcome -- how can a publisher get gay titles into the limelight, and get access to the mechanisms for bestseller creation?! It’s the question on the minds of forward-thinking publishers, to whom the “crossover” novel is a kind of holy grail. What’s a crossover? It’s the novel that has enough substance in its plot, and enough narrative quality, to hook straight readers in at least six figures … and at the same time, it must have enough “gay content” for the GLBT community to embrace it as a gay novel.

It’s a big ask. I’ve been trying to write this novel for ten years -- and I think I’ve done it on two or three occasions. But it’s not just about the novel; it’s also about the mindset of the mainstream readership. Things are changing out there, where readers live. The fact that (as I mentioned before) the BBC TV series Torchwood has become a youth cult as well as a gay cult, is a cultural development so major, someone, somewhere must be doing a PhD thesis on it. Broad swathes of the under-25 community are much more liberal than any generation, as a whole, has ever been; and under-12s are growing up in a social climate where the “gay hero” of a major TV series is at last a reality … a character who’s not a minor player, nor the villain, nor the comedy relief. In 10-15 years, those under-25s will be fully mature as readers, and those under-12s, by then in their middle 20s, will bring to the bookstore a whole new outlook. They’re going to expect gay heroes, gay love interests, and if such characters and relationships are utterly missing from the face of fiction, it ought to be as glaringly noticeable to the 25-year-old reader of 2025, as is the editorial-excision of colored characters in mass-market novels of the 1950s and ’60s.

The breakthrough crossover novel, and the so-called “gay novel” that sells a million copies, are both out there; but they’re 10-15 years away. And when it happens, it’s more than likely going to be an ebook, because very soon few people will be reading on paper! (I realize many readers like the look and feel of paper; so do I. But I’m in the process of making the switch, because it costs up to A$60 to buy a paperback on Amazon and have it shipped downunder, where the exchange rate is likely to be .62c on the day one orders! A combination of blown-out shipping rates, markets that are expanding on the web, and the increasing affordability of ebook reader devices will force paperbacks into history. Folks who want something new to read, rather than the swap of one battered old paperback for another at the book exchange, will have to deal with this.)

[Mark Coker] - Should GLBT authors market their books directly and only to that audience, or not? Should GLBT authors rethink how they position their books from a marketing perspective?

[Mel Keegan] - This is a ticklish question, which I’ve wrestled with for a long time. As I mentioned above, I’ve been trying to write the “crossover” novel for years, and I do believe I’ve succeeded a couple of times. However, even in 2009 we live in a cultural environment where some people are offended by any gay content at all. We still live in a whacky world, where the true story, illustrated and told for kids, of two male penguins who raise orphaned chicks at the New York Zoo, could be banned! Religion, outmoded prejudice, peer group pressure -- who can be sure which social forces inspire people to paranoia? Whatever they are, those pressures are still with us.

Demographically, my shrewd guess is that 25% of the reading public would enjoy a novel which was close to the “crossover;” maybe half that many people (perhaps more!) would enjoy an out and out gay novel, be it erotica or not. But on the other end of the demograph you have an indeterminate percentage of customers who are positive gay writers and readers (whoever and wherever we may be) are going to burn for our sins, and we must be saved from ourselves! This is an absolutely genuine belief in the hearts and minds of this sector of the community. As such, it ought to be respected, in the spirit of, “I might not agree with what you believe, but I’d defend to the death your right to believe it.”

If a gay thriller were marketed simply as a thriller, I -- cautiously! -- speculate that sales would be up 25-50% … before all hell broke loose. Because someone, somewhere would inevitably give this book to a person who shouldn’t have it -- someone whose religion or prejudice is deeply ingrained. Or this person might order it in error. The candid gayness of some material in the book would cause tsunamis. If a minor were to get hold of it and be shocked, truckloads of ammunition would land in the hands of organizations that profess to protect kids from the web, the erotic, and indeed from any human choice they feel is “against the laws of God.” The book itself would make headlines and sell like hot cakes; author, publisher and bookseller would be on national TV! However, I’m reminded of the case fought by the Penguin Group, when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was issued in paperback, circa 1960. The watershed court case was like a re-enactment of Iwo Jima. Eventually common sense won; the laws governing literature were redefined. But … would Mel Keegan care to be at the eye of this particular storm?! No, thanks.

Even in 2009 this is the concern in the minds of GLBT writers trying to market gay novels. You’re bound by honor to properly label them and bring to the attention of potential readers the m/m nature of the love interest -- even if less than 5% of the running length of the book contains anything of a sensual or homoerotic nature. Just remember those gay penguins who were forcibly expelled from public libraries!

Personally, I’m working on “crossover marketing” ideas at this time … ways to put the teaser and cover for gay novels on display alongside mainstream books, and leave it to the potential reader to decide if they want to track down more info, and perhaps risk a few bucks within the privacy of their iLiad, netbook, or whatever. The majority of the reading public in the UK, Europe, and downunder are, by now, either gay-friendly, or at least tolerant, with “live and let live” compassion. This might not be quite so true in the US and Canada, and alas, the US is the big marketplace. So whatever marketing is undertaken must be cautious, honorable, intelligent. No one wants to wave the red rag before the raging bull of the morality police!

On the other hand, I suspect many mainstream readers (men and women) still assume “gay niche” books are mostly about sex. This is so wrong. Obviously, same-sex erotica is about sex, just as heterosexual erotica is about sex. But erotica is only one sub-niche under the vast umbrella of “anything gay.” Choose something else if you get nothing out of gay erotica! You think gays buy hetero erotica?! There’s cheaper ways to get some sleep!

Here’s the key marketing question: if a top-notch SF thriller -- with “just enough” gay content to be enjoyed as a gay book -- were marketed IN and WITH the mainstream, but not quite TO the mainstream, could you get away with it? With all due caution, I think so. I’m working on a way to try it later in 2009.

The onus is on the individual GLBT writer and/or publisher to be utterly honest. Is the book a true crossover? Is there enough in it to still interest gay people? Has the gayness been excised too far, to coax straight readers to read? Is the gay content so frequent and/or explicit that straight readers will either be bored or offended? Has the gay sensuality “crossed the line” into something mainstream readers would consider too hot to handle?

Here’s where the waters get murky. A great number of readers are currently happy to accept gay characters -- so long as those characters don’t do anything gay! A peck on the cheek, maybe a hug, okay. Now, a m/f love scene can be described in tremendous levels of detail, in works which don’t identify themselves as erotica (how long since you looked at women’s romance?!) … but many readers still consider any actual, genuine love scene between same-gender characters to be “over the top,” even if it were written with finesse and delicacy. In other words, gay characters are fine, so long as it’s merely tacitly understood that they’re gay, and they don’t actually express that gayness.

We have some way to go, yet, before gender preference ceases to be an issue, but “tolerance” gives us a great place to start. It’s just important to note the difference between “gay tolerant” and “gay friendly.” There are strictly-marked boundaries even now. The wise publisher/marketer knows where they are and respects them.

[Mark Coker] - To what extent should, or can, gay themes serve as a secondary element?

[Mel Keegan] - In my mind, well-crafted fiction ought to recognize the incredible diversity of humanity. If you’re writing stories set in London, New York, Sydney, Los Angeles, and if you don’t have colored characters, you’re pretending people of color are not there. You’re discriminating. And if you don’t have GLBT characters, the same. The GLBT community is large, enthusiastic, and quite loud, in any city; it has a voice, a presence, yet a kind of literary apartheid is still very common. I’ve read recent novels set in the US, with not one single black American character, much less a gay American. Is discrimination the issue here? Or is it a kind of “monoculture” viewpoint? I could also cite the quintessential “black American novel” (there are some extremely good ones) in which no European Americans appear, much less gay Americans! And yes, there are gay novels in which no straights appear…

My point is that while “monoculture” novels have their place, none of them is what you could term genuinely “mainstream,” because none achieves a cultural balance, a social harmony. To be properly balanced for 2009, fiction needs to accurately reflect the real face of the modern city … some characters will be colored, some will be gay, or Asian, or Russian -- and some will be Republicans and Creationists!

It’s not necessary to make these characters major, but when eight players are described in the office, someone ought to be colored or gay -- and here’s where the ground can fall out under your feet. Writers who are still harboring some kind of prejudice are inclined to combine them. Your token female, black American and gay American are rolled into one. The black lesbian. Stereotyping is right around the corner, and this is lazy writing. The stereotype gets worse if our African-American gay lady is written as either a negative of Gandalf -- aging (and therefore little or no sexual challenge, because she’s retired!) and brimming with wisdom … or else (worse) the comedy relief, who shrieks idiotic catch-phrases in a southern accent so thick, no one can understand a word she says anyway.

I’m quite certain gay characters and themes can provide real-world foundations for contemporary fiction, but I’m also wary about “requiring” this content, the way TV shows in the 60s and 70s must have their “token black” character. Writers don’t like to be told what to write, or say, or think, and it’s easy for a “compulsory” character to be twisted into a caricature. I’d rather see no gay character at all than have the part written as cartoon comic relief or villain.

I think we’re about 10-15 years away from the cultural integration that’ll spell the end of literary apartheid -- and even when that time arrives, the religious contingent will continue to disapprove. Many books will carry bans issued by various churches, and this is fair enough. Not everyone is ever going to embrace cultural diversity; racism still raises its ugly heady too often, and when you allow that religious fundamentalists genuinely believe they’re fighting for the survival of their immortal souls, their prejudice becomes tragically logical.

[Mark Coker] - One of the advantages of book marketing on the Internet is that you can precisely target your audience.

[Mel Keegan] - Yes -- the internet is a far better place to do business. Potential customers actually come looking for you. Your mission is to be in enough places online for people to find you! No one is offended or angry when they’ve found what they were looking for. The downside is, the web is incredibly vast. Searchers usually only look at the top 1-2 pages of the Google results, and when 100 similar individuals (writers, publishers, booksellers) have all crafted their pages to perfection, to woo Google … well, someone’s going to land on Page 3, and vanish off the face of the web. Marketing has been a struggle for a long time now, and it won’t get easier. Small presses, ebook publishers and self-marketers (like myself; I took charge of a long backlist when my UK publisher closed) have a long, hard road ahead of us. If there were any infallible “trick” to selling books, someone would have found it by now! Alas, I don’t think there is. Making sales is about networking, communicating, generating publicity -- and delivering an absolutely first-rate product. Without a top-notch book to begin with, the rest is just hype. The writer who’s selling poorly-crafted material will swiftly be found out -- readers are getting more savvy, and harder to please.

Publishing is changing so fast, it’s a race to keep up. I’ve said many times, in many places, traditional publishers are responsible for their own demise. For the first time ever, the future of publishing is at least partially in the hands of those writers who are good enough, energetic and ingenious enough, to take the initiative and “fly solo.” It’s a tough road, because you have to cross-train as writer, editor, book designer, IT specialist, website designer, database administrator, publicist, agent, salesman…! But for those who can go the distance, the future is full of potential. The era of the “cowboy operation” is upon us, and some of us have accepted the challenge gladly.

[Mark Coker] - What did you make of the #AmazonFail fiasco, and your thoughts on what the maelstrom it created says about shifting cultural attitudes toward gay lit?

[Mel Keegan] - Wasn’t it wonderful to see over 10,000 signatures recorded in under 24 hours, on the petition to curb Amazon? This says, eloquently, that the public mind is changing. Amazon is the absolutely definition of Big Business, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that because they trade online, they’re forward-thinking, liberal, ready to march into the future. Wrong. No matter their trading arena, they’re Big Business … meaning boardroom politics, design by committee, and the vulnerability of the corporate giant that must at all costs woo its shareholders! To a great extent, management is caught in the crossfire, with the church faction and Republicans on one side, and the liberal-minded public on the other: shareholders and city fathers v. the actual shoppers, with Visas at the ready! In this corner, the Family First party, who’d reduce the Internet to the ratings classification of Peter Rabbit, if they could; in that corner, free-thinking adults. Of all kinds. With credit cards. In the middle, Amazon, trying to please everyone and getting into hot water. The supposed glitch, caused by a human gave us a peek into how Amazon’s database is structured, and it ain’t pretty. I remain far from convinced that it was an error. I have a firm suspicion that they flexed their censorship muscles to see how much they could get away with. They were caught, and they’d left themselves a fire escape: “It was a glitch, human error, it’s fixed, we fired someone!”

Hmmm. Sure. In 2009, Australians are hyper-aware of internet censorship -- we’re not out of the woods! We have a federal government that would love to take this country off the web for confused and confusing reasons (they can’t seem to get their own arguments to gel). Meanwhile, you have Google finding ways to filter out legitimate gay content, and short-change gay-friendly sites that display Adsense. It’s no surprise Amazon took a crack at it. It’s extremely gratifying that it didn’t work this time, but there’s little security in the recent victory. Better code, slicker programming, smarter database filters. In 2010 or ’11, at the pressure of city fathers, church groups, Family First, elderly Republican shareholders, the initiative will more than likely be tried again, and it’s likely to work! Computers are getting smarter, exponentially.

What can writers and readers do about this? Gang up on them( albeit it in tiny little gangs). Support Indie publishers and bookesllers on the web. Network like hell. Tell your friends about organizations like Smashwords and activist scribblers like Keegan. Stop propping up Big Business before they drown us all in an ocean of sameness. Refuse to be dictated to by corporations so vast, they make the Space Program look tame -- and in my estimation this is true across the whole spectrum of publishing and bookselling, regardless of niche. These are not just “fixes” for gay publishing … though they’re critically important for this super-marginalized niche.

[Mark Coker] - Of your 26 books, which are your favorites?

[Mel Keegan] - The HELLGATEs are a single story over six books (all finished by Christmas 2009), and the NARCs are essentially the same. I’d have to quote these, plus The Lords of Harbendane, Nocturne and Dangerous Moonlight as the “stand outs” in my own memory. When the NARCs go up to Smashwords (in a month or two, I hope), I want to upload them all of a piece, so they’re low on the upload list, due to the volume of work involved in preparing them. The HELLGATEs will be going to Smashwords when the series is done (Christmas, or January ’10) -- all six books. In fact, I was wondering if there would be any possibility of doing “bundles” in future, where a reader could buy a ZIP file of a full set, for a discounted price??! The Lords of Harbendane, Nocturne (and its sequel, Twilight) and Dangerous Moonlight are at Smashwords already. The others are available as PDFs, sold largely off my own pages.

[Mark Coker] - Tell us more about Mel Keegan

[Mel Keegan] - Well … I was born in the UK, came downunder with the family when my parents migrated in 1971. I lived in Alaska for more than a year back in the ’90s, which gave me a taste for the north and the wilderness, and I have family in several parts of the US. My partner’s an Alaskan living downunder, also. ‘Mel Keegan’ is one of a variety of pen names I’ve used. I’ve written everything from young adult to women’s fiction, but Keegan remains the most successful of the pen names -- and the one for which I feel the most affinity. In other niches, you really are a drop in the ocean, but “gay” is -- even now! -- quite fledgling. A single, unique voice can still make itself heard, and one writer can “make a difference.”

[Mark Coker] - What’s coming next for Mel Keegan?

[Mel Keegan] - During 2009, I’m going to re-issue all 26 Keegan titles in every possible ebook format, as well as paperback and hardcover. About a dozen are at Smashwords at this time … I’m getting there!

At this point I’m putting the finishing touches to the 27th Keegan.

[Mark Coker] - Thanks Mel!

To learn more about Mel Keegan, or to purchase his multi-format ebooks, visit the Mel Keegan Smashwords author page. Keegan also blogs at The World According to Mel.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ebooks as Vessels for Greater Cross-Cultural Understanding

Today I had the honor today of serving as the guest speaker at the Oakland Rotary Club on the topic of ebooks and the future of publishing. I've shared some of my notes below.

When the organizers first contacted me several months ago, they asked I address the cultural importance of books, and how ebooks and self-publishing fit in that mix.

I've summarized my talk below, and added some additional points for clarification:

Books as Emissaries for Greater Cross-Cultural Understanding
I spoke about how books are critically important vessels of knowledge and culture. With our world shrinking by the day, books are more important than ever for promoting cross-cultural understanding. Our very survival as a species depends upon everyone learning to understand and respect one another.

We in the U.S. often think cross-cultural understanding involves other people better understanding us (i.e., reading our books). I imagine other countries share a similar outward-facing view of culture. Clearly, the need for greater cross-cultural understanding cuts both ways, and books can play a role.

How Paper Limits the Promise of Books
I talked about how I believe the greater mission of books is stymied by the limitations of paper. Paper books are expensive to produce and ship, and as a result they're not affordable to the vast majority of literate people around the globe. Print-on-demand self-publishing, of which I'm an enthusiastic supporter, faces the same challenge with cost.

Paper books also take a long time to publish. Via commercial publishers, most books take 12-18 months, not counting the time for agents to shop and sell the book, or the time it can take an author to find an agent.

Enter Ebooks
Next, I spoke about how ebooks offer the potential to achieve the full promise of books as conveyors of cultural understanding and knowledge. Because they cost essentially nothing to print and ship, authors and publishers can price their books dramatically cheaper while still achieving greater per-unit profits. Cheaper books are more affordable to a greater number of people, thereby creating a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle for books, authors, publishers, readers and culture.

I talked about how ebooks can help unlock the wisdom and culture of the ages by breathing new life into out-of-print books.

When you add Smashwords into the mix, where any author or publisher anywhere can start publishing, promoting and distributing ebooks in seconds, things get even more interesting for books.

Audience Response
The audience's response was so inspiring I walked away from the presentation more excited than ever about our mission at Smashwords, and Smashwords comprised only one of ten slides.

The 120 or so Rotarians in attendance really "got" Smashwords and the potential for ebooks. I've never seen so many hands shoot up during a Q&A, and the questions were spot-on brilliant.

Maybe the topic resonated because the Rotary is a community and world service organization first and foremost, and worldwide literacy is a big cause of theirs.

I was especially touched that at least one Rotary member, a proud owner of a Kindle 2, brought his wife and two young kids to the presentation because the entire family is so excited about ebooks. Another member brought her son, an aspiring writer probably of high school age.

What do you think? Will ebooks help books achieve their full potential?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Smashwords Launches Ebook Publishing Solution for Book Publishers

After a few months of beta testing with a group of about twenty indie publishers, today we formally announced our new publisher solution at Smashwords.

As most Smashwords followers know, when we first launched Smashwords we made it easy for indie authors to self-publish ebooks, but we didn't have a robust solution for multi-author publishers.

With today's announcement, we now offer a compelling ebook publishing, promotion and selling platform for publishers and indie authors alike.

Publishers receive the same great royalty structure we provide our indie authors. Up to 85 percent of the net proceeds of each sale go to the publisher. I say "up to," because in the weeks ahead we'll introduce a new Smashwords-developed affiliate program in which authors and publishers can opt to forgo a small portion of their royalty so that third party marketers (authors, book enthusiasts, web site operators, bloggers, specialty online bookstores, digital book distributors, book communities, etc.) have incentive to independently promote a publisher's titles.

This is just the latest of several exciting enhancements we have planned for Smashwords in the months ahead.

To learn more about the new Smashwords publisher solution, see our press release, or visit How to Publish on Smashwords.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Win $500 in the Editor Unleashed/Smashwords Flash Fiction 40 Contest

Write 1,000 words or less, win $500. Top 39 runner-ups earn $25.00. Entry fee: FREE.

It sounds too good to be true. It isn't.

I've always been wary of writing contests that require an entry fee because they're sometimes (but not always) money-making scams in disguise. So imagine my glee when Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed approached me with the opportunity to co-sponsor a writing contest that would be free to all participants, and where actual readers would have some say in the contest's results.

And thus the Editor Unleashed/Smashwords Flash Fiction 40 contest was born. No entry fee, no strings attached or services to buy, cash prizes to the top 40 entrants, and a publication credit in the free Editor Unleashed/Smashwords Flash 40 ebook anthology.

Mark your calendars with these important dates:
May 18th - June 14, 2009: Post your story on the Editor Unleashed forum.

June 15 - June 26, 2009: The Popular Vote. Stories ranked by members of the Editor Unleashed forum. Maria, herself the former editor of Writer's Digest Magazine, will be joined by an expert panel of judges (editors and agents), will evaluate the entries and help select the final winners.

June 30, 2009: 40 winners announced! We'll publish the 40 winners in a free ebook anthology at Smashwords, offering great exposure to all the winners. All the winners will get plugs on the Editor Unleashed and Smashwords blogs, and the grand prize winner (in addition to receiving $500!) will receive a Q&A interview right here on the Smashwords blog. What more could you ask for?
We briefly considered having me serve as one of the judges, but we decided it would be best for me to bow out because we expect many Smashwords authors will participate and it would be difficult for me to judge our authors' work fairly against others (of course only the most brilliant writers publish on Smashwords, I'd find myself tempted to tell myself!).

So there you have it. The contest is completely independent. Fire up your keyboards, fill your virtual inkwells, guzzle some coffee and get busy today writing the most brilliant, mind-blowing 1,000 word-or- less masterpiece ever to touch a digital screen near you.

For additional contest details, please read the announcement for the Editor Unleashed/Smashwords Flash Fiction 40 Contest.

Smashwords Book Marketing Guide Updated (plus links to other useful book marketing books)

This morning I published a new edition of the free Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, a primer on book marketing. Share it with your author friends.

Even authors and publishers who don't publish on Smashwords will find value here (why they wouldn't publish on with Smashwords is beyond the realm of common sense!) .

Some of the new updates include:
1. New tips on how to use Smashwords Coupon Generator to build buzz, readership and reviews for your book.

2. Expanded section on how to (and how not to) use Twitter to promote your book.

3. New common sense tips on how to locate and participate in online communities that will be interested in your book and your subject matter expertise.

4. And several other minor updates across 19 other tips.

And while you're donning your marketing hat, check out the growing library of other Smashwords books that offer other great marketing tips for indie authors and publishers, including:

Self Publishing Manual Volume 2 by Dan Poynter
Our #1 best-selling self publishing title and a great source for social media marketing tips. If you haven't already seen it, drop everything and read our exclusive interview with Dan on the future of books.

4Ps to Publishing Success by Shelley Lieber
Learn how to treat publishing as a business. See our exclusive interview with Shelley for more information

From Book to Market: Internet marketing, sales and promotion for your book by Joanna Penn
Joanna is a great source for marketing tips. We hope to do a Q&A interview with her in the next couple months.

Internet Marketing Guide for Writers and Businesses by Sylvia Hubbard
Name your own price. An interview with Sylvia coming soon!

Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors by Steve Weber
This book is packed with tips, and it's free. Steve wrote an interesting editorial at Teleread over the weekend on his experiences with Amazon.

POD'd The How to Guide.. and converely why you shouldn't by Don Meyer
Just in case some of you think I'm blindly pro all-things-self-publishing (well, maybe sometimes), here's an interesting book that provides the other side of the story. It reads almost like a personal memoir of someone who went through the POD publishing process and came face to face with the difficulties of getting your book out there. Consider it a well-written and worthwhile reality check. Don used a POD vendor who required him to purchase copies.
Happy marketing!