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The End of the Dream(slippers): Year in Review

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When I set out to write the Dreamslippers series back in 2012, the self-publishing business was still bright, shiny, and promising.

Still, I wasn't sure if I'd go that route. I had to be convinced, and I was, in the end--by research that showed you had a better chance of making a living as a fiction writer if you went indie. Around a very demanding day job, it took me two years to write the first book. During that time, I shopped it around to agents and editors in traditional publishing, and I had an incredible amount of interest--just no follow-through. I worked on the book, getting a ton of feedback from alpha and beta readers--as well as some of those agents--and revising over and over. It wasn't my first book; I'd had an agent back in 2005 who shopped a short-story collection around. I'd honed my skill since then and felt confident about the manuscript. I talked to a lot of people, authors and agents and marketers and others. It seemed to make the most sense to take a leap into self-publishing.

Cat in the Flock performed well, enough to warrant further attention. A celebrity Hollywood director reached out to me about rights, I was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly, and I won my first indieBRAG medallion. This despite a homemade book cover and struggles with Amazon's category algorithms, which plunked the book in "pet noir" because of the title. 'Cat' referred to the protagonist's nickname, a shortening of her full name, Cathedral. There are no felines in the book.

FINAL COVER ART CATINTHEFLOCK

The original cover for Cat in the Flock.

Perhaps most important to me, the book was reviewed well by people whose opinions I trusted. The writers Jon Talton, Mary Daheim, and Corrina Wycoff all contributed praiseful blurbs. None other than the venerable Kirkus Reviews called it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

According to some successful indie authors I've talked to, what I should have done right then was release two more books that year and keep going as fast as I could.

But I didn't. Writing and releasing Cat around the day job (and my own wedding, by the way) had been exhausting. So instead, I took a poetry manuscript out of a drawer and published that, too. Half the poems in Broom of Anger had already appeared in literary journals, and for some of them, I'd won awards. I was curious to see how it would do.

Broom of anger

It probably won't surprise you to learn that sales were pretty much non-existent. Poetry is a tough enough sell for traditionals, and self-published poetry, no matter the quality of the work nor the stature of the authors contributing blurbs, is a non-starter.

But I persevered. My husband and I had a change in our living situation when he was offered an opportunity to steer a grant at a small college in a small town... And the semi-rural life held appeal for us both. I stepped down from my management position at the day job and dropped to four days per week, which I would work remotely, from the small town. I hoped this would provide more time for the novel series.

I'd published Cat in late July of 2014 and followed it with Framed and Burning in the fall of 2015. From first draft to release, it took me nine months.

There's a lot that goes into self-publishing that takes up time. You could think of an iceberg, how you see only 1/3rd of it, the part above the water. The other 2/3rds of being an indie is everything ranging from reviewing voice actor demos for your audiobook to formatting the actual manuscript to writing a marketing plan. Most of it has nothing to do with the actual writing.

Framed and Burning garnered a good deal of critical success, most notably as a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge fan of the celebrity librarian, I was awash with honor over that nomination. But the top prize went to a traditional author who already had a long list of such awards. I won a second indieBRAG and was nominated for a RONE Award, but sales were just okay.

FRAMED AND BURNING IndieBRAG 2

I'd worked diligently to professionalize my novel-writing business, forming an LLC and hiring professional editors, a book cover artist, marketing consultants, and so on. I researched social media, tried to get good at it, and bootstrapped as much as I could, making lovely connections in my small town, where people still treat writers as if we're at least minor celebrities.

Meanwhile, I'd made the decision to exit from the day job. It had been a heady, exhilarating, and at times, challenging, five years. I'd created a narrative design team, basically a group of game storytelling experts, and together we raised the bar on storytelling in the company's collector's edition games. Passionate about game storytelling, I wanted to continue to write and design games, but a no-compete clause in my contract kept me from any work that could be construed as "materially similar" for a blackout period of one year. So I tried my hand at some new genres, such as Smash Squad for WG Cells, and I wrote about games for several publications and my own blog.

And I continued to write novels. I released the third book in the series the week of the presidential election in 2016. 

The country was in upheaval with Trump's victory, and no one paid any attention to Bound to the Truth. I won a third indieBRAG for it, though. The medallion represents the top 10 percent in independent publishing, so it's a strong achievement, especially considering the volume of self-published works. I still think it's the best book in the series, but it launched to dismal sales and never recovered.

Brokenhearted, I had long conversations with two successful authors--one indie and the other a hybrid of traditional and indie--who both proclaimed the self-publishing bubble had burst. The hybrid author has gone back to 100 percent traditional. The indie is aggressively pursuing a career in scriptwriting, which she believes is the next big opportunity.

I pulled back on investment in the Dreamslippers series and made due with one final pro cover, for the boxed set. After a year, it's still sitting on Amazon without a single review, and sales have been poor. It's tough, because I know some indies who are still making an all right living. But they tend to serve niches (such as a Christian apocalyptic writer) that are ignored by New York publishing. They also usually have military pensions or are kept financially afloat by their spouses' incomes. 

Boxed set

But frankly, it would have surprised me if I'd been able to make a living on indie books alone. I'd already survived the collapse of the journalism industry, and I understand that we are in the throes of a digital revolution that places primacy on the visual. I approached the entire enterprise with the idea that it was a huge experiment, and a gamble. While there are many things I might have done differently, on the whole, I learned a lot, acquired new skills and further honed old ones, and grew as a writer. The result is an award-winning novel series to my credit and scores of articles written by and about me and my work.

On balance, I'm glad I tried to become a full-time novelist, though commercial success proved to be an elusive beast. 

What continues to do extremely well for me is my work in games.

The one-year blockout from my no-compete clause ended in February 2017, and it was as if the floodgates opened. Without having to actually look for any work, it has consistently found me. By spring, I was already at full-time capacity, writing and designing games for Daily Magic, an old partner of mine from the day job, as well as a few studios new to me that were trying innovative game formats. 

I wrote and co-designed what could be considered a "game novel" or "interactive novel" called Sender Unknown: The Woods. It released in the "New Games We Love" section of the App Store and has been a top 10 in several categories. Gamezebo calls it "the next leap forward in mobile." Another writing/co-designing title for me, Matchington Mansion, has pretty much blown the doors off mobile with its popularity. I'm just now finishing up a "visual novel" for Pixelberry Studios, and it will release in March of this year. Additionally, I'm at work on a project for GSN Games, releasing in early 2018, and in talks with Jam City, a studio I've admired for some time. I'm also designing and writing levels for G5's hit game, Survivors: The Quest.

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It was into this exciting vortex that Webster University entered last summer, and with it, an opportunity to return to my roots--in two ways. One, as a professor of games and game design, as visiting faculty for the 2017-18 school year. Two, in St. Louis, where I'm, as we say, "from."

Some of you know I used to teach English at Pierce College, back in the early 2000s. I had tenure but left to pursue a writing career on my agent's recommendation and because I struggled to pay off my student loans on that faculty income. But I feel the classroom never really left me; I was destined to return and had already as a guest-lecturer at University of Florida and Seattle University.

My family is here in the area, on both sides of the river. I earned my bachelor's degree at Saint Louis University, and I cut teeth early in my career as a writer for the St. Louis Science Center and various city publications. I wasn't born here, having grown up a child of the Air Force with its mandate of frequent moves, but I attended part of junior high and all of high school in Illinois and still think of the Lou as "home." 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I could take on full-time faculty duties with the game work ramping up so quickly. But I hit it off with the faculty there, and it became an opportunity not to pass up. I knew of Webster University's strong reputation, and since the program is new and in need of leadership, there's a chance to put my stamp on something that could be key to the success of not just the school but the whole St. Louis region. What impresses me most is the seed of entrepreneurship being sown here by a small but quickly growing local game industry.

I've had to say no to some work, which is regrettable, but I feel reborn in the classroom. Teaching game design is in many ways a dream-come-true, and a fitting transition from all that dreamslipping.

Game-design

Image courtesy of Webster Today.

So here I am at year end, a novelist, game designer, and teacher. All the best to you in the New Year, and I'd love to hear from you by email or in the comments below.


An Interview with Award-Winning Author Qui Xiaolong

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Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter. 

Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.

Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?

Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated. 

Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots? 

Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate. 

Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?

Inspector Chen poems

Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books. 

Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…

Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.  

Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?

Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing. 

Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?

Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite  aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.    

Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.

Quiontour

 


The 1944 Movie 'Laura' Reveals Just How Broken Publishing Is - and Maybe the Whole Economy

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Sometimes I like a good film noir classic, as in the 1944 movie "Laura," named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute. This one was just right for a Saturday night movie binge because it features a young Vincent Price as a pretty boy gigolo, if you can imagine that, and a victim who's made a life for herself as a successful advertising exec, a rare career woman for her time.

 What I didn't expect in this strange but clever whodunit is that one of the main characters and ongoing suspects is an eccentric writer, a dandy who pens columns while sitting at his bathtub desk. From his posh penthouse apartment in New York, he brags about making fifty cents a word on his writing.

 Hold up, I thought. Fifty cents a word? In 1944? 

 Those of you who've never tried to make a living with your words probably don't know this, but fifty cents a word is considered a good rate today. Yeah, in 2016. I'm part of several online freelancer forums, and there I regularly see rates of $150-300 for a 700-word article, which works out to about 20-40 cents per word. The top echelon magazines reportedly pay their freelancers $1-$2 dollars per word, and there are a rare handful of freelance writers making bank, but the vast majority of words that get written in America today sell for far less. Disturbingly, there are plenty of publishers who expect writers to work for "exposure," or for mere cents per word. 

 Here's what writers today should be making per word, if we take 50 cents in 1944 and adjust it for inflation: $6.82.

 That would be almost $5K for a 700-word piece, which is a far cry from reality. And you wonder why so much of what's out there is written in listicle format and laden with gifs! Even if the 50-cents-per word bit were a dramatic embellishment, and let's say the actual writer pay at the time was half that, at 25 cents per word, or a quarter, at 12 cents per word, which is about what I make today on stories for my local paper, we're still looking at serious stagnation, or even devolution. Depending on whom you ask, the publishing industry is either experiencing a glorious renaissance or is in its death throes. If it's the former, writers on the whole aren't experiencing the golden part of this age, and if it's the latter, then I suppose things will only get worse from here on out. 

 In my overly long, SEO-designed headline above, I promised I'd mention how this relates to the overall brokenness of the economy. This writer wage stagnation/devolution is another example of how we've been shafted in the last generation as productivity has actually gone up but salaries haven't kept pace, pay for CEOs and others at the top soared while most other pay stagnated, and benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care became a thing of the past. I'm no economist, though, so let me refer you to these nine sobering wage stagnation charts put out by the Economic Policy Institute.

 Sure, EPI is considered by some to skew liberal and/or is tainted by its labor backing. But you know what? It's hard to argue with the data. For example, since 1979, middle-class wages rose only 6% and low-wage workers' salaries actually fell by 5% while those with the highest salaries saw a 41% increase. Here's another: In the 1960s, CEOs typically earned 20 times what a typical worker earned, but today they rake in 296 times what a typical worker makes.

 So writers in this analysis are low-wage workers whose salaries have fallen over time. Our economy is one big film noir movie, but the villain is greed and the policies that support and enable greed. Spoiler alert: The mystery of who killed Laura, the advertising exec, is far more fitting and poignant than anyone in 1944 could have imagined. Yep. You guessed it. The writer did it.*

* Or at least, he thought he did (plot twist!).