Tag Archive: self-publishing


I’m No. 1[,289,791]!

51JTLaVVaTL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Back at my old day job as an editor for Zenith Press, I would sometimes have authors call with concern about their Amazon ranking. “I was at X just last week, now I’m at X-1,245,619. What happened? What can we do?” My stock answer was to explain that no one really knows the algorithms Amazon uses to kick out those rank numbers. I had a joke to go with it, if the author seemed in the mood for it: “I think there’s just a big room with numbers on the floor, and a chicken walks through the room and wherever it poops, that’s your Amazon ranking.”

My opinion hasn’t changed much over the years. Exult in good numbers, it’s fun, but try not to get to hung up on the bad ones, because what the hell do they really mean? Let’s take a look at one of my little efforts, “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” a humorous Lovecraft pastiche. It was originally published in Space and Time Magazine in 2014, and I recently made it available as a Kindle Single. I’ve done almost no promotion for it, just a Tweet here and there, some Facebook posts, some earlier blog posts. I don’t exactly have millions of followers, so these things don’t reach a large audience.

For the week of 5/22, my average rank in e-books was #1,289,791. That was up 30% from a month ago, when it was at 1,841,556, but down 25% from last week at 1,034,844. But if we drill down into some niches, like, say, horror comedy, then my ranking skyrockets to #515. Huge leap, right? But there’s only about 1,600 titles in that category, putting me low in the top third. Could be worse, but, hey, I’m in the top third! But wait . . . how many sales gets me in the top third of horror comedy e-books? Let me check my sales for the week of 5/22 and . . . oh. Nada. Zip. Goose egg. I didn’t sell a single copy of “Squid” the week I was 515th of 1,626. So, what, did those below me sell negative numbers? How do a bunch of books that sold nothing get assigned a specific ranking? Maybe only 514 titles actually had sales and all the rest of us were ranked at 515. I do know that one week I bought a copy myself for my iPad so I could see how the final product looked, and that week my average overall rank jumped up to somewhere around 500,000. One sale propelled me from around a 1,000,000th to 500,000th. How does that work? That’s just it. No one knows.

Or maybe there is a way to figure it out if you put in the time. But that time, like trying to understand the current presidential campaign, is better spent writing. Or reading. For example, you could all buy  and read “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” and then I could see what my Amazon sales ranking does. Just as an experiment, you understand. For a friend.

Minnesota Stories

IMG_2706I’ve been revising my short story “The Satellite Dish,” which is a follow-up to “The Mailbox” and takes place  three years later, in 1984. Back in my college years while I was working toward my English degree with an emphasis on creative writing, I generally wrote nongenre fiction for my classes, what is sometimes called “literary fiction,” but that always sounds so pompous that I’m reluctant to use the label.

The first one was “Me and the Mean Kid,” which was about Nicky and the rocky start he had with Jimmy, a kid in his new Twin Cities neighborhood. After that came “The New Kid,” where the tables had turned; now Jimmy and Nick are best friends and a new kid moves into the house between them. Around the time I graduated I wrote “The Mailbox,” about Nick’s grandparents on his father’s side, who live outside the small fictional town of Lewis near the real cities of Cloquet and Carlton (my home town) south of Duluth. I still have the first typewritten draft of that, as the photo shows.

There were other stories and lots of notes about the intertwining characters. The setting of the earliest story I’ve written is 1944. A number of the stories take place in the eighties and nineties because that’s when I was writing them. I had grand plans for two short story collections and a novel; I even wrote the first chapter of the novel. Its present day is 1995, but the bulk of the story would be a flashback to 1965. Not all of these details were known in the stories’ first drafts, but have been fleshed out and added in over the years.

At some point I started calling them the Minnesota Stories, and I still have a fondness for them. The ones that focus on the extended family tend to be nice little stories. There’s a subset of the Minnesota Stories set in Duluth that are more tangential and edgier, however. Some are about Nick’s dad’s cousin, but the rest are about people who he knows or crosses paths with. Those stories and vignettes are more Raymond Carver inspired than Garrison Keillor inspired.

As my schedule permits, I’ll probably continue revisiting these pieces, revising them and putting them out as e-books. Realistically, I can now imagine someday having a modest collection of stories and a novella. If I ever get there I would probably look into a print version: I like to think that could be a solid regional seller. But that is still down a long, dusty country road . . .

Clothes cover.pngClothes Make the Man and Other Crimes is my latest e-book, a collection of four crime stories. In “The Sun Dress,” a dress, an affair, and a gun lead to a surprising and explosive confrontation. Officer Peggy Roberts makes a traffic stop and hopes to catch a killer in “Clothes Make the Man.” The flash fiction “Details, Details” illuminates the research behind David’s perfect plan to kill his boss. Finally, “First Impression” is a night on the town with a cold-blooded assassin who has made going unnoticed the cornerstone of his profession.

The lead character of “Clothes Make the Man,” police officer Peggy Roberts, had a cameo in my second Kate Sullivan mystery story, “Of Murder and Minidonuts.” Roberts will return in the third Kate Sullivan story when I get around to writing it.

“Clothes Make the Man” was my contribution to Writes of Spring, an anthology edited by Gary Schulze and his wife Pat Frovarp, the then-owners of the fabulous Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore in Minneapolis.

For more than a decade they provided unwavering support for mystery writers in general and Twin Cities writers in particular. Even though for years I had but one mystery short story to my credit—my first Kate Sullivan story, “Out of the Jacuzzi, Into the Sauna,” in Resort to Murder—they always invited me to participate in their annual Writes of Spring signing event. They provided my second mystery credit when they included “Clothes Make the Man” in Writes of Spring, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Writes of Spring and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bookstore.

So I was particularly saddened to learn that Gary had passed away just as I was preparing to release Clothes Make the Man and Other Crimes. A big thanks to both Gary and Pat for everything they have done for the mystery community of writers and readers. It was well deserved when they won a Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2011.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to Jeff Ayers, Kevin Lauderdale, and Michael Allan Mallory, whose insightful comments helped put an extra polish on each of the stories in Clothes Make the Man and Other Crimes.

SMPLogoI first stuck my toe into the water of self-publishing four years ago with “The Mailbox,” a revised version of my first pro sale. Then I got distracted by other things. Now that I’m a full-time freelancer, I’ve been getting back into it. I’ve got a handful of Kindle singles available and more projects on the way. Eventually I’ll have all my e-books available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks, but I’m not there yet; all the links in this post are to Amazon.

Even though I’m publishing these myself, I decided to have a name for my virtual press, mostly to amuse myself. I settled on Stuck in the Middle Press for two reasons. First, most writers are stuck in the middle, wandering the no-man’s-land between their first sale and the lightning strike of fame. Second, my initials are SMP, but I couldn’t simply use that because of St. Martin’s Press.

Right now I have just four other titles available in addition to “The Mailbox,” all short stories. There are two Kate Sullivan mystery stories, “Out of the Jacuzzi, Into the Sauna” and “Of Murder and Minidonuts.” Wisecracking Kate likes to stick her civilian nose into crime, investigating murders that happen in her vicinity. High jinks ensue. The first story originally appeared in the regional anthology Resort to Murder, where each story was set on a resort in Minnesota.

In the science fiction story “Finders Keepers,” Cpl. M. J. Robeson faces an intruder trying to pirate the starship Alliance. The story was first published in the anthology Space Grunts. Robeson will return in her next adventure at some point.

The Lovecraft pastiche “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement” first appeared in Space and Time Magazine. It answers the question “What if there were a Cthulhu help line?”

I have four other projects in various stages. Clothes Make the Man and other Crimes is a collection of four short-short crime stories that is almost done. Happiness Through Philosophy and Other Nonsense is a larger collection of absurd stories and ludicrous vignettes. “The Satellite Dish” is another Minnesota story, featuring the same characters from “The Mailbox.” The last is an as-yet-untitled collaboration with another writer, details to be announced as we become more certain of them.

Please consider picking up these stories for Kindle, and by all means leave me a review on Amazon if you enjoy them. If you don’t, I apologize, and please play with a kitten until you forget about leaving me a review that compares me to fungus. Thanks in advance.

ImageWhen I decided I wanted to be a writer, back in the miasmal swamps of prehistory, I was writing on an electric typewriter and using a lot of correction tape, Wite-Out, and erasers. Inevitably I did a lot of retyping when a page became too messy for submission. I also borrowed an idea from Ray Bradbury, who used 3×5 index cards to jot down story and title ideas. When he wanted to start something new, he could simply pull a card out of his little file box and let inspiration strike. I’ll pause a moment to let the kids Google “electric typewriter” and “Wite-Out” and “index cards.” There. Yes, we used to use those things. 

It was all very simple. Write story. Look up markets in the Writer’s Market. Affix appropriate postage to envelopes. Mail story. Get rejection slip. Rinse. Repeat. That’s what you did. Writers who paid a fortune to get a box of hardcovers printed by a vanity press were generally suckers who wound up with a lot of extra insulation in their attic. But now we’re in the twenty-first century, and it’s a whole new ballgame. 

Back in the day you really didn’t have to wonder how to be a writer. You just wrote and submitted. Boom. Now you can spend days surfing the net just researching self-publishing, traditional, hybrid, and what to do or not to do to best pursue each of those labels. Plus, buzzwords: platform, online presence, social media. 

A few months ago, as I pursued freelance editorial work, I contacted an online business that’s a perfect example of the new publishing. A collective of freelancers that helps authors get published in both eBook and print formats, providing editorial and design services. I was hoping I might get some editorial work with them. But their response was “Hey, great resumé for both editing and writing . . . but can you produce eBook files?” 

Ouch. Reality punch in the face. These days, you can’t simply be an editor, you also have to do eBook design. You can’t just be a writer, you also have to be a publisher. Agents are also trying to find their way in this new world, and they find themselves working with writers who aren’t interested in traditional publishers, which used to be the whole purpose for an agent. 

Everyone’s trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. It reminds me of Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross, the old-school salesman, Shelley “The Machine” Levine, desperate for some good leads to reenergize his sales and keep his job. Writers, editors, agents . . . we’re all looking for some good leads so we can just get back to what we love doing. 

As for me . . . I’m teaching myself a lot more about eBooks. I’ve got software for creating eBook files. I’m looking at my backlist of stories from two angles: what will I self-pub, and what will I continue to pursue traditionally. Long ago I came up with a name for my own imprint and got a simple logo designed (that’s it, there at the top of this post). We’ll see what happens. I’m working on a short collection of humorous vignettes and other silliness that I’ll self-pub when it’s ready. Stay tuned.

I’ve been announcing my impending entry into the brave new world of self-publishing e-books for some time now but, as with everything, it was taking much longer to get organized than I had originally hoped. So last weekend when a couple of friends independently ask me for my feedback on publishing with Smashwords, I decided, “Eff it, I’m going to self-publish this weekend or cough up blood trying.” Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic, but I made a vow and stuck to it. Last weekend I uploaded my short story “The Mailbox” to Smashwords.

“But, wait,” you cry, “how come this is the first I’m hearing about it? Why haven’y you blogged, tweeted, or facebooked about this if it’s been up for a week already?!?”

A fair question, sailor. Well, the first thing I noticed is that the mobi file (the format used by the Kindle) created by Smashwords had a glitch in it, a blank line like an extra return in the middle of a paragraph. I tweaked and retweaked my specially formatted Word document, uploading it over and over, but no matter what I did that blank line kept appearing in the same spot. The epub version (used by Apple and others) and the pdf, generated from the same Word doc, looked fine. I emailed Smashwords support about the glitch and am waiting for a response.

Next I was going to assign an ISBN to my story. You have to have an ISBN to be sold by Apple, Sony, and Kobo. But I got an error message when I tried to assign the ISBN. Turns out Smashwords has run out of them. They’ve ordered another batch, and should get them soon. Okay, another small annoyance, but I’ll just have to take care of that issue when they get the new lot of numbers in the system.

Next I noticed another speed bump. Although Smashwords creates a Kindle file that readers can buy directly from Smashwords, due to some technical gobbledygook with Amazon, the files aren’t listed there. Ka-what? Amazon is practically taking over bookselling but my story won’t be for sale there? Never fear, however, you just have to deal with them directly. So today I clicked over to Kindle Direct Publishing to upload “The Mailbox.” I figured it would be easy, because I’ve already got the text and cover file I created for Smashwords.

Turns out I was counting my unhatched chickens before the horse, as they say. I uploaded the file and, being new to the Kindle Direct process, realized too late that I’d already published it before previewing the results of the file conversion. I finally figured out how to preview it and discovered all my paragraph indents had disappeared for no apparent reason. Yay. So I unpublished the Amazon version and now have to figure out what went wrong there. At least that damn blank line in the Smashwords Kindle file wasn’t there.

This might sound like I’m bashing Smashwords, but that’s not my intention. These are just some bumps in the road. Keep in mind that the Smashwords service is free and gets you a free ISBN and uploads your story to several retailers; it’s a great deal. I’m going to stick with them and handle Amazon separately. I’ll get the bugs worked out and let you all know what happens. Meanwhile, I’m considering this blog my soft launch of “The Mailbox.” Click on over to Smashwords and check it out, it’s only 99 cents.