As a public service, I thought it would be helpful to cobble together all the negative criticism ever written about my debut novel A Time and a Place (at least all that I could find online) and publish it as one single blisteringly harsh review. Kind of like ripping the Bandaid (TM) off all at once.
A “frankenreview“, if you will.
Every line is pretty much a direct quote from the original source review, though I’ve jumbled it all up so that my frankenreview follows a kind of twisted logic. I altered some punctuation and the occasional pronoun/noun in the interest of syntax.
I think the result is a fairly kick-ass review, though admittedly not one likely to help me sell more books.
Gradually getting the interviews and readings from BookMarkIt! this past May edited and posted. Here’s the latest, with Mark Askwith talking to Ira Nayman, author of the Multiverse series of novels, and editor of Amazing Stories magazine, in a really interesting chat about science fiction, humour, how he got into editing, and much, much more.
This past Friday I headed up to Ottawa to attend CANCON 2018, an annual convention devoted to readers, writers and fans of speculative fiction with an emphasis on the writing part of it all. It’s the only such convention I attend regularly, having attending three times now in four years. It’s the kind of convention a person can really feel at home at, for a lot of reasons. It’s inclusive and welcoming, attended by a lot of friendly, like-minded people. Importantly, it’s got a well-thought out Code of Conduct designed to protect attendees, a Code of Conduct that’s enforced and taken seriously. It’s got great programming on everything from “Advice to Aspiring Writers on the Craft” to “Rules of Writing: Are They Really Rules?” to “Swiping Right on the Monster”. There are pitch sessions during which you can pitch to various publishers and Meet the Agent sessions with big-time New York Agents and Meet the Editor Sessions with Big-Time New York Editors. It’s attended by newbies and professionals and famous folk in the field and everybody in between.
The first time I ever attended CANCON I got offered my book deal for A Time and a Place. Which as you can imagine was really exciting and has resulted in a lot of good things. So there’s a special place in my heart for CANCON.
So, bottom line, it’s a con that’s got a lot to offer. I attend for all those reasons, but I also attend because I have never failed to find it a rejuvenating weekend, a weekend that leaves me better off than when it found me.
This year was a particularly striking example of that.
I landed at the Con Friday afternoon after driving up with my friends Tanah Haney and Tonya Liburd. I always drive up and like to take a few other people with me, because that’s more fun, and also it’s helping others out who might find it a bit pricey to get up to Ottawa. On this particular day I was really exhausted for some reason, coming off a busy stretch of wearing myself a little too thin physically and mentally. Tanah and I met up with our good friend Jenn Delagran (second year in a row we’ve done the con together), and I socialized a bit into Friday night, but I was feeling really fried. By the end of the night I was seriously wondering how I was going to make it through the con. I imagined feeling this way the entire con, having to fake smiles and pretend that I wasn’t about to completely fall apart, and I did not find that prospect the least bit appealing. So I made it a point to hit the sack early Friday night, hoping that the Power of CANCON would work its magic through the night and restore me to something resembling my usual self.
Con Pals Tanah Haney and Jenn Delagran
And it did.
I felt so much better Saturday morning. And it just got better from there.
I headed down for breakfast around 8am and got a table by myself. It never fails that someone interesting comes along when I do that. This time it was Ira Nayman, novelist and editor of Amazing Stories magazine. We had a great chat about a wide range of subjects. Discussing dogs, Ira observed that, “In a worst case scenario, they will eat your face,” which struck me as unnerving but amusing.
From there it was off to the Dealer’s Room, where Myth Hawker, the (fabulous) Travelling Book Store had graciously consented to sell A Time and a Place, which they have been doing successfully for a few weeks now, having sold copies to a trucker in Vancouver and to a cat lover in Ottawa and others that I have failed to obtain biographical information on. I was their “featured author” for an hour and a half, during which the Myth Hawker crew (mainly Lisa Toohey and Diogo Castelhano) tried to teach me how to sell my wares better (“don’t cross your arms!” “Work on your pitch!” “Seek out cat people!” and so on). We did manage to successfully sell one copy while I was the featured author, though me and another writer also managed to frighten one potential customer away by inadvertently ganging up on her. It continues to be a learning process.
Kurestin Armada speaking at CANCON 2018 (photo by Lisa Michelle Toohey)
I attended a few panels and readings. I like to support people I know, so I often eschew more popular panels to attend book launches and readings from friends and acquaintances. I attended a launch for Maaja Wentz’s new book Feeding Frenzy and a panel on writing for themed anthologies that featured my travelling companion Tonya Liburd. I actually abandoned the programming list, trusting the opinions of my con pals Tanah and Jenn to lead me to interesting programming of their choice. I was glad I did, following them to a talk by Guest Editor Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency, who spoke of her Manuscript Wish List, and walked us through the first few pages of several successful recent novels, explaining where and how they fit in and why they worked. Afterward I chatted briefly with Kurestin about what kind of space opera she liked, as I happen to be polishing up a space opera right now, which I hope will become my second published novel.
Myth Hawker, the fabulous Travelling Bookstore, run by the equally fabulous Pat Flewwelling
And the day continued in that positive vein.
You know how they say extroverts draw energy from people, and introverts expend energy that they must re-acquire in privacy afterward? I expend energy with some people, and draw energy from others. I don’t know what that makes me. An ambivert, or freak, or something. Anyway, I was drawing energy from the people at this con, friends and strangers alike. By the end of Saturday I was feeling pretty good. This despite some adventure Saturday afternoon when, to my horror, Tanah and Jenn got stuck in an elevator for an hour! I spent that hour at the front desk on my cellphone texting Tanah, reassuring her that help was on its way. There were ten people trapped in that elevator, but they did a pretty good job of keeping themselves cheery and calm. I was terribly afraid that Jenn and Tanah (and the others) would find the experience deeply troubling, and that it would ruin the con for them, but it wasn’t the case. Although not a lot of fun while they were trapped, they managed to forge some new acquaintances in that elevator, and treated it as an adventure afterward. For my part, I got to know one of the con co-chairs, Marie Bilodeau, as we worked together at the front desk to relay info and try to keep those trapped calm. If I ever get stuck in an elevator, I want Marie on the outside working to free me (I actually was stuck in one once in the middle of the night on my birthday, but that’s a story for another blog post).
Tonya Liburd on one of her panels.
Sunday morning I woke up even more refreshed, having slept in a bit. Waiting for the elevator to head down for some breakfast, who should step out of the room next to mine but Special Guest Kurestin Armada, the New York Literary Agent. “I’m so sorry,” she said as we waited for the elevator. “I was watching television late last night, and only too late realized that I might be keeping you awake.”
“That’s okay, whatever you were watching was very entertaining,” I said, attempting to be funny, and then hastened to assure her that I was just joking, I hadn’t heard a thing.
Before we parted, I said, “I’m gonna pitch you later, if that’s okay,” meaning that in a few months I would send her a query letter and a pitch for my new novel.
She said, “Oh, come and find me after eleven, I’ll be hanging around the second floor and would be happy to hear your pitch,” or words to that effect.
I hadn’t been clear. “Uh, okay,” I said. “I would be a fool not to accept that invitation. I’ll see you later!”
And then over breakfast became afraid that I’d come off like a jerk, threatening to buttonhole her later, and that she’d only said to come and see her to be polite. I resolved to look her up afterward to explain that I hadn’t meant to obnoxiously pitch her at the con, but to do so later via email.
Looking her up at the appointed hour, I found her about to talk to someone else, and asked if I could have a moment afterward, which she readily agreed to. And felt even more like an obnoxious jerk, because in my attempt to reassure her that I was not some obnoxious, self-serving pitch-wielding asshole, I felt like I was ironically beginning to appear as exactly that. So I decided to forget the whole thing, and just enjoy the rest of the con, and email her my query in a few months as I originally intended.
I attended a few more panels, chatted in the dealer’s room, bought my quota of three books (including my colleague David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, whose panel I had attended the day before, during which he related a quite amusing account of the publication of The Bone Mother with Chizine Press), had a lovely lunch with Tanah and Jenn, and shortly afterward gathered my belongings from my room, intending to leave this yet again excellent, rejuvenating con.
On the way out, I ventured into the Dealer’s Room one last time. Kurestin Armada was sitting by the door behind Chizine’s table. She smiled and waved me over. I awkwardly set all my belongings down somewhere hoping that people wouldn’t trip over them and grabbed a chair next to her.
I tried to explain to Kurestin that I hadn’t actually meant to pitch her just then…
Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency
“Shut up and pitch me,” she said, except not in those words, she was much more polite than that, explaining that she was in fact there to seek out new talent.
So I shut up and pitched her.
Maybe it helped that we were sitting right next to Myth Hawker, where my first novel was prominently displayed. I showed it to her. I don’t know what she thought of that, but maybe it helped that she saw I’d already successfully completed one novel that a famous, fabulous travelling bookstore felt comfortable carrying.
“Send me the first fifty pages of your new novel,” Kurestin suggested.
I had submitted the files to my publisher, who had forwarded them to Audible (ACX), only to have them rejected because they were less than 192 kbps. This didn’t make any sense to me as I was sure that I’d exported them from Audacity properly. When I checked the files out, though, I discovered that I’d actually accidentally exported a couple of files at 32 bit sample rate. It’s weird this only happened to a couple of files; why would the settings change for just a couple of files?
Anyway, I figured this was the problem, so I corrected those files and resubmitted them.
Audible still rejected the files.
So I went back and had another look. I thought I had the settings in Audible correct, but my mistake (well, one of my mistakes) was that I hadn’t actually checked the files themselves. This was really sloppy on my part. The reason I hadn’t checked the files themselves was because, well, I had checked the files, but I’d done so on a Mac, which doesn’t tell you the bit rate. It tells you a lot of other stuff, but not the bit rate, unless you jump through a few hoops, which I hadn’t done. I’d simply assumed that Audacity was doing what it said it was doing:
It says it’s exporting 220-280 kbps. So isn’t it? Nope!
Turns out I should have selected “Constant” Bit Rate Mode, which would have resulted in a guaranteed Bit Rate of 192 kbps.
Live and learn.
Because of this mistake, I had to re-export all my files at the correct bit rate of 192 kbps.
This meant finding the original sessions of each chapter. Doing so, I discovered another bit of sloppiness on my part: poor file management. I’d carefully saved each session using a specific naming convention, but I hadn’t paid much attention to where I saved the files, other than ensuring they were saved on a hard drive somewhere in, say, my house.
Well, at least I knew all the sessions were saved on a hard drive attached to my MacBook Pro. Fortunately, my searches usually managed to locate the required sessions. Unfortunately, they didn’t always do so. I could not find the final sessions for about four chapters. The good news was that I was able to find and re-open at least the penultimate session for each chapter. This resulted in a bit more work than I would have liked. And I became paranoid that I wasn’t re-exporting the absolute final version of each chapter. Because of this paranoia, I decided I needed to re-listen to every second of every chapter to ensure that they were in fact the absolute final, pristine product.
This cut into the writing time of my second novel, which I usually worked on during my commute, and so was a bit of a drag, but it had to be done. Fortunately, I was able to download the files from Dropbox onto my Smartphone, which meant that I could listen just about anywhere I went. Unfortunately, this usually wound up being in rather noisy environments, which meant that I could confirm the proper pacing of the sound files, and that there were no missed edits, and what the chapters would sound like in the real world, but I couldn’t really tell if there were any little clicks or pops or mouth noise etc.
So I listened to all twenty-seven chapters this way, and during the course of this exercise discovered several chapters that weren’t quite up to snuff. In the case of some chapters, it was because I hadn’t been able to find and export the absolute final version, but in the case of other chapters it was because the absolute final versions themselves just weren’t quite up to snuff.
By “up to snuff” I mean mostly that the pacing was off. The way I had read and edited them had resulted in readings that were way too fast. My brain couldn’t keep up listening to them. They threatened to ruin the entire product. Even if listeners couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, what was irritating about the product, I was pretty sure that it would still bother them. All of these chapters needed to be re-edited. There were a few other minor issues too that I took the opportunity to correct, mostly sloppy enunciation, and some minor issues with the levels.
If I hadn’t exported the files at the wrong bit rate to begin with, I probably wouldn’t have discovered these other issues until it was too late, so I was glad about that.
Looking back, the single biggest hurdles I encountered during the production of this audiobook was the fact that I performed it myself, and did the whole thing all alone. There was nobody to tell me I was reading too fast, and I was too close to the product to realize myself where I was going wrong. I didn’t actually even clue in that there was a problem until after I’d finished recording the entire novel and completed the initial edit of the first chapter. Listening back to that initial edit, I was horrified at the pace of my read. So I re-edited the entire chapter and it was STILL too fast. It wasn’t actually until a few weeks went by and I listened to the chapter again with completely fresh ears that I was able to tell what the proper pace should be. So I edited it AGAIN and finally got it in the ballpark (I hope!).
I made the same mistake with several other chapters, thinking as I was going along that I was getting the pacing right, but again I didn’t have sufficient distance to be able to tell for sure. It was several chapters before I acquired enough experience to know to insert far more space than I thought I needed. Doing so made it far easier on subsequent passes to edit the material correctly, tightening it up a bit.
Had I been a seasoned performer, I would have been able to get the pacing right in the performance, which would have resulted in one heck of a lot less editing.
At least one chapter (Chapter Four) was so bad that I was forced to re-record the entire chapter. But by then I had a much better idea what I was doing, resulting in a performance that was much closer to the mark, and that required only a light edit.
Bottom line: it’s mostly about the performance. If you get the performance right, post-production becomes infinitely easier.
I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t read and record their own novels. But I am saying that if you do, have a second set of ears present—preferably, somebody who knows what they’re doing—so that they can set you straight during the recording, which will result in a whole lot less post-production time.
If you can’t have someone else present, maybe just do one section or chapter at a time. This should reduce the learning curve, and maybe by the end of the book your performance which be much closer to what it needs to be.
Still, despite having created a whole lot extra work for myself on this audiobook production, I’m fairly happy with the final product. I did not release it into the wild until I was satisfied with it. I’m also really happy to have this one under my belt. With what I know now, if I ever have to do this again, it should (theoretically!) go one heck of a lot faster.
Of course, you don’t have to put any effort into selling your book if you don’t want to. You can just throw the book out there and hope that by some miracle it will get discovered because of its intrinsic value. There are writers who have had some success this way. But if you choose this path, I think you will be waiting a long time.
I feel an obligation to work hard at selling my novel A Time and a Place. For one thing, I spent a long time writing it. I’m happy with it. I think that it’s worth reading. Is it everyone’s cup of tea? Why, yes. Yes, it is. But I do think that there’s an ideal reader for this book and it’s up to me to find them.
My publisher, Five Rivers Publishing, invested in me and this book, financially and otherwise. Five Rivers artists and editors and book designers put their time and imagination into it. They deserve something in return for all that.
Thinking about what I owe my publisher and the book itself gives me the strength and will to overcome certain misgivings I have about selling my book.
What misgivings? Why should I feel bad about selling A Time and a Place?
Because doing so is somewhat at odds with my general philosophy of life. Apart from certain contexts such as work and family, I don’t expect anything from anybody. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If somebody gives me something—their time, a gift, a favour—it must be of their own free will. I don’t want anyone to do anything for me out of guilt or obligation. I will do the same for them. If I do something for you, it’s because I really want to (um, either that or because of some deep-seated unconscious psychological impulse influencing my actions that I am neither aware of nor can be held responsible for).
What this means is that nobody, not family, friend or stranger, is obligated to purchase A Time and a Place, or read it, or review it (or review it positively), or talk about it, or do anything at all to support it.
Nobody owes me or my book anything.
Because I feel this way, I feel a little funny about trying to convince people to buy it, because I don’t want to talk someone into buying it who might not have done so otherwise. Who might buy it out of charity or a sense of obligation towards me. I would prefer that people buy A Time and a Place because they’re actually interested in it, who might really enjoy and appreciate it.
Now, this is not to say that I don’t appreciate the support that I’ve received so far, whatever the motives may be. Support that has been legion, and that I do truly value.
In fact, I will never forget it.
All that being said, because I do feel an obligation toward the book and my publisher, and because I genuinely believe in A Time and a Place, I am doing my best to market and sell it.
The challenge now, I think, is to make A Time and a Place known to a wider audience. I fancy that amongst this wider audience there are people with whom it might truly resonate. A readership that might (dare I hope?) appreciate it on its own terms.
But how to reach this audience?
A Time and a Place is published by a respectable micro-publisher with limited resources. They are not in a position to mount an expensive advertising campaign. Nor can they afford a print run that will place physical copies of the book in brick and mortar stores across North America. And the print version is rather expensive. Finally, I don’t have the time or money to do a book tour.
On the other hand, A Time and a Place is available everywhere online as an e-book at a good price point. And it was very strong out of the gate. The book launch was a huge success, selling quite a few copies. In fact, it was Bakka-Phoenix Book’s (Canada’s top science fiction bookstore) best-selling Trade Paperback for the month of October 2017. A Time and a Place received a glowing review from Publisher’s Weekly (a prominent international publishing magazine), a review that was subsequently distributed to every major bookselling platform, including Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more. The novel received some respectable media attention (CBC Charlottetown), and it has received excellent independent reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, where it’s currently rated at 4.6 out of 5.
So what does all that mean?
It means that I have a good book and a good foundation upon which to build. It means that I don’t have a huge media conglomerate behind me. It means that my publisher and I must do what we can with what we have.
It means that selling and marketing A Time and a Place is a bit of an uphill battle.
But that’s okay. I’ve been experimenting. And learning.
Early on, I did a Farmer’s Market in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, shortly after being interviewed by CBC Charlottetown. The table, which I shared with my sister, Susan Rodgers (author of the Drifters series), and Sue Campbell (author of Two Bricks Short: My Journey With Cancer) cost me ten dollars. I sold eight copies that day, three a direct result of the CBC Radio interview.
Summerside Farmer’s Market with sister Sue and new friend Sue
I spent a day at a Chapters in Oshawa. Sold nine copies there. But Chapters takes a huge cut (45%). Factoring in what each edition costs me (purchased from my publisher), I was forced to charge an exorbitant amount for each copy to make even a miniscule profit, so I will never do that again, at least for A Time and a Place.
I was invited to two Book Clubs, but only one of them followed through. Several members of the Book Club that did follow through purchased copies of A Time and a Place and actually read it before I showed up to talk about it. This was a lot of fun. Great food, great questions, and great company. My only regret is that I talked too much. I was just so excited to have the opportunity to talk about A Time and a Place to people who actually seemed interested in it.
And I’ve done a few other book-related events, but never sold more than three copies at any of them.
The most success I’ve had selling the book has been to friends, family and colleagues. Cutting out all middle-men allows me to charge the least amount for the book. And in every case they’ve approached me, so I don’t feel like I’m twisting anybody’s arm. I have a couple of rules around this. If someone happens to mention in conversation that they’re interested in purchasing A Time and a Place, I always follow up. As I mentioned before, I owe the book and my publisher that. If they’re still interested, I sell a copy or two. But if I follow up and nothing comes of it, I never mention it again.
I believe that many of these types of sales have been a result of making the book visible. To promote my book launch, I posted posters about the book all over the Broadcast Centre where I work. As a result, everybody who knows me there knows I wrote a book. Also, up until recently, I made a video every weekend that I posted on various social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, and Linked In. Sometimes the videos were directly about the book, sometimes they weren’t. But they all put me out in front of people. A surprising amount of people I know have watched these videos (usually via Linked In or Facebook). The existence of these videos, I am certain, has prompted sales.
A word about the videos. Every now and then I break out in a cold sweat, certain that I’m completely embarrassing myself with the videos. My friends assure that I’m not, even though it’s obvious not everyone gets my sense of humour. But I strongly believe that if you’re considering producing similar videos, some thought and craft has to go into them. Don’t just hit record and talk. I started by doing that and quickly realized that I owed the people watching them more than that. When I resume making videos in a few weeks, I plan to ramp up the quality even more. It’s also more fun to make well-thought out and produced videos.
Speaking of social media accounts, I’ve paid a lot more attention to them since the launch of the book, especially Twitter. By using the app Crowdfire, I’ve grown my Twitter following from four hundred to over fourteen hundred since Christmas. Has this resulted in any sales? I know of at least one (thanks Jim!) And I’m pretty sure Jim has loaned A Time and a Place to a friend, who showed up on Goodreads planning to read it. Word of mouth is extremely important. In fact, perhaps the most important.
Goodreads is something else I’m paying a lot of attention to, curious to see how it can help. Recently, I mounted a campaign to make A Time and a Place the number one book about teleportation on Goodreads. It wasn’t very difficult, as not a whole lot of people had voted for that particular list. But I noticed a slight uptick of sales following this campaign. I’m also trying an ad campaign on Goodreads, but a week into that has resulted in zero sales—in fact, zero clicks on the advertisements, so clearly some tweaking is required there. I plan to experiment with Facebook next.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about selling one book at a time. After a while, the numbers add up. I’ve been very lucky with the support I’ve received from friends, family and colleagues, but for the book to truly succeed it has to break out of that group into the wider world. A Time and a Place has yet to do that to any meaningful extent. But I’m not giving up on it. Everything I read about marketing and selling books tells me that the single best thing I can do to help sell my books is to write more of them. So that’s the next big step. I am well into the second draft of a sequel to A Time and a Place.
If you have any advice on how I can do better, let me know in the comments.
Oh, and if you’re interested in a copy of A Time and a Place?