Monthly archives for November, 2009

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Book as Event

I figured in the month where so many people around the world are joined in a challenge to write at least 50,000 words or so of a novel, now would be a good time to take on this myth. I love the challenge and the fact that it gets so many people writing, and writing quickly. But then when the month is over the myths kick in.

Book as Event is a huge myth that stops most everyone who has done the challenge from simply mailing their books to editors and doing it again the following month. In fact, I have already heard over and over from people who are finished with their book that they will put it away, never mail it, but they had fun. What??? Why not mail it??? Why not try to sell it and get it into print??? Ah, well.

The myth of Book as Event, put as clearly as I can. Myth: All books need to be events, need to be something special.

Hogwash, of course. All books must be written as well as the author can write the book, but just because the author spent blood and sweat on the book, or the author wrote it in twenty days, doesn’t make the book either special or not special. And it certainly doesn’t make it an event.

Hard and fast rule about writing:

THE PROCESS AND EXPERIENCE OF THE AUTHOR IN THE WRITING OF THE BOOK HAS NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THE FINAL QUALITY OF THE BOOK.

If you put that on your wall, you will always have a defense against many of the things I’m going to talk about.

When is a book an actual event? Let me answer that question before I move on to other areas of this topic, the deadly areas.

A book is an acutal event when an author finishes his or her first novel. Now, that’s something special and should be celebrated with friends and family with a good dinner, maybe cards, flowers, something special like a cake. Finishing a first novel puts the writer in a very small minority of writers. Most writers talk about writing, but never find the time to write, let alone to do what it takes to write an entire novel, working for weeks or months to do it. Finishing a first novel is a small event. Celebrate, then put the novel in the mail and get started on the next one.

Kevin J. Anderson sent me a great card after I finished my first novel. On the face of the card is four pictures of a very small mouse pushing a huge elephant up a steep hill. When you open the card, it shows the mouse, sweating, with the elephant at the top of the hill, and at the base of the hill is a herd of elephants just waiting. The caption says, “Great work! Now, do it again.”

Spot on the money.

Publishing a first novel is an actual event. It most likely won’t be your first novel written, but it will always be considered your first novel from that publication forward. My first novel is Laying the Music to Rest, which was the third book I wrote. That first publication should be celebrated, and I remember I did. It is very special, and that specialness needs to be acknowledged by both the author and everyone around them. That is an actual event. Enjoy it!

So why is making a book an event so bad (beyond those two actual events)? About a hundred different reasons, so let me start slowly into the thinking that kills author after author on this myth. And frighteningly enough, this is the myth that I fight the most. This myth has cost me years of my writing career.

Years, and I am not kidding.

—In the Beginning: None of us start out as novelists. No one. Sorry, doesn’t happen. We all learn to write in school, from teachers, from hundreds of people along the way. And often writers start by writing poems, short stories, things like that, even when starting into fiction decades after they learned to write their first sentence. Novels are those big, complex things in a beginning writer’s mind, that need to have a ton of time spent on them to do correctly. (See the myth about writing fast.)

Why do we all have this belief? Because before starting to write novels, we all read novels, and they seemed complex, they seemed long, they seemed just flat hard to do. We built them up to be something really special before we even wrote word one.

So here comes something like this November novel challenge going on now. Thousands and thousands of people manage to write at least 50,000 words in a month or less. Many of them found it easy, many of them had a blast doing it. But alas, to most of them it can’t be any good because it was fun to do, it was easy to do, and gasp, it was written quickly. The thinking is that novels have to be hard and complex and thus because it was fun and easy and quick, it can’t be good. Total hogwash, of course. Back to the only solid rule in writing.

THE PROCESS AND EXPERIENCE OF THE AUTHOR IN THE WRITING OF THE BOOK HAS NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THE FINAL QUALITY OF THE BOOK.

Book as Event thinking puts thousands and thousands of great books into drawers because the author had too much fun writing it.

Not kidding. Writers don’t mail books because they enjoyed writing it. This myth is that stupid. And that deadly.

— It Must Be Perfect: Book as Event really hits right here, kicking in the myth that everything must be rewritten to death before it can be good. A book must be worked over and over and over to make it “perfect.” Hogwash, simple hogwash.

So how do you write a novel? Simply do the best you can every day during the writing, finish the book, fix the mistakes a trusted first reader finds, and mail the thing and start the next book. There is no such thing as a perfect book and the more you work to make a book perfect, the more you turn it into a polished stone with no character or voice. Leave your book rough, leave your voice alone, mail the book and do another. There is no perfect book. Never has been, never will be. And you certainly won’t write the first one. Sorry.

Senator Ted Kennedy has a great quote my wife has on her wall in her office. “Never let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

But…but…but… Let me start with a few of the doubts I can hear creeping into this.

Doubt #1. “If I don’t write a perfect book, it will be rejected in this tough market.”

Wrong. Books are bought for story. Sure, keep the spelling mistakes and typing mistakes down to a minimum by having some trusted first readers, but your story won’t be rejected for a few bad sentences if the story is kick-ass. Books are simply stories, nothing more. Write a good story, mail it, write another.

Doubt #2 “But I want my story to be perfect, my characters big, my plot flawless.”

To do that, you have to trust your subconscious, and that part of your brain functions in fast, first draft mode. You come at your book from critical brain, and you’ll end up writing like your first grade teacher, without voice or anything original left in the book.

There are many more doubts, many more. I know, I’ve had them, and fell for some of them along the way. But for the moment, back to the bigger topic.

—This is too hard. If you feel that way in a book, you are trapped in a myth somewhere, more than likely Book as Event. When did writing a story become hard? It’s not, no matter what authors want to tell you at conventions and writer’s conferences and on their blogs.

The truth: Writing a story is fun. And those of us lucky enough to do it for a living have the best job in the world, period. I sit alone in a room and make stuff up and people pay me large sums of money to do that. What is so hard about that?

But when it starts feeling hard, when the voices start creeping in that the story sucks, that the plot doesn’t work, that even your first grade teacher will hate you when they see the crap you are writing, then guess what? You are trapped in Book as Event myth.

A book is not an event. It is just a long story. Nothing more. And nothing less. Tell the story, move on to another one. And have fun. You could be digging a ditch in the rain.

—It must be art. Oh, heavens, if that is your thinking, you are lost. Way, way deep in Book as Event. If you think every book you write must be art, stop writing now, which more than likely, you already have. There is no such thing as the “Great American Novel” anymore, and I sort of doubt there ever was, actually.

The truth is that every month thousands of publishers and imprints must fill a monthly list. Those lists must be filled to keep the machine of publishing going. And now, with electronic publishing, the slots needed for novels is increasing even faster. No book will climb above that crowd, at least not as art. Your book may climb above it as a bestseller, but if you are thinking you are writing art, I’m sure you look down your nose at bestsellers. Go study the history of the books that are considered art today and you might have a hope of getting over that, since most of the books studied as art today were the bestsellers of their time.

Art need audience. If you are selling your book that took six years to write to 1,000 people, you are not writing art. Sorry.

(Oh, that’s going to make some people angry. Sigh…)

—To sell more copies, my book must be bigger. I have to admit, I fell for this one as well for a few years, as did most of publishing because of the collapse of the distribution system in the mid 1990s. I even taught a class here on the coast in how to write a “Big Book.” Worst class I ever taught, and most destructive to writers. Sorry, those of you who took it.

The problem is with this big book aspect is that about half the agents working today (almost all the young ones who were editors at one point since 1995) believe this silliness, even though they are fully aware that most books on a imprint’s list are small books, niche books, category books. For a time, the focus of publishing and a generation of young editors who are now agents, became “big books only.” At least, that was all the talk. (Which is one reason agents have you rewrite stuff. See my posts on that stupidity.)

But thankfully now, publishing has regained its sanity. It still takes a special book to get sold, but it sure doesn’t need to have huge scope, larger-than-life characters, a complex, multi-viewpoint plot, and unique setting never done before. If you can do all that, fine and dandy, but if you can write a good story, a unique story (it will be unique if you told it, since you are unique, and don’t rewrite yourself out of the story), then you will sell if you mail it to enough editors.

But no matter what How-to-Write authors (who are agents) like Donald Maass and Albert Zuckerman tell you, it is not possible to plan big books. Just write your stories, stories that are important to you, and mail them.

—I have to promote my new book. This comes from Book as Event myth as well. Read my post earlier about self promotion. If a publisher asks and pays you to promote your book, do it. But otherwise, just stay with your web site and social networks and a local signing in your area to talk about your book. Let the publishers do their jobs and you do your job and write the next book.

—Eating the Elephant. That’s what Kris and I call the problem writers have when they can’t seem to start something. If you were standing beside a well-cooked elephant and your task was to eat every bite of the huge thing, you would say you couldn’t do it. But, actually, you could. One bite at a time, over a period of time.

Novels are the same thing. They are mostly impossible to hold completely in your mind, so when starting it looks like a huge task (book as event again) and thus it’s just easier to not start, easier to keep outlining and plotting and researching and doing all those things that are not writing. The key is to just start, write so much per day, stop when you find the ending, and then mail it. (Yup, sort of like many of you just did on this November challenge.)

This problem stops all of us at times. Even someone like me who has sold over 90 novels, and written more than that number. I have a sign over my computer that says simply “Trust the Process” and it’s right beside another sign. “Write Scenes.”

Scenes I can hold in my head. Write a scene, then write the next scene, and trust the process as the days and weeks go by.

This topic is so huge, and this problem so big, that I’m sure I’m missing areas of it. I will try to cover those areas in other chapters along the way.

But in short, the myth of book as event is the underlying problem most writers face all the time. It’s easy to start building up a book into something more than it really is, especially when people ask “How’s your book coming?” That question sort of underlines that the book is an event, and that it is the only book you have in you.

I once had a guy come up to me and say, “I hear you have a book coming out?” That year I had eleven novels coming out, just about one every month. So I said, “Sure do.”

Being a nice guy, he said, “I”m looking forward to reading it. What’s the title?”

I said, “Which one?”

He looked puzzled, like it didn’t make sense that I had more than one book coming out. To him, and to most folks, writing and publishing a book are huge events, so how could it be possible to have more than one?

When I said, “I have five books in the next five months coming out,” he looked horrified.

Right now, if you feel horrified by the idea that I published eleven novels in twelve months one year, if you are thinking that because I did that, they must automatically be bad, then you have an issue with the myth of Book as Event. And that myth will stop you in one way or another, at one point or another.

And if you just finished a book in November and are making up excuses to not mail it to editors because you had too much fun writing it, because it came to fast or too easy, or it needs a massive rewrite, you really have issues with Book as Event thinking.

Just because a book is fun to write, just because you wrote it fast, doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, it usually means it’s pretty darned good. Have fun mailing it.

———————-

Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean





Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Self Promotion

The myth simply is: “All self promotion for a writer is good.” Nope. Completely false. The truth is sometimes self promotion of your own book can hurt you, sometimes it can help you. The key is not falling for the myth that all self promotion is good.

Right now, in late 2009, the publishing industry is changing so fast that it is often hard to keep up for a writer with his head buried in writing the next book. Things are changing month to month, and the major publishers in New York and around the world are struggling to even stay a year or two behind. Where exactly is all this change happening? In the distribution system, which in turn is causing changes throughout the rest of the system.

For a very easy way to understand publishing, write at the top of a piece of paper the word WRITER. Then draw a line down the center of the page a few inches and write the word PUBLISHER, then continue the line a few more inches and write DISTRIBUTION, and then continue the line to the bottom of the page and write the word READER.

WRITER

PUBLISHER

DISTRIBUTION

READER

Everything flows from the top to the bottom. For hundreds of years, that was, and still is, the basic structure of the publishing business. The writer supplies product to a publisher who then, creates the book product, promotes, and gets the books into distribution (which includes bookstores), finally ending up in readers’ hands.

On your slip of paper, draw a line across the page between the writer and the publisher. That’s the contract between a writer and a publisher, the paper that defines the terms between the supplier of product and the producer of the product. For a long time, the common knowledge was that a writer never crossed that contract line unless a publisher asked for their help on a tour. And, of course, the publisher always paid all the writer’s expenses for such help. It still works that way with major book tours for writers.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few romance writers decided they could help their sales by talking to the truckers, handing out treats early in the morning to truck drivers, create bookmarks, and so on, including paying for their own book tour. It worked for a few early on, then every writer seemed to jump on the band wagon and in short order the bookstores didn’t want to see a writer come though their doors with more crap. Mail boxes were full of junk produced by writers and mailed to everyone they could think of. That sort of self promotion of a book basically became worthless. And very expensive for a writer to do.

And thus, the myth of self promotion was born. Writers coming in since the early 1990’s have heard over and over that you have to self promote your own book or fail.

Hogwash. Let me simply say that what sells a book, both to an editor and to a reader is a well-told story written well and presented well. The better the book, the better it will sell. If your books are not selling, learn how to write better books and learn how to write better proposals and then mail it all to editors. It really is that simple.

Now, that said, here we are in late 2009 and the world has shifted once again. Kindles, Nooks, eBooks, POD, and a dozen other ways of getting a book from a publisher to a reader has arrived. Finally.

Why do I say finally? This change has been thought about and talked about for almost two decades. It was just slow arriving, but when it did finally arrive, it hit the system with an impact.

No one, including me, is sure how or where all these changes are leading. All we can do is follow the news and keep learning. But does it change the fact that a good story, well written and well presented will sell? Nope.

Do the changes in the industry change the self promotion thinking? Yes, some.

So, at this point, in late 2009, what can an author do to help a book get better sales for their publisher?

Before I get to a few ideas on that question, lets talk about how return for self promotion is measured for a writer. It’s a simple formula, actually.

Time Spent + Money Spent = Total cost.

Compare Money Returned in Sales to Total Cost.

Remember that every moment you are spending self promoting an old book is a moment you are not writing a new book. So just as with any business, figure time lost and put an actual dollar figure on that time. (Say it took you three months to write the last book and your advance was $6,000. If you spend one month self promoting the old book, it cost you $2,000 in time lost.)

An example of silly thinking: An author manages to set up his own book tour, spending two weeks traveling, hitting bookstores, doing some signings and such, promoting his new paperback release from Bantam Books. The author will spend upwards of three weeks total time on planning and traveling, three weeks not spent on writing the next book. The actual out-of-pocket expenses will total $5,000 at least not counting the time lost costs.

What will the author get in return? With luck and being very personable, the author manages to sell an extra 500 copies of the book (that’s a lot). The author gets an 8% royalty rate on the $6.00 book, so 48 cents per book. The author will return about $250 bucks. Okay, that’s just silly. Spend $5,000 and three weeks to make $250. A great way to quickly go out of business for any business.

Here’s the worst part. Remember publishing is bottom line focused. Let’s assume that’s the author’s first book for Bantam and he doesn’t do the exact same thing for book number two. What would happen? The second book sales will decline from book number one. The sales trend will be DOWN on the accounting sheets. Not a good thing in publishing and he won’t sell book number three. His promotion tour cost him not only money and writing time, but his book series with Bantam. (I have watched this happen with a good dozen writer friends in the last twenty years. Some changed names and kept going, others are still wondering what went wrong.)

So, why do publishers with major bestsellers push their authors on intense tours? Simply to increase the velocity of sales. Bestseller lists are measured by the sales per week. If a publisher can push up the numbers in certain areas over a short period of time and shove the author onto a bestseller list, then sales pick up overall. In other words, publishers know what they are doing, authors don’t. That simple.

An author’s job is to write a good book. A publisher’s job is to create the book and promote it and sell it. And all that is detailed out in the contracts between the two parties.

So, back to the point of what is good self promotion these days? Following are a few suggestions.

1) A web site. An active one, where you post a few times a week and have photo and buying information for your books. Key to the web site is make it a name that people can find. Notice, my name is this web site. Easy to find. My pen names have web sites as well. It’s simple and takes very little time and allows readers to find your work and your different work.

Also, this helps for sales to editors. An editor with a manuscript in front of them they like will pull up your web site and look at it. If you are badmouthing New York editors or are a real pain on your web site, they will see that and decide life is too short. But if you have a professional web site that promotes your work, then they will look at that as a good thing. It still takes a good book, well written and presented well that fits their line to sell to them, but it never hurts to look professional on your web site. And they are easy to do these days, even for an old fart like me.

2) Facebook and Twitter accounts. I seldom post at the moment on either, but will change that starting this month, now that I have everything moved and the master class is finished. Again, be professional and not too personal. No one really cares what you had for lunch unless you had that lunch with Dean Koontz.

3) Do a signing for your local independent bookstore. That won’t make you enough sales to hurt your numbers, but it is good support of a bookstore that I assume you go into regularly. It will make the stores a few bucks and let your family and friends celebrate your book with you. In other words, it’s fun. But just do one per book. One is enough.

Anything more? Maybe. If you sold your book to a smaller or regional or University press, they might ask you to help some with promotion, because a few extra sales can make a huge difference to a small press. In that case, work smart. Understand what you are good at, what you are poor at, and where you can help sell a few more copies without hurting your writing time. Keep it in balance.

If you are the publisher of your own book, that’s another matter. You are responsible in that case for all promotion, and even the smallest amount can help. Again, the key is to keep it in balance and write the next book.

General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion: If you are spending more money than a tiny fraction of your advance on self promotion and more time than it took to write the book on self promotion, you are doing it very, very wrong.

Second General Rule of Thumb on Self Promotion Make your next book a better book. That’s the best thing you can do to promote your career and your writing.

Remember that self promotion is in the distribution area of publishing. That is part of the publisher’s job to handle. If you self-publish your own book, then it’s your job, but if you are selling books to New York publishers, keep your focus on the next book.

——————

Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean


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