June 3

Cover Stories

How important are book covers? Especially now, in the age of e-books, do they really matter? When shopping online, they appear as nothing more than a thumbnail. And on my old Kindle, they appear as black and white images.

Not that I spend a ton of money on e-books. I’m still old school when it comes to books. I want to feel paper and weight in my heads, to smell the wood pulp and ink. And yes, I like a good book cover. I don’t buy books based solely on a cover image. But a good image can allude to the content of the book, maybe tease an important scene or give identity to some of the characters. Let’s just say it can be a mitigating factor for purchase.

Much like vinyl album covers. Back in the 1960s, 70s, and into the 80s, album cover art was amazing. Photographs, paintings, airbrushed graphics, it was all over the place, but they were works of art, all of them, in their own way. Full confession time: I still buy vinyl. I have cases of albums, and even picked up frames so I can hang some of my favorites on the wall.

Sadly, with the advent of cassette tapes and CDs, then later digital media, album covers seemed to lose their significance. They shrunk so much it was difficult to appreciate them. A part of me feels that this is one of the reasons why tapes and CDs sort of lost steam. In fact, a recent RIAA report shows CD sales are declining three times as fast as vinyl sales are growing. To me, it’s all about the art…and the music.

Going back to my original thought – I like browsing bookstores and looking at book covers. It’s all part of the experience, don’t you think? You know, casually wandering through the shelves, seeing a title that sounds intriguing, pulling the book from its slot and looking at the cover. You raise your eyebrows and think, “Huh, that’s cool”, then flip it over the read the blurb on the back cover. We all do it, with slight variances, and we all turn back to the cover one more time before slipping it back into its slot…or slipping it into our shopping basket.

Covers, at least on physical books, are still important. Covers can tell stories on their own. You can look at the cover of a fantasy novel and see a couple of elves, maybe a dwarf, facing off in front of a dark and evil-looking castle. Right there you know what types of magical races are in the book, that it’s probably a good vs. evil story, and that either one of the magical races is evil, or they’ve been tricked to turn on one another.

Sure, that’s an assumption, but I’ve rarely picked up a book whose cover didn’t give some clues to the content. In fact, I took that into account when I designed the cover for my first short story collection. I knew what I wanted, but I also knew that I didn’t want to spend money paying someone to try and capture that image for me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that a graphic artist could do it and do it well, but I sort of wanted to do it myself. Selfish reasons. You understand.

So I scoured the image sites with creative commons licenses. I spent days, weeks even, looking for just the right starter image. I found few that we close, but not quite right. Finally, there it was. A dark figure in a hoodie, a nighttime setting, a flash of orange streetlights. Perfect. I gave it a few tweaks, added a swirl of light, added my lettering, viola’! And yes, I gave the photographer credit in the book.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve received some nice comments on the cover.

With e-books, however, are covers worth the trouble? With a physical book, even when you aren’t reading it you can see it laying on your nightstand or coffee table, the cover right there to appreciate. With an e-book, you see the thumbnail on the webpage, and you may see it in your e-book library. But even when you select it (at least, on my Kindle it does this), the e-book opens to the first page of the story, not the cover. So after purchase you probably won’t see it again.

That seems like a waste to me. Some independent author spent time and money on finding the right cover for their e-book, and it’s never really seen or appreciated. I’ll offer another confession: When I shop for e-books, I really don’t look at the covers, I may read the synopses and a few reviews, but that’s all. Recently, I’ve bought e-books based solely on recommendations or a impulse buy. Sometimes it’s fun to go into a book with absolutely no ideas of what it’s about.

I wonder if anyone has done a study of book covers to determine what formats are best, or if readers even care. I bet the results would be eye-opening and may change the way we publish books.

RB

April 29

Fond Memory

I was recently going through the piles of stuff on my bookshelves – spiral notebooks, magazines, actual books – and found a copy of Space & Time magazine from 2015. This was the issue that included my short story, “Sunwalker”.

As with all publications, I was proud to see my name in the table of contents and the story, in all its glory, flowing over several pages. Looking over it again brought back those feelings.

One of the things I had forgotten was that this was the first story of mine that had an accompanying illustration. I didn’t know the editor was going to do this, so it was an incredible surprise for me. The illustrator, Alan Bech, did a fantastic job and the illustration was a perfect fit.

astronaut illustration
“Sunwalker” illustration by Alan F. Beck.

I think there’s a unique bond between illustrators and writers. We compliment each other’s work. I know I’d like to see more illustrations and images sharing the page with the written word. It just feels right to me.

What do you think?

RB

April 17

First Time or Last Time

There’s a quote attributed to baseball great Joe DiMaggio that I discovered recently that resounded in me. He was once asked why he always played so hard in every game. DiMaggio replied, “There may be some kid in the stands who’s seeing me or the first time, or maybe the last, and I don’t want to disappoint him.”

I think that, as artists, we should abide by the same work ethic. We don’t know if someone seeing our work is seeing it for the first time, or maybe the last. We should make a good impression, a lasting impression. This is why our final product, the piece we put out there for the world to see, should be the best we can provide.

That’s one of the things about the self-publishing world, I don’t think we always get the best final product. I’m more selective about the books I buy than my partner is, and she’s run into all sorts of typos and weird formatting in the e-books she reads. And not just simple mistakes – a misplaced apostrophe or a single misspelling – but entire paragraphs missing, or blank pages where none should be, or fonts changing mid-sentence.

From a reader’s perspective, this would put me off buying another book by that author. To me, it shows they didn’t take the time needed to provide a clean final copy. Laziness? Didn’t care? Or did they put the work off on someone else and didn’t follow up afterward to ensure they did a good job? Could be any of the aforementioned.

And I’ll be the first to admit, it’s happened to me. I’ve submitted stories to editors only to be told later there were typos. That’s incredibly embarrassing and, in my case, I felt it was unprofessional of me to submit something that had obvious errors. Having worked on the editor side of publishing, I can forgive simple mistakes. It happens. No one is perfect and, as I’ve written here before, perfection is boring. If the story is amazing, then it’s much easier to forgive a misspelling or three.

But after reading the quote from DiMaggio, I’m looking at my writing from a different angle. Sure, I always try to do my best to tell a good story, to entertain my readers, maybe make them think differently for a while. But making an impression, either first or last, makes me want to try harder, not just in my storytelling but also in my presentation.

Here’s the thing – making a good impression means not only can you hook a reader, but that reader will then tell another reader, and so on and so on. Even if it’s a last good impression, that impression will stick with the reader. They’ll carry it with them even if they never read another thing you’re written. And in doing so, they will still probably tell others about your work. It’s a win-win situation.

Remember, you always want to do your best. Not just for you, but for the person who spent their money on your book.

RB

April 6

The Future of Publishing

What does the future hold for the publishing industry? It’s hard to say with any certainty. With the world so interconnected via the web and the new possibilities that holds, there’s no telling where it may lead.

Consider magazines for a moment. For short story and novella writers, magazines were the go-to way to get published for over a century. They were everywhere – newsstands, racks in the checkout line at the grocery store, on shelves in the pharmacy, and pilled up in stacks in most waiting rooms. It seemed like they’d always be here.

But with the advent of the internet back in the early to mid 1990s, magazines began to decline. Most have either quietly shuttered their doors or moved into the digital realm (much like newspapers). What used to be a viable market for writers to get their work published is now a shadow of its former self. I find it sad. When I was a kid I loved reading stories in the magazines I received each month in the mail. Asimov’s, Omni, Weird Tales…

The thing is, getting published on a website just isn’t the same as seeing my name in print. Maybe that’s an old-school way of looking at it, but I don’t think anyone can deny how cool it is to pull a magazine off a rack in a store, flip to the table of contents, and see your story title and name printed there. But, unfortunately, those days are mostly gone now.

The other big change over the past decade or so has been in traditional book publishing. The big publishing houses are pickier than they used to be. They are more concerned with the return on investment than they are with finding new voices. They want known quantities, books that are guaranteed to sell. With more writers in the field and less opportunity, the only viable option for most authors is to self-publish. Obviously, it’s not the same as traditional publishing, much like publishing short stories on websites rather than in print magazines. But still, it provides an option for writers who don’t want to wait months or years to find out if their book it going to ever make it to a bookshelf.

Self-publishing is now a huge industry. I was late getting on that bandwagon. I was one of those people who felt I needed to go the traditional route, to work with an agent and all that jazz. But over time I realized that I didn’t want to deal with the waiting and the uncertainty. It’s not that I don’t think my stories are good enough. I’m damn proud of the ones I’ve written. It’s just that the traditional market isn’t what it used to be and I needed to evolve.

But what’s next? While I see some of the big publishers beginning to consolidate, there are also a lot of small, indie publishers popping up on the literary landscape. While that does provide some new opportunities, there’s still the concern for a return on investment. I can understand that to a point. No one wants to lose money. But at least with the indie publishing houses you can get a quicker turnaround and still get to see your name in print.

For now, I think that self-publishing will continue to grow. As long as the companies behind it – Amazon, B&N, and the others – don’t overstep and try to take advantage of the authors using their platforms, it will prosper for all parties. Of course, who knows what may be down the road? Maybe new formats, new options, new platforms will be invented and utilized. What it all comes down to is getting the stories out there and making a little money. If those two needs are satisfied, writers will flock to it.

We just have to be patient.

RB

March 10

Lost in the Shuffle

I’ve been writing long enough to remember how it was when I had to write a cover letter, print up a copy of my manuscript, stuff it all in an envelope, then apply postage, mail, and wait. And wait. And wait to hear back from a magazine or publisher. I’ve also worked on the other side of that coin. I was the poetry editor for a literary magazine, an assistant editor for a news and entertainment magazine, and a production assistant for a newspaper.

This means I’m familiar with the fabled “slush pile”. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to the pile of unread manuscripts that would cover a portion of every desk in the production office. More often than not, these piles would grow dangerously tall, threatening both life and limb if they were to topple over. For the staff they were the mountains we could never conquer. For writers, they were the black holes that swallowed our hard work and dreams.

Nowadays, I think the traditional slush pile has faded into obscurity, replaced by folders on our computer desktops or on one of our various drives. While less dangerous than their predecessors, they still have the ability to overwhelm magazine and publishing house staff. They also still swallow the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. The more things change the more they stay the same, right?

Over my careers I’ve probably spent more time preparing, submitting, and waiting for a response to my short stories than I spent actually writing them. It’s a frustrating process and I can sympathize with parties on both sides, but as a writer I know how terribly annoying it is to send a story out for consideration with the understanding that someone will get back to you in a few months, only to have the deadline pass. I know I’ve sent many a polite inquiry, only to continue being ignored by the staff. What makes it even worse is when magazines or publishers say “no simultaneous submissions”…so I can’t even send my story to another place because I haven’t heard back from the first one. Argh!

I went back recently and reviewed a spreadsheet I used for tracking story submissions. It was interesting to see that, for example, out of thirty stories I submitted over a five year period I had five acceptances, ten rejections, and the rest disappeared into the ether. I liken these lost submissions to those socks that go missing when you’re doing laundry. I just hope they’re in a happy place frolicking among their own kind.

So at what point do I marked the submission as a lost cause and move on? What if I submit a story to a second publisher, but then the first one gets back to me (even though it’s three years later)? These were things I worried about because what’s the point of being a writer if you aren’t anxious and indecisive?

About two years ago I decided, no more! I’m no longer going to submit my work to other entities. I’m done with the process, with the waiting, with the lack of responses. I’m going to self-publish from now on. No more being lost in the shuffle. I feel that my stories deserve better. They should have the chance to see the light of day, for someone to read them. I know, I know, magazines and publishing houses can reach a broader audience, can market my work, and I can make more money. But that’s not why I do this.

To me, it’s more important to simply put my stories out there and let people find them. I don’t want to waste my time managing a spreadsheet and waiting for responses that may never come. My stories deserve better, and so do I.

RB

February 17

Breaking the Seal on Publishing

If you follow my blog, or my social media accounts, you’ll know that I self-published my first short story collection, Dark Journeys, late last year. It was a big deal for me. Sure, I’ve had stories and poems published in magazines over the years and I wrote a non-fiction book (as a contract writer), but this was my first book. It meant a lot to me.

I had been on the fence about self-publishing. On one hand, there’s a certain degree of prestige that goes with traditional publishing. You know, having an agent read and like your manuscript, finding a publisher that feels the same way, signing a contract, having people promote your work, seeing it in bookstores…I’m sure it’s a heady experience.

But that’s a long and winding road, and more often than not it ends in a dead-end. From what I hear there’s a lot of frustration and discouragement. I’m sure it’s not much different than submitting short stories to magazines. I’ve send hundreds of stories out into the ether and waited (somewhat) patiently for a response. Sometimes there’s an acceptance, more often there’s a rejection, and on too many occasions there’s been dead silence.

Now that I’ve published this collection and received some nice feedback on it, I’m ready for more. I feel like a junkie in need of a fix.

And it’s not like I’ve sold hundreds of copies or shown up on any best-seller lists. Just the simple fact that people read my stories and responded positively to them is enough for me. I’m satisfied that someone enjoyed my stories, that I entertained them, maybe made them laugh or cringe or think differently about something.

So now I’m working on compiling my next short story collection. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been working on editing and rewriting these suckers for the past week and I can’t get enough. I’m thinking about them while riding to and from work. I’m thinking about them while I’m eating. I’m dreaming about them at night. This is healthy, right?

I’m sure it is. It’s the type of obsession that’s good for me. Keeps my mind stimulated, keeps my fingers busy on the keyboard.

I hope to have it ready for print in another month or six weeks. I still have a couple of stories to finish, then I’ll get it posted on the usual formats.

I’m also looking at this as practice runs for my first novel. That will hopefully be done by the end of the year. I’ve already worked on two drafts of that beast and I’m ready for the third. But not yet…I don’t think I’m quite ready to fully commit. A first novel is different than a short story collection. I want to make sure I do it right. I owe that to my readers.

I’m excited. This is going to be a good year for me as a writer. I’m not expecting big money or calls from Hollywood, though. I’m just looking to write some good stories and get them published. Anything beyond that is just icing on the cake.

Wish me luck!

RB

December 29

Plans for the New Year

I’m not a fan of new year resolutions. In my opinion, why wait for a calendar event to do something positive in your life? It’s like saying, “I’ll start that new project on Monday” or “I’ll stop drinking on Friday.” Why not do it right now? Why wait?

With that said, I’m not against setting goals and deadlines. What’s the difference, you ask? To me, a resolution is something like, “I’ll start working out three days a week starting January 1st.” A goal is, “I’m going to lose twenty pounds next year.” Maybe I’m arguing semantics, but I see a difference between the two. One is setting a start point, where the other is setting an end result. It doesn’t matter when you start or how you get there, as long as you arrive.

My goals for the next year are as follows:

My main goal is to finish editing my novel and get it published. The draft has been tweaked over the past few months, but I’ve been focusing on other projects because I wanted to get some time away from the story. I spent months working on the first draft and I felt like I was no longer seeing the story, just words on a page. Now that I’ve gotten some perspective on the beast, I’m ready to dive back in.

Next, to keep my creativity podcast going and to increase the number of listeners. I’ve developed a small group of listeners, which is fine, but I feel my podcast – which focuses on inspiring and motivating people to explore their creativity – could be reaching a broader audience. It’s a labor of love and, really, it doesn’t matter if I have ten listeners or ten thousand. If I can inspire just one person, then I’m happy.

I’m going to complete and publish a second short-story collection. I was inspired by one of the people I follow on Twitter who posts cool little vignettes. I asked if I could use some as story prompts and she approved…and yes, I’ll be giving her co-author credit and a cut of any profits. I plan to complete ten stories based on her posts.

I’m going to also start publishing some cooking videos on my YouTube channel. Nothing fancy. It’s just that I enjoy cooking and see it as another way to be creative. I plan to share some simple recipes that can feed two or more, some tips, and things that I’ve learned as a self-taught home cook. Back in my bachelor days I learned to cook by necessity. It was far too expensive to eat out all the time, so I started experimenting with cooking simple things on the tiny gas range in my tiny, one-room efficiency apartment. There were more misses than hits, but eventually I began to grasp the fundamentals and upped my cooking game. In fact, I started cooking for some of the women I knew at the time and, well, eventually married one of them. Or it may be more accurate to say she married me. I think it was the chicken and mushrooms in a white wine sauce that sealed the deal.

And in between all that, I’ll continue to post on this blog, make music, write in my journal, draw, take photos, and explore the world of creativity.

Most of all, I want to continue to motivate and inspire other creators. I’m not talking about being a social-media influencer or anything like that. I want to be someone who quietly helps others. I spent many years working in solitude with very little encouragement or support from the people around me, and I hate to think that there are other people out there going through the same thing. I want to change that for them, I want them to feel like they can accomplish anything, can try anything, and that they do so without embarrassment or self-doubt.

I hope you have lofty goals for 2020 and beyond. Remember, don’t be afraid to be creative or to be your true self. Enjoy life, embrace opportunity, and above all, be kind.

RB

December 10

Artistic Jealousy

I’m curious if anyone else has ever run into artistic jealousy. What I mean is finding that another creative person is jealous of your accomplishments.

The reason I ask is that I think I’ve just experienced it with someone I know, an artist who up until now had been encouraging and supportive of my endeavors. They were one of the people who motivated me to start podcasting and to publish a collection of my short stories. The thing is, now that I’ve done both they don’t speak to me.

It’s weird because we had a great creative friendship. We’d share our work with each other, give each other constructive criticism, and we even collaborated on a couple of projects. But as soon as I started to complete some of my projects the relationship changed. The artist became distant, acts annoyed when I try to speak with them, and no longer seems to want to be a cheerleader for me. They won’t listen to my podcast and won’t buy a copy of my book.

At first I was hurt by this. I mean, the two of us have had a great time offering suggestions to one another, talking about our creative processes, motivating and inspiring one another. We’ve been doing it for a few years now. The artist pushed me to complete several of my short stories after reading the first drafts, offering me encouragement along the way.

I kept wondering what had happened. Did I do or say something? I wanted to ask, but the artist barely acknowledges me. So I wrote about it in my journal…my personal therapy session. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t done anything wrong. The problem is that the artist was jealous of me.

I know that probably sounds egotistical, but hear me out. One of the things I noticed about the artist is that they don’t seem to finish any of their projects. The start a lot of them, but nothing ever seems to make it to a final form. I used to encourage the artist to post to their social media accounts so other people can see what their doing. But no, they won’t do that. It’s like they live in this little bubble of creativity and never venture beyond the borders. Despite the fact they encouraged me to chase my dreams, they don’t seem to like the fact that I did what I set out to do…that I did what they pushed me to do. Did they expect me to fail, to give up and abandon my projects? Or does my accomplishments remind them of their own shortcomings when it comes to completing projects?

I find it sad that it’s come to this. I feel that, as creators and artists, one of our purposes is to inspire others, to make people think and feel. It’s not a competition to see who can do something better or faster. It’s about being honest in our work, putting our heart and souls into the finished product, and to hopefully appeal to and inspire an audience on some level. And it not just an audience we’re trying to inspire, we should also be encouraging and motivating each other as artists.

I know this post is more personal than what I usually write on this website, but I need to get this off my mind. It’s a shame that something as silly as jealousy would damage a friendship, but I guess it happens. I’ve seen it first hand. And yeah, it hurts my feelings, but at the same time I’m also a little bit angry. All I did was complete a project, achieve a dream, and because of that I’ve apparently lost a friend. How shitty is that?

I try to always remember that everyone has issues and baggage they’re carrying. Just because someone is in a bad mood doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your fault. People have bad days, have bad lives, and sometimes they simply don’t process things in a healthy way. I get that. But at the same time, I also try to be cognizant of other people’s feelings. If someone is excited about some accomplishment, then I’ll be happy for them and tell them so.

While this artist I’m writing about has ignored my minor success, I have another friend who bought a copy of my e-book on the first day it was available…and she doesn’t even have anything to read it with. She bought it just to support me. I think that speaks volumes and shows what a true friend really is. I guess I’m lucky in that respect.

Jealousy, however, is an ugly beast. But at least I know who my real friends are. It’s just an unfortunate way to find out.

RB

December 6

Dark Journeys Update

Just a friendly reminder that my collection of short stories, Dark Journeys, is available as an ebook through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $.99 US!

The paperback version will be available in a couple of weeks, and I’ll also be recording an audiobook version for those of you who prefer to have someone read to you.

Hey, you’re busy! You have things to do!

Besides, you get to hear the author (me) read their own work to you. And if you’re curious as to how I sound, check out the Prometheus Project Podcast – an exploration of creativity.

 RB