PACE Sample Chapter

 The following is a sample chapter from my book PACE.

Captain Alex Konarski gazed through the porthole window at the blue mass below. It looked the same as it had for the last nine years. When first informed of the Front, he had half-expected to see a pestilential wall of grey or a glowing force field or some other tell-tale sign. Instead there was nothing, just the same globe that always was there. The same boring old globe.

Konarski remembered the precise time it had taken for her charms to expire. Six months, twelve days. It was the same for every newcomer to the ISS; at first, they gawked at the beauty of Earth and couldn't shut up about it. Then they did. Konarski always waited a discrete period after each arrival before asking how long it had taken.

Nobody seemed to remember the point at which things changed, they just woke up one day and the magic was gone. How like marriage, he'd laugh, slapping them on the back. By now the joke was well-worn. Of course, it wasn't just the Earth itself. When somebody new arrived, they acted like a hyperactive puppy, bouncing with delight at each new experience, or perhaps ricocheting was a better choice of word up here.

Once the excitement died down, they discovered it was a job like any other, except that home was a tiny bunk a few feet from where you worked. The tourists had it right: get in and out before the novelty wore off. The ISS basically was a submarine posting with a better view and better toilets.

Earth became something to occasionally note out the corner of one's eye. Yep, still there. Being so high up almost bred contempt for the tiny ball and its billions of people. This had been less of a problem in the old days, when the ISS sounded like the inside of a factory. But since the upgrade, things were so quiet that one could not help but feel aloof. Aloof was invented for this place. As a general rule, it was hard to hold in high regard any place toward which you flushed your excrement. Well, not quite *toward*.

There was a fun problem in orbital mechanics that Konarski used to stump newbies with. Of course, Alex had learned it in high school, but his colleagues --- particularly the Americans --- seemed to have spent their formative years doing anything but studying. For some reason, America believed it was better to send jocks into orbit than scientists. Worse even, it made a distinction between the two. Nerds are nerds and jocks are jocks and never the twain shall meet. It was a view that Konarski and most of the older generation of Eastern Europeans found bewildering. But that was the way it was.

So, Alex and his friends gave the newbies the infamous "orbit" problem. If you are working outside the ISS and fling a wrench toward Earth what will happen? Invariably, the response was to the effect that "well, duh, it will fall to Earth". With carefully practiced condescension, Alex then would inform them that this is not correct. The wrench will rebound and hit the pitcher. It was one of the many vagaries of orbital dynamics, unintuitive but fairly obvious on close reflection.

The victim would argue, debate, complain, declare it an impossibility. Alex patiently would explain the mathematics. It was no mistake. Only after the victim had labored for days over a calculation that any kid should be able to do would they --- sometimes --- get the answer.

For some reason the first question they asked after accepting the result always was, "How do you flush the toilets?"

"Very carefully," Alex would answer.

Then everybody had a drink and a good laugh. Yes, shit would fall to earth just as it always had and always would.

The spectrometer indicated that there was some sort of smog developing over Rome. Alex wondered if this would be a repeat of Paris. There had been sporadic fires for weeks after the Front hit that city. Some were attributable to the usual suspects: car crashes as people fled or died, overloads and short-circuits, the chaos of large numbers of people fleeing, probably even arson, not to mention the ordinary incidence of fires in a major city, now with nobody to nip them in the bud. Mostly, though, it just was the unattended failure of humanity's mechanized residue.

The Front couldn't eradicate every trace of our existence, but perhaps it would smile gleefully as our detritus burned itself out. Those last embers likely would outlast us, a brief epitaph. Of course, the smaller fires weren't visible from the station, and Alex only could surmise their existence from the occasional flare up.

The same had occurred everywhere else the Front passed. In most cases there had been a small glow for a day or so and then just the quenching smoke from a spent fire. On the other hand, there was a thick haze over parts of Germany since fires had spread through the coal mines. These probably would burn for years to come, occasionally erupting from the ground without warning. There was no need to speculate on *that*; Konarski's own grandfather had perished this way many years ago. The mines had been killing people long before there was any Front. But the occasional fireworks aside, cities inside the Zone were cold and dead.

The ISS orbited the Earth approximately once every ninety minutes. This meant that close observation of any given area was limited to a few minutes, after which they must wait until the next pass. During the time between passes, the Front would expand a little over a quarter mile. Nothing remarkable had happened during the hundred passes it took for the Front to traverse Paris. And it wasn't for another twenty or so that the trouble started.

*Trouble?* Something about the word struck him as callous. It seemed irreverent to call a fire "trouble", while ignoring the millions of deaths which surely preceded it. Well, the "event", then. Once it started, the event was evident within a few passes. Alex had noticed something wrong fairly quickly. Instead of a series of small and short-lived flare ups, the blaze simply had grown and grown.

At first he suspected the meltdown of some unadvertised nuclear reactor. But there was no indication of enhanced radiation levels. Of course, it was hard to tell for sure through the smoke plume. By that point it looked like there was a small hurricane over Paris, a hurricane that occasionally flashed red. It really was quite beautiful from his vantage point, but he shuddered to think what it would be like within that mile-high vortex of flame.

It had not ceased for seven days. Some meteorologist explained the effect early on. It was called a firestorm, when countless small fires merge into a monster that generates its own weather, commands its own destiny. It was a good thing there was nobody left for it to kill, though Alex was unsure what effect the fountain of ash would have on the rest of Europe.

In theory there probably were operational video feeds on the ground, but the Central European power grid had failed two months earlier. It had shown surprisingly little resilience, and shrouded most of Europe in darkness. Of course, the relevant machinery lay within the Zone and repairs were impossible.

Konarski wondered how many millions had died prematurely because some engineering firm cut corners years ago. It probably was Ukrainian, that firm. Alex never trusted the Ukrainians. Whatever the cause, the result was that there was no power. And by the time Paris was hit any battery-driven units were long dead. Other than some satellites and the occasional drone, he and his crew were the only ones to see what was happening.

The Paris conflagration eventually had withered and died out, of course. What was of interest now was Rome. The ISS had been asked to keep an eye on the regions within the Zone, gleaning valuable information to help others prepare or, if one were fool enough to hope, understand and dispel the Front altogether. However, the real action always surrounded the Front itself. Especially when it hit a densely-developed area, even if now deserted. But it wasn't just orders or morbid curiosity that compelled Alex to watch. Where evident, the destruction could be aesthetically beautiful.

Safely beyond the reach of the Front, Alex could watch the end of a world. How many people would have the opportunity to do so? There was a certain pride in knowing he would be among the last, perhaps even *the* last. Once everyone had perished, the crew of the ISS would be alone for a while, left to contemplate the silence. Then their supplies would run out, and they too would die.

Based on the current consumption rate of his six person crew, Alex estimated they could survive for another six years --- two years past the Front's anticipated circumvallation of Earth. Of course, he doubted the process would be an orderly one. Four of the crew members (himself included) came from military backgrounds, one was a woman, and three different countries were represented. Even at the best of times, there was a simmering competitiveness.

Konarski assumed that he would be the first casualty. No other scenario made sense, other than something random in the heat of passion --- and such things didn't require the Front. No, barring any insanity, he would go first. He was the leader and also happened to be bedding the only woman. Who else would somebody bother killing? Of course, with *this* woman, he shuddered to think what would happen to the murderer. Of course, *she* was the one most likely to kill him in the first place.

Obviously, they hadn't screened for mental health in the Chinese space program. In fact, he guessed that any screening they *did* do was just lip-service to be allowed to join the ISS. But Ying was stunning and endlessly hilarious to talk to, and Alex had nothing to lose.

If the Front hadn't come along, he would have faced compulsory retirement the following year. Then he would have had the privilege of returning to good old Poland, a living anachronism in a country that shunned any sign of its past. Alex gave it about a year before the bottle would have taken him. Who the fuck wanted to grow old in today's world? The Front was the best thing that ever happened, as far as he was concerned. It made him special.

Alex would try to protect Ying for as long as he could, but he knew how things would unfold. Perhaps it would be best to kill her first, before anyone got to him. Or maybe he just should suicide the whole crew. It would be the easiest thing in the world, all he really had to do was stop trying to keep everyone alive. Or he actively could space the place and kill everyone at once, a grand ceremonial gesture. But that would be boring.

Besides, part of him wanted to see who *would* be the last man standing. The whole of humanity in one man. The one to turn out the lights, not first but final hand. Humanity would end the way it began, with one man killing another. After all, everybody always was talking about returning to your roots. Alex just was sad they no longer had a gun on board. That *really* would have made things interesting.

These were distant considerations, however; worth planning for, but hardly imminent. At the moment the world remained very much alive, and was counting on them for critical information. Alex wondered if it would be better to be the last man alive or the man who saved the world.

"The savior, you dumb fuck," part of him screamed. "Nobody will be around to care if you're the last one alive." Of course, Poland already was gone. There was no home for him, even the one he wouldn't have wanted. Maybe he was the last Pole. But how would he change a light bulb?

For some reason, a series of bad Pollack jokes popped into Konarski's head. There was a time when he would have taken great offense at such jokes, jumped to his country's defense, maybe even thrown a few obligatory punches. But not now, not after what Poland had become over the last decade, and especially not after how they had behaved toward the end. They could go fuck themselves. And now they had. Or somebody bigger and badder had fucked them, just like had happened through most of their history.

Still, he felt a certain pride. Maybe he would be the start of a new, prouder race of Poles. No, that was just the sort of talk that had made him sick of his country, the reason he was commanding ISS under a Russian flag. Besides, there probably still were plenty of Poles around the world. He wasn't alone. Yet.

If Alex watched Rome's demise closely, he couldn't be accused of exultation or cruel delight. He had watched his home city of Warsaw perish just three days earlier. Of course, it was nearly empty by the time the Front reached it. But he had listened to the broadcasts, the chatter, and he was ashamed of the conduct of his countrymen. They had acted just like the self-absorbed Western pigs he detested.

Ying understood. She was Chinese. When *they* left their old and infirm behind it would be from calculated expedience, not blind selfish panic. The decision would be institutional, not individual. The throng would push and perish and each would look to their own interest, but none would bear the individual moral responsibility. *That* would be absorbed by the State. What else was the State for?

But it turned out that his compatriots no longer thought this way. They had become soft since the fall of communism, soft and scared. When the moment came, they didn't stand proud and sink with the ship. They scrambled over one another like a bunch of terrified mice, making a horrid mess and spitting on the morals of their homeland and a thousand years of national dignity just to buy a few more precious moments of lives clearly not worth living. They disgusted him. He would die the last true Pole.

In the meantime, he would carry on --- his duty now to the species. Part of him felt that if *his* world had perished, so too should all the others. He harbored a certain resentment when he imagined some American scientists discovering the answer just in time to save their own country. It would be *his* data that accomplished this. What right had they to save themselves using *his* data, when his own people had perished. Yet still he sent it. Data that perhaps would one day allow another world to grow from the ashes of his. Maybe this was a sign that there *had* been some small progress over the thousands of years, that he was first and foremost human.

Alex's thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice.

"We're almost over Rome," Ying whispered, breathing gently into his ear.

"C'mon, I have to record this," he protested in half-genuine exasperation.

"That's ok, we'll just catch the next pass," she shot back from behind him.

Alex heard some shuffling and felt something strange on his shoulder. What was Ying doing now? He had to focus, dammit. She was the funnest, craziest woman he had known, but sometimes he just wished he could lock her outside the station for a few hours. Yeah, he'd probably ask her to marry him at some point. Maybe soon. After all, living with somebody on the ISS was ten times more difficult than being married. Alex shook his shoulder free of her grip. It would have to wait.

Then he noticed that she wasn't touching him. She was on the other side of the room, pointing at him with her mouth open. Why was there no sound? Then he was screaming, then he couldn't scream anymore. Before things grew dark, he saw Ying's decaying flesh. She still was pointing, almost like a mannequin. His last thought was how disgusting Ying had become, and that he soon would be the same.

WritingK.M. Halpern
Ken Writes a Film

Scroll down for the link to the movie, and to read my original script.

A few months ago, I participated in a 72 hour film contest with some friends. It was a lot of fun, and we actually filmed in my condo — which was quite a blast. Aside from ducking out of the way whenever necessary, my role was to write the script.

The basic premise was that we had to write a horror film in 72 hours with a certain prop, action, and theme. We were given these at 10 PM on the first night, which meant that I had to slam something out relatively quickly. One interesting aspect was that we didn’t actually know who would be available to act, or even how many. So the screenplay had to be easily adaptable. I drafted two ideas by 11:30ish and discussed them with Brian (the director, and a very talented author in his own right). We picked the more promising one, and honed the general idea. About 30 min later, I delivered to Brian the revised script and we decided to go with that.

Below is a link to the film itself, now publicly available. This definitely was a learning experience, and I have to say the actors (David and Elena) were fantastic to work with. Given that they had so little time (filming had to be finished over a mere 30 hour period, from when they first were handed the script), what they accomplished was incredible. One interesting thing I learned was that phrases which read well on paper are not necessarily ones actors find easy to work with. Unusual turns of phrase are enjoyable in literature, but can be difficult to memorize — especially on short order. I imagine an experienced scriptwriter works closely with actors and has a strong sense of what will be executable and what won’t fly.

The thing which surprised me most was post-production. We had a very talented post-production crew, but I had no idea what to expect. Again, there is a vast difference between what is plausible on paper (or seems easily filmed) and what is workable in post-production. As you can see, the final cut is quite different from the script.

This gave me a more forgiving disposition toward Hollywood writers, and a clear understanding that the words (and scenes) set on paper may differ significantly from what audiences ultimately experience. From now on, I’ll be a bit more hesitant to blame screenwriters for the seemingly inane writing which plagues most Hollywood movies. It very well could be due to a confluence of factors which made it difficult or expensive to adhere to the script. Or maybe some idiot executive meddled, or they polled audience sentiment or some such nonsense. We didn’t have any of that, of course — just lots of talented people working performing their roles. So I think such divergences are inevitable. Sadly, no such excuse exists for novel writers.

I still think having a single screenwriter is the best course, however. Having briefly participated in design by committee (or design by pseudo-autocratic democracy in this case), I think the alternative is far worse. Lots of post-its, a chaos of ideas, and most creativity lost in a homogenization driven by sheer exhaustion and a few strong personalities. Writing is best done by a single writer, with feedback at certain key points from the director. In the 2 hours spent “brainstorming,” a good writer could have pumped out 4 draft ideas, the director could have decided on one or two, and the writer could have finalized them. Too many chefs and all that. Then again, what do I know? If I knew what people actually wanted, I’d be rich.

Without further ado, here is the final cut. Presumably it’s available somewhere on Amazon Prime but I couldn’t find the link, so I’m including the unofficial one a friend provided.

Final cut of “A Teachable Moment”

And here’s my original script (with Brian’s formatting reproduced as best I can given the blog limitations):


The whole thing is dialog, interspersed with small cuts to other scenes (no voiceovers). The cuts should be smooth and for a few seconds each. No sudden flashy stuff.


"I've been following your work for some time. The unique impact it has."


[Smiles ingratiatingly]

"I like to think so. Do you know what makes teaching so special? It's a distillation of the noblest human activity: sharing."



"Some would take a more cynical view."


[quietly regards her for a moment]

"I'll be honest. I've had lots of advantages."

[he laughs light-heartedly]

"Not everybody has those advantages. Sure, I could feel guilty. But isn't it better to use my strength for others?

When you share..."

[he tenses in poignancy].

" can change a life."



"I don't think anyone would dispute this, but *how* you share matters too. Not everyone is ready to believe in pure motives.".


[wry expression]

"To most people sharing involves a trade: part of themselves for virtue, for the right to imagine themselves a better person. That's foolish. Sharing is not a transaction. It can ennoble both giver and receiver. A teacher can give without losing."



"A lot of people don't understand what teachers really do. I mean day in and day out, over and over."


"I expect it can be quite difficult. Do you ever get tired?"


[pauses, and gives a cautious laugh]

"I don't have that luxury. That would be letting down the world in a sense."



"That sounds a bit grandiose."



"Yes, I suppose it would to someone not conversant with such matters."



"You definitely sound like a teacher."

[looks at him slyly]

"So teach me something."



[wags his finger and smiles]

"I'll have to charge you. My wisdom doesn't come free."


[grins and suggestively slides her chair right up to him. She's now close to his face and her body quite close to his]

"I'll have to find some way to repay you."



[clears his throat, clearly a bit flustered]

"Very well. I'll teach you something about teaching. The lessons conveyed through sounds we make are the tiniest fraction of how we teach. It is through subtler manipulations that we imprint our thoughts on the mechanism of this world."



[whispering, sultry]:

"Well, that's quite a mouthful. I guess I owe you payment."


[adjusts collar]:

"N-no need."


"But I insist. I'll teach you a lesson as well."

[she lifts her jacket and flashes a badge.]

M hesitates and seems like he's about to lunge at her but she puts her hand to her hip and shakes her head, smiling in satisfaction..

M slumps back, and W spreads photos of the various cut-scenes.


"You're here for me, then?”


"In a sense."

[she smiles and puts her hand on his]

"I've been looking for a good teacher."

Publication Date Set for "The Way Around"

A publication date for The Way Around finally has been fixed. It will be available for purchase on June 17.

For those who do not know, The Way Around is my second book of very short works. Its style is akin to The Man Who Stands in Line, albeit with more of an emphasis on flash fiction than poetry. It also is slightly longer and (if possible) more pompous.

The cover illustration is by the same guy (Richie Montgomery) who drew the cover for The Man Who Stands in Line, and I’m currently putting the final touches on the cover design. The content has been finalized, and it will get one final read through (to make sure the order of pieces works, similar pieces don’t appear next to one another, the formatting is right, etc. The book will be 112 pages total, of which 95 are actual content (yeah, I know, it’s always astonishing how much front and back matter there is — and it’s especially pronounced for thinner books of this sort).

There will be paperback and kindle editions, and I plan to price it the same as The Man Who Stands in Line: $9.99 for the print edition and $2.99 for the kindle one. I make the same amount on each, but personally think this sort of book is best appreciated on the printed page.

I did not trouble with a Kirkus review (which is quite expensive) for this book. If you’ve read The Man Who Stands in Line, you will enjoy The Way Around too. The pieces were over the same period. With these (and my forthcoming short story books, beginning with Sjow in October), I don’t simply include the next chronological batch of pieces. Instead, there are pieces from various periods of my writing included in each book. So you’ll likely encounter a similar variety of styles (though quite different stories) in my books.

K.M. Halpern
Do's and Dont's for Modern Authors

Every author has to post about the secrets to authorial success. Well, I’ve got a different take, a special take, a unique take. I HAVE no authorial success. Which means I’m more intimately familiar with what NOT to do. Who wants advice about how to succeed from somebody who HAS succeeded? That’s silly. Obviously they knew somebody, and they’re NOT going to give you that person’s phone number. But I have no such qualms. In fact, here are a few phone numbers which may belong to movers and shakers:

  • 555-1212

  • 000-0000

  • 90210

  • 314159265358979323846

  • 1

The point is that when none of these are willing to give you the time of day, I will. 7:33 PM.

So, without further ado, here is a list of helpful do’s and dont’s for aspiring authors:

  • Don't ... use big words or complex sentences. That makes you posh, elite, pretentious, and altogether hateful. Who reads big words and complex sentences these days? That's old fashioned, like you know like last decade. Who wants to be OLD? Besides, why would you want your book to be inaccessible? Big words and complex sentences mean you will target a tiny number of people who mostly read things they're told to read by the N.Y. Times and won't like your stuff anyway unless you know somebody AT the N.Y. Times.

  • Don't ... employ subtle ideas or twists or anything complicated to grasp. Such books are for privileged old people, those educated in the dark era before people realized that the purpose of school was fashionable political activism. Just remember: ideas are bad. Most people don't have any, and it's rude to flaunt what you have and others don't.

  • Don't ... proofread, spell-check, or worry about style or grammar. These are wasteful. Proofreading and editing take time. Lots of time. Nobody appreciates them, and they'll just slow you down. All the best books were written on a phone using two thumbs and very few brain cells. How many artisanal craftsmen do you know? Exactly. If you're not producing beer, it's not a craft — it's a waste of time. Just write as many words as you can as fast as you can. To borrow from the bible (Bumperstickers 3:21, 4): write them all and let god sort it out.

  • Don't ... use characters, plot, or dialog. Creativity is bad. You'll only increase the chance of offending people. The best way to avoid doing that is by writing solely about yourself, but only if you're not the type of person inherently offensive to others. There are some handy websites which list acceptable types of people and unacceptable ones.

  • Don't ... worry about pesky things like factual accuracy or consistency. A famous director said that when it's a choice between drama and consistency, drama wins every time. He's an idiot, but a rich one. What do you want to be: right or rich? Incidentally, it's ALWAYS a choice between drama and consistency. If you have time to be consistent, spend it writing more drama instead. Your time is finite — which is a plothole that conveniently can be plugged by reversing the polarity of the Quantum Tachyonic Blockchain.

  • Don't ... advertise or pay anybody for anything. Why pay for nobody to buy your book, when you can get that for free?

  • Don't ... ask friends or family to review your book. Not because it's against the rules, but because they won't. Then you'll have fewer friends and family. Only ask people you don't like and who don't like you.

  • Don't ... issue a press release. Nobody will read it, nobody will care. Yet another book tossed on the dung heap of human blather. Yawn. “News” must be something which matters to other people. Like journalists. As everyone knows, modern journalism involves complaining about something which happened to the reporter's BFF, making it sound like a ubiquitous problem, and quoting lots of tweets. Serious journalists won't have time for you because they always have a BFF in trouble, and curating tweets is a fulltime job.

  • Don't ... submit to agents, magazines, or contests. If you were the type of person who could get accepted, you would know because you would be published, famous, or well-connected. Since you're not published, famous, or well-connected, you obviously won't be accepted. Sure, every now and then somebody new accidentally slips in. It’s an accident resulting from their being related to somebody published, famous, or well-connected.

  • Do ... copy whatever is popular at the moment. Book, movie, video-game, comic, or meme --- it doesn't matter. People only read what's popular, otherwise something else would be popular. As a rich person once said: if you want to be rich do what rich people do. Which is giving bad advice to poor people. See? I'm going to be rich. Well, he actually never said you would be rich, just want to be. Look, people want to reread the same book over and over. It's easier because they already know the words and nothing scary and unexpected can happen. So why not rewrite those very words and partake of the riches?

  • Do ... focus on fanfiction. Being original is time-consuming, hard, and terribly unprofitable. Who wants to engage in some new unknown adventure when they can dwell in the comfortable world they've come to know. Not the real one; that's terribly uncomfortable. But one inhabited by loveable characters they somehow feel a personal connection to, and who can't get a restraining order against them.

  • Do … pretend to be somebody else. Nobody likes your sort. Whatever you are is offensive in all ways imagineable. Choose a name which represents the group favored by the publishing industry at this moment. Just look at who gets published and who doesn't. Not established authors, but debut novelists. Nobody's going to dump Stephen King just because the name Stephen is anathema according to the politics of that week. But they probably won't publish debut novelist Stephen Timingsucks (unless TimingSucks is native American and native Americans are in that week).

  • Do ... know somebody. It's the only way to get an agent or publisher. If you don't know anybody, then the best way to meet them is a cold approach. Go to buildings inhabited by agents and publishers, and ride the elevators. That's why it's called an "elevator pitch". When somebody important-looking gets in, stand next to them, sideways, and stare at the side of their head. Remember: it doesn't matter how the conversation gets started, just where it goes. Which isn't always jail. All you need is one yes, and it really doesn't matter how you get it.

  • Do ... make it political. Your book should bravely embrace the prevailing political sentiments of the publishing industry. Only then will you be recognized for the courage of conformity. The publishing industry regularly offers awards for just that sort of thing.

  • Do ... write about you, you, and you. Far more appealing to readers than plot, style, or substance is your commonplace personal struggle and how you specifically overcame it. Nothing is as compelling as minor adversity subjectively related by the one who experienced it. Be sure to make clear that the reason you prevailed was your unique grit, determination, and moral superiority. Like the dictators of old, you thrice refused the world's entreaties to tell your story. Only when sufficiently importuned by the earnest pleas of the masses did you relent and accept the mantle of greatness.

  • Do ... blog, tweet, instagram, post, and youtube. Who wants to read a book by and about somebody they don't feel a personal connection with? Have you ever heard the names Tolstoy, Dickens, or Proust? Of course not. They didn’t understand the importance of selling the author, not the work. You need to sell yourself. Literally. While actual Roman-style slavery is illegal in most States, a variety of financial instruments can achieve the same affect.

  • Do ... spend the vast majority of your time inhabiting an ecosystem of writers. Your time is far better spent blogging, connecting, and advising other writers rather than writing for the lay person. Sure, outreach is fashionable these days, and it does have a few benefits. But one should not spend too much time demonstrating the writing process through novels, stories, or poetry. Best to focus on publishing for one’s peers.

  • Do … workshop, workshop, and workshop. No writer of note ever succeeded without writing courses, workshops, several professional editors, and an emotional support network. How else could they learn to express themselves in precisely the right manner as discovered by modern researchers and taught only through MFA programs? This is why there's nothing worth reading from before the 1990s. Fortunately we live in enlightened and egalitarian times, and the advantages of an MFA are available to everybody. Which explains why everybody has one.

  • Do ... be chatty, shmoozy, and a massive extrovert who attends conferences, sucks up to agents, and shamelessly promotes yourself. If you're not that way, make yourself that way. There are plenty of blogs and books by chatty, shmoozy, massive extroverts on how to. These explain in clear and practical terms how you should have been born chatty, shmoozy, and a massive extrovert. If that doesn't work, there is a simple surgical procedure which can help. It's called a lobotomy, and also will help you blog, tweet, post, and youtube more effectively. Be your audience.

  • Do ... consider tried and true techniques when ordinary submission and marketing methods don't work. These business methodologies have been refined and proven in many domains over many years. Whole enterprises are dedicated to their successful application, and they can be surprisingly inexpensive. Extortion, kidnapping, blackmail, torture, and politics all can work wonders for your book's advancement. Pick your poison. Literally. I have an excellent book coming out, filled with recommendations and in which I describe my own struggle to find the right poison and the absolutely brilliant way I overcame this adversity. It's a very compelling read.

  • Do ... show, don't tell. When somebody talks about the aforementioned tactics you've used, make a gruesome example of them. This is showing, so that people don't tell. Most writing coaches emphasize the importance of “show don’t tell,” and you can find some excellent examples in the work of various drug cartels and the Heads of State of certain current allies and trading partners.

  • Do ... kill your babies. This is another mainstay of writing wisdom, and a constant refrain in almost any workshop. It can be difficult, especially the first few times. But if that initial instinct can be overcome, it definitely is something worth trying. While it won't always help, such sacrifices have been known to curry favor with XchXlotbltyl, the dark god of publication (and a major shareholder in most large publishing houses). Details on the appropriate ceremonies for different genres can be found on popular writing blogs. And don’t worry, you always can produce more babies… and thus more success.

  • Do ... remember there's no need to write the ending first --- or ever. There has yet to be born a human with a different ending. But entropy and the inevitable degradation wrought by time rarely appeal to modern audiences. Best to throw in a sappy romantic hookup or hint at an improbable revival of the seemingly dead protagonist. Which brings us to…

  • Don't ... hint. Nobody likes ambiguity. That is why TV is so popular. Books are a very primitive technology, and they require a lot of unnecessary work by the reader. Faces, scenes, even actions need be imagined anew by every reader. This is inefficient. Remember, you're catering to people who don’t have cable or can't afford it or are allergic. It's your job to make their entertainment as painless as possible despite their unfortunate circumstance. Anything else would be ablist. So don't leave anything ambiguous. Make sure you spell out what just happened, over and over, just in case the first few explanantions didn't work. Remember the first rule of teaching: Keep the kids’ Chromebook software up to date. Well, the 2nd rule: repeat everything 3 times for the people with no attention span, too stupid, or too distracted to have caught the first 2 times. And don't forget to give them an achievement award for getting it. So repeat every plot point 3 times, and congratulate the reader on finally getting it.

  • Do ... make the reader feel smarter than fictional characters. This is the point of revealing things to the reader that characters don't know. A well written book will have the reader shouting advice to the characters. Because if your readers aren't better than a nonexistent and contrived character, who are they better than?

  • Do ... publish each sentence as you write it. In the old days, writers had to wait a long time. Agents vetted writers’ works, publishers vetted agents' submissions, editors vetted accepted works, and copy-editors, proofreaders, and countless others meticulously checked things at every stage. That book of cat jokes filled replete with typos would take several years to see print, not counting the time required to hand-deliver manuscripts by stagecoach or the frequent loss of an editor or writer from dropsy. Thank goodness we live in modern times! These days there's no need to wait years for feedback or abide by the traditional publication timeline. Your brilliance need not be thwarted by the need for reflection or editing. Each sentence you write should be tweeted, posted on Wattpad, and blogged the moment it appears. When you get feedback, incorporate it all. Otherwise somebody might be sad, and we don't want anybody to be sad while reading your book. That's for somebody else's book, somebody poor and unsuccessful who uses big words and doesn't know the rules. Besides, as Hollywood has shown, design by committee is the best way to create a quality creative product. Call it the democratization of writing. As recent polls showed, nothing’s better than democracy. In an ideal world, every word would be voted on and accepted or rejected accordingly. One day this utopia may be real, but for now you'll have to settle for releasing on a sentence-by-sentence basis. At least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that your final product was vetted by countless strangers with wildly varying aptitudes, motives, and tastes, rather than a few so-called “professionals” who’ve been doing the same boring thing for years. Do you really want the same old boring people reading your work, let alone editing it?

  • Do ... setup a botnet to counter the million of bad ratings your book will get on social media sites. In uncivilized times, negative reviews only came from critics who actually read your book but didn't understand it or found it differed in some small way from what they thought you should have written but never would bother to write themselves because they’re too busy writing negative reviews. That was a slow process. We all know how long it took for Mozart to get meaningful feedback like "too many notes," and how much his craft improved as a result. Imagine what he could have composed if he learned this earlier! These days we're much more fortunate. One needn't wait months or years for a hostile stranger with adverse incentives to read your book and pan it. There are millions of hostile strangers with adverse incentives willing to do so without troubling to read it. This is much more efficient, and we have modern social media to thank for rewarding such behavior with improved social standing. Otherwise, you'd have to wait for some "reputable" critic to actually read your literary novel and comment on it. Instead you’ll generously receive feedback from somebody far more credible who only reads young adult coming-of-age novels about pandas but is willing to step out of their comfort zone and negatively rate your book without having read it. You’re welcome.

  • Don't ... have any faith in humanity. If you did you won't for long. But you didn't or you wouldn't be a writer in the first place. Who but from malice would wish to imprint their thoughts on the world. Or ask of another that they occupy the liminal time between nonexistence and nonexistence with a less poetic, less subtle, and less profound rehash of the same tired ideas. You are, after all, asking people to share your delusion of eloquence. That's almost like founding a cult. Which incidentally, is an excellent way to promote your book.

  • Do .. buy my book. It won’t make you happy, but you can’t buy happiness so you may as well spend your money on this.

K.M. Halpern
Why NOT to use Amazon Ads for your book

In today’s article, I ask a simple question: does it pay to advertise on amazon for your book? As can be guessed by the exceedingly astute from the title of the post, the answer is no. In addition to explaining how I came to this conclusion, I also will offer a brief review of the basics of Amazon’s online advertising.

I'll examine the matter purely in terms of tangible cost/benefit, and ignore considerations involving ease of use, time wasted dealing with Amazon's bureaucracy, and the myriad other intangible costs involved.

First let’s review some of the aspects of Indie publishing which relate to Amazon’s author ad campaigns, as well as how those campaigns work.

Quick Review of Some Relevant Aspects of Indie Publishing

Printer vs Distributor

In general, to sell something on Amazon you need to be designated a "seller" and sign up for a seller account. This can be nontrivial, and at various times Amazon has made it well-nigh impossible to do so. Authors have a special in, however, but only if they publish a version of their book via Amazon. This means producing a Kindle edition and/or (more recently) printing through KDP (formerly Createspace).

When an author publishes a print edition via some other service, one of two things happen, depending on the type of service. Either that service also offers distribution (Ingram Spark/Lightning Source) or it does not (everybody else). There are two major distributors: Ingram-Spark/Lightning-Source and Baker-Taylor. Of these, only Ingram offers Print-on-demand (POD) services to authors. All other POD services (with the exception of Amazon's own Createspace, now part of KDP) only offer POD.

An ordinary POD company sells books to the author/publisher who then may sell them to bookstores, individuals, etc. The author/publisher is responsible for storage, mailing, returns, invoice management, etc. Ingram, on the other hand, has a catalog that is available to all bookstores and automatically is pushed to them regularly. When you POD through Ingram, your book appears in their catalog — and thus quickly is available for order through almost every bookstore. This doesn't mean it will appear on their shelves, but an individual who wishes to purchase a copy need only walk into a bookstore and ask to order one. In theory, the author/published need never handle a physical copy of the book!

Why does this matter? It affects how you are treated by Amazon.

Author vs Seller

As far as Ingram is concerned, Amazon is just another bookstore. It too automatically slurps in your entry from Ingram’s catalog. Unlike a physical bookstore it offers it for sale just like it does any other book. A “book page” is created for it (and an “author page” may be created for the author), based on a cover image, blurb, etc, obtained from Ingram. Your book will appear and be treated like any other and show as being fulfilled by Amazon itself. Let's refer to this as "Amazon proper". Incidentally, Barnes and Noble will do exactly the same thing online.

Amazon also hosts a seller marketplace (AMS), which includes, among many other vendors, lots of 3rd-party online bookstores. These each slurp in that same info and may offer your book for sale as well, often at a slight discount which they make up for through inflated shipping costs. It's not uncommon for a new author to see their book appear for sale through myriad sellers immediately after launch and assume those are illicit review copies being resold. They're not. These just are from mini-bookstore fronts which regurgitate the Ingram catalog. When someone orders from them, the order is relayed to Ingram which then fulfills it. Ditto for an order through Amazon Proper. It's worth noting that Ingram has special shipping arrangements with Amazon, B&N, etc, and orders from these stores will be prioritized. While it may take 2-4 weeks for an order by the author/publisher themselves to be fulfilled, orders from Amazon or B&N are quickly dispatched.

The information which appears on the Amazon page for a print book is obtained from the Ingram info. They do allow you to declare yourself an author and "claim" books, setup an author page, etc. Almost all authors put out a Kindle version of their book through KDP. In fact, most only do this. Amazon generally attaches this to any existing print page within a week or two. A few emails may be needed to make sure they associate the same author with both, etc, but generally it's pretty smooth (as far as Amazon processes go).

Independent of whether you are an author or publisher, you may setup a store-front on Amazon. Some publishers do this. In this case, you must register as a seller, setup tax info, etc. In theory, you could sell anything, not just your book. The seller can control the descriptions of products they sell, etc. But authors generally need not go to such lengths — as long as they are using KDP for at least one of their version.

Why all this rigamarole? There is one area where it makes a big difference. Only sellers can run Amazon ad campaigns. If you only have a print edition which has been slurped in, you cannot run an ad campaign. You would have to create a seller store-front, sell the book through that, and then run a campaign as that seller and only for the things sold on that store-front. You couldn't draw generic traffic to your book on Amazon proper.

There is a trick, however. As mentioned, authors are viewed as an automatic type of seller --- but only if they have a version of their book published through Amazon. If you've published a Kindle version of the book, then you qualify. In principle, the ads only would be for that version. But since Amazon links all versions of the book on a single page, de facto it is for all of them. No seller account is needed. This is how most author ad campaigns are run.

On a practical note, Amazon used to distinguish author ad campaigns from others, offering tools which were more useful. Recently, they lumped them in with all other sellers, making practical management of ad campaigns much more challenging. Most sellers of any size use the API or 3rd party firms to manage their ad campaigns, but as a single author you will be forced to use Amazon's own Really Awful Web Interface. Hmm… they should trademark that. Because it describes SO many of their web interfaces. But, that's not what this article is about. Let's assume it was the easiest to use interface in the world, a pleasure on par with the greatest of epicurean delights. Is it worth doing?

Before answering that (well, we already answered it in the title, but before explaining that answer), let’s summarize the levels of complexity in managing sales/ads through Amazon:

1. Easiest. Fulfillment via Amazon and can run ad campaign via Amazon as is:

  • Kindle edition, no POD

  • Kindle edition, POD via Amazon KDP

  • No Kindle edition, POD via Amazon KDP

  • Kindle edition, POD via Ingram

2. Some effort. Fulfillment via Amazon but need a seller account to run an ad campaign

  • Kindle edition, POD via somebody other than Amazon or Ingram

  • No Kindle edition, POD via Ingram

3. Messiest. Seller account needed to sell at all

  • No Kindle edition, POD via someone other than Amazon or Ingram

Types of Ad Campaigns

Next, let's review the types of Amazon ad campaigns. There currently are three types. A given author may run many separate ad campaigns for the same book — but each will be of one and only one type.

1. Sponsored Product Targeting: These ads are in the row of “sponsored products” which appears when you view the relevant product's Amazon page. In principle you give Amazon a list of specific books, similar in theme or style or subject matter or whose readers are likely to be interested in your own. In practice, you have to be even more specific. You give Amazon a list of "products", defined by ASINs. There may be many editions or versions of the same book. You've got to include 'em all. By hand. Without any helpful "select all" tool. And remember them. Because all you'll see once your ad campaign is running is a breakdown by ASIN.

2. Keyword Targeting: These ads appear in searches. There are 3 locations they may be placed: the top 2 spots, the middle 2 spots, or the last 2. Each page of results has ads in one or more of these locations, and they're designated "sponsored". Try a few searches, and you'll see the placement. You give Amazon a list of keywords, generally two or more word phrases, and select how specific a match is required for each (exact, containing it, or broadly related). Then your ad will appear in the results when someone searches for those phrases on amazon. Keyword targeting allows negative keywords as well. For example, it may be a good idea to negate words such as "dvd", "video", "audio", etc, especially if the most popular entries are in those categories. Search for your keyword, see what comes up, and negate any undesirable groups that appear toward the top (using -foo in your search). When you’ve negated the relevant keywords, the top entries should be precisely what you'd like to target.

3. Category Targeting: You pick the Amazon categories that best suit your book --- and presumably the book appears when somebody clicks the category. My experience is that category targeting is well-nigh useless for authors, and generates very few imprints or clicks. So we'll ignore it.

Ok, one more piece of review and then we’ll get to the analysis.

How Amazon Ads Work

Although their locations and types differ may differ, all ads are placed via the same process: an auction. In fact, pretty much any ad you see anywhere online has been chosen via an almost identical process.

Every time a web page is served to a user (ex. you browse to a particular product), there are designated slots for ads. This is true of almost any webpage you view anywhere --- all that differs is who is selling the ad space. Those slots are termed "impressions" (or more precisely, the placement of an ad in one is called an "impression"). Think of them as very short-lived billboards. To determine which ad is shown, an auction is conducted for each. This all is done very quickly behind the scenes. Well, not *so* quickly. Guess why webpages are so slow to load...


Because of its ubiquity, the auction process is fairly standard by this point. What I describe here holds for most major sites which sell advertising. The auction used by almost everybody is called a "second price auction". In such an auction, the highest bid wins but only pays the 2nd highest bid. Mathematically, this can be shown to lead to certain desirable behaviors. Specifically, it is optimal for each participant to simply bid their maximum instead of trying to game things. This is important because Amazon will be given a maximum bid by you, and can only act as your proxy if it has a well-defined strategy for using it. Since it’s also acting as everyone else’s proxy, such a strategy must be a truthful one.

[As an aside, what I described technically is called a Vickrey auction. Online services use a generalized version of this in which multiple slots are auctioned at once in order of quality. I.e., all the impressions on a page are auctioned simultaneously to the same bidders. The highest bidder gets the best impression, but pays the 2nd highest bid. The 2nd highest bidder gets the 2nd best impression but pays the 3rd highest bid, etc.]

If you bid $1 and the 2nd highest bid is $0.10, you win and only pay $0.10. So, if you're a lone risk-taker in a sea of timidity, it pays to bid high. You'll always win, but you won't pay much. However if there's even one other participant with a similar strategy, you may end up paying quite a bit. If both of you bid high, one of you will win, and will pay a lot. For example, if you bid $1 and the other guy bids $0.99, you'll pay $0.99.

So far, we've discussed the second price auction in the abstract. It's straightforward enough, even if the optimal strategy may require a little thought. The more interesting issue is what precisely you're bidding on.

In an ad auction, you are *not* bidding on the impression per se. Rather, you effectively are bidding on an option on the impression. Let me explain.

Once every impression on the given web page has been auctioned, the winning ads are displayed. However, the winner of an impression only pays if the user clicks on their ad, regardless of what happens afterwards. To summarize:

  • Win impression, no click: Cost= 0

  • Win impression, click, sale: Cost= 2nd highest bid

  • Win impression, click, no sale: Cost= 2nd highest bid

Amazon gets paid only if your ad is clicked on. If you win a million impression auctions and nobody clicks on your ad, you pay nothing. If every impression you win gets clicked on but nobody buys anything, you pay for all those impressions. In terms of what you pay Amazon, sales mean nothing, impressions mean nothing, only clicks count. But impressions are what you bid on. Financially, this tracks more closely the behavior of an option than a commodity.


Obviously, the bid placement process is automated, so you're not in direct control of the bidding in each auction. In essence, Amazon acts as your proxy in this regard. We'll get to how your bids are placed shortly, but first let's review some terminology.

  • Impression: We already encountered this. It is placement of an ad in a particular slot on a particular web page that is served. It is important to note that this refers to placement one time for one user. If the user refreshes the same page or another user visits it, a fresh auction is conducted.

  • Click-through-rate (CTR): The average fraction of impressions that get clicked on. The context determines precisely which CTR we're talking about.

  • Conversion Rate: A "conversion" is an instance of the end goal being accomplished. In this case, that end goal is a sale (or order). The "Conversion Rate" is the average fraction of clicks that result in sales.

  • Conversions per Impression (CPI): The average fraction of impressions that result in sales. This is just the CTR * Conversion-Rate.

  • Order vs Sale: For most purposes these are the same. For products which may be bought in bulk, the two may differ (ex. 100 boxes of soap could be 1 order but 100 sales). But this rarely applies to books since customers generally buy only one.

  • Cost Per Click (CPC): The average cost of each click. Basically, the average 2nd highest bid in all auctions won by you and for which a click resulted.

  • Average Cost of Sales (ACOS): Each click may cost a different amount, so this measures the average actual cost of each sale, usually stated as a % of sale price. A 200% ACOS for a $10 book means that it costs $20 of advertising on average to make one sale. The ACOS is the CPC/Conversion-Rate.

Bid Placement

I mentioned that an auction is conducted for each impression, and that it is done very quickly (in theory). If that's the case, who are the bidders and how are the bids placed?

The pool of potential bidders includes every active ad campaign which hasn't run out of money that day. This pool is narrowed by the specified ad campaign criteria (product targets, keywords, negative keywords, category, etc). The result is a pool of bidders for the specific auction. In our case, these generally would be authors or publishers --- but in principle could be anyone.

Amazon acts as the proxy for all the participants. It determines which ad campaigns should participate in a given auction and it bids based on their instructions. Other than this, it has no discretion.

As a bidder, you have control of the following (for a given ad campaign):

  • Campaign type: product, keyword, or category.

  • A list of products, keywords, negative keywords, and/or categories as appropriate for the campaign type.

  • For each keyword, product, or category, a maximum bid.

  • A "daily" budget. I'll explain why this is in quotes shortly.

  • Ad text. You can't control the image (it's your book cover), but some text can be provided.

Putting aside the campaign type and ad text itself, the salient point is that there is a list of "items" (keywords, products, or categories) which each have a maximum bid specified. There also is an overall daily budget.

It turns out that the "daily" budget isn't really “daily.” Amazon operates on a monthly cycle, and assigns a monthly budget based on the number of days and the daily budget. On any given day, the daily budget can be exceeeded, though generally not by some huge amount. If Amazon does exceed your monthly budget (which can happen) it will refund the difference. I've had this happen. The point is that you're not really setting a daily budget but a rough guideline. It’s the associated monthly budget which is used.

Once you exceed the budget constraint, that campaign is inactive until the next day (or month, depending on which budget has been exceeded). Obviously, that makes bidding relatively simple — there is none. So let’s assume the budget hasn’t been breached.

For each auction, Amazon must determine whether any of the items in the campaign are a match. It then applies the specified maximum bid for that item. In principle. But nothing’s ever that simple, is it?

Bid Adjustment

By this point you may have noticed a major problem with the auction system as described. Let's look at is from a transactional standpoint.

You earn revenue through sales, but pay for clicks. The resource you have is money (your budget for advertising) and you need to trade it for sales revenue.

Amazon earns revenue through clicks, but pays in impressions. What do I mean by this? The resource Amazon has is impressions, and they need to trade it for click revenue.

Any scenario that results in lots of clicks per sale (or more precisely, a high ACOS) is detrimental to you. You wish to minimize ACOS. Otherwise, it will cost a lot of ad-money per sale, and that money presumably would have been better spent on other approaches.

Similarly, any scenario which results in lots of impressions per click is detrimental to Amazon. If those impressions had been won by more effective sellers, then people would have clicked on them and Amazon would have been paid.

As an extreme example, suppose Bob's Offensive Overpriced Craporrium wins every auction on Amazon. Then Amazon will make no money from its ad business. On the other hand, if Sue's Supertrendy Awesomorrium won, then through hypnosis, telepathy, and blackmail every single user would be compelled to click. This is great for Amazon.

The problem is that you have control over your ad and, in broad strokes, the types of impressions you bid on. But what control does Amazon have? Other than heavy-handed tactics like throwing Bob off the platform, it would seem to have little means of preventing such losses. Obviously, this isn't the case. Otherwise, how could Jeff Bezos afford a $35 Billion divorce? Amazon actually has 2 powerful tools. It is important to know about these, since you'll probably perform like Bob when you first start advertising.

First, Amazon has an algorithm which selects which impressions are a good match for you. Sometimes they can tune this based on performance. Amazon has no control when it comes to product-targeting. If you said: sign me up for auctions involving ASIN X, Amazon dutifully will do so. However, for other approaches such as keyword or category targeting, they have discretion and can play games. Bob quickly may find that he somehow isn't a good fit for anything but books on bankruptcy.

Second, Amazon can reduce your effective bid. In theory, they will bid your stated maximum for the item in question. However, they may throttle this based on performance. Even if your maximum is $3, you may end up bidding $2. It's unclear whether this affects the amount you (or the other winner) pays upon winning (if a click results), but it probably does. Conducting an auction under other auspices would be very difficult. So, you may end up losing even if the 2nd highest bidder isn't as high as your maximum.

Ok, now that we have the background material out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Or iron tacks. Brass is expensive.

Why it doesn't pay to advertise

Now that we've reviewed the practice of advertising, let's look at whether any of this is worth it. Specifically, what would it take to be profitable?

Let us suppose that our book sells for $G, of which we keep $P. For example, a $10 book may yield $2.50 in net revenue for an author (where "net" means net of print costs, Amazon's cut, etc, not net of advertising costs). In practice, things are a bit more complicated because there may be different P and G's for the print and Kindle editions. For simplicity, let's assume a single one for now.

Before getting to the formal calculation, let's look at a real example. Here are some numbers from an ad campaign I ran for my first book, "The Man Who Stands in Line." I didn't take it too seriously, because the book is not in a genre most people read. But I viewed the process as a good trial run before my novel (now out) "PACE"

Here are the stats. The campaign ran for a little over a year.

  • Impressions: 1,716,984

  • Total sales: $423.99

  • Total ad costs: $931.56

  • CPC: $0.48

  • CTR: 0.11%

  • Total Sales: 77

  • ACOS: 219.7%

While my book didn't break any records, it did furnish some useful data. Let's look at these numbers more closely.

On its surface, the ACOS doesn't look too terrible. After all, I paid a little over twice the amount I made — right? Not quite. I paid a little over twice my gross revenue. The problem is that I only care about net revenue.

As an extreme example, suppose I have two books A and B. Both yield me $2 net revenue per sale as the author, but A costs $1000 and B costs $4. Now suppose I have a pretty darned good ACOS of 50% on $1000 worth of sales. In both scenarios I've paid $500 in advertising costs. But in scenario A, I've made $2 net revenue. I.e., I have a net loss of $498. In scenario B, I've made $500 net revenue and have broken even.

We immediately see 2 things:

  • The same ACOS can correspond to vastly different net revenues depending on the retail price of the book.

  • It's really hard to advertise at a profit.

Returning to my own book, the first problem in analyzing the numbers if that we can't easily determine net revenue. There were two book formats. The book was available for $9.99 as a paperback (resulting in net revenue of around $2.50) and a $2.99 Kindle edition (net revenue about $2). Fortunately, the two net revenues per book are close. From the total sales, we can guess a net revenue between $150-200. That paints a much more dismal picture than the ACOS implies.

Let's next consider a more typical books, and figure out the numbers needed to make advertising profitable. Because the ratio of net to gross revenue per sale will be highest for the Kindle edition, let's solely focus on that. Any print editions will have even worse ad costs.

A CPC of $0.50 for books is fairly typical from what I've seen. Suppose you have a Kindle book priced at $4.99. With the 70% royalty rate (and no large file fees to speak of), you'd make a little under $3.50 per sale. But let's be liberal. Let's say your net profit is $4 per book.

As mentioned, ACOS is deceptive. If you have an ACOS of 1, it looks like you're breaking even. You're not. It means your gross sales are breaking even. Your net revenue is negative. But it's much much worse than that if you have a print book. Your net profit may be the same across formats but the gross revenue isn't. The higher the price of the book and the lower the ratio of net to gross revenue per sale, the more unrepresentative the ACOS becomes.

With the numbers we proposed, we must average 8 or fewer clicks per sale to remain in the black. Otherwise our net revenue for the sale is less than the advertising cost. That is a very optimistic number. Even the most precisely targeted advertising rarely sees such a rate. And that's just to break even.

Returning to my own book, what sort of ACOS would be required to break even? With the print edition, we would need a 25% ACOS. With the Kindle edition it would be closed to 66%. In my own case I would have required around a 5x lower ACOS than achieved. But that's just to break even! Presumably we want to do better. The point of advertising isn't just to break even. In essence, I would need an unattainable ACOS and Conversion rate for advertising to pay off.

From these numbers, it's clear that advertising on Amazon simply can’t pay off for Indie authors. From an economic standpoint it always will operate at a loss.

But are there any other reasons to advertise?

I’ve heard claims that the real purpose of such ads is exposure, that one nominal sale translates into many through word of mouth, etc, I've seen no evidence of this. It may happen, but the scale is very small.

Another argument I’ve encountered is that impressions matter. Having lots of impressions may not translate into immediate sales but it raises awareness. The more times people see a book, the more "validated" it becomes in their mind. Presumably this translates into later sales which can’t be tracked as direct clicks. This is good for the author, since it means sales without any associated click-cost. Unfortunately, I've seen no evidence of this either. My real sales closely tracked the 77 listed; there weren't all sorts of separate ones which didn't appear as clicks or conversions. True, this wasn’t the world's most marketable book. But if 1.7MM imprints make no difference then it's too expensive to reach whatever number would.

My sense is that one or both claims may be true for large, well-known publishers running huge campaigns, and where a friend's recommendation of a recognizable title tips the scale. But that requires a critical mass and multi-faceted marketing strategy, and way more money than a typical indie author will care to invest.

Like most services associated with indie publishing — agent readings at conferences, query review, marketing and publicity, books on marketing and publicity, etc — Amazon ads is just another piece of a machine designed to separate the naive from their money using the oldest of human failings: hope.

So how should you sell books? If I knew, I’d spend my days basking in luxury and fending off rabid fans rather than writing snarky posts which nobody will read. But until that happens, I'll keep you posted on the things I try. The simple answer may be the one you don't want to hear: you don't. You write if you have the inclination and means to do so, but you should have no expectation of being able to sell your book. If you wish to get people to read it, you may do so at a loss via Amazon ads. But there probably are much more effective ways to pay for readers.

K.M. Halpern
PACE available for Preorder!

Well, I’ve finally got all 3 versions (pb, hc, kindle) uploaded and approved. I’m still wrangling with Ingram about some typesetting details of the paperback, and have yet to receive hardcover proofs — but the egalleys look great so I’m optimistic everything will be in place for the release date.

It may be a day or two before Amazon slurps in the hardcover info from Ingram’s catalog, but for now the Kindle and Paperback versions are available for preorder. In case it wasn’t evident from the huge signs everywhere on this website and Amazon, the release date is 2/26/19. This means that (theoretically) it should arrive on that date if you preorder. So you can break camp in front of your local B&N and wait in the warmth of your own home, eagerly counting the seconds until the book you’ve been waiting for all your life arrives. Unfortunately, that book was sent USPS so you’ll probably have to wait another few decades. But please enjoy PACE and some calming Muzak in the meantime.

The Kindle version is priced at $4.99, the Paperback version is $16.99, and the Hardcover edition is $29.99. Hardcovers are quite expensive to print, hence the high price, but I want to offer the option for those who prefer it. Besides, I know that my billions of soon-to-be fans will want a collectible hardcover edition…

Eventually, Amazon’s system will deduce that the same K.M. Halpern wrote PACE-the-kindle-ebook and PACE-the-paperback. But until that time I’ll include separate links:

PACE the kindle ebook

PACE the paperback edition

The ebook is DRM-free. I’ve also enabled the matchbook feature, so if you buy the paperback you’ll get the ebook version free (once the physical book is delivered, you'll be able to go to Amazon’s matchbook page where the ebook will be listed as available to you). I’ve always felt that ebook versions should be free for physical book buyers, so there you have it.

If you enjoy PACE, please consider writing reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads (this only will be possible after the release date, of course). And please share your enthusiasm with your friends!

It’s been a long journey, but the end is in sight! Or more precisely, the end of the gradual incline through fragrant meadows is in sight. After that comes the lethal ascent through crevasse-laden ice fields known as marketing. Or maybe I’ll just turn the cart around and enjoy a gradual descent through said fragrant meadows.

K.M. Halpern
The Art of Writing Circa 2019 in 44 Easy Steps

1. 1 minute: Come up with interesting observation or creative idea regarding a recent experience.

2. 10 minutes: Compose concise, eloquent, and impactful written expression of said idea in 6 lines.

3. 10 minutes: It's too pompous. Remove 2 lines.

4. 10 minutes: It's too vertiginous. Remove 2 lines.

5. 10 minutes: 2 lines is less pithy than one. Remove 1 line.

6. 10 minutes: It isn't accessible to a broad audience. Remove all words over 3 letters, adjectives, adverbs, and any verbs of latinate origin.

7. 10 minutes: That one semicolon really should be a colon. People don't like semicolons.

8. 40 minutes: It could be misinterpreted by the far left, the far right, the Koala anti-defamation league, or Mothers Against Mothers. Reword it.

9. 1 hour: Properly format the blog post. Italics? No, bold. No, italics. Maybe small-caps? That font really doesn't look right.

10. 4.8 hours: Research current trends on google. Add the same 15 long-tail keywords to the title, description, excerpt, post metadata, twitter metadata, facebook metadata, and google+ metadata. Realize google+ doesn't exist anymore and feel sad, as if you put out an extra place setting for that one late cousin whose name nobody remembers.

11. 6 hours: Locate a tangentially-related image with a suitable Creative Commons license. Realize the license doesn't allow the modifications necessary to achieve an NC-17 rating. Find another image, this time with an open license on Wikimedia. Hope that nobody else had the brilliant idea to use a generic image of a college student with the word "Stock" overlaid on it.

12. 2 hours: Remove face from image to avoid any potential liability.

13. 2 hours: Thumbnail is different size than image on blog post is different size from instagram version is different size from flickr version. All involve different formats and much much smaller files than you have. Resize, reformat, and wish you weren't using Windows.

14. 1 hour: Pick an appropriate excerpt, hashtag, and alt-image text.

15. 1 hour: Tweet, post, and instagram your idea as text, pseudo-text, image, and sentient pure-energy.

16. 2 hours: Cross-post to all 14 of your other blogs, web-pages, and social-media accounts.

16. 20 seconds: Realize that your long-tail keywords no longer are trending.

17. 20 seconds: Receive 2000 angry tweets. Realize your hashtag already refers to a far-right hate group, a far-left hate group, a Beyonce Sci-Fi fanfiction group, the political campaign of the 237th least popular Democratic candidate for President, the Lower Mystic Valley Haskell, Knitting, and Dorodango group, or all of the above.

18. 10.8 seconds: Beat Jack Dorsey's own speed-record for deleting a tweet (which happened to be about Elon Musk tweeting about Donald Trump's tweets).

19. 6 hours: Update long-tail keywords to reflect current trends. Realize that Beyonce Sci-Fi fanfiction is trending, and leverage your newfound accidental affiliation to comment on the irony of your newfound accidental affiliation. Then tweet Beyonce to ask if she'll retweet you.

29. 5 seconds: Receive automated cease and desist order from Taylor Swift, who loans out her 2000 person legal team to Beyonce on the rare occasions it isn't in use. Spot idling black limo full of tattooed lawyers outside window. One who looks suspiciously like Jennifer Pariser grins and gently drags her finger across her throat.

30. 4.2 seconds: Beat own recent world record for deletion of a tweet.

31. 28.6 minutes: Decide that social media is a waste of time. "Delete" all accounts.

32. 28.6 minutes: Decide that you need a professional presence on social media after all, and won't be intimidated by Taylor Swift or her 2000 lawyers. "Undelete" all your accounts.

33. 1 minute: Decide original post is stupid, obsolete, and has several grammatical errors. Delete it.

34. 2 hours: Delete all variants of post on blogs, web-pages, twitter, facebook, and instagram.

35. 4 minutes: Just in case it's really still brilliant, email idea to a friend.

36. 4.8 hours; Worry whether [insert appropriate gender normative or non-normative pronoun] likes it.

37. 1 minute: Try to interpret friend's ambiguous single-emoticon reply.

38. 30 minutes: Decide you're not going to let the establishment dictate what's art, and that the post's stupidity, obsolescence, and several grammatical errors are intentional and signs of unappreciated genius.

39. 12 minutes: Receive voicemail that you missed 2 consecutive shifts at Starbucks and are fired.

40. 30 minutes: Decide you're not going to be an indentured servant to the establishment and will go it alone like most great artists throughout history.

41. 0.8 seconds: Realize you have no marketable skill, don't know how to market a skill, and don't even know what markets or skills are. Recall that most great artists throughout history had "Lord" before their name, got money from someone with "Lord" before their name, or died in penury. Consider writing a post about the injustice of this.

42. 0.2 seconds: Have panic attack that you'll end up homeless, penniless, and forced to use the public library for internet-access. Google whether euthanasia is legal, and how many Lattes it would take.

43. 1 minute: Call manager at Starbucks, apologize profusely, and blame Taylor Swift for your absence. Hint that you have an "in" with her, and if the manager takes you back there may be sightings of Taylor Swift's people idling in a black limo outside.

44. 6.7 hours: A sadder and a wiser man, you rise the morrow morn. You decide to share your newfound sadness and wisdom with others. Go to step 1.

ListK.M. Halpernblogging, satire
Some Pet Peeves of a Grammar Snob

Language evolves organically, and only a fool would expect the world to remain the same just to accommodate their own inability to move past the life knowledge they happened to acquire during their particular formative years.

But I’m a fool and proud of it. Or more precisely, I’m selective in my folly. I choose to accept changes which arise organically in a sense which meets my arbitrary standards, but have nothing but disdain for those changes effected through the apparent illiteracy and incompetence of celebrities (also known as “influencers”). To me, it’s like corporate-speak but dumber. And that’s saying a lot.

Put in simpler and less pompous terms for those of you who don’t understand big words: if some Hollywood moron screwed up and a bunch of jokers adopted the meme, that’s not “organic” growth of language — it’s a Hollywood moron screwing up and a bunch of jokers adopting the meme. None of these people should be allowed near the language, let alone given power to influence it. As far as I’m concerned, there should be a license required. And since you need a language license to take the written test in the first place, nobody could get one. But that’s ok. The language can’t change if nobody uses it.

So, without further ado (well, there wasn’t really much ado so far, just a lot of whining), here are a few of my favorite things (sung to the dulcet strains of an NWA song):

  1. Same Difference: A difference requires two objects for comparison. To be the same, two differences involve at least 3 objects (and possibly 4) and two comparisons. For example: I’m pedantic and pompous. Same thing (well, not really, but we’ll allow it). I’m pedantic and pompous, and he’s pretentious and self-important. Same difference (well, not really, but a sight better than before). Same thing: 2 items, 1 comparison. Same difference: 3-4 items, 2 comparisons.

  2. Pay the consequences: You pay a penalty or a price. You suffer consequences. I hope that the idiot who birthed this does all three.

  3. Associated to: This one requires a delicate touch. It’s a mistake by my favorite people: mathematicians. And they have oh-so-fragile egos. Sadly, I can’t blame the arch-media-corporate hegemony which secretly controls our brains through alien ultra-quantum-fractal-catchwords. Not that I would anyway. I’m not sure where “associated to” started, but I have an irresistible urge to jump up and scream whenever somebody says it. And since most math articles, books, and even wikipedia articles seem to have adopted it, I basically spend all day standing up and screaming. Which is no different than before, but now I have a plausible explanation when cops, social workers, and concerned-looking parents inquire. I thought of writing an automatic script to change every occurrence in wikipedia, but decided I was too lazy. Besides, every article has a little gatekeeper associated to it who guards it and tends it and flames anybody who tries to change anything. I did read a possible explanation for the phenomenon, however (the “associated to”, not the little folk guarding wikipedia pages). In latinate languages such as Italian, “associare” takes “a” as its preposition, which naively translates to “to” in English. I suspect this is indeed the source, not because I have any knowledge beyond what I read but because of what it would mean if it weren’t true. The only other plausible explanation is that Gonklaxu the Dissatisfier has penetrated the barrier to our galaxy and is sowing discord amongst the mathematicians who pose the greatest threat to his 12-dimensional nonorientable being. Since mathematicians apparently don’t read anything but math books, that strategy would be singularly successful. The thought of Gonklaxu does keep me awake at night, I’ll admit. Because if he is invading, it means he didn’t stop emailing because he was banished to a nonmeasurable corner of the duoverse. Rejection hurts so much. I associate it to the pain of hearing associate to.

I’m sure I’ll think of a few more soon, so stay tuned!

K.M. Halpern
More Ingram follies, but hardcover has now been submitted!

Again there's good news and bad news. The good news is that — after WAY too long — the illustrator finally got me a workable hardcover dustjacket. I uploaded it to Ingram and they accepted the book but promptly and inexplicably changed the page count on the interior — even though it’s exactly the same interior that passed through unchanged for the paperback version.

Hello, 911… I’m being held hostage by tech support. Please send help. Maybe a drone to blast them into the 21st century.

Now I am enjoying the distinct pleasure of dealing with Ingram on two fronts. Why two? Glad you asked. It's 6 business days since I raised the print issue with the paperback. That’s more than the guaranteed absolute maximum of 5 business days they promised. Naturally, no word. Online chat, click, click, type type type. Bubbly tech person promises to help, then forwards my concerns to supervisor and signs off. Thanks, bubbly tech person. Now I’m exactly where I was before, minus 30 minutes of wasted effort. Well, more like 2 hours cumulative. Because, lest you think me naive, I had been bugging them fairly regularly — both by phone and online chat. So there were multiple bubbly tech people. Why do bubbly tech people only have a last initial? I’ll have to investigate that. It must be cultural. Anyway, with big silly corporations, the squeaky wheel definitely does get the grease — or has a 2% chance of getting proper attention rather than 1%. That or they send a black limo full of lawyers to beat you into submission with Corporate Mission Statements.

Yes, there are few words to express the joy of dealing with Ingram on two fronts, and most of them are four letters. It's definitely '19. 1919, that is. Sometimes I wonder how they're still in business. The only answer I can imagine is that the rest of the industry is even more backward. I’m beginning to think I should have done the Kindle version first, because then I'd be so frustrated with Amazon that Ingram wouldn’t seem so bad.

To round out my fun corporate day, I also was forced to slam the brakes on everything else and attend to a Kirkus ad I bought on sale back in December. To my unpleasant surprise, I got a last minute email when I returned from vacation --- basically asking my approval and announcing that the deadline for changes is today. To be fair, “last minute” means it was in my inbox for a week. But also to be fair, the saleswoman had promised that someone would be in touch over a month ago. Of course, this was the same saleswoman who never got my emails because they were sent to spam. Even when I was trying to give her money. Another winning company with another winning business model. If only there were a way to short the whole publishing industry…

To end on a positive note, however, I did have one pleasant surprise. The Kirkus ad looked pretty darn good. I called the young lady managing the process and had her update the cover and make some minor tweaks to the wording. Given the deadline, we were lucky that a lot of back-and-forth wasn't necessary. Unfortunately, this prevented me from tapping the huge reserve of irritation I keep ever-ready for such situations. What will I do with all that self-righteous anti-incompetence? Well, I'm sure Ingram will pick up the slack.

K.M. Halpern
Paperback version now available for pre-order on Amazon!

Two pieces of news today.

The paperback version now is available for pre-order on Amazon! Basically, when it comes to print books being distributed by Ingram (as opposed to their own Createspace or Kindle editions), Amazon acts like any other bookseller: they slurp in Ingram’s catalog. It’s an automatic process, and usually pretty smooth.

Also, the paperback proofs arrived from Ingram. I must say that it's always a great thrill seeing my book in print! The good news is that the cover looks fantastic. The bad news is that there is some sort of weird print error where the typeblock is noticeably displaced on many of the pages. I checked the egalleys to see whether I overlooked this somehow. Nope, it's an Ingram issue. On one hand, I'm glad I caught it. On the other, I'm not looking forward to dealing with Ingram and their big-slow-corporation tech-support.

K.M. Halpern
Paperback E-galley received

I got back the Ingram egalley for the paperback and it looks fantastic! I ordered a few print copies delivered to San Diego (where I'll be visiting my parents for a week). My experience with “The Man Who Stands in Line” and Meia’s books suggests that it is a good idea to get a print copy even if the egalley looks perfect, since something always goes wrong :)

K.M. Halpern
Paperback version sent to printer!

After a great deal of back and forth with the illustrator, we converged on a great cover and he sent me a finalized paperback version. There were a few small tweaks needed to get Ingram to accept the files (the cover wasn’t allowed to have an ICC profile, and I had to reduce the size of the advert pics for my other books in the back of the interior), but they finally did. I'm now waiting for the hardcover version (the dust-jacket) and for Ingram egalleys of the paperback edition. The paperback version will be available in the US for $16.99, and the publication date remains 2/26/19.

180 Women and Sun Tzu

It is related that Sun Tzu (the elder) of Ch’i was granted an audience with Ho Lu, the King Of Wu, after writing for him a modest monograph which later came to be known as The Art of War. A mere scholar until then (or as much of a theorist as one could be in those volatile times), Sun Tzu clearly aspired to military command.

During the interview, Ho Lu asked whether he could put into practice the military principles he expounded — but using women. Sun Tzu agreed to the test, and 180 palace ladies were summoned. These were divided by him into two companies, with one of the King's favorite concubines given the command of each.

Sun Tzu ordered his new army to perform a right turn in unison, but was met with a chorus of giggles. He then explained that, "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” He repeated the order, now with a left turn, and the result was the same. He now announced that, "If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers,” and promptly ordered the two concubines beheaded.

At this point, Ho Lu intervened and sent down an order to spare the concubines for he would be bereft by their deaths. Sun Tzu replied that, “Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.” He went ahead and beheaded the two women, promoting others to fill their commands. Subsequent orders were obeyed instantly and silently by the army of women.

Ho Lu was despondent and showed no further interest in the proceedings, for which Sun Tzu rebuked him as a man of words and not deeds. Later he was commissioned a real general by Ho Lu, proceeded to embark on a brilliant campaign of conquest, and is described as eventually “sharing in the might of the king.”

This is a particularly bewildering if unpleasant episode. Putting aside any impression the story may make on modern sensibilities, there are some glaring incongruities. What makes it more indecipherable still is that this is the only reputable tale of Sun Tzu the elder. Apart from this and the words in his book, we know nothing of the man, and therefore cannot place the event in any meaningful context. Let us suppose the specifics of the story are true, and leave speculation on that account to historians. The episode itself raises some very interesting questions about both Sun Tzu and Ho Lu.

It is clear that Sun Tzu knew he would have to execute the King's two favorite concubines. The only question is whether he knew this before he set out for the interview or only when he acceded to the King's request. Though according to the tale it was Ho Lu who proposed a drill with the palace women, Sun Tzu must have understood he would have to kill not just two women but these specific women.

Let's address the broader case first. It was not only natural but inevitable that court ladies would respond to such a summons in precisely the manner they did. Even if we ignore the security they certainly felt in their rank and the affections of the King, the culture demanded it. Earnest participation in such a drill would be deemed unladylike. It would be unfair to think the court ladies silly or foolish. It is reasonable to assume that in their own domain of activity they exhibited the same range of competence and expertise as men did in martial affairs. But their lives were governed by ceremony, and many behaviours were proscribed. There could be no doubt they would view the proceedings as a game and nothing more. Even if they wished to, they could not engage in a serious military drill and behave like men without inviting quiet censure. The penetrating Sun Tzu could not have been unaware of this.

Thus he knew that the commanders would be executed. He may not have entered the King's presence expecting to kill innocent women, but he clearly was prepared to do so once Ho Lu made his proposal. In fact, Sun Tzu had little choice at that point. Even if the King's proposal was intended in jest, he still would be judged by the result. Any appearance of frivolity belied the critical proof demanded of him. Sun Tzu's own fate was in the balance. He would not have been killed, but he likely would have been dismissed, disgraced, and his ambitions irredeemably undermined.

Though the story makes the proposal sound like the whimsical fancy of a King, it very well could have been a considered attempt to dismiss a noisome applicant. Simply refusing an audience could have been impolitic. The man's connections or family rank may have demanded suitable consideration, or perhaps the king wished to maintain the appearance of munificence. Either way, it is plausible that he deliberately set Sun Tzu an impossible task to be rid of him without the drawbacks of a refusal. The King may not have known what manner of man he dealt with, simply assuming he would be deterred once he encountered the palace ladies.

Or he may have intended it as a true test. One of the central themes of Chinese literature is that the monarch’s will is inviolable. Injustice or folly arises not from a failing in the King but from venal advisers who hide the truth and misguide him. A dutiful subject seeks not to censure or overthrow, but rather remove the putrescence which clouds the King’s judgment with falsehood, and install wise and virtuous advisers. Put simply, the nature of royalty is virtuous but it is bound by the veil of mortality, and thus can be deceived. One consequence of this is that disobedience is a sin, even in service of justice. Any command must be obeyed, however impossible. This is no different from Greek mythology and its treatment of the gods. There, the impossible tasks often only could be accomplished with magical assistance. In Sun Tzu's case, no magic was needed. Only the will to murder two great ladies.

As for the choice of women to execute, it does not matter whether the King or Sun Tzu chose the disposition of troops and commands. The moment Sun Tzu agreed to the proposal, he knew not only that he would have to execute women but which ones. Since he chose, this decision was made directly. But even if it had been left to the king, there could be no question who would be placed in command and thus executed.

The palace hierarchy was very strict. While the ladies probably weren't the violent rivals oft depicted in fiction, proximity to the King — or, more precisely, place in his affections, particularly as secured by production of a potential heir — lent rank. No doubt there also was a system of seniority based on age and family, among the women, many of whom probably were neither concubines nor courtesans, but noble-women whose husbands served the King. It was common for ladies to advance their husbands' (and their own) fortunes through friendship with the King's concubines. Whatever the precise composition of the group, a strict pecking order existed. At the top of this order were the King's favorites. There could be no other choice consistent with domestic accord and the rules of precedence. Those two favorite concubines were the only possible commanders of the companies.

To make matters worse, those concubines may already have produced heirs. Possibly they were with child at that very moment. This too must have been clear to Sun Tzu. Thus he knew that he must kill the two most beloved of the King's concubines, among the most respected and noblest ladies in the land, and possibly the mothers of his children. Sun Tzu even knew he may be aborting potential heirs to the throne. All this is clear as day, and it is impossible to imagine that the man who wrote the Art of War would not immediately discern it.

But there is something even more perplexing in the story. The King did not stop the executions. Though the entire affair took place in his own palace, he did not order his men to intervene, or even belay Sun Tzu's order. He did not have Sun Tzu arrested, expelled, or executed. Nor did he after the fact. Ho Lu simply lamented his loss, and later hired the man who had effected it.

There are several explanations that come to mind. The simplest is that he indeed was a man of words and not deeds, cowed by the sheer impetuosity of the man before him. However, subsequent events do not support this. Such a man would not engage in aggressive wars of conquest against his neighbors, nor hire the very general who had humiliated and aggrieved him so. Perhaps he feared that Sun Tzu would serve another, turning that prodigious talent against Wu. It would be an understandable concern for a weak ruler who dreaded meeting such a man on the battlefield. But it also was a concern which easily could have been addressed by executing him on the spot. The temperamental Kings of fable certainly would have. Nor did Ho Lu appear to merely dissemble, only to visit some terrible vengeance on the man at a later date. Sun Tzu eventually became his most trusted adviser, described as nearly coequal in power.

It is possible that Ho Lu lacked the power oft conflated with regality, and less commonly attendant upon it. The title of King at the time meant something very different from modern popular imaginings. The event in question took place around 500 BC, well before Qin Shi Huang unified China — briefly — with his final conquest of Qi in 221 BC. In Ho Lu's time, kingdoms were akin to city-states, and the Kings little more than feudal barons. As in most historical treatises, troop numbers were vastly exaggerated, and 100,000 troops probably translated to a real army of mere thousands.

This said, it seems exceedingly improbable that Ho Lu lacked even the semblance of authority in his own palace. Surely he could execute or countermand Sun Tzu. Nor would there be loss of face in doing so, as the entire exercise could be cast as farcical. Who would object to a King stopping a madman who wanted to murder palace concubines? If Sun Tzu was from a prominent family or widely regarded in his own right (which there is no evidence for), harming him would not have been without consequence. But there is a large difference between executing the man and allowing him to have his way in such a matter. Ho Lu certainly could have dismissed Sun Tzu or proposed a more suitable test using peasants or real soldiers. To imagine that a king would allow his favorite concubines to be executed, contenting himself with a feeble protest, is ludicrous. Nor was Sun Tzu at that point a formidable military figure. A renowned strategist would not have troubled to write an entire treatise just to impress a single potential patron. That is not the action of a man who holds the balance of power.

The conclusion we must draw is that the "favorite concubines" were quite dispensible, and the King's protest simply the form demanded by propriety. He hardly could not protest the murder of two palace ladies. Most likely, he used Sun Tzu to rid himself of two problems. At the very least, he showed a marked lack of concern for the well-being of his concubines. We can safely assume that his meat and drink did not lose their savour, as he envisioned in his tepid missive before watching Sun Tzu behead the women.

While it is quite possible that he believed Sun Tzu was just making a point and would stop short of the actual execution, this too seems unlikely. The man had just refused a direct order from the King, and unless the entire matter was a tremendous miscommunication there could be little doubt he would not be restrained.

Ho Lu may genuinely have been curious to see the outcome. Even he probably could not command obedience from the palace ladies, and he may have wished to see what Sun Tzu could accomplish. But more than this, the King probably felt Sun Tzu was a valuable potential asset. The matter then takes on a very different aspect.

From this viewpoint, Ho Lu was not the fool he seemed. The test was proposed not in jest, but in deadly earnest, and things went exactly as he had hoped but not expected. He may have had to play the indolent monarch, taking nothing seriously and bereaved by a horrid jest gone awry. It is likely he was engaging in precisely the sort of deception Sun Tzu advocated in his treatise. He appeared weak and foolish, but knew exactly what he wanted and how to obtain it.

This probably was not lost on Sun Tzu, either. Despite his parting admonition, he did later agree to serve Ho Lu. It is quite possible that the king understood precisely the position he was placing Sun Tzu in, and anticipated the possible executions. Even so, he may have been uncertain of the man's practical talent and the extent of his will. There is a great divide between those who write words and those who heed them. Some may bridge it, most do not. Only in the event did Sun Tzu prove himself.

For this reason, Ho Lu could not be certain of the fate of the women. Nonetheless he placed them in peril. They were disposable, if not to be disposed of. It seems plausible that an apparently frivolous court game actually was a determined contest between two indomitable wills. The only ones who did not grasp this, who could not even recognize the battlefield on which they stepped solely to shed blood, were the concubines.

By this hypothesis, they were regarded as little more than favorite dogs or horses, or perhaps ones which had grown old and tiresome. A King asks an archer to prove his skill by hitting a “best” hound, then sets the dog after a hare, as he has countless times before. The dog quickens to the chase, eagerly performing as always, confident that its master's love is timeless and true. Of all present, only the dog does not know it is to be sacrificed, to take an arrow to prove something which may or may not be of use one day to its master. If the arrow falls short, it return to its master's side none the wiser and not one jot less sure of its place in the world or secure in the love of its master, until another day and another archer. This analogy may seem degrading and insulting to the memory of the two ladies, but that does not mean it is inaccurate. It would be foolhardy not to attribute such views to an ancient King and general simply because we do not share them or are horrified by them or wish they weren’t so. In that time and place, the concubines’ lives were nothing more than parchment. The means by which Ho Lu and Sun Tzu communicated, deadly but pure.

The view that Ho Lu was neither a fool nor a bon vivant is lent credence by the manner of his rise to power. He usurped the throne from his uncle, employing an assassin to accomplish the task. This and his subsequent campaign of conquest are not the actions of a dissipated monarch. Nor was he absent from the action, wallowing in luxury back home. In fact, Ho Lu died from a battle wound during his attempted conquest of Yue.

It is of course possible that the true person behind all these moves was Wu Zixu, the King’s main advisor. But by that token, it also is quite possible that the entire exercise was engineered by Wu Zixu — with precisely intended consequences, perhaps ridding himself of two noisome rivals with influence over the King. In that case, the affair would be nothing more than a routine palace assassination.

Whatever the explanation, we should not regard the deaths of the two concubines as a pointless tragedy. The discipline instilled by two deaths could spare an entire army from annihilation on the field. Sun Tzu posited that discipline was one of the key determinants of victory, and in this he was not mistaken. That is no excuse, but history needs none. It simply is.

This said, it certainly is tempting to regard the fate of these ladies as an unadorned loss. Who can read this story and feel anything but sadness for the victims? Who can think Sun Tzu anything but a callous murderer, Ho Lu anything but foolish or complicit? It is easy to imagine the two court concubines looking forward to an evening meal, to poetry with their friends, to time with their beloved husband. They had plans and thoughts, certainly dreams, and perhaps children they left behind. One moment they were invited to play an amusing game, the next a sharp metal blade cut away all they were, while the man they imagined loved them sat idly by though it lay well within his power to save them. Who would not feel commingled sorrow and anger at such a thing? But that is not all that happened.

A great General was discovered that day, one who would take many lives and save many lives. Whether this was for good or ill is pointless to ask and impossible to know. All we can say is that greatness was achieved. 2500 years later and in a distant land we read both his tale and his treatise.

Perhaps those two died not in service to the ambition of one small general in one small kingdom. Perhaps they died so centuries later Cao Cao would, using the principles in Sun Tzu’s book, create a foundation for the eventual unification of China. Or so that many more centuries later a man named Mao would claim spiritual kinship and murder a hundred million to effect a misguided economic policy. Would fewer or more have died if these two women had lived? Would one have given birth to a world-conquering general, or written a romance for the ages?

None of these things. They died like everyone else — because they were born. The axe that felled them was wielded by one man, ordered by another, and sanctioned by a third. Another made it, and yet another dug the ore. Are they all to blame? The affair was one random happening in an infinitude of them, neither better nor worse. A rock rolls one way, but we do not condemn. It rolls another, but we do not praise.

But we do like stories, and this makes a good one.

[Source: The account itself is taken from The Art of War with Commentary, Canterbury Classics edition, which recounted it from a translation of the original in the Records of the Grand Historian. Any wild speculation, ridiculous hypotheses, or rampant mischaracterizations are my own.]

K.M. Halpern
Ken's Guide to Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design 3)

I'm now going to walk through the details of the cover design for my forthcoming book The Way Around. There may seem to be a lot of steps but, as with the interior, the time investment is small compared to writing the book itself! Each of my novels has taken about 500 hours to write and edit to completion. By comparison, the cover only took a few hours. Yet it’s the cover which sells the book!

The first time I created a cover, it took 4ish hours (I didn’t do the actual artwork, of course). Subsequent revisions have a gone a lot quicker. Though there are many words in these posts, the actual ideas are relatively simple.

Because my own process involved several “redos”, and that’s natural, I’ll include some of those additional steps in the narrative. This will help clarify how to fix mistakes (or accommodate changes), and show that such things are relatively painless.

One important thing with cover design is to do as much calculation by hand as possible. The less you have to aim a mouse to get things just right, the less you’ll want to fling yourself, the book, and the entire design profession off the top of a tall building.

So we’ll start with a simple but essential calculation: the aspect ratio of the image.

Step 1: Compute the correct aspect ratio

We have a template from Ingram. In theory, this tells us precisely what we need. In reality, we are given only a set of blue and pink regions and it is left to us to figure out the actual dimensions. Fortunately, this is not hard.

In Inkscape, the ruler tool will do the trick. Unfortunately, there is no simple aspect-ratio tool I’m aware of. But using the ruler at a big enough magnification (to allow precision) will give a pretty good estimate. I suggest setting the units to inches.

Why do we care about the aspect ratio (one number) and not the actual dimensions (two numbers)? It is very easy to scale images in Inkscape, but much more troublesome to crop them. What we want to start with is a very high-resolution image of the correct aspect ratio.

First let’s look at the Ingram Template a bit more closely, though. It comes in the form of a pdf representing a 15x12" sheet. On this sheet is an active region consisting of pink and blue rectangles. The pink is the part guaranteed to be printed, while the blue is bleed. It allows for variation in the print process. To produce the cover file they require, you must replace the active part of the template with your own cover image. Both pink and blue should be fully covered, but any active elements (title, isbn, etc) should sit only in the pink region. As a general rule of thumb, each overlaid pink region should look good by itself — as well as with a little extra added around the edges.

In my case, the active region consists of a 0.25" blue border, two pink pages (each 5x8, the size of my book), and a spine which is 0.259 wide with two bleeds, each 0.125". Note that the spine measurement includes some of the blue.

Horizontally we have

0.25in blue
4.75in pink
0.125in blue
0.259in blue/pink/blue (a little blue, pink, a little blue)
0.125in blue
4.75in pink
0.25in blue

These add up to 10.509 in.

Vertically, we have

0.25in blue
7.75in pink
0.25in blue

These add up to 8.25 in.

To compute our aspect ratio, we divide these and get 1.27381. We don’t need this to achieve this exactly, of course. But if we miss the target we’ll have to expand the image accordingly, which will lose a little from one edge or another. Best to get as close to the aspect ratio up front in a way we like and then lose only a pixel or two when we tweak it.

Step 2: Crop the illustration to the desired aspect ratio

We next need to crop the raw illustration to our aspect ratio. In my case, cropping would also remove any non-illustration cruft from the image (fade-off near the edge of the page and the artist information at the bottom).

As it later turned out, the nature of the illustration required an additional design choice. Certain imagery (a big tree in particular) would have wrapped onto the spine in a displeasing manner as things stood, so I decided to further crop the image while maintaining the aspect ratio. I’ll discuss that later on, but for now we’ll crop as little as possible.

There are two ways to do this, and which approach you take is a personal preference. I’ve used both.

Method 1: GIMP. The photoshop-alternative GIMP has a nifty feature which lets you create a constant-aspect ratio box and then place it over the image and crop to it. Better yet, GIMP allows you to manually enter the aspect ratio. When saving, it’s best to write a png file with no compression. Mine came to 150 MB.

Method 2: Imagemagick. You can use a command-line approach and try cropping in different ways (directly enforcing the aspect ratio by hand), and use eog or some other image viewer to see what looks right. The back and forth is less painful than it sounds, and probably would take no more than 5 minutes.

This is a good point at which to mention some handy Imagemagick commands.

“identify myfile” will provide useful info about the pixel dimensions of an image.

“convert oldfile [options] newfile” is the command to do most manipulations — file format conversions, cropping, etc. Here’s a cropping example, with an explanation of the relevant options:

“convert oldfile.jpg -gravity mychoice -crop 80%x80%+0+0 +repage -quality 80 newfile.jpg

-crop tells it to crop to a given size with a certain displacement from the reference point. If you’re cropping against a corner, the displacement should be +0+0 otherwise the suitable +x+y in pixels. The 80%x80% says to crop width and height to 80% each. Exact pixels like -crop 7958x6247+0+0 could be used too.

-gravity tells it what the reference point is. “mychoice” can be any of the following: SouthWest removes from top and right, SouthEast removes from top and left, NorthWest removes from bottom and right, and NorthEast removes from bottom and left.

-quality tells it the compression level to use when writing to a compressed format (jpg, png, etc). I recommend using 100 for all our purposes. We’ll use lower quality down the road when meeting file-size constraints for certain purposes. But for printing, we need the best quality possible.

+repage This is a technical option. When cropping occurs, the cropped image can be thought of as its own thing or as sitting on a canvas that was the original size. Each approach can be useful in some contexts. +repage tells it to treat the new image as its own thing (i.e. set the canvas to equal the cropped dimensions). This almost invariably is what we want for our purposes.

It’s also useful to know how to resize an image, even though we aren’t doing that here. Resizing is actually a challenging task in general because tradeoffs need to be made in terms of how sampling occurs. I find the defaults in Imagemagick serve well for simple purposes. To resize (scale instead of crop):

“convert oldfile.jpg -resize spec -quality 100 outfile.jpg”

Here, spec tells it how to resize. It can do so to an arbitrary widthxheight (pixels or percent). But it also can do so to a given width (ex. -resize 100) or height (ex. -resize x100) keeping the aspect ratio.

Resizing is another handy way to reduce file sizes. While resampling to higher resolutions can serve some purposes, we’ll have no need of it in general. Our original image is very high resolution and all our resizing will be down.

Step 3: Generate Logo

At this point we’ll make a minor digression, because we need to produce a mini logo for the spine. If for some reason you’re not using your own imprint, or if you already have a suitable image for it (or its just a simple text logo), then this step is unnecessary. Also, don’t worry if you don’t understand the details. We’ll discuss the use of LaTeX when it comes to the interior of the book. Feel free to return to it at that point.

Inkscape’s own tools suffice when it comes to most text elements, but it happens that my own imprint requires a little bit of finesse. The formal name of the press is “Epsilon Books” but the logo begins with a particular type of curly Greek epsilon rather than an E.

The following LaTex code did the trick:

\vglue -1.84in
\hglue -1.4in
{\fontsize{60pt}{0}\selectfont\textbf{\textepsilon}}{\fontsize{40pt}{0}\selectfont \hglue -1pt \textbf{psilon}}

Most of this is cruft necessary to declare the type of document. Worry not, when it comes to the interior the cruft to content ratio will be much lower. Think of it like the overhead necessary to write a C program. It seems like a lot of effort for “Hello World,” but is relatively insignificant for any real program. In any event, it took a few minutes of tweaking to get things right and I was done.

To compile it, I ran "pdflatex mylogo.tex", which produced the following pdf:

Ken’s Guide to Free Indie Publishing on Linux. Imagemagick and LaTeX example.

Step 4: Adjust Alpha Channel

I’ve separated out this step, even though it’s really a simple adjustment to the logo we generated. Even if you skipped that section, you may find the information in this section worth knowing. While the logo and its vagaries are specific to me, this is a good place to discuss the alpha channel.

The logo above may look good, but we must be careful. The background is transparent. As it turns out, that is fine for our purposes, but I should take the opportunity to explain a bit about what it means and its implications. When displayed in some programs it will look no different than a white background. On others it may mask the foreground image — appearing as a solid block of black. And on yet others the background may appear greyed out. It all depends what canvas a program decides to display it against.

When I was a kid, there were 3 color channels. The color of any pixel could be determined by those three numbers. Actually it started as 2 bits for CGA, then 4 bits for EGA, then 8 bits for VGA. Only later did it resolve into the 3 distinct RGB channels (24 bits total) once graphic cards could drive that many colors. But the idea is the same: each pixel’s “color” solely was determined by some representation of its physical place on the spectrum. This was fine for many purposes.

However, photo manipulation programs and other design tools evolved the notion of layering as a convenient means of mimicking the real design process. To be useful, layers needed the ability to blend into one another. While it’s possible to identify the background color and map or merge pixels accordingly, this can lead to other problems (misassignment of colors, misidentification of the background color, etc). In fact, many images have no clear notion of “background” vs “foreground” colors. So an “alpha” channel was added, an additional 8 bits. It represents absence of information, transparency, or whatever else we want to call it. Intuitively, it is a 4th number which tells us how transparent the image is. No doubt my little history blurb is wildly inaccurate, but the basic idea of the alpha channel is important.

Not all formats can accommodate it, and not all programs can recognize it. The main problem is knowing it is there, and the effect it can have. Sometimes we want it, sometimes we don’t. From a practical standpoint, if a picture overlays in a weird way, then there’s a good chance either the alpha channel is present and you don’t want it or it’s absent and you do want it. Imagemagick’s “identify” tool can help you make that determination.

In the case of my logo, the alpha channel is there and set to full transparency. We want this, since the logo will be overlaid on the image. But we don’t want the foreground color to be black. The cover image is dark and we need a white logo. As it turns out we’ll have to take further measures to ensure spine text visibility as well, but we’ll get to that later. For now, we just want to make the foreground white while retaining the alpha channel.

Looking ahead a little, it turns out that Inkscape has a slightly easier time importing SVGs than PDFs. There’s no good reason for this, and it’s just one of the idiosyncracies of the program (every program has them). So we’ll convert to SVG format.

We accomplish both steps with one command:

"convert mylogo.pdf -negate mylogo.svg”

Now that we’ve gathered all the necessary pieces, we can begin work assembling them into a cover. Next week, we’ll begin work in Inkscape. If you haven’t yet, it may be worth playing around with it a little and familiarizing yourself with how its menus, palettes, and so on.

Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design 2)

Elements on the Cover

When it comes to certain aspects of a book, the considerations differ between a self-published author and a publishing house. For example, a traditionally-published book often will have pages of advertising materials related to the publisher's other offerings. This obviously is inapplicable to a self-published author. You may advertise other works of your own, but rarely would it be desirable to list anything else.

While that particular difference is fairly pronounced, others aren't as obvious. The major contrast really is between modes of sale rather than the type of publisher itself --- though it's unlikely traditional publishers will adjust their tried-and-true approach any time soon. When it comes to the cover, the question is: which elements best serve the primary mode of sale.

Traditional book design revolves around attracting the attention of a physical customer in a physical book store. In this regard it is similar to any product-package design. But these days most sales take place through online venues (basically, Amazon) rather than physical bookstores. Most potential customers aren't going to pick up your book, turn it over, and read the cover materials. This especially is true of self-published authors, who have little realistic prospect of appearing in the majority of brick and mortar stores. If there is browsing involved, it will be online and the user only will see images of your front-cover and some accompanying descriptive text. It is very important to optimize this description, but that is another subject.

The point is that back-cover text no longer is a major vehicle for advertising. The only advertising a cover offers online is through direct visual appeal. A beautiful or mysterious cover can and will draw readers in, and is critical to sell your book. Nothing says "amateur crap" as loudly as a badly designed cover. As with most things, care in appearance rightly or wrongly serves as a proxy for care in all things. People do judge a book by a cover, so ensure yours is a cover you’d like to be judged by.

I’ll mention one other consideration — though this pertains to the illustration itself more than the design. These days, a lot of fiction is classified as "genre." Aside from the possibly snooty connotations in some circles, the meaning typically isn’t judgmental. However, it is important to know where your book falls and whom you are marketing it to. With genre fiction, there may be certain expectations about the information conveyed by the cover image. A space novel should have a space-themed cover, etc. This is part of why so many genre covers look similar — even ones which aren’t trying to be part of the herd. To paraphrase one professional illustrator: if the reader expects zombies and gets space battles, they won't be happy. They may even give you a bad review. So space novels have space-themed covers and zombie novels have zombie-themed covers. If yours (like mine) doesn't neatly fit a niche or is more literary in nature, then there’s a bit of a tightrope to be walked. Among other things, a genre-themed title could dissuade a more general reader. There is a fine line between enticing genre readers and putting off literary ones.

Returning to the specifics of cover design, modern covers need not contain traditional elements such as the author bio, description, and reviews. That is not to say these are harmful or counterproductive. They take a bit more effort, but still can serve as advertising via word of mouth. One person sees a book someone else owns, picks it up, and the traditional browsing model kicks in. Whether or not to include such elements is a personal choice. I feel they clutter the cover (for a paperback), and prefer not to. However, I also see no reason not to include such items on the inside flap of a hardcover dust-jacket.

But what about other elements? The same could be argued for the ISBN itself. After all, the ISBN is utterly irrelevant for online sales. Its purpose is to be scanned in retail stores. Why include it? This is a perfectly legitimate question. And it very well may be worth omitting from the back-cover images (if any) of your ebooks. However, keep in mind that the ISBN does remain useful for some purposes like indices and PCNs (no need to worry if you don't know what these are; they'll be explained later). And for those craving the trappings of “legitimacy,” whatever that means, the ISBN is expected.

For print editions, the main reason to keep the ISBN cover element is because Ingram demands it. This isn't a mere anachronism. Ingram-Spark is not just a printer, it also is a distributor. As soon as your book is available on their system, it can be ordered through the majority of physical bookstores (as well as online ones such as Amazon). Since (in theory) it will be passing through physical bookstores, the ISBN is necessary. In practice, it is necessary for many other reasons as well. Physical books are expected by libraries and retailers to have ISBNs printed on them, advertisers often will ask for the ISBN, and so on. But if no other reason serves, keep it because Ingram requires you to.

Some other cover elements which may seem superfluous for the reasons I described are not. I speak of the spine text (usually title, author and imprint/logo). This serves an important role, even if the book never appears in a physical bookstore. Bookstores aren't the only places with bookshelves. Your reader likely will have the book on their bookshelf and shouldn't be left to guess what it is! The same is true of libraries. To my eye, the absence of spine text bespeaks amateur production quality.

Here are the major elements of a cover design:

1. Front Cover Text. This may be simple text overlaid on the illustrations, embedded as part of the illustration, or ensconced in various decorative boxes or other elements. All the usual typesetting considerations apply, as well as any artistic arrangement/etc. Color also is a factor. While most interiors are black and white, the cover almost always is color. The following are some common Front Cover textual items.

Title (mandatory)
Author (mandatory)
Line from a Review (less-common)

2. Spine Text. This should be sideways along the spine. Whether it is rotated clockwise or counterclockwise is a matter of personal preference. On my books it is clockwise, so that it will appear upright when the book is placed face-up on a table. I typically arrange the title toward the middle of the spine, the author toward the top, and the logo toward the bottom. The following are the main spine items:

Title (mandatory)

In my opinion, the logo should be rotated (like the imprint text) if it appears next to the imprint name. If the logo appears alone and is a single symbol, it generally should appear upright rather than rotated.

3. Rear ISBN. The ISBN box is provided by Ingram's template. They claim it should not be resized, but I found that for small books some resizing was necessary. In my opinion, the background should be white, not transparent. The box is placed near the bottom of the rear cover. I prefer near bottom left, but both bottom-center and bottom-right are common too.

4. Rear Text/Author-Photo: This can be done many ways and can include a bio, reviews, description, author-photo, etc. I personally do without these in the paperback edition, though I think them well-suited to the inside flap of a hardcover dustjacket.

As mentioned, spine text is not allowed by Ingram for super-short books (48 pages or less) because there's no room. Createspace is much less generous and doesn't allow them except for quite thick books (130+ pages).

None of the cover elements should be right up against the edge. They can be aligned relative to one another, but shouldn't depend heavily on being a precise distance from the edge. On the Ingram template, they must all sit in the pink regions.

Page Count for Spine Width

Before we proceed, we must determine the relevant spine width. Although we will deal extensively with the interior layout in future posts, spine width has a critical impact on cover design and requires immediate consideration. For this reason, we digress to discuss the page count — the primary determinant of spine width. To do so, we enumerate various common interior elements which may contribute.

First, there are two very important constraints imposed by Ingram

1. The page count must be divisible by 4. Ingram says the page count must be divisible by 2, but in my experience they really require 4. If you ever employ offset printing, a multiple of 4 will serve you well there too.

2. The last page must be blank so they can put some production info there if necessary.

If either of these requirements are not met, Ingram will add the necessary number of blank pages at the end. However, Ingram’s cover template generator (and spine calculator tool) may not factor such pages in. For example, suppose your book is 97 pages (with ink on the 97th page), and you enter 97 as the page count in the cover template. It dutifully will return a 97 page-based spine width (or perhaps a 98 page one). It won't cleverly upsize to 100. Instead, they will do that when they process the files for printing down the road. This may change, but my experience is that it is up to the author to make sure the calculations are right. To be safe, round up to a multiple of 4, leaving at least 1 blank page at the end.

The interior of a typical book consists of 3 parts: front matter, content (also known as the body or main matter), and rear (or back) matter. These are roughly divided as one would expect:

1. Front matter: Any title pages, copyright page, advertising or publication lists (preceding the content), table of contents, preface, introduction, etc. A good rule of thumb is that front matter consists of everything prior to the start of arabic numbering.

2. Content: The raison d’etre of your book. Generally these pages use arabic numbers. However, sometimes rear-matter is included in arabic-numbering as well.

3. Rear matter: Any epilogue, index, glossary, acknowledgments, rear advertising material or publication lists, author bio, etc. Some of these items may appear in the front as well.

An excellent discussion of book layout is included in the LaTex "Memoir" package documentation. This is the package I recommend for the interior layout of literary works, and it is worthwhile familiarizing yourself with it. We will be seeing a lot of it in future posts.

As an example, here is the layout of The Way Around. E means even (left), O means odd (right). Books open right, and the first physical page is odd.

1 Simple Title Page: Most books have this. It just contains the title, usually all caps.

2 Blank

3 Full Title Page: Title, subtitle, author, imprint

4 Copyright, ISBN, LCCN, "Cover Art by ...", etc.

5-9 Table of Contents (since this is a book containing 74 very short works, it is a long TOC)

10 Blank (if the TOC had ended on an even page, there would have been 2 blank pages)

11-100 Main Content (this must start on an odd page)

101-102 Blank (if the main content had ended on an odd page, one blank would have sufficed).

103 About the Author

104 Blank

105 Acknowledgments

106 Blank

107 Other Works (pitch for my other stuff)

108 Blank

The TOC, Main Content, and first page of (non-blank) rear matter must begin on odd pages. It's a matter of taste whether each piece of rear matter must.

In total, my front-matter is 10 pages, my content is 90 pages, and my rear matter is 18 pages.

It may seem an absurd waste to have 18 pages of cruft for 90 pages of content --- but it's the way things are done. Many traditionally-published books have a much higher cruft to content ratio. They have indices, glossaries, endnotes, extensive advertising, lists of other books in the series, introductions and prefaces and heaven-knows what else. The truth is that you have little control over some of this.

The Rear-matter is entirely optional, though a book should have at least 2 blank pages after the content ends to look decent. Novels won't need a table of contents, but I strongly advise against dispensing with any of the other standard front-matter elements in a bid to cut costs.

There are many ways to make a printed book look unprofessional --- crappy illustration, bad font choice, narrow margins --- and jumping right into the content is one of them. Yes, the items I described may be superfluous packaging, but they are what readers have come to expect. Besides, they look nice. The whole point of this exercise is to produce a beautiful book, and a beautiful book isn't designed to optimize the ink to paper ratio or minimize the production cost. In my opinion, there is no point to producing a physical book if it won't be beautiful. After all, most people buy ebooks. The main reason to print a book these days is because you care about offering a quality product. The good news is that it's now very possible to do so, the bad news is that you'll need to waste a bit of tree.

Starting material: The Raw Illustration File

As mentioned in an earlier post, I commissioned a local artist to produce to drawings for my first two books of short works. He produced lovely ink drawings, which I framed, and also gave me high-resolutions scans for use with my books. The first was used for The Man Who Stands in Line. For that, I hired a professional cover designer. She embedded the elements in the illustration.

For The Way Around, I decided to do the cover design myself. The JPEG I received from the artist was 10200x6600 (around a 46 MB file), an aspect ratio of 1.54545. However, not all of the area was usable. It was a scan of a real drawing, and the edges were tattered, there was some info below it, and it had a big swath of white next to the image. None of this was unexpected. These are all things one typically finds in an artwork and they tend to be covered (or wrapped) when framing.

Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design 2). Self-Publishing. Pre-Image.

Note: When given an image, you can determine the size in pixels using Imagemagick's "identify" tool.

"identify myfile.jpg"

Starting material: The Ingram Cover Template

I next needed a cover template to work with. I supplied Ingram's Cover Template tool with an ISBN for the paperback. I was pleased with the appearance of my first book, The Man Who Stands in Line, and decided to go with many of the same stylistic choices. Here are the relevant parameters:

Trim Size: 5x8"
Interior Paper: B&W, Creme (50lb paper)
Binding Type: Paperback, Perfect Bound
Laminate Type: Matte
Page Count: 108
File Type PDF

I didn't enter any price info since I didn't want a hardcoded price as part of the ISBN-block barcode. To my mind, it’s a bad idea and I’ve never understood why publishers do it.

Note that not all book options are available from Ingram for all trim sizes. 5x8 is pretty standard (much like 6x9), so most choices are available. For less-common sizes, there may be fewer options.

Here is an image of the template they emailed me.

Self-publishing cover template from ingram.

Our goal will be to precisely overlay the pink and blue area with our cover.

Next time we will start creating an actual cover from our image and cover template!

K.M. Halpern
Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (Cover Design I)
How to create a book cover on linux using open source tools. (Image

Ordinarily, cover design is one of the last steps in book production, but because I happen to be at that exact stage with my second book of short works, The Way Around, I figure it is better to describe the details while they're fresh in my head. Moreover, there is at least one aspect of cover design which should be initiated early --- perhaps even before the book is complete. The time-line depends heavily on how you intend to approach the cover, and we discuss it in more detail below.

As with out discussion of the interior, we assume there will be paperback, hardcover, and Kindle editions of the book. The print editions will be through Ingram-Spark for our purposes. Similar considerations apply when printing via Createspace, but the constraints may vary.

Illustration vs Design

There are two key conceptual components to the cover: illustration and design. In practice, the two may be fully integrated or completely distinct. In simple terms, "illustration" is the imagery on the cover and "design" is the placement of various elements. The illustration may be one large image, several images, a photo, or no image at all --- perhaps just some clever line-work. There is no limit to the clever variation which is possible, though care should be taken not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: selling books.

A note on etiquette: Anyone other than the author involved in the creative aspects of the cover should be acknowledged somewhere. I do this on the copyright page with lines like:

"Cover Illustration by so-and-so"

"Cover Design by so-and-so"

To distinguish the cover itself from the specific elements on it, we'll refer to a "cover image" as any full cover file, such as you'd provide to Amazon or Ingram or other services. The actual imagery will either be referred to as such or as “illustrations.”

Our Goal

Contrary to what one may imagine, a single cover image rarely suffices. Several versions are necessary for different purposes. Let's start by listing the cover images you may need. The exact set will depend on which formats you intend to publish and the details of your marketing For our purposes, we'll assume a paperback, a hardcover with dustjacket, and a kindle edition. For these, we'll need the following files:

1. Paperback cover: A single image file containing the back cover, spine, and front cover unfolded onto one large page. This will be a very high resolution PDF built from an Ingram-provided template.

2. Hardcover dustjacket: Another single image file containing the inside right flap, the back cover, the spine, the front cover, and the inside left flap unfolded into one large page (imagine the dustjacket removed and laid flat). This too is a very high resolution PDF built from an Ingram-provided template.

3. Front cover image: This is necessary for a variety of purposes. You'll need jpg, png, and pdf versions at various resolutions and perhaps aspect ratios. Here are a few examples of uses:

Kindle edition front cover

Amazon listing of book

Ingram listing of book

Kirkus review


Goodreads listing

Amazon "look-inside"

Your own blog/website or anywhere you want to show it

Amazon recommends a 1.6x aspect ratio and 4500 x 2813 resolution. However, the choice is optional and other resolutions are possible. One thing to bear in mind is that various aspect rations may be necessary to generate the thumbnail-sized images which arise in various places. Also, Amazon's recommendation isn't written in stone even for Kindle editions.

It is easy to resize (via high-quality resampling, if necessary), crop, or place an image on a background of a different size using ImageMagick.

4. Back cover image: For some purposes, a separate back cover image is needed. For example, the Kindle edition optionally includes one, as does Amazon Look-Inside. Note that you may need 2 versions. Generally, the front cover will be just like a cut-out from the paperback cover image. However, an ISBN appears on the rear of the paperback cover --- and this is specific to that format. For the Kindle edition, you'll want an rear-cover image with either no ISBN or the appropriate ISBN for the ebook. For the look-inside version, I recommend no ISBN.

Some timeline considerations

This is a good place to make a small digression about time-line. Although the cover may seem like the last stage in book design, having a usable version is critical for many pre-publication tasks. As I learned through bitter experience, lack of planning (or, in my case, bad luck involving the illustrator) can delay the project and throw quite a large wrench in the marketing plan. For most pre-publication purposes, a workable front cover will suffice, however.

To complete the cover, you will need several key items:

1. The ISBN. This is easy enough. If you (or your imprint) own a block — as you should — you can assign one at any time. Although Ingram demands an ISBN to provide a cover template, a fake one will do fine. When you eventually assign an ISBN, just obtain a new template from Ingram and copy the relevant ISBN object. ISBNs are easy and quick to purchase (though annoyingly pricey), so this can be done at any time. That said, having an ISBN on hand is very useful for many other purposes --- and I recommend assigning one early in the game.

2. Title. It's surprising how often this can change up until the last minute. You can do most of the work without it --- but be prepared for some serious adaptation if it becomes a lot longer or shorter! Also, the title design can be tweaked until the last minute.

3. Author Name. You probably know your own name, but you need to choose a presentation. First Last, First M Last, First Middle Last, F.M. Last, a single super-hip letter, the being formerly known as …

4. Reviews/Bio. If you want a review/bio on the cover, you’ll need it. A placeholder can be setup, but without the actual text it will be difficult to get things just right. Personally, I don't recommend a cover-review or bio, for reasons I explain below. Be aware that reviews take time. Services like Kirkus require a couple of months, and individual bloggers/authors may take a lot longer.

5. Trim size. You need to pick the physical dimensions of the book. Is it 5x8, 6x9, etc? While it's relatively easy to adapt most interiors to differing dimensions, cover illustrations are a different matter --- especially if they have been created with one aspect-ratio in mind.

6. Page count. In my experience, this is the biggest nuisance. It's very common for the page count to change late in the game. This can happen for many reasons --- editing, the edition of back-matter, etc. Small changes like the addition or removal of a couple of pages are easier to manage but still may require some rejiggering. Large changes may require substantial reworking of the cover. Why is Page Count relevant? After all, only the trim size should matter for the cover illustrations, right? The problem is the spine width. Even if there isn't one big illustration which wraps around the cover, the placement of various elements needs to be adjusted. At the very least, a new template must be downloaded from Ingram --- and the elements adjusted onto it.

One key piece of advice: if you're hiring an illustrator and/or designer, do so very early in the game. They can require a couple of months (or more), and this can hold up the cover, which then cascades into a slew of other delays and problems. The pre-publication dance is a delicate one, and it's best to plan ahead if at all possible. Pick an aspect ratio, lock down a page-count as best possible, and get the imagery done. You (or the illustrator) can tweak it later.

For our purposes, I will assume you are doing what I did for my first 2 books: hiring an artist to produce physical pieces of art (along with scans of them), and then doing the cover design separately. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For The Man Who Stands in Line, I hired a separate designer to create a cover design using the artwork. With The Way Around, I'm doing the cover design myself, using the artwork I commissioned. A more common approach is to have a single illustrator/designer do both digitally.

Some General Suggestions

It is important to understand that POD (print-on-demand) is not exact. Neither is offset printing or any other technology — but in the case of POD the variations occur at the level of individual orders, while with traditional publishing technologies the variations are by batch. Variations are a known and accepted part of the industry, and the very language of typesetting (trims and bleeds) incorporates it. The fact is that books are printed from large sheets which must be cut. Both the printing and cutting steps may introduce slight variations. It is best to be prepared for these and plan the design with them in mind to avoid disappointment and frustration. This isn't to say you can't have a beautiful cover. You just need to work within the practical constraints of the system.

The following are some things to keep in mind. I prefer large illustrations which include both covers and the spine, but the same considerations apply if you have separate front and/or back cover illustrations.

1. There is variation in the centering of the front cover. This generally isn't noticeable unless the cover image or text is framed in some manner (even a clear boundary will do) near the edge of the cover. Avoid frames or other elements whose exact placement is essential for the cover to look good. Big wrap-around illustrations can avoid this, as long as there is no critical element which has to align against one of the cover edges. In general, a lack of symmetry is preferable to a slight misalignment. Small variations tell us that a mistake was made, large ones are imputed to design. To avoid compromising the aesthetics it is best to place any border elements away from edges — use a smaller bounding box or decorative element — or avoid them altogether.

2. The most noticeable variation, in my experience, is with spine text. Createspace doesn't even allow spine text for books 130 pages or shorter. Ingram requires only 48 pages. But the concerns are the same. Vertical variations in placement will be less noticeable than horizontal ones — as long as nothing is too close to the top or bottom. Left-right placement can be an issue, though --- so make the spine text small, with good margins on both sides. Also, make sure it isn't framed in any way. Otherwise the frame could look off-center or push onto the cover. If you follow these tips, spine text should come out quite well.

3. If a large image is used (wrapping around both covers and spine), it may be necessary to fade it along the spine to make the spine-text visible. This has been the case with both of my books so far. Spine text, in my opinion is very important. It should either be a very bright or very dark color (I use black or white) depending on the underlying image --- but it all should one color. It may be tempting to simply block out the image on the spine and simply have text — but that won’t work well. The blackened (or whitened) block constitutes a rectangle and may be noticeably displaced, sliding onto or off the spine. My approach is to create a layer with such a rectangle, and make it partly transparent. Then I blur it into the surrounding image to remove any noticeable edge. This sounds complicated, but actually is quite straightforward.

The Printer

As will be discussed elsewhere, there currently are two major options for POD printing: Createspace (Amazon), and Ingram-Spark (Lightning Source). I much prefer Ingram-Spark for several reasons. In particular, I've found their quality to be better than Createspace’s and they also are more flexible in terms of printing spine text on thinner books. I've printed one book of my own and have been involved in the printing of two others with Ingram --- and they've all come out beautiful. This said, printers change and quality can vary --- so it's best to do some research. There is no meaningful disadvantage to selling an Ingram book through Amazon.

Ingram-Spark is the retail facing end of Lighting Source, a major printer for lots of traditional presses. This has upsides. For example, by printing through Ingram your book automatically is available through to most physical bookstores via their distribution network. However, one big downside to dealing with Ingram is that Lightning Source is a big clunky company used to dealing with dedicated publishing personnel and large orders via invoice, etc. They produce a great product but you'll have to deal with a very primitive process. On the other hand, Amazon's Kindle-production process is even more frustrating despite being more modern.

Until recently, Ingram required PDF/X files. These are PDF files with certain guarantees built in --- so most PDFs wouldn't qualify. This wasn't a major issue (Ghostscript could generate them easily enough), but something to be cognizant of. Now they seem to accept regular PDFs. There are 2 key things they need in their PDFs, though:

  1. Embedded fonts. This can be checked with the command line program pdffonts, and is more of a concern for the interior than the cover. This said, it must be true for both.

  2. CMYK vs RGB. If the interior is color then this applies to that as well as the cover. CMYK is the color scheme used for printing, while RGB is that for on-screen viewing. Each is based on the native process involved in the respective technology. Many PDFs produced default to RGB. We will need to make sure that all print-ready PDFs are CMYK. It is easy to do, but something we must keep in mind.

Expect the back-and-forth with Ingram to take at least a couple of weeks and cost a few bucks. In my experience, they haven't been jerks about the "file change" fees when there are serious problems, but you still need to buy copies of your book to inspect them. There's no getting around this. You'll buy these at cost, but the shipping can be fractionally large for small orders.

Basically, you'll submit the interior and cover files and they'll tell you (after a day or two) whether they've been accepted by their automated system. Then you'll be able to inspect galleys online --- but that won't tell you anything about what the book actually will look like (at least color-wise). The only way to find that out is to order a copy. Order a couple, make any changes, then repeat the process, etc. If you screwed up or decided to change some things on your own, you may have to pay the $25 file-change fee. If it was their fault (some awful misalignment, etc) they won't charge you. Be firm and be insistent. Often, their people will claim they didn't screw up when they did. If you’ve followed my advice above, once everything looks good, future printing should be (more or less) spot on. Most issues arise up-front with how they process the files, map colors, etc. What you're dealing with is exactly what every publisher has had to deal with for every book. Be polite, but be firm (if you're in the right).

Ingram offers a few useful tools and guides.

1. Ingram Cover Template: If you don't have an ISBN, make one up in order to get a template of the right dimensions until the book is printed. It's just used for barcode generation for the template, so using one from an existing book will work too. Of course, it's best to have your own ISBN ready — and certainly don't forget to replace the placeholder with a real one when the time comes!

2. Ingram Spine Width Estimator: This is a helpful tool, but I suggest using the cover template instead.

3. File Creation Guide: This describes their guidelines for both the interior and cover. The cover part won't be necessary since we're using their template --- but it can be enlightening to read it.

4. They also have a helpful checklist with some handy tips.

The Tools

Now let's examine the tools we will use for the cover design. These are (largely) independent of those used for interior layout. Not all are essential, but I'll include the ones I find handy.

Cover design on Linux poses a unique challenge. Emacs and Vim (and others) long ago solved the problem of efficiently writing on Linux. TeX (and LaTeX) long ago solved the typesetting problem. But illustration and cover design are a little less polished on Linux. Perfectly serviceable, but not quite as polished as some commercial tools. This isn't surprising. If there's anywhere a windowing OS and mouse-based approach can shine it's in design and illustration. Fortunately, we need only wade into those waters to create a gorgeous cover. For that, the tools at hand are more than enough.

For the most part, illustration and design typically are done by trendy people in cafes working on Macs and using very expensive Adobe or Apple software. There are many reasons not to do that, besides expense. Some of these tools (cough Adobe cough) are more invasive than malware and can destabilize even a solid Linux system. The bad news is that there are no free Linux tools fully equivalent to these. The good news is that, as far as cover design goes, it doesn't matter. There are perfectly suitable tools which can solve our particular problem quite well.

I suggest installing the following:

1. imagemagick: Great for command-line image conversions, cropping, negation, etc. The two utilities we will make the most use of are "convert" and "identify".

2. eog: A good lightweight image viewer. Any such viewer will do.

3. gimp: This is the freeware alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I won't get into whether it is comparable, but for our purposes it is more than sufficient. We'll just use it to crop large images. Imagemagick can crop just as effectively, but for this one step in our process visual feedback will prove useful.

4. inkscape: This loosely can be described as the open-source answer to Adobe Illustrator. It's a vector drawing program, but also has layout capabilities, and is more than capable of what we need to accomplish.

5. scribus: Although I'm not currently using this for cover design, it too is capable of serving our purpose. Some may find it preferable. Scribus loosely can be described as the free alternative to Indesign.

6. pdffonts: I mentioned this above as a means to determine whether fonts are embedded. It is part of the poppler-tools package.

I should point out that although gimp, inkscape, and scribus are very powerful in their own right, they are not necessarily compatible with their Adobe counterparts. In particular, there is no support for Indesign files (this article hints at a workaround, though: This isn't an issue for us, because Ingram offers its templates as PDFs as well. However, if an illustrator/designer is employed it may be important to make sure they provide files in some compatible format to allow for future tweaking on your end.

In truth, any of the three — gimp, inkscape, or scribus — can fully serve for our cover design. I currently use inkscape, but all three easily can accomplish the rudimentary tasks we require. Which to use is a matter of personal taste.

Next Week

So far we’ve had lots of blather about tools and preferences and guidelines without really getting our hands dirty. That’s about to change. I suggest that this week you install the recommended programs and play around a little with them. Next week we will begin working on an actual cover.

Ken's Guide: Indie Publishing on Linux (2. Three Key Preferences)
how to self-publish on linux, part 2 preferences

There are three key preferences I express in this and my other guides, and it is worth explaining them. They all inform my choices and approaches, though some play a larger role than others.

Why Linux?

Linux is a very stable operating system, it is powerful, and it gets out of your way. My goal isn't to start an OS flame-war. I've used all 3 at various points, and will be the first to admit that Linux has its drawbacks. But in my experience both Windows and OSX are clunky, unstable, and designed around certain tradeoffs which work to my disadvantage. These tradeoffs favor certain uses and workflows at the expense of others, and unfortunately writing is one of those others. Both OS'es seem to be moving toward a heavy emphasis on mobile device use, content consumption, and web-design applications.

However, I speak of the general approach taken by the OS'es. Any of the three can be made to do anything --- it's just a question of ease. If you're wed to Windows or OSX, then that's not a problem. The remainder of my guide will still be useful, but you may find some adaptation necessary. In addition to full Windows/OSX ports of some packages I mention, both Windows and OSX have some Unix support built in. OSX actually is layered on a flavor of Unix and offers a proper command-line. Homebrew or its ilk may be used to install packages, and much of what I describe directly carries over. Limited Unix tools are available on older versions of Windows via cygwin. I'm told that the newest version of Windows offers a full Unix carriage.

If you want to use (or try) Linux but simply don't wish to purchase a new computer, that's no problem either. Linux easily may be installed in a VM using free software like Virtualbox (available on both Windows and OSX). Modern hardware has direct virtualization support and the installed instance will run at near-native speed.

Why a text-based environment (i.e. the command-line)?

I use an almost exclusively command-line environment. There are several text-based windows managers on Linux, all quite good. If you're curious, I happen to use i3. There are important reasons why I feel a command-line environment is preferable to a graphic window-manager. But first, I should clarify something. A text-based window-manager does not preclude the use of graphical programs. It just allows me to avoid the use of a mouse under other circumstances. I still can pull up Gimp, Inkscape, or any other fully-graphical program and mouse my way around it like anyone else. But when I'm not using a graphics program, I'm not forced to use a mouse to switch windows, move around, and so on. And yes, I have an aversion to mice. Not the cute furry kind that stop being cute and furry when they decide to pass away in the attic and stink up the whole house for a week. I think mice are one of the worst things to happen to computers. They started as a great tool. But like anything new and flashy, they quickly evolved from "had-to-have" to HAD to have. But this was part of a broader trend.

My experience has been that as computers grew more powerful and snazzier, basic software grew less functional. In the late 80s to mid 90s, I used a variety of excellent programs. Wordperfect was a solid word processor, Irfanview was a great photo-library manager, and treepad was an excellent PIM --- to name a few Windows examples. This isn't simple nostalgia. I've used countless products since, some quite good in other ways. However, the basic usability has declined. Programs have gotten bigger, offering lots of features that I don't use, yet have regressed when it comes to the basics. I won't go into the causes of this --- there are several, some organic, others related to market dynamics and programming fads. But the gist is that power has gone up and core functionality has declined. Or, more precisely, core functionality of popular commercial software has done so.

As mentioned, one of my biggest problems is the mouse. The trouble with a mouse is that it forces an interruption of mental focus --- at least when it comes to tasks like writing. When invented, the mouse was a godsend (though I personally prefer trackballs, certain trackpads, and mini-joysticks). I'm not a luddite in this regard. I even have a Space-nav 6-axis mouse. It's amazing and nifty and perfect for one or two applications I almost never use. But if I were a CAD designer or graphic artist it probably would be indispensable. The same is true of the mouse. There are applications in design and elsewhere for which a mouse is a major blessing. But I find that it generally slows down my workflow more than anything else. Nowhere is this more evident than in word-processing.

Early on, the mouse allowed the coupling of word-processing and desktop-publication software. This was amazingly cool and very counterproductive. There's a reason that content and form are kept separate in most writing workflows. Imagine a writer in the old days who insisted on manually typesetting his work every so often — just to see how it would come out. He’d probably produce a single book in his lifetime. And it would be on the benefits of typesetting while writing. There are indeed benefits to having some sense of what a piece will look like, particularly with visual forms such as verse. And it certainly can be fun and motivating for an amateur writer to do so. However, in my experience serious thought and writing is undermined by the visual distraction associated with the constant reflowing of text or other visual aids in modern word processors. But it is difficult to avoid this in modern graphical environments. The problem is that content and form have become inseparable --- literally --- in most applications. And the emphasis on web-publication has made this much much worse.

The end result is that a mouse now is required even for the simplest tasks, and we're constantly distracted from our purpose. Windowing OS'es also tend to require a lot of mouse-related intervention of their own: dialogs, popups, and so on. Each requires a change of mental focus.

It is my experience --- and this is highly subjective --- that this is not the case when performing comparable tasks in something like Emacs. I personally find that between Emacs and various unix utilities I can accomplish most tasks far faster via keyboard than I ever could with comparable mouse-based applications. Nor do I mean to proselytize about Emacs. Vim or any other text-based tool offers the same benefit.

One other issue with a mouse vs keyboard is precision. For layout purposes, placement with a mouse is inexact (even with snap-to grids), and unstable. In my opinion, it is much better to have a written specification in terms of numbers --- which then can be adjusted to achieve the desired goal. But that has more to do with the software’s internal model, its exposure to the user, and our ability to modify things programmatically.

Why text files?

Another major choice involves text-vs-proprietary formats for storage. There is nothing magical about a text file --- its just a collection of bits like any other file. Text files do have a few advantages, however. They generally are easily-readable by humans and there are many free and well-established utilities to manipulate them. With text files, one is less tied to a specific application. Conversion is easy, either directly or using a script. Basically, text has been around a long time, will be here for a long time, and is well-supported.

Of course, I'm being a little glib here. There are many text-based formats, some as abstruse as any binary format. Moreover, I’ve conflated two separate dichotomies: text vs binary and open vs proprietary are two separate issues. But for our purposes, I can lump them together here. It is important to keep the distinction in mind, however. For example, XML, JSON, and other formats are manageable and open (unless there is a closed schema) but lose many of the benefits of plain text. Note that I'm being purposely vague about what I mean by "text" here.

The basic idea I'm trying to convey is that if our book-related information is stored in some sort of human-readable text format, there are lots of advantages. Some apply to all text-files vs binary, some to human-readable vs non-human-readable, and some to open vs proprietary. But human-readable-text offers the greatest benefits.

Consider Latex as an example. LaTeX (or it's parent TeX) is a text-based formatting language predominantly use for scientific and technical documents. However, it also happens to be fantastic for non-scientific typesetting. Unlike XML, it is human-readable. It is incredibly flexible and can produce books on par with any professional product. A LaTeX file will have some detailed layout information up front, but for non-scientific writing the body of the document typically has little markup.

An even simpler --- if less powerful --- alternative is markdown, and in fact I use this for my novels. It is far less flexible than LaTeX but also can be a bit cleaner to look at. Fortunately, there are tools (such as pandoc) which allow easy conversion --- so one can have most of the power of Latex along with the simplicity of markdown. I'll delve into this in another guide. For now, suffice to say that LaTeX and markdown both are human-readable and text-based. I can compile LaTeX into a print-ready pdf file which will display and print the same on any system.

Let us list the major advantages of human-readable open-format text files over proprietary binary ones. Many of these apply to human-readable text over HTML, XML, JSON, etc, as well.

1. Human readability. You can see what is being done and how. With something like Word, a minor change can cause all sorts of reformatting, and changes may not even be apparent. "Stuff happens," and you have to hope you can see it. An undo stack helps a little, but this is application-dependent and usually cannot be inspected or edited in a meaningful way. With a text file, you can make changes manually and force things to be just the way you want. You don't need to navigate all sorts of hierarchical menus to find something you hope changes the right setting or value.

2. Size and compressibility. Not as much an issue with the cheap availability of disk space these days, but still an indication of maintainability and complexity. Text files tend to be small and highly compressible.

3. Version control. Several very powerful and well-established VC systems exist. These primarily are designed to deal with text-files. Most can manage binary files too, but less efficiently. There is a clear semantic notion of diff (unix for difference) between text files. With proprietary binary formats, one must rely on the application to supply semantics to the VC system if there is to be any hope of meaningfully diff'ing versions. Since this almost never happens, one is forced to use each application’s own home-grown, opaque VC system. The same problem exists for non-proprietary binary files in general VC systems, of course, but users (in theory, at least) can create tools to do so. Proprietary formats admit no such accommodation.

4. Durability. Proprietary formats require continuing access to the program which created them. And not just the application in general, but often the specific version and accompanying OS version on which they existed. Modern subscription models make the situation worse. Users must pay for ongoing access to their own files! Exporting to some other format (if possible), often requires possession of a working copy of the original program. You may not even be able to tell what the file *is* until you open it in that program. With text-based files (or any standard format), you always can extract the info via a script. And you most certainly can tell what the file is about.

5. Interoperability. Text files are universal (aside from a few easily-dealt-with quirks like the use of carriage-returns). Binary files may not work on other OS's. Issues like word-boundaries, endianness, and meta-data can make a file incompatible (and perhaps even inaccessible) on another system. While the program may not exist to use the text file on another OS, you at least can inspect it, convert it, and extract some info. There is little danger that plain text will cease to be supported in the foreseeable future.

6. Editability. Text files easily can be edited. Binary ones can too, but the process is a lot more painful and less intuitive, and typically requires access to information that is not readily available. Although human-readability doesn't mean you meaningfully can edit a file without understanding the details of its use by the program, it *is* much easier to make changes when you do --- or to deduce which changes need to be made.

7. Search. Text files easily can be searched for human-readable phrases. If nothing else, this allows the detection of *which* files possess certain text, even if one doesn't know all the details of the file's format.

In summary, I recommend a text-based environment for human efficiency as a writer, and text-based formats for the powerful version-control and tools they admit. I recommend Linux because it allows all of this for free in a very stable package.

If you strongly disagree with any of these approaches, that doesn't mean this guide will be of no use to you. I recommend you read it anyway and try to adapt the relevant sections as best suits you. If nothing else, you may save some money by avoiding commercial software.

Next week, we’ll dive into the details of book production and get started with our cover!

Horror micro-fiction

There is something not right about the house.

It is too tall or too thin or the walls are at improbable angles.

Nothing seems as it should, and nobody who enters is ever seen leaving.

You can hear them go in, then a cry, some clattering, a groan.


The neighbors say the house always was there. Some say the Germans built it, some the English.

You never can tell whether people really vanished. Maybe they left by an attic, or a basement.

Perhaps there is a back door and they rejoined the crowd in front, pretending dismay at their own disappearance.

I believe each of us will enter the house one day. It is possible that some of us already have, but do not remember.

I was mistaken, that is not a crowd in front.

It is a queue, and I am next.

Pace: I found a new Illustrator!
cover design for self-publishing, how much does an illustrator cost?

Having reluctantly been forced to dismiss my original illustrator, I went to Reedsy and bid out the job to five illustrator/designers whose portfolios appealed to me. They varied in style, but that didn’t worry me as long as it was clear their work had the elements I needed or they clearly were versatile enough to step outside a single style.

I promised my readers specifics. Well, actually I did so in my guide to self-publishing, but I’ll offer them here anyway. My original publication date for Pace was to be late February based on the advice of a marketing consultant. I’ve moved it to back to May due to the delays, but that should be fine too. Apparently, fall and especially the holiday season, are bad because that’s when the big publishers inundate the market and you’ll be competing with them.

The original illustrator had been contracted to provide a preliminary cover — something rough, but which would serve as an attractive placeholder on lists, ads and other places — until the cover was finalized. There was a strong reason I needed this. For example, I’ve now got a fantastic review on Kirkus, but no cover image in their listings. It may even have cost me a shot at a starred review. This is bad, because it burns my initial momentum. Anyway, I’d set up a sensible timeline for a pre-release campaign based around a mid-October delivery date for the rough cover, a mid-December delivery date for the final cover, and a mid-January target for any last-minute tweaks which turned out to be necessary prior to printing. Well, late November rolled around and we didn’t seem to be making much progress. More important, the illustrator was proving unresponsive. So I was forced to go to plan b. Unfortunately, this meant starting from square one and pushing the publication date back to May. This may seem odd, so let me explain.

Like most people, I always imagined that the cover was the last thing done for a book, not exactly an afterthought, but the final touch on it. That is far from true. For most pre-release purposes, a cover is absolutely essential. In fact, many places won’t list or review the book without one. All those generic-cover ARCs I used to see at the Strand? Apparently, not the industry norm, or at least not in the last 20 years. So a cover has to be done early. With a May release date, a Jan delivery date would give me the necessary 4 month lead time. If you ever wonder why it takes so long for a book to get published — there’s a lot of pre-release stuff that takes time. And a lot of steps depend on other steps in non-obvious ways. For example, the cover design requires exact knowledge of the page count (for spine width) — which can be tweaked quite late in the game.

The gist is that I need the cover complete by early Jan at the latest — and that’s pretty tight. Fortunately, my new illustrator has a deadline of Dec 31. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep to that. My experience is that the professionals on Reedsy are pretty good about keeping to deadlines. If I have everything in hand by Dec 31, I’ll be well-equipped for a campaign which sees a publication date in early May.

Now to the specifics of cost —- and the thing which confuses the heck out of me.

My agreement with the original illustrator was for a PB cover, a HB cover, and various specific cover images for other purposes. I would have all rights. For this, they would receive $1000, with the caveat that if it went way beyond their time-expectation (since they were unsure), I’d pay a bit more up to a total of $1500. This only would be in the extreme case. So $1K is a fair price to put on it.

When bidding out the contract on Reedsy, I picked five individuals. All clearly were experienced, some with pretty famous titles in their portfolio. Two did not bid. Two of the three which did bid were in the $1000 range (accounting for currency conversions). The last bid was something close to $8K —- with minimal rights (just what he gave me for, precisely as it was). If I wanted more rights but not all (ex. some editing rights), it would be around $22K. If I wanted all editing rights — well, as he put it, only big companies would pay that much.

The guy had illustrated some famous books, and clearly was an industry star. He also was really nice when I explained it was out of my budget range. There was no tone of snobbery, and I suspect dealing with low-budget projects probably is par for the course when someone like him lists on Reedsy. So I’m not trying to cast doubt on whether it was a reasonable bid. Clearly, it was what he was used to getting paid. It’s always possible Reedsy recruited a famous name for legitimacy and perhaps to make all the other bids look good, of course — but I seriously doubt that. He seemed on the level. I’ve had similar experiences in the past when calling around for parts for some scientific project. A component which can be had for very little in the consumer market is thousands (or more) when industrial-grade (or more precisely, when the big buyers are corporations, labs, and the government, none of whom are very cost-conscious when it comes to this stuff). I’ve definitely had much less polite brush-offs from some sales people.

Now, the interesting thing is that for gallery art or prints or even some digital art — as art — I can understand the premium a big name commands. After all, small differences in quality, technique, or just the creative vision can make a big difference. And the name is extraordinarily relevant to cachet and resale value. What I don’t understand from a business standpoint — is how this can carry over to the market for book covers.

Yes, a good book cover vs a poor book cover can make a big difference for browsers — whether brick-and-mortar or online. I can fully understand the immense value of a good cover, and I think book-design in general is something which most self-publishers don’t grasp the significance of (or maybe they just don’t care because of their business model). But it’s difficult for me to believe that the difference between any enticing good cover and a cover by a superstar will be that great. First of all, very few books — traditional as well as self-published —- bring in the kind of profit which would offset a $10-20K cover. And it’s almost unfathomable to me that the difference in cover would account for anything near the necessary number of sales. Putting aside the question of whether the star-designed cover truly is more attractive, it seems like one easily could get 99% of the way there with a $1K cover. So I must be missing something.

There are several possible explanations which come to mind:

1. The star-designed covers ARE that much better — whether artistically or in terms of psychological appeal. I doubt this, but don’t know enough to say for certain.

2. Companies have in-house designers and the cost is fixed for them. This is the comparable out-of-house cost. It still would be a cost to the companies though, so it doesn’t solve the issue.

3. It’s a matter of bragging rights and cachet. To me, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing which people would know about, though.

4. There somehow is marketing value via the designer himself.

The last is the most intriguing possibility. By this theory, the fact of using the star designer brings in sales — either through recognition of his name and the credibility/prestige it confers, or by appearing on lists and portfolios of his which are seen by influential buyers. I.e., you’d be paying to have a place in some sort of insider list. Or maybe they have some sort of following, and your book has received their imprimatur.

The latter certainly is possible, though I’ve never heard of such a thing. As for the name itself, I don’t think most potential customers pay attention to the cover illustrator/designer (or the editor, for that matter). I can’t think of a single time I’ve glanced at the editor or illustrator of a book before buying it — or after.

Anyway, my point isn’t to rant that it’s too much. It clearly is a rate which can be commanded by a certain cotery of elite illustrator/designers. I just fail to understand the market dynamics of it. In the fashion and art worlds, the name is everything. But with books, it’s the author’s name which matters.

It’s a mystery. I’ll look into it and ask around and see if I can gain some insight. Stay tuned for the answer to this epic mystery… as well as updates on Pace.

The Way Around

I finally settled on a title for my next book of very short works, the one temporarily called “Fences”.

It will be called “The Way Around” —- which is a renaming of the titular work “Fences” as well.

The choice came down to “The Way Around,” which kept the feel of the book and also fit well with the cover illustration, or “Buzz-Saw Bob.” I’ll admit that “Buzz-Saw Bob” has a certain ring to it —- it’s why I chose to write that piece — but it may lead readers to believe the whole book has that tone. Some pieces do, but most are more in line with “The Way Around.”

I also have finalized the selection of pieces and their initial arrangement. There are 74 in total, and the book will be 108 pages long (though only 90 of that is content). One more quick proofread, then off to the beta readers. Meanwhile, I’m working on the cover design in Inkscape. In fact, I’ll be writing a series of instructional blog posts on just that.

More soon, but right now it looks like a tentative publication date of Jan or Feb.

K.M. Halpern