One of the things that I enjoy about being an independent author is that I learn a lot of new things. When my first books were published with traditional publishers, I didn’t have to worry about things like cover design, editing, distribution, and marketing (to a degree).

The problem was that I wasn’t sure how much the publishers were worrying about it, either.

One of the things that I used to hear a lot was that no one will care more about my book than me. It’s the underlying mantra of an independent writer.

So over the years I’ve learned about all the elements that required to bring a book to market. Sometimes, I’ve subcontracted those jobs out, but I’ve always looked to learn them or at least understand them in order to make better decisions.

So my latest challenge was to create a 3D cover for a box set of my Canawlers novels. I’ve done layout of books and even some cover designs, but how I was going to accomplish this eluded me. I searched for software and found that there were plenty of programs to help you. The few I tried for free online seemed limited and were frustrating me.

So I posted a query on a Facebook group that I belong to and asked for recommendations. The specific software recommendations that were posted in reply were said to be easy to use. The problem was I had tried them and didn’t find that to be the case. After all, I’m not a graphic artist. I can get by, but some of the higher level stuff is what I would usually contract out because it would take me longer to learn than was worth it for me.

I was ready to contract this job out until one of the Facebook posts sent me to a blog with a video on it. I watched the video and in a couple minutes had figured things out and created my first 3D book cover for my first box set

Here’s the cover:

Box Set Cover Image 2

What do you think?

My next step is to create the box set, which I don’t foresee being too hard. Famous last words, right? Wish me luck!

new-amazon-kindleI came across this article in the UK Guardian a couple weeks ago. Writer Paul Mason contends, “Yet with the coming of ebooks, the world of the physical book, read so many times that your imagination can ‘inhabit’ individual pages, is dying.” He cites a couple examples of how in just about any edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, he can easily find certain key scenes that stick in his mind.

I became curious about this because if it’s true, it might change the way that writers write ebooks eventually. I know I’ve run into certain issues as a reader and a writer with ebooks that make me think that they are not suited for every book. For instance, table top style books I’ve written (No North, No South… and The Last Fall) have formats that don’t translate well to ebook styles. Their two-column formats aren’t linear and sidebars don’t seem to work well on smaller ereaders.

Mason’s article talks about the short attention span people have developed and because of the Internet and their tendency to skim read web pages. He feels that both of these factors play into reading ebooks, particularly when it’s on a device that many times can also play movies and games. I agree with this. It’s one of the reasons I’ve resisted to urge to get a Kindle Fire. My Kindle Keyboard is just an ereader so I know when I pick it up, I’m going to read.

In response to a readers having a short attention span, Mason writes, “Every major publisher has experimented with short stories, serialised fiction, anthologies and mid-range ‘e-only’ books. By contrast, experiments with fictional forms that only work for ebooks and hypertext have failed to make the big time.”

The context of the article made me think that Mason’s doesn’t think this is the best approach. While I’m still a big reader of novels, I love the shorter novellas that some authors put out. For one thing, it’s very inexpensive and allows me to decide whether I like the writer’s style. I also think that it has led to a resurgence of short fiction in a manner that actually is profitable for the author.

Mason then suggests that the ereader is beginning to change reading habits. “It’s probably too soon to generalise but my guess is, if you scooped up every book – digital and analogue – being read on a typical Mediterranean beach, and cut out the absolute crap, you’d be left with three kinds of writing: first, ‘literary’ novels with clearer plots and than their 20th century predecessors, less complex prose, fewer experiments with fragmented perception; second, popular novels with a high degree of writerly craft (making the edges of the first two categories hard to define); third, literary writing about reality – the confessional autobiography, the diary of a journalist, highly embroidered reportage about a legendary event.”

So do you think ereaders have changed your reading habits? I don’t think mine have changed too much. However, I am much more willing to try out new authors and I have found some that I enjoy and have left their books on my Kindle along with my favorite authors that I used to read in a physical editions.

Here’s the link to Mason’s article if you want to read it yourself.

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Here’s one of the cover ideas my cover designer came up with for the new book. It’s not the one we’re going with (that one is even rougher), but it will give you an idea of things to come.

Is there a difference between James Rada, Jr. and J. R. Rada? I hope you will think so in a couple months. I’ve written a couple e-books under the name J. R. Rada, but I haven’t put that name into print yet. That should change by the end of the year when I jump back into YA books with an updated version of an e-book I wrote called A Byte-Size Friend.

I’m actually encouraged by how well this book could do. I gave it to some YA test readers and they loved it.

When I first considered writing the book, I was torn between writing under my real name and creating a pen name (which is technically still my real name). I wanted to be able to attract any of my regular readers, but I didn’t want them thinking that A Byte-Size Friend was a history book.

In the end, I decided to create a similar name to so that it will hopefully be obvious that the book is written by James Rada, Jr. but not a history book. I intend to use the J. R. Rada for any genre writing I do (YA, fantasy, thriller). I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to do some of the stories in my files, but at least I’ve laid some groundwork.

You may not think it’s a big change, but if wearing glasses was enough for Superman, then changing to initials should be good enough for me.

Some writers use pen names to truly disguise themselves. J. K. Rowling tried a pen name when she did adult genre novels. Dean Koontz, a favorite author of mine, has apparently used lots of pen names. He made the same decision I did and changed his name with each new type of writing he did. Many have now been released under his own name and probably done better with sales. Rowling’s books did when it came out that the creator of Harry Potter had written them.

I was quite surprised to see how many authors use a pen name. I guess I’m in good company.

What I didn’t quite think through in deciding to go this route was that I may have doubled a lot of my marketing work. Anything that I created for James Rada, Jr., I’ll have to create and maintain for J. R. Rada. This means Facebook pages, Twitter account, author websites, etc.

It always comes back to marketing, doesn’t it? Oh well, it’s part of the business.

I had an e-mail in my inbox this morning about a new program at Amazon called Kindle Scout. It is being billed as “a new reader-powered publishing program where readers help discover the next great books.”

The book is posted as part of the program and readers nominate the ones they like. Readers can nominate a book a month. The books that receive the most nominations will be published by Amazon.

Those who nominate the winning books receive a free, early copy to review and talk about to create some pre-publication momentum. The book will also receive some Amazon promotional help. It will be enrolled into the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited as well as be eligible for targeted email campaigns and promotions.

Have any of you heard of it? It sounds interesting to me and I am considering submitting a book to the program just to see if it is accepted and how it will do.

According to the e-mail a new never-before-published novel is submitted as a Kindle book to be considered for a publishing contract with Kindle Press.  One drawback for me that I saw is that the program is for romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction. So my historical fiction and nonfiction is apparently out of the running.

I’ve been working on expanding into new genres with a pen name, though. So I am thinking about submitting one of those manuscripts.

At first, I was going to pass on trying for the program because I can already get a Kindle book published and keep the 70 percent royalty myself. Kindle Scout offers only a 50 percent royalty. However, Kindle Scout offers a $1,500 advance.

I also don’t like too much that Kindle Scout gets worldwide publication rights for eBook and audio formats in all languages. I could sell print rights, but I don’t sell a lot of print books internationally. Although I sell most of my ebooks on Amazon, other platforms tend to be stronger internationally and I won’t be able to list my book on Kobo and Apple, for instance.

Amazon is also asking for these rights for five years. That’s a long time. Now, there is a caveat that if the author doesn’t get at least $25,000 ($5,000 a year on average) from that agreement, then the author can cancel the contract. Otherwise, Amazon can renew the contract under the same conditions in five year increments.

On the low end, if Amazon totally fails to be able to market the book, then the author can get his or her rights back in two years. A failure would be the book garnering less than $500 in royalties in the preceding 12 months. I think that’s a good deal.

Find out more information about the program here.

So what do you think about the program? It seems like it’s a relatively good deal to me unless I’m missing something big. Authors give up some things that I would like to keep, but in giving up those things, I think authors get something better.

collage-2015I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my workshop for the Mid-Atlantic Fiction Writers Institute Writers Conference. It’s going to be a PowerPoint presentation. I sure hope I don’t run into some of the problems I’ve have giving PowerPoint presentations this year, such as having no way to project the presentation, having the project die on me during the presentation, and having the host computer mess up my formatting. Maybe fate is telling me not to do PowerPoint presentations!

I’ll be talking about writing historical fiction on Sunday, Aug. 9 from 9:15 a.m. to 11 a.m. I think I’ll be able to offer some useful insights not only about the fiction writing side of things, but also the historical side. I’m coming at the topic from the viewpoint of someone who write both non-fiction history as well as historical fiction.

I’m also sitting on a panel discussion with Tess Gerritsen, Robert Bidinotto, Merry Bond, Harrison Demchick, Leigh-Anne Lawrence, J.P. Sloan, Desiree Smith-Daughety, Mark Stevanus, and Jason Tinney about marketing, branding, and social media. We’ll be sharing tips and techniques to define, build, and get the word out about your books. I think I’ll record this session since I probably won’t be able to take notes while I’m participating in the discussion. This session is also on Sunday from 11:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

I’m excited for the conference not only as a presenter but also as an attendee. I plan on attending as many different workshops as I can. There’s a lot of talented writers who will be sharing their knowledge and I’m going to learn as much as I can.

I am definitely looking forward to Tess Gerritsen’s keynote address, “I’ve Got a Great Idea for a Book…Or Do I?”

There’s also sessions on worldbuilding, creating characters with psychological conditions, and thriller writing. I can see a usefulness of the topics not only with my current writing but also with stories I want to do in the future.

Even though Nora Roberts name is no longer in the conference title, she still supports the group and is hosting a book signing at the end of the conference for all of the presenters who have published books.

All in all, this is a great regional conference. Any authors who live within an hour or two of Hagerstown shouldn’t miss it. Check out the web site here.

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Waiting in the green room before the taping of the show.

So I had the chance to be interviewed on television this week along with Richard Fulton, who is my co-author on The Last to Fall: The 1922 March, Battles & Deaths of U. S. Marines at Gettysburg. We taped an episode of PA Books, a cable show produced by PCN.

The show won’t air until October. I’m hoping it will expose a lot more people to the book and that we’ll also have the book in a few more venues by then. The network reaches 10 million people

Overall, I’d say the interview went well and so did Rick. It seemed like a nice back and forth between us and the interviewer. There were a few faux pas like when I reached down to take a sip of my water right as the camera started rolling. Apparently, they didn’t like that and started over. For my part, I made sure to leave the water alone for the next hour.

There were no commercial breaks either. Once the cameras started rolling, we talked for an hour about the book and our backgrounds.

Rick said there was someone sitting behind us who he could just barely see out of the corner of his eye. I couldn’t see the person at all, but I did see the host keep looking behind me. It made me want to turn around and see what was going on but I resisted the urge.

The questions weren’t hard and the host had obviously read the book and his copy had sticky notes popping out all over it that he referred to when he asked some questions. I only wished I had remembered certain parts of the book better. On the drive home, both Rick and I said that were certain things that we wished we had handled better.

I’m also curious how I look on screen since my wife didn’t tell me until after I got home that you shouldn’t wear a white shirt on television because it can cause lighting problems. Would have been nice to know beforehand, but no one said anything while we were there so I’m hoping it wasn’t a problem.

The experience is becoming a blur now. I only hoped I’m not too shocked by what I said and how I said it when I see the episode. I’ll post a link on Facebook and Twitter when the episode airs October 11. Until then, if you want to see if the cable network in your area carries PCN, here’s a link.

image_681x432_from_275,3664_to_2509,5082I bought The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars awhile back. It finally worked its way to the top of my “to read” pile. I wish I had read it sooner because I really liked it.

The main story involves the identification of a dismembered corpse. Once the body is identified as William Guldensuppe, which leads to two suspects, Augusta Knack, Guldensuppe’s lover, and Martin Thorn, Knack’s lover. However, it is much harder for the police to figure out which of the two suspects committed the murder and whether the other was a willing participant or a dupe.

While the pursuit of the murderer makes an interesting story in itself, the secondary story of how the newspapers played up the story to the point of actually becoming part of the story is just as interesting. Reporters planted evidence, interrogated witnesses, and enlisted their readers in the search for missing body parts.

This was the age of “yellow journalism” with the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competing against each other to be number one.

The story flowed like a bestselling mystery and kept me interested throughout. I kept bouncing back and forth over which of the two suspects committed the murder.

Collins also does a great job of setting the scene. He puts you in the period with colorful descriptions of life in the city.

I found after reading the book that I was searching the Internet looking for the newspapers and books mentioned in the book.

img099I’ve been working on a biography of an interesting World War II veteran who is 94 years old. His name is Chuck Caldwell. It’s the first time I’ve written a biography on a living subject. I’ve been sitting down to interview him for a couple hours every week then taking the information he has given me to use as a jumping-off point to research deeper and track down others to interview.

Once I write a decent draft of a chapter, I’ve given it to Chuck to read to make sure the facts are correct and to see if it makes him think of any other stories. Usually, I leave the draft at the end of one of our interviews and pick it up the next time we meet.

The other week he actually asked me to stay while he read through the pages that I handed him. I thought that I would be bored waiting for him. I wasn’t. I gave me a different insight into what I was working writing.

I watched as Chuck read. At times, he would nod his head. Other times, he would actually chuckle. He would write a few notes in the margins here and there.

At one point, he stopped and said, “This is going to be great for my children to read.”

Suddenly, a lot of the doubts that I had been having about the process and whether I was doing Chuck’s story justice fell away. I knew that I was on the right track. Watching his reaction, I was invigorated. This was the first feedback that I was getting on the story so it meant a lot to me.

Now I am back at work on the next chapter, pulling in pieces from our various interviews to create a timeline that I will match to archival research and other interviews. I am also excited to see where this project takes me because so far, it has definitely taken me outside of my writing comfort zone.

I can’t wait to see how it ends.

The-Stranger-by-Harlan-CobenThe Stranger by Harlan Coben begins curiously enough with a stranger meeting Adam Price in a bar and relaying information that he seemingly shouldn’t know about Adam’s wife. The stranger tells Adam that his wife faked a pregnancy and miscarriage to keep him from leaving her. The stranger even offers Adam a way to verify the information. With that revelation, Adam’s happy life begins to unravel.

I was hooked on the story, which is not surprising since I am a big fan of Harlan Coben’s books. (I even read his YA series.) However, I realized too early some of the key plot elements. I’m not sure if that means I’m getting better at solving mysteries or Coben simply let too much slip too early.

While Adam’s encounter shakes his life apart, Heidi Dann’s encounter costs her her life. Her friend, who is a police officer, begins to investigate Heidi’s death and the investigation eventually leads her to Adam.

The story grows more complex with unknown players in the overall mystery, which leaves the reader wondering from time to time who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

I enjoyed the characters, but I felt some of them seemed too familiar as Coben characters. When the base mystery is solved (there’s more than one mystery that need to be solved), I felt it was so commonplace that it was a let down given all the heartaches and headaches that it had caused.

For someone who is considering starting to read Coben’s mysteries, this is probably not the book to get started with. My introduction to Coben was Tell No One, which is still one of my favorites and it’s also a stand-alone book that doesn’t use Coben’s series detective, Myron Bolitar.

And I do recommend reading Harlan Coben. His books are fast paced with great mysteries and just the right amount of humor.

Lock ReadyMy latest novel, Lock Ready, is a historical novel set on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal during the Civil War. It is the third book in the Canawler series.

I never started to write historical fiction. However, in 2000, my wife and I were living in Cumberland, Md., where the canal ended. We decided to bike the canal towpath one summer and sightsee and camp along the way. The C&O Canal is a national park that runs from Cumberland to Georgetown.

We outfitted our bikes for the long trip and set out for what turned out to be a five-day trip. The weather was nice and the trip is a pleasant and scenic one. There are hiker-biker campsites along the way where you can camp overnight. We took advantage of those a few nights and stayed in hotels other nights.

As we traveled, I consulted the towpath guide to check out what might be nearby to see. I soon realized that a lot of history had happened along the canal. The Battle of Antietam, the Harpers Ferry revolt and James Rumsey tested a steamboat along the Potomac. There were also interesting architectural features like the Paw Paw Tunnel, aqueducts and canal houses to look over.

Being a writer, I started trying to figure out what was the best way to tell the story of the canal in a way that would interest readers.

I started playing with some ideas even while my wife and I were still biking the canal towpath.

My breakthrough came about when I decided that the most-interesting time on the canal happened during the Civil War. While the Mason-Dixon Line is credited with being the border between the North and South, the C&O Canal was the border between Union and Confederacy.

Not only did canallers have to deal with the normal issues of living and working on the canal, but armies were traveling along the towpath. Canal boats were being burned and confiscated. Saboteurs were trying to blow up the aqueducts and burn the locks. Loyalties were tested.

With my setting decided, I realized I was going to be writing my first historical novel. I started researching the canal history and canal life. As I learned more about the people who lived and working on the canal, I started to get an idea of who I wanted the characters of my books to be.

They took shape and I gave them their individual stories and personalities that seem to have resonated with readers over the past decade.

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