Saturday, 30 July 2011

Conflict cover

A quick update or two. First, I just received a draft of the Conflict of Interest cover, once again produced by Razzle Dazzle Designs.

Any feedback would be welcome.

Also Fire Season will be up on Indie Spotlight today. Read the feature and article here.

And finally a slightly unexpected effect of D.A.Boulter's Indie/BBoS project was a sudden boost to The Docks, which briefly jumped to 37K in sales rank yesterday for the first time. The details can be found here: Kindleboards.

Of course, an endorsement like that gives me a lot to live up to with the next book. Better get back to work on "Conflict".

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Give an indie book a chance?

If you pick an indie author's book up, what are the chances it will be good?

A few weeks back I took part in an experiment on the Kindleboards. D.A. Boulter volunteered to purchase up to 20 books with only one criteria: that the title hadn't sold anything on Amazon that month. I volunteered The Docks. The results are now in (full results here).

In total he picked up 15 books, and has read the first seven. In summary all were enjoyable reads, and only one was marked down for proofing and editing issues. He comments that

"‘Mountains of dreck’ may exist out there but, within this small sample of non-selling books, I didn’t find it."

It is a good point. I've heard people refer to self-publishing as "putting the slushpile online" but I have also encountered raw unedited slush. There are significant differences e.g. a surprising number of slushpile manuscripts are submitted with typos or gramatical errors (probably about 10% going by this post) because new authors assume - and sometimes state outright - that it is the job of the agent or editor to correct these errors. Most self-published authors I've encountered either self-edit or get a freelancer in to edit or proofread and acknowledge it is their responsibility. Authors who submit handwritten manuscripts to the slushpile are unlikely to e-publish.

Also, as these are ebooks, authors can withdraw and republish them if there is a major issue. This "second chance" could be seen as a trade-off for the lack of the initial editing and support of a traditional publishing house.

Now, the sample is slightly skewed: it drew from the authors on Kindleboards who are serious about their writing and presumably want to develop it enough that they have looked up a community and started discussing technique and writing with other authors. Second it asked the authors to submit their books. This narrows it down to authors who are prepared to admit to low sales, but are still confident that their book is good. On the other hand, by only taking books which had no sales that month, it was selecting against the bestsellers or higher ranked books which would be expected to be higher quality.

It may not be a purely scientific study, but it does show that there are some gems out there and that the odds of getting a decent read from a fairly random sampling are quite high (six in seven so far). User reviews are another guide: of the seven books that had reviews none had an average lower than four at the time of writing. Given that readers can view samples online it should be fairly easy to eliminate books that don't appeal.

So is it worth taking a chance on an indie book? So far it seems this would indicate yes.

I will end this by admitting my own bias here: he liked The Docks.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Conflict of Interest SampleSunday

This sample is from an unpublished piece: A short sheak preview sample from "Conflict of Interest". This is still being edited, so I don't guarantee it won't change before the book comes out.

I stowed the papers in my own safe and secured it, hiding it as best I could in the cramped room. There's no point in stealing something if someone else takes it off you before it can be safely passed on. Then, brushing myself down, I reminded myself the job was only half done.

The second part should be simpler. Shoving the gear, ropes and knife I'd used for the first stage under the bed, I pulled on a non-descript dark green fleece and flipped the hood up to hide my face from cameras.

I walked out of the building where I'd rented the office – cash. no questions, they were desperate – and down to the end of the street. Turning left, five minutes walk led me to the little back alley down the side of my target. Wide enough for delivery vans, they even had an entrance door down there with a reception. They had added a camera since the last time I'd been here, and I walked passed the entrance sizing it up. Clumsily built in on the period building, it jutted out from the wall, leaving a nice blindspot underneath it as it scanned. Satisfied it was no going to be a problem I turned back and casually walked down the side of the alley, pausing underneath the camera to let it pan safely the other way.

Two more quick steps and I was by the little window that lead into the men's room. The janitor always opened it to hide his illicit smoke breaks, quite convinced no one could get in through it. Unfortunately for him, while a twelve by eighteen inch space wasn't my favourite method of entry, it was quite possible.

Gripping the corners, I forced it further open and pulled myself up and in. Kicking out with my legs, I got a bit of extra purchase and scraped through, twisting awkwardly to brace myself against the narrow walls. Gingerly I felt around until my foot rested on the cistern, and then pulled my other leg in and through, pushing the window closed-to. If the camera saw it, it should only have caught the window moving, but that would be supicious enough. Time to move.

I left the cubicle, knowing they wouldn't have cameras in the toilets themselves, and checked the cleaning supply cupboard. I was in luck. Cleaning supplies, and also new overalls. I pulled a set on as extra cover, the cap hiding my face. Unless someone was counting janitors, or at least monitoring them through the building on camera an extra one should go unnoticed. If they were that good, I wouldn't be here.

"Conflict of Interest" is the sequel to "The Docks", a crime novella available from Smashwords or on Amazon for Kindle ( or for $0.99.

Friday, 22 July 2011

An update

Things are rather busy at the moment, but so this is just going to be a status update.

Conflict of Interest, the sequel to The Docks, is undergoing a lot of editing. The first round of editing added extra plot and tightened up the action. Now it's back for a second re-read and I'm hoping the editor likes it.

I'm working on replacing the Googlesite with a decent website, hopefully something which looks a bit better and is more likely to sell books.

The real problem right now is promotion. Due to contract restrictions from my work, I am very limited in what I can do to "promote or endorse" a product - one reason why I use a penname. However, it has been confirmed this does mean I can't use my real name for things like Facebook and setting up a fanpage, or even admin my own fanpage, because it would be held as endorsement. Huge sections of existing promotion are having to be split off (e.g. Squidoo lenses).

I need to find ways round this, but aside from sending out a lot of review copies, there isn't actually much I can do. Right now, I'm just getting my head down and back to writing.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Docks (Crime novella) is an undiscovered gem!

The title is taken from the feature that lovethyauthor have just done on The Docks. Reviews and comments like this make writing worthwhile, or at least let you know some readers like what you're writing.

*Bargain!* The Docks (Crime novella), 4 stars, is an undiscovered gem!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Docks - a new review

"Great short story that I highly recommend and I look forward to reading more from this author!"
Read It, Review It

The Docks by VH Folland

The Docks just got its first review, a solid 4 stars from Read It, Reviewed It. I'm delighted and rather relieved since I'd heard that novellas did not do well online. It was a nice piece of news to end a Friday with!

The Docks is available on Smashwords and Amazon, with samples available free on both. Alternatively, it was last week's SampleSunday, and the first chapter can be read here.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Mirror, Mirror - duplicate cover images

It has been commented on recently that many covers are very similar. With the rise in e-books, self-publishers, small press, vanity presses and reverse vanity, the number of these covers also appears to be rising. (*Many of the images on this entry are served by Amazon. Adblocker users may find them hidden.)

It isn't just small press that is affected. A particularly high profile example just happened to Stephenie Meyer, whose cover for the Host is very similar to an earlier book: De Beproeving by Tess Franke (spotted by IcanhazCheeseburger).

This isn't a new thing. In high turnover markets like pulp it's been going on since the fifties. (The Rap Sheet documents various examples). It isn't just that it is happening more now, due to more commercial stock image catalogues, but that with the rise of online book catalogues it is becoming more obvious and easier to find.

The driver, as always, is cost. Reusing original artwork in the 50's to 70's allowed the cost of an entire painting to be saved. Today, stock images are substantially cheaper than original artwork. Unfortunately the hidden cost of stock images is that they are not exclusive, and may be reused. With good typography and layout, this should not be a problem. A good designer can combine stock elements into something unique, even if individual elements can be recognised.

The other issue is time - amending painted or original artwork if revisions are needed takes longer than amending something on the computer. For a high-volume high-turnover house or an author mill this is an unwanted overhead.

This is a hot topic at the moment, among both indie and mainstream authors. There is a discussion on Kindleboards. A thread on AbsoluteWrite recently had an index of a lot of stock covers being reused, many 9 times or so. (Here, for members only). Classic art isn't immune: Caustic Cover Critic's blog entry shows 5 paintings, used for 24 book covers. Authors in larger publishing houses often have little or no say over their cover art, while indies may not have the funds for original artwork.
(Thanks to the History of Kindle blog for the example on the left).

If it's so common, and has so many advantages for the publishers, why is it a problem? Partly because a book like this won't stand out. It may be the best cover in the world, but if you are one of twelve books using it how do you draw readers? Also, where the same cover is used for books in widely different genres (literary and sci-fi, or Christian fiction and romance) how well can it really reflect the book's content? The question has to be: could you pick this book out of a lineup? In greyscale. And thumbnailed.

Covers don't have to be outright bad to deter readers. When a single stock image is used whole, it may not just be recogniseable, but can also put readers off because of the lack of effort it signifies. Today, with programs like Photoshop and Gimp available, almost anyone can take a piece of artwork and throw text on it to produce a decent result. As a result, a lot of indies use this technique. Covers easily recognisable as a stock image with a few words can actually deter readers. After all, the effort put into the cover - a book's first impression - can be taken to reflect the effort put into a book. Rightly or wrongly, some readers have become used to a poor quality cover indicating poor editing, spelling errors and even poor writing.

Where a company outputs a lot of books, their default covers can also become recognisable. For example,'s basic templates can be spotted by bookstore owners easily, and can immediately make them wary. The cover tells them they are getting something the author self-published and, without a gatekeeper, quality varies so widely.

So, since duplicate covers have always been an issue, and with the rise of stock libraries is likely to remain one, how can an author be certain their book's cover is unique – or at least stands out? If stock image use is unavoidable, hire a designer or someone who knows how to combine the elements in a unique fashion. The use of stock images does not mean the covers have to be identical. An old but good example is Gail Carriger's Blameless, where Orbit released the video of how the cover was made:

Stock images in themselves aren't bad. There are even examples where books may want to be very similar or use the same image e.g. series. Like every tool, it is how it is used. As long as the cover fits the book, is there really an issue? Many designers come from the same background or schools of design and therefore naturally gravitate towards the same images and looks.

Just to close with some hard numbers: With over half a million books published this year alone, it shouldn't be too surprising that a few of them look similar. Googlebooks calculates the number of books ever written at about 130 Million. The rise of ebooks brings more and more of those back into circulation, and many get new covers from stock photos.

There are three main stock image libraries: the largest is iStockPhoto with over six million files. That isn't even one per book.

Given this, it isn't the fact that duplication happens that bothers me. What does is when there isn't any attempt to tweak the cover to fit the book; when the cover clearly does not fit the work, but is added because it is quick. I might believe a cover can fit two romances, but it is stretching it to believe someone thought it would appeal equally to romance, sci-fi, Christian fic, historical non-fiction and true crime fans.

Have your say below:

Sunday, 3 July 2011

SampleSunday - The Docks

The Docks by VH Folland | | Smashwords
Genre: Crime
Word Count: 17,500
Cost: $0.99

The sequel, Conflict of Interest, is due out at the end of July.

Harry's in more trouble than he knows, and he knows he's in a lot.

His freedom depends on covering his tracks, and uncovering the truth before the police do. One person holds all the pieces. Unfortunately Harry killed him last night.

Murder, manslaughter or self-defence? When Harry agreed to a light spot of arson, he didn't know what was really planned. Then the bomb went off. Now he's confessed to burglary, could be on the hook for murder and is desperately trying to dodge a terrorism charge. On his side, a bunch of crooks and the solicitor he's dubbed Ms. Pitbull. Against him are his former accomplices, the police, and the inspector who sent him down for ten years.

If you want free e-books, don't forget to enter The Great Indie Giveaway.
Free copies of The Docks are available as part of the giveaway, with this tagline from coffeemugged: "Want to read a detective story so realistic you end up wondering if it really is fiction?"

Chapter 1 of the Docks

Bob had told me we were going to sink the ship, but what he hadn't mentioned was that it wouldn't be empty when we did it. My jaw dropped in horror as I saw the arm, smashing out the cabin window, black against the flames behind it as it fumbled for the door handle on the outside to escape the inferno. Fumbled at the door that Bob had blocked.

"Good night's work, eh?" As he clapped me on the shoulder, I looked at him, wordless. "Hey, don't look like that. A few corpses always helps them think it was an accident."

"Bob, I — Insurance is one thing, but this —" I choked, staring out of the office window, down towards the ship. In front of me the hand was still reaching, the arm flailing, but more weakly. I could see the first tongues of flame licking down the sleeve.

"What?" He looked at me scornfully. "Don't go soft on me now. Remember, you're in this up to your neck." He turned his back to look at the ship and smiled. He was still smiling when the crowbar hit him, his skull shattering like an egg and he went down. To make sure, I hit him again and from the shape of his head I knew he wouldn't be getting up. He should have remembered what I'd done time for when he recruited me.

The boat was still burning, and I knew I had to get across there. I ran out of the dockers' office where we had met, metal burning my hands as I slid down the ladder towards the quayside. The explosives would scuttle her in ten minutes unless they could be removed, placed carefully to look like an explosion as the fuel tanks overheated. With the gangway removed — Bob had said to prevent casualties, now I knew he had lied — getting on board would be difficult. I swung myself onto one of the huge docking chains, pulling myself up. Slick, oil-soaked, the climb was difficult. Twice I slipped, saw my legs dangling over the dark gap between the ship and the quayside where the sea boiled and churned, and then I was against the side of the ship, the raised hull too far above to climb. Locking my legs around the chain I released my grip, fumbling for the grappling hook I had used to get on board earlier. One quick cast and it was over the side, hooked on something. I tugged it as hard as I dared and it moved. Slack pulled in in coils until suddenly the line caught and held. I couldn't see what it was caught on, but it held against my tugs, and carefully, reluctantly I put my weight on it, climbing up until I was standing on the chain. It held. No more delays.

Hand over hand I could climb the rope easily, the knots giving me all the purchase I needed. Seconds later I was swinging my legs over the side, and then as I came to my feet, running for the door. Now I was close enough to hear the screams, feel the heat that was beginning to seep through the deck. No time to check the time. I kept running, ducking under the window, feeling the heat of flames on my back and yanking away the fire axe Bob had used to block the door. It came open, and suddenly I was bowled aside as people piled out, desperately escaping the flames. As I came to my feet I was pushed over again, and hands tore at me. For a moment I thought I was being mobbed, and then as I was pulled away across the deck I could see feet kicking at the charred remains of my rucksack.

By the side of the ship, I could see crewmen staring at the missing gangway. Others were trying to find something to replace it. Two more had grabbed fire extinguishers and were heading back passed me towards the blaze. Staggering from exertion, I grabbed one.

"Guy in the dock office. With a gun. Said he'd scuttle the ship in five minutes. Bombs." I was gasping, sweating in the heat. It was all true, but covered in oil, clothes charred, a total stranger, I couldn't have looked a less believable witness. The man stared for a moment, then yelled to the crew. Fortunately letting them out must have given me some credibility, as they abandoned efforts to extinguish the blaze and turned to escape.

A splash over the side indicated a crewman taking a sensible option. Others began to follow. In four minutes this ship was sinking. Anyone close in the water would be pulled under. The rest would be swimming in a sea covered by burning fuel.

A shout came from the end of the deck where a crewman had found my abandoned grapple, still trailing over the side. Hauling it up from the tangle of cables where it had caught precariously he was making it fast to the fixings on board and all I could think was there was no god-damn time. I ran back towards the flames. No one tried to stop me; intent on the rope I don't think they even noticed.

The crew knew the layout of the ship backwards. I knew something they didn't: the location of the fires. I ran across the deck to the front cargo hold, lifted the inspection hatch that covered the ladder. Sitting on the edge, I swung round, arms on the ladders side, feet to the edges, and began to slide. With a hiss of pain I knew something was wrong even as I started to move, the metal slick in my agonised grasp, but halfway down a ladder it is difficult to stop.

My legs jarred across the deck, but I was staring stupidly at my hands. The gloves I'd worn had been light, to allow dexterity and stop fingerprints, not for climbing anchor chains and sliding down ladders. My palms were shredded. I shook myself. No time for this. No time to think, just act. I ran, staggering as the ship lurched, and prayed I still had time.

Defusing a bomb, is a complex and dangerous task, unless it's one you built yourself. A quick careful look to make sure Bob hadn't tampered, grip the metal box in the right place and open it, fourth wire from the left, pull, and pray. Nothing, but then since I hadn't needed a countdown I hadn't added one. If I'd pulled the wrong wire I wouldn't be here to worry about it.

I picked it up, blood slick on the surface, and ran back. I didn't trust Bob not to have set his own "insurance" and I wanted off this boat, with evidence of my culpability over the side. Back in the hold, snatching at the ladder, I let go with a cry of shock.

Trying to grip the heated metal in torn, painful, hands wasn't going to happen. It wasn't a case of forcing myself through the pain, my fingers simply could not close with enough strength to pull me up with both hands, far less one-handed. I stared for a moment, torn between dropping the device here and trying to climb with arms looped behind the ladder, or struggling up with it and risking a jolt that might trigger it. Either way, I knew I'd never make it.

The coils of rope hit my shoulder and trailed past, unwinding onto the floor. As I looked up a crewman was gesturing, shouting something I couldn't hear through the full respirator mask that covered his head. His gestures were clear enough. Quickly I wound the rope round my waist, wrapping my forearm in it. If I fell I'd be in trouble, but I wanted out of here. The crewman vanished, and I felt the rope tighten, but I lifted only slowly. What was wrong with them? At this rate we'd still be here when the ship sunk. I crabbed sideways, getting my feet on the ladder's rungs and began to walk upwards, using the rope purely to replace the grip of my damaged hands. Suddenly the climbing became much faster as, with most of the weight off, the crewman could keep the rope taut, providing the support I'd needed. At the top, I leaned forward, over the ladder, and suddenly the crewman had gripped my shoulders and back, heaving me over the edge and onto the deck.

I didn't stop to thank him, tottering towards the side of the ship that faced open water. With as much strength as I could exert I threw the bomb. The metal slipped in my fingers, slick with blood, flying off at an odd angle. Luckily there was nothing to hit out there but water. The box made a satisfying splash, and sank. The majority of the device was an incendiary meant to trigger fuel fumes after a small charge punched a hole in the metal of the tank. As long as it wasn't hard against anything when it blew, I wasn't too concerned about it. Bomb already forgotten, I turned to try to get off the ship.

There was a sudden thunder and the ship lurched. Flung violently against the dockside, the cargo ship's deck slanted sharply and my feet went from under me. A wave of water splashed across the deck, taking my breath away with cold and shock as it hit, and leaving me scrambling to get upright on the now-slick surface.

Somehow the damn thing had gone off. I shoved away the list of possible causes running through my head — Bob's tampering, defective materials, a fall-back — and focused on the now. The bomb had gone off when it shouldn't, and now I didn't know what the hell was going to happen next. I had to get off this ship.

Staggering on the yawing, pitching deck I headed towards the dockside lights, looking round urgently for a way down. Crewman clustered against the side, clinging to rails and ropes, obviously doing the same thing. I headed for my grappling hook by the anchor — they had to have it secure by now — only to have my arm caught as the ship lurched again, sending me into a group of crewman. I swore at them, trying to jerk my arm free on reflex before what they were saying penetrated and I looked down between ship and dockside where the water churned. Falling into that would be a quick and painful death. Hustled by the crowd I tried to clutch the rail, but my hand slipped leaving a slick red smear across the white paint. Only the pressure of the crowd was keeping me standing, and it was moving, pushing towards a goal I could not see. I had no choice but to go with it until I saw — Thank God!

Somehow they'd got the gangplank fixed, held loosely by chains that jerked and rattled as the ship tossed in the crazy waves that filled the harbour. Crewmen were tumbling across it, skidding and slipping to the safety of the deck. Suddenly I had a goal, and began pushing as urgently as any of them.

Helped by a shove, I was on the gangway, even as the ship yawed upwards and the surface tilted steeply. I found myself falling, painfully grating my arm against the wire mesh that was all that stopped me falling from the narrow walkway. It tumbled me down the way faster than I could have walked it, arriving at the bottom in a bruised and bloody heap. As the gangplank fell away with the reverse roll of the ship, even as it registered that I was on the dock, safe, I was being pulled away to get other crewmen out. Finally clear of the ship, I stopped to take stock.

A body in the office, a bomb in the bay, and both linked to me. I was in trouble.

--End of Chapter One--

To find out what happens next, The Docks is available from | | Smashwords

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Docks Book Trailer

A new book trailer for the Docks. Please let me know your opinions (be aware, this does have sound effects):

Read a sample on Smashwords or Amazon

A new month, new possible sales channels, a in-character interview with Harry from The Docks going up, and hopefully at the end of it, Conflict of Interest ready to be announced and released.

I think I'm going to be busy.