Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award time again: 2014’s Second Rounders announced

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By Shawn StJean

For many fledgling and Independent publishers and authors, Spring means CreateSpace’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel (ABNA) contest is in full bloom.  As many as 10,000 initial entrants in five categories (General Fiction, Romance, Mystery and Thriller, Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror) are cut to 500 for the second round.  These novelists have just been announced–check the lists to see if your book, or the book of a friend, appears on it: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

For Indie Writers, this contest represents the pinnacle of their ambivalence toward the traditional publishing establishment (hence the speeding bullet illo, above).  On the one hand, it’s a ruse for Amazon to locate and identify the best new talent, and lure them with the promise of an exclusive publishing contract with Createspace.  It’s free, and thus doubly enticing.  The exposure alone, for folks getting to the higher rounds, may be worth it.  And, oh yeah, prizemoney: enough to keep a frugal young writer from getting tossed out of the coffeehouse for another year.  On the other hand, there’s the inevitable crash of defeat and disillusionment when one doesn’t go forward: “It’s all politics, it’s rigged, my stuff is better than those lousy winners, why do I keep throwing pearls before swine, I’m wasting my life. . .”  Hey, that’s competition, Bub.  If you can’t stand a little flesh-wounding, get off the shooting range.  You’ve probably already discovered, or soon will, that you’re as much a book marketeer as a writer of books.

The third rounders (quarter-finalists) will be announced on April 14.  For now, hearty Congrats to all those moving forward, especially friend of the blog and the author of Tetherbird, Emily McDaid!  And for those who didn’t make the cut–just KEEP WRITING!

 

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From E-book to Print Book, Part 2: One Indie Author/Publisher’s Mild Month with Lightning Source

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This is intended as a companion piece for my original report on CreateSpace, the Amazon-owned solution for independent, Print-On-Demand publishing.  Following my own, less aggressive version of the infamous “Plan B,” I also produced an identical version of Clotho’s Loom (under my Glas Daggre imprint) for the more industrial entity, Lightning Source, to have my alternative printing, Ingram listing, and extended distribution handled by them.  There was no intention on my part to manipulate prices (list is fine with me—more on this later,) but I simply wished not to put all my eggs in a single basket.

It should prove useful to directly compare and contrast the two printer/distributors, on primarily two fronts: first, ease of set-up and cost/service, and second, quality of product.  But let me dissolve any suspense right now: I’m not going to recommend one as vastly preferable to the other.  Both have pros and cons, and this report is meant to be informative, for the use of self-publishers contemplating the choice, from the perspective of one small author/publisher who has used them both, in late 2012.

First, you should note by my title that Lightning Source (hereafter LS) does not quite satisfy the need for immediate gratification that CreateSpace (hereafter CS) does.  The latter took one week only of production—from account opening, to copies in the mail—whereas LS took more like a month.  Still pretty darned fast, compared to the year traditional publishers consumed in producing each of my first two books.  In general, the wheels turn a little more slowly and deliberately at LS than CS, because it services the needs of everyone from giant publishing houses down to sole proprietorships.  And, as with all self-publishing outfits, it’s garbage-in, garbage-out, so the burden is on the self-publisher to get her files in proper order, proofed and corrected, according to the published guidelines.

Like CS, LS provides templates to aid in formatting.  I did encounter some difficulty here, because CS hand-holds you with a sort of preflight, online format previewer, which instantly shows a virtual mockup of your book.  If your gutters, headers, and footers, for example, do not fall within production tolerences at CS, you will know within minutes of uploading the interior file to CS.  And, it’s fault-tolerant—you can keep trying, at zero-cost to you, until you get it right (or, right as far as the computer can discern).  Yes, it’s all very automated over there.

By contrast, LS has actual people that will communicate with you from the very start—all by e-mail, in my case, though phone numbers are never far to seek—and you will be assigned an primary account representative, or Client Services Rep.  I probably exchanged a dozen e-mails with this person, and he was always courteous and prompt in his responses (as long as your expectations are not artificially inflated by sitting at your keyboard all day long) and appropriately attentive to my needs, even though I’m a bit player.  All in all, things operate just as one would expect in an arena of professionals.  I never had the need to communicate directly at CS, so I can’t comment on their humans.

Now, LS and CS do not have identical templates, and my files had to be altered somewhat.  This can be a bit nerve-wracking if one is pinching pennies, as LS does charge fees for uploads—so it is not like throwing darts at a board.  However, they are not draconian in fee enforcement.  My CSR determined in two cases that problems with my files could not have been reasonably avoided, and allowed me to re-upload free of charge.  In one other case (where I did make a significant alteration,) I was charged.  So I believe the final cost for initial setup was about $120 total—and it could have been about 1/3 cheaper, had I been perfect.  Also, a proof fee of roughly $40 may apply. Also, they have been known to offer discounts with orders of 50 copies.  Your mileage will vary.  This is in contrast to well, free setup, at CS (including ISBN—they own it, though).  By the way, my setup difficulties resulted from two sources: 1) I believe there are a few vagaries in the LS guidelines (as to the size of gutters and outside margins, in my case).  Also, 2) I am not a master of Photoshop and related PDF software, and my conversion into the PDF/X standard resulted in a few unsatisfying artifacts in my cover file.  After spending two days trying to remedy this on my own (LS has no tech support for this; CS will charge you) I discovered it was easier to upload a TIFF file.  Problem solved.

As for per-copy-cost to me (to sell through my website, send out review copies, bring to signings, and so on,) I will note here that LS scales its cost-per-copy according to the size of the order.  If you are ordering 1000 copies, you’ll find the difference to be several dollars per unit.  However, as I am dealing in small numbers, my final cost per copy (including shipping) for a 540-page softcover book was almost $2.00 more per copy at LS than CS (CS price is constant, I think).  Royalties from online bookstores were also not quite as high from LS.  This disparity may sound steep, but I have to plead ignorance here.  Other articles have argued that your ultimate profit through LS will scale higher, if you achieve sales numbers in the several hundreds, so I refer you to those sources.  If you expect very few sales and are just looking to publish a mass market paperback for your personal social circle, the consensus seems to be that CS will leave you a higher bottom line.

At each stage, every small step in the LS learning curve will likely consume a day or two, and a buck or two—remember that the humans on the other end are working with you, and their time is worth money as well.  You will be required to order a physical paper proof, if this is your first job through LS.  It arrives in a timely fashion (figure a week,) and approval can be done online.

Now, let me move to a briefer and subjective evaluation of the final product.  Whose books are better?  This is not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison, because I went with a matte-finish cover at LS (versus gloss at CS).  This helps me tell copies apart at a glance—but I also don’t recall being offered the choice at CS.  LS gives you a pretty decent matrix of choice between trim sizes, bindings, paper color, and cover type (you can get two kinds of hardcovers!—at more cost, of course.  I calculated I’d have to raise my list price by 1/3 to remain profitable in HC, and ultimately demurred.  A hardcover is a separate edition and requires a new ISBN, whereas I was able to reuse my CS-provided free ISBN for my identical LS book.)  At CS, your choices as to size and paper only are comparable, but the other options are not offered. No hardcover.

I prefer the look and feel of the matte finish, but again this is entirely a matter of taste.  Gloss yields a more detailed image, by the way.  But other than one exception, the Lightning Source books do look better.  The interior print is remarkable for its dark, smooth quality—with my untrained eye, I see no real difference from offset (printing press) production in the type pages.  CS’s fonts are lighter and appear to have been produced in tiny dot-matrix, though I should emphasize they are entirely acceptable and should only strain the eyes of those with real ocular impairments.  Still, advantage LS.  The paper color and quality seem comparable to me, though LS manages to be a bit thinner (not a bad thing when your book weighs two pounds) while not feeling cheap in the least.  CS did seem to produce a bit more consistent trim tolerance, however.  My book has several borders near the edges of the binding and both covers (professional cover designers apparently know enough to avoid these).  For this reason, I can see, through comparison of many copies, that LS will sometimes cut a bit crookedly, or closer to tolerance in the edges.  Not enough to reject any copies, or to really bother me, but noticeable if you are the publisher.  CS does this, too—no one’s perfect.  And they do warn you.

Final Verdict: well, in all honesty, I am saving my LS copies for “special people,” both because of the higher cost and lighter weight, and because I prefer the matte. I also feel a greater peace of mind in knowing Amazon is not my only venue for distribution (or indeed, production).  Oh, and for those of you “Plan B” people out there, you should hear this.  Due to no action of my own, barnesandnoble.com (which listed my book well in advance of my initial shipment, perhaps a week after I approved LS’s proofs.  The Ingram system is efficient) listed Clotho’s Loom at a 9% discount from list (just over $18.00, versus $20.00 at Amazon.com).  A week or ten days later, Amazon dropped their price to match.  This is considerable, to me.  I set my price through LS at only 20% discount, with no returns (I’m not that keen to get the volume into physical bookstores, so I elected not to go 55% as often recommended).  The reader/purchaser reaps the reward of a reasonable retail price for a quality product, the online booksellers have new content to offer, and I (as both author and publisher) get a satisfying share of the earnings.  Win, win, Winnebago.  Take that, traditional publishing establishment!

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P.S. LS also charges an annual $12 distribution fee that CS, as far as I know, does not. Considering the initial fees that can reach toward $200, an LS book should be treated as a long-term investment.

From E-book to Print Book: One Indie Author/Publisher’s Wild Week with CreateSpace

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Click for a larger image–copies of Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, so hot off the press they could burn your fingers!

First, a disclaimer: in the course of this report, I’m going to mention several products and companies.  I’m not affiliated with them, except to the extent that, like many of you, I use their programs and services.  My purpose is to inform others of some of what’s available, and what works, in late 2012 for indie authors and small publishers wishing to pursue the object of bringing their books to the public, in print form.  And most of it is FREE–as far as CreateSpace goes, I did most of the work myself via software and internet, so I only paid for copies and a modest shipping charge.

Well, you have to savor these moments.  It’s not every day that the delivery man drops 100 pounds’ worth of your own creation on your doorstep.  Though it has happened to me before–that’s my first point.  I have seen two previous [text]books through the press, in 2000 and 2005, respectively.  Wow–much is changing in a brief span of time.  Only twelve years. Seven years.

When I relate the timetable, you may have trouble believing it.  I do, and I’m holding the evidence.

I published my e-book through Amazon’s KDP Select back in August.  Never mind how many years it took me to draft, revise, edit, and format that project.  Suffice to say, many.  But once Clotho’s Loom was out there in electronic format, it quickly became clear to me that there were folks who would love to read it but, despite all my efforts to promote an ebook–a whole other tale–these people just want a physical book.  And I can’t say I blame them.  Even though, as someone who has moved my residence many times in the past decades, I’ve given and thrown away a lot of books I no longer had use for, I have kept a small and treasured collection.

Okay, skip to the very near-present: one week ago, in fact.  I had lain down the raw audio tracks for my planned Audiobook edition, and just as it was becoming clear to me that being an audio engineer would require (another) steep learning curve, I caught a cold.  Funny, huh?  It wrecked my voice for re-dubs.  No choice–I had to convalesce, and turn to another project in the meantime.  So I wondered, even though the original paperback publication was scheduled and announced for mid-January, if I couldn’t possibly finish that business up before the holidays.  I did not dare dream I could have a print edition for sale–I merely hoped to go into the new year with some solid work done.  Winter, after all, is reading season.  Also, I had shown one bit of intelligence by marking all errors and potential late revisions I caught (reading from my Kindle) while recording audio.  This, coupled with another pass through the MS Word’s spell-check, produced a text with far fewer problems. (For clarity’s sake, most of the problems were of a formatting nature.  I have been using WordPerfect and MS Word since the DOS days, and I’ll just say that a program called Scrivener may work better for 21st-century  fiction writers–I’m not sure yet.)

I opened my Createspace account last FRIDAY (a week after “Black” Friday).  My book is here in my hands today (the following Thursday.)  The mind boggles.  My first two books both took one year from acceptance to publication.  And lest you think this must be some little novella–well, no.  This thing is a brick — seriously, you could deck an intruder with the spine.  At 205,000 words, the volume weighs in at two pounds of bona-fide literary fiction, just like we used to read in school.  No cheaty-big margins, no oversized typeface, and only a few blank pages.  A single week.  I’m not going to say it was easy, but man was it fast.

Here’s the rundown.  You’ll need some software.  In addition to your favorite word processor and book files, and a very gamesome attitude, you’ll want an image-editing program (MS Paint works for basic tasks, but I produced the whole wraparound cover myself from CS’s template, using a more advanced prog called Zoner Photo Studio.  Obviously, you Photoshop gurus will be within your wheelhouse.  I, in fact, know very little of either.  You also need a PDF creator, not just a reader.  Adobe Acrobat serves well.  Again, I know little, but was able to learn in the course of a few late nights.

I uploaded my files Friday night–you should pay careful attention to CS’s guidelines, which are clear, and I do recommend downloading the templates.  On Saturday I was shocked to see electronic proofs ready for my approval.  Remember, this was a weekend during the year’s most hectic month.  Now, especially if you’ve never read proof, this vital stage in the process is best done on paper, and you can order old-school paper proofs from CS, or print them yourself on laser.  For those who have done this, you can imagine the next 24-36 hours were long ones for me.  In addition to error-catching, I had technical problems with PDF conversions, page numbers, setting margins, as well as choosing proper fonts and sizes, colors, creating logos for Glas Daggre (my publishing imprint,) and the rest.  You just take one problem at a time, hopefully patiently.  I approved the proofs on late Sunday, and sat back for more waiting.  But every time I thought I’d be going back to the audiobook, something else happened.

A CreateSpace store opened almost immediately for me–technically, the book was for sale!  This takes minimal set-up.  I ordered my own batch of copies, to see the product quality of course, and to distribute to reviewers, giveaway winners, and a few friends, as well as to stock myself up for sales though my website, or even a possible book signing somewhere. I was informed that CL would appear on Amazon in a week or so.  It was there Monday.  For Sale.  I then proceeded to Seller Central, where one can request the “Search/Look Inside the Book” feature.  Several e-mail exchanges and PDF uploads, and about 24 hours later: Done!  (I was also not aware that this feature makes the entire text of your book available to certain search engines, though only to searchers in small bites–obviously a big bonus).  Sometime on early Tuesday, I received an e-mail that my copies shipped out, and were on their way to me.  REALLY?

More promos.  Write on the blog.  A press release would be a good idea.  I can’t seem to get back to actual audio engineering, so I watch Audacity (open source, free) tutorials in preparation.  I also sign up for a Lightning Source account, for extended distribution channels and a possible hardcover edition, but I don’t commit yet.  Their process is slower and more deliberate, anyway, because they deal with accounts of every size, from sole proprietorships like mine, to behemoth companies.  I also don’t go forward yet, because I want to see the CreateSpace copies first. Notice I’ve shifted to the present tense?

Now this may be the news you’ve been waiting for: with that kind of incredible speed, how good could they be?  Answer: pretty damn good.  I’ve scrutinized over a dozen copies so far, and aside from variations that lie within some pretty tight production tolerances, they’re high-quality and consistent.  About 95% perfect, I’d say–and of the remaining 5%, maybe 3.5 is my own fault.  Remember one thing about Print-On-Demand: garbage in, garbage out.  If you submit a cover that looks amateurish, that’s what you’ll receive–so don’t.  And the resolution proved to be quite high (CS asks for 300dpi photos,) so if they have flaws, get rid of them before submission.  I’m very happy with mine, but remember what they used to say about Compact Discs: “the digital format can reveal limitations of the source material.”  Same here.  The color reproduction was excellent, but I allowed few jaggies and one shifted bleed area to slip through, that will get some tweaking for next time.  No biggie–a buyer likely would not blink.  And the beauty is I can submit corrected files NOW–not, as in the old days, when and if a new edition gets tooled up and printed.

If I had one complaint so far, I’d like my interior typeface a shade darker.  A magnifying glass will reveal that my Times-New-Roman was produced via dot-matrix tech of some kind–though again, not enough to disturb buyers, and probably my own fault.  CS and LS both specify that all fonts must be “embedded” in your PDFs–and to show you I was not kidding about not being an expert with any of the softwares this kind of work takes–I still don’t know what an embedded font is.

And, lo and behold, when I logged into my CreateSpace account following delivery, in order to check my balance against the packed invoice, I discovered I had the first of my royalties awaiting me!

So there it is.  Things could not have gone more smoothly, so far (aside from my own learning process, which always seems to hurt a bit).  And well in time for the Holiday season–I’m not sure if, like all the good folks in retail and delivery out there, they’re really amping up during the month of December over there at CS, or if this is now business-as-usual in the POD industry.  I am sure I’ll issue a follow-up report during 2013–but first impression: well done, Amazon/CreateSpace!

in case you're wondering, he's less than two inches tall!

Even the elves at CreateSpace and Amazon recommend Clotho’s Loom–and those little felt-fellas are REALLY BUSY these days!

Self-Publishing Cover Design for the Indie Author–Glas Daggre Logos

ImageThe challenges of print-ready cover design are now upon me, and I required not one, but TWO publisher’s logos: one for the spine (usable as single-color clipart-quality, for everything from letterhead to business cards) and a fully-realized one for more formal requirements (in this case, the back cover).  I was lucky enough to locate an image of an actual glass dagger, in exactly the kind of jade color I favor!  In case anyone wonders, the concept for “glass dagger” connotes the paradox of force and fragility–one can imagine that such a weapon would have to be employed, like language itself, in a very precise manner not to miss the mark and shatter.  In plainer terms, I also wanted to suggest that writers convert or at least reveal the beauty of mundane, or even terrible, objects.Image

To complete the “simple” task of cover design (I’ll reveal it if, and after, it survives the approval process of Createspace and/or Lightning Source) I’ve had to employ at least three software suites:  MS Office, Adobe PDF or equivalent, Zoner Photo Studio, (and Paint when I needed something simple.)  Quite a learning curve.

Anyone have an opinion or suggestions?

Really Deep Beneath the Weave (my running baldness joke)–New Interview: Laurie vs. Shawn

http://lauries-interviews.blogspot.com/2012/11/clothos-loom-by-shawn-stjean-interview.html

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Very impressive promotion on Shawn StJean’s novel today, including a GIVEAWAY you may want to enter. She’s got an interview, excerpt, full bio, the works. . .
Someday someone will “like” that baldness joke. . .

Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market

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poster for High Plains Drifter

The last few years have been a revolutionary ones for book publishing—five centuries shackled to the mechanical printing press are over. Yet, with all that free-for-all, a new sheriff was bound to come to town, to corral the anarchy. One of the largest distributors and retailers of both physical and e-volumes has aided, but not unequivocally endeared itself, in 2012, to the largest, most sensitive group of content providers: self-publishers, and “Indie” authors.

It’s no more a secret that Amazon.com would like to be the default sales engine for books, than that Google wants to be the default search engine for the internet, Microsoft Windows wants to be the default OS for PCs, and Intel the default hardware manufacturer. It’s all too easy to forget that ITunes (and Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and your local library, and many littler guys,) Bing, Linux, and AMD make great products/provide great services, too. Why so easy? Well, we as consumers are so busy, we’d just like a nice comfortable place we can be sure of, in many aspects of our lives. Everybody loves having a go-to restaurant, or saloon: “Ahh, that’s one load off my mind.”

For the record, and from this consumer/content-creator’s perspective, at this point I think Amazon has it about 75% right. Remember when they were just books and movies? But, in their apparent quest to be and sell all things to all people (just look at the logo, with its arrow from “A” to “Z”,) they must necessarily do a lot of experimenting. Some of those attempts, as in any general store, fail to produce the expected or hoped-for results.

So, first take a paragraph to give them their due: they have certainly provided a valuable opportunity for authors (not all of them first-timers, and some extremely talented) to bypass the stranglehold of the traditional, brick-and-mortar publishing establishment–whose time had certainly come. Amazon’s KDP Select Program, which currently balances a modest exclusivity agreement with attractive royalty terms and good exposure schemes, deserves particular praise.

Now, the not-so-good: I was lately asked, in an interview, if I’m afraid that Amazon will try to gain a monopoly on ebooks. My response was that, in order keep relative parity with a self-regulating market, they will have to play fair with creators and consumers. I still believe that, today—but apparently, some of us may have to put it to the test, ourselves.

I have heard a few, varied, and repeated charges against the giant bookseller, ranging from shorted royalty payouts (a serious problem, if true,) to frustration with the arcane ranking system that no one seems to be able to adequately explain (but which is clearly sales-driven to a large extent. Unless one is a best-selling author, I don’t consider unknown variables in ranking to be too bothersome. My own rises and falls several hundred thousand places, every week.) The current experiment I’d like to focus on is the “review-policing” that has recently caused an uproar on message boards and blogs.

I don’t have to cite the experiences of others (just “Google” it—sorry, Blekko, I jest). I personally had two 5-star reviews taken down. For a first-novel that was published only two months ago, this is fairly devastating—those reviews are hard to get. And for all the wide and sundry types of promoting we self-publishers do, reviews are really our lifesblood. I received a belated, boilerplate e-mail from Amazon informing me that “during a quality review of the Kindle catalog, we determined that one (or more) of the reviews associated with your book does not meet the Amazon General Review Creation Guidelines.” Upon consulting these guidelines, and in considering the seven reviews I had up at the time, I could glean no clue as to which guidelines had been violated. In even the most broad interpretation, I can at least say that the reviews, as a group, were not targeted consistently. My attempts to complain, and requests for restoration of the seemingly random victims, have gone ignored. I was even able to track down one of the reviewers (who had been provided with an ARC, but who also had officially purchased a copy, as had the second reviewer whose text had disappeared,) and convince her to re-post with best-guess modifications. This was summarily removed within several minutes, obviously by a ‘bot. Is this person then banned from reviewing my book?

Furthermore, I had a reader (whom I have never met, but is a friend of a friend) denied a posting because, even though he has an Amazon account, he had not purchased the book from them. Does this mean that the thousands of people who downloaded it for free will be denied, as well?

If this doesn’t seem like a big deal to some (“oh, just wait for more good reviews,”) that attitude would be misconceived. I worked very hard at producing a nontraditional, non-formulaic novel that some will love and some will hate. That’s fine: I wanted no compromises, and Clotho’s Loom is certainly not for everybody. But the wrecking of my average (I had four 5-star reviews, one 3-star, and two 1-stars) is not just a blow to my fragile, writer’s ego—in fact, to me the positive-biased spread helps confirm the book’s legitimacy to my target audience of potential readers. But going to a much more dismal review distribution has effectively put, in the short-term at least, a stake-to-the-heart of sales. Let’s face it: it’s quicker and easier to scan a few two-sentence condemnations, and assume you’ve run across a hack who couldn’t find a “real” publisher, than to actually read the generous sample provided. And that smarts.

Assuming this all gets straightened out, not just for me, but for all the authors out there (a BIG assumption,) it troubles me because it may be symptomatic of the slide toward monopoly. I was already bothered by the fact that links to external blogs are disallowed on product pages—this seems needlessly restrictive, as blogs are many writers’ primary promotional channel. ITunes has alienated a lot of potential repeat customers with its (some say) fascistic Digital Rights Management protection. I personally paid nearly $40 for books I cannot read, because I don’t own an IDevice. It strikes me that the review-policing we’re seeing, across town, is really the same kind of problem: designed in intent to protect consumers and creators, what happens in practice is that Amazon/ITunes actually dictates what gets read, and how, and to some extent by whom. Too much control, which can be called a form of greed. Remember, I started out by calling them a distributor and a retailer. Publishers and authors own the texts and rights. And just as we had to bow to the conditions of the people who “managed” the printing presses for 500 years, or to the railroad barons, so too now we’re in the position of negotiating our rights with the new technology-holders.

The difference is, there are now a lot more choices for us.

When we sing America’s praises (which many equate with capitalism and the free market, as much as basic human rights,) one of the things we’re endorsing is the value of competition. I certainly was, until recently at least, willing to put all my horses in the Amazon stable: I’m currently producing an Audiobook edition (to be sold on Amazon-owned Audible.com) and a mass market paperback for Createspace (also a creature of Amazon.) I’m continuing research on the alternatives, and there are some very viable ones out there. I’m particularly interested in watching the extreme potential of the audiobook marketplace over the next several years, as no single contender has yet risen to dominate it (entrepreneurs, take note.) There is no better way of sending a message to a corporate entity whose practices one deplores, than to not only withhold one’s money, but to redistribute it to a competitor.

So how badly does the sheriff want my vote, for re-election? Or will it be shoot first, answer questions later?

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Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales