Wednesday, January 30, 2008

“Oh, they’re long gone.”

Last week, I sent out a batch of brochures for When Pigs Fly, and today I began following up. I’d obtained a list of truck stops off the website of a trucker’s association. The first six numbers I called from that list had been disconnected. Then I reached a fellow who said that all his customers spoke Spanish. After that, two of my numbers connected to offices of Progressive Insurance Company, followed by one that connected to the post office in the town I had in mind. I told the lady about the truck stop I was trying to reach, and she said, “Oh, they're long gone.”

Sigh. This list was worth what I paid for it, and not a penny more.

My last call worked out better. I spoke to a woman who said I had to contact their corporate purchasing department. I did so, and collected contact information. Then I contacted iUniverse to find out how big a discount I could offer for large quantities, with the idea of the customer buying directly from the publisher. Pfft! Thirty, thirty-five percent. If I want to offer a higher discount, I have to buy huge quantities and sell them myself—national chains normally demand a discount of 50-70 percent, the iU guy said, “and don’t forget that we never accept returns.”

I never expected to make a profit selling my novel, but I had hoped at least to get more copies of my book out there. It’s a truism that self-published and subsidy-published books don’t sell many copies, but of course they don't. The publisher's whole business model is based on many authors each selling only a few copies. They are simply not interested in volume sales.

When Pigs Fly garners uniformly excellent comments from readers, but it seems I have to reach those readers one by one. I may look into canceling my contract with iU and republishing on my own, but I’m sure that's no small task.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A lesson from the desert

Desert road, Sierra County, New Mexico
The things a writer won’t do for research. On Friday, I headed into the Chihuahuan Desert to explore it as a possible setting for my next novel. How about following some of those unpaved roads off I-25 and heading in the direction of the San Andres Mountains? What a great idea! Maps show a road leading to a locked gate at the edge of the White Sands Missile Range, which encompasses the entire hundred-plus-mile mountain range. Nothing appears to be paved between the Interstate and the restricted federal land. There are very few roads, and they are marked poorly when they are marked at all. Creosote bushes, grassy clumps, prickly pear, cholla, and other low-growing vegetation dominate the landscape. Rattlesnakes aren’t obvious, but travelers on foot had better tread with care.

Single-lane road, eroded shoulders
What have I forgotten? Oh yes, sand. The county road is like a washboard for the first mile or two, and you can drive on it in perfect safety if not in perfect comfort. Hard-packed sand and a wide road pose no problem.

Long-neglected fencing drew my attention, though out here it’s hard to know what is being kept in or being kept out. At a fork in the road, a tiny sign points towards Engle, a town that is nowhere in sight across a vast, open space. On the other branch is the back of a yield sign that's peppered with bullet holes. I followed that left and never saw another sign until I returned on foot—about which more later. That looked like the direction to follow, as it would take me deeper into Sierra County, where Spaceport America is going to be built some day soon.

The road split again, and my sharp left turn gave me serious pause. I stepped out of my car to check the road ahead, because it looked as though I might be about to drive off a cliff. If you’ve driven the dicier hills in San Francisco, that’s what it looked like. But okay. Reassured that my death was not imminent, I drove carefully down the hill.

From here on, the road narrows to barely more than a car’s width. Deep gullies appear in several places along the roadside. The sand becomes softer—much softer. At another fork, I took a right and saw the road parallelling a string of telephone poles that seemed to disappear into endless flat nothing. That looked like a mistake, so I executed a careful three-point turn (four-point, really). The banks of sand on either side proved no problem.

Q: Which road should I take? A: Neither.
Back at the fork, I took a right—not my first mistake of the day, but surely my biggest. My all-wheel-drive Volvo got stuck in a deep sand bank. What a mess. I had nothing to work with but my hands. All four wheels were stuck, and I couldn't see any daylight between the sand and the undercarriage.

I looked around: not a building in sight, and absolutely no traffic. I started digging with my hands and jamming flat rocks under the tires for traction. No go. I called my wife and then AAA. The lady asked how many feet my car was off the paved road. About 15,000, I said, estimating three miles from the highway. Triple-A really wasn’t a viable option, as any tow truck would likely have gotten stuck itself.

Eventually, after more hand-digging, I abandoned the car and hiked back to the highway. One fellow in a pickup truck stopped on the way, but said it would be a couple of hours before he could help me, as he had to go help his mother, who was recovering from a stroke. He offered me a ride, but he was going in the wrong direction, and it was getting dark. So I thanked him and kept walking to the highway, with the plan of making it to the Border Patrol checkpoint a few miles to the south. Within a few minutes, a Border Patrol cruiser picked me up and gave me a lift to their station. My wife arranged for some friends to come and pick me up.

The next day, my friend and our wives drove back, bringing shovels and cardboard for traction. We went down that steep hill, immediately thought better of it, and turned around in what was the last available wide spot. Then we hiked about a mile, pretty much all on a downhill slope.

Even with two shovels and four brains, it took us 90 minutes to extract the car, but we did succeed. Then we all headed north to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where we rounded out an oddly satisfying day.

Bosque del Apache: Sandhill cranes home for the evening

Bosque del Apache sunset

There is a lesson in this, that we must respect the desert. It’s still winter, and the 60-degree day turned into a 30-degree night. In the blazing summer heat, my gaffe could have been deadly.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Balloons, batteries, and books

Tip: If you go to a balloon rally, pack extra batteries for your digital camera. On a co-o-o-old Saturday morning, we arose at an uncivilized hour to meet friends and walk to the 16th annual Mesilla Valley Balloon Rally. My double-A’s were good for only five exposures; luckily, this was one of them.

This coming week, I’ll start mailing copies of a new brochure out to prospective retailers, offering them a 30 percent discount if they purchase When Pigs Fly directly from iUniverse. Direct mail isn’t known for its high response rate, but I will follow up with them by phone and see what happens. For the last several weeks, thinking about and working on promotion has occupied more of my time than writing fiction. But my 2007 sales were about 300 copies—all hand-sold—and I’d like to do as well this year.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Writing groups, marketing my pig, and making time to write

Sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico
The other day, we drove to Bosque del Apache to see the snow geese and sandhill cranes. The Bosque is one of the few places to find open water in New Mexico, and it is a haven for many thousands of migratory birds. It was a welcome respite from my writing and marketing, as fun as those activities are.

Once a month, I make the 40-mile trek south on I-25 and east on I-10, past the smelly stockyards of Vado, over the Texas line (“Drive Friendly—It's the Texas Way”), and head for the Dorris van Doren Library and the monthly meeting of the El Paso Writer's League. They have just put up a website, which no doubt will grow and prosper.

That’s the week after Mesilla Valley Writers meet in Las Cruces, and I try to be active in both.

Then there is the admin work for the Internet Writers Workshop and the reviewing and web work for the Internet Review of Books. And every so often, but not nearly often enough, I hook up by Skype with my old writer’s group who are in Massachusetts.

All of this, and I am trying to market When Pigs Fly a little better than in 2007. It looks to me as though gift stores may be the best retail market for my book; the bookstores want a bigger margin than iUniverse is willing to give, and then in a bookstore, my WPF would be just one more book competing for attention. In a gift shop, there might be little or no direct competition. So that’s the new focus for 2008.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just sit down and do some extensive writing? I have started three different novels in the last year without making a whole lot of progress on any of them. But I think—maybe—I have the story I want to stick with. Now to actually write it...