How to get AI’s attention

“This approach of Visibility Marketing is not a new way of reaching readers per se, but a way of positioning yourself and your books for maximum impact.”
David Gaughran, Amazon Decoded: A Marketing Guide to the Kindle Store

Theoretically, anyone who writes a book can publish it on Amazon. Practically, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to send a copy to those who want to read the book than to go through the process of publishing it. Even if one doesn’t intend to make any money off of it (e.g. by offering it for free), when an author makes their book available for the public, they probably want to it be read. Amazon’s Kindle store, with its millions of readers, sounds like the ideal venue. But with millions of books available, the odds that strangers will find a book by an unknown writer (indie or not) are dishearteningly small.

The book Amazon Decoded tackles this problem and provides indie authors with tools which increase the odds that their books will be discovered by readers. A hint – getting the “giant recommendation engine powering the Kindle Store” (the AI, for short) to put one’s book in front of potential readers is neither simple nor cheap. Nevertheless, David Gaughran argues that this is possible, and shows the pieces of puzzle involved in the process.

Amazon Decoded starts with a background about Amazon’s recommendation engine. Without going into technicalities, Gaughran outlines how the system works, how it adjusts its recommendations to show different customers books which the AI assesses they are most likely to buy. After mapping the battlefield, Gaughran details the “armor” a book needs before it even reaches the Kindle Store. Next, he addresses the crux of the problem – how a book can gain visibility, when Amazon’s AI only boosts the visibility of books that are already popular with customers.

On its face, it looks like Catch-22: a book cannot become popular if no one sees it, but few would see it if it’s ‘invisible’. Amazon Decoded does not provide magical solutions, but it gives specific strategies for skirting around obstacles. The general approach is straightforward – focus on increasing the visibility of a book to those who might actually want to read it, namely, its target audience (Gaughran tackles the topic of the target audience in another book). Once authors have zeroed in on these readers, their promotions will be more efficient, because these people are more likely to buy the promoted books. Sales, broadly speaking, lead to an increase in popularity. However, the cycle, as explained in Amazon Decoded, is more complicated and more nuanced. Once a narrowed-down subgroup of people likes a book, Amazon’s AI, trained to take notice of what is popular, starts recommending the book to other members of this subgroup.

Amazon Decoded describes the various steps of the process and provides strategies to maximize the impact of promotions and other marketing methods (clearly, random advertising is a very inefficient and costly way to put out a book in front of potential readers). Gaughran doesn’t give guaranties, yet he argues that with a sufficient budget, a well designed marketing campaign should boost the promoted book’s popularity. In the best case scenario, the process might snowball.

In all, Amazon Decoded is both an informative and interesting read. One of the things I like best is that while Gaughran shows the possibilities he doesn’t gloss over the probabilities. In reading the book, it becomes evident why it’s so hard (and expensive) to get visibility. On the other hand, Amazon Decoded offers systematic, practical guidance for making this more feasible. It gives authors tools to assess how much money and effort it might take to increase these odds. A recommended read for indies and those sitting on the fence about self-publishing.

Image from dabblesandbabbles.com

Posted in self-publishing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Perseverance and stamina – a lesson 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

One of the things that distinguishes a classic from a random highly successful book or movie is that one can return to a classic decades after it was created and still find it engaging and relevant. The Empire Strikes Back (TESB) was a huge success when it was released in May 1980. According to Wikipedia, “The Empire Strikes Back had a significant impact on filmmaking and popular culture, being regarded as a rare example of a sequel that transcends the original. The climax, in which Vader reveals to Luke that he is his father, is often cited as one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history.”
In retrospect, TESB turned out to be a classic.

We have seen many plot twists inspired by TESB, but its impact goes far beyond the movies it inspired. For example, Yoda is more than a movie character. In fact, the noun Yoda and the adjective Yoda-like were added to Oxford English Dictionary’s “New words list September 2016

The prequels diminished Yoda’s wisdom, but let’s forget them for a moment (or longer) and focus on the Yoda’s worldview in TESB, and compare it with Luke’s.

Yoda is very old (in Return of the Jedi we learn that he’s nine hundred years old). He saw it all, and he had some time to contemplate and draw conclusions. He lives alone, and apparently neither wants nor is in need of company. Luke, on the other hand, is very young, a farm boy with a lot of innate talent and scantly any education. He isn’t used to being alone. Before his aunt and uncle were murdered, he lived with them, and he had friends. When his world was shattered, Luke had the protection and guidance of Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi, then he teamed with Han Solo and Chewbacca, and later with Princess Leia. Every time, he was a part of a group that shared clear-cut goals. In A New Hope, Luke’s life was dedicated to survival after escaping from Tatooine, and every effort was directed toward escaping death while destroying the Death Star.

In TESB, Luke’s life isn’t in danger after he crashed his X-wing on Dagobah. He is on his own, but he has what it takes to survive and as far as he knows no one is chasing after him. Marooned on the planet, he tries to make the most of the situation, and does what he can by taking care of himself and looking for the legendary Jedi Master. When Yoda agrees to instruct him, Luke goes through a long, intensive training course. He is challenged physically and mentally, but as days and weeks pass without a clear-cut goal on the horizon, he struggles to keep on with the unglamorous, exhausting training that offers little in the short term except more sweat and grit. He wants to save Han and Leia, but that is impossible – he is stuck with Yoda as long as his X-wing is submerged in the swamp.

Then comes a watershed moment when Yoda admonishes, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Luke cannot focus and gather what it takes to lift an entire X-wing. He gives up, and then watches astounded as Yoda does the deed.

Finally, Luke has a choice – either to take off and abandon his training for a “heroic” attempt to rescue Leia and Han, or to keep working until he learns what is needed to be actually helpful. We all know what Luke chose and what were the consequences.

An interesting piece of trivia is that not only did Luke struggle with separation from his friends, but also Mark Hamill endured isolation from other cast members while he filmed the Dagobah scenes. “Hamill later expressed his dismay at being the only human character on set for months; he felt like a trivial element on a set of animals, machines, and moving props. Kershner commended Hamill for his performance with the puppet.” (Wikipedia)

To sum it up: The Empire Strikes Back isn’t as optimistic and positive as The New Hope, and yet it’s a great movie. Grit, consistency, and stamina are not glorious, but even in a galaxy far, far away, mastery of these qualities was a prerequisite to become a Jedi, even if you’ve already blasted a Death Star.

May the Force be with everyone who works to add something good to this world.

Posted in movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving the needle – 200 years since Ørsted experiment

The first connection between electricity and magnetism was found by Ørsted on 21 April 1820. Hans Christian Ørsted (14 August 1777 – 9 March 1851) was a Danish scientist. He became a professor at the University of Copenhagen in 1806. His famous discovery, known as Ørsted’s law, states that an electric current creates a magnetic field.

An illustrated demonstration of the experiment:

Opinions vary on whether the discovery was accidental or not.

“During a lecture demonstration, on April 21, 1820, while setting up his apparatus, Oersted noticed that when he turned on an electric current by connecting the wire to both ends of the battery, a compass needle held nearby deflected away from magnetic north, where it normally pointed. The compass needle moved only slightly, so slightly that the audience didn’t even notice. But it was clear to Oersted that something significant was happening.
Some people have suggested that this was a totally accidental discovery, but accounts differ on whether the demonstration was designed to look for a connection between electricity and magnetism, or was intended to demonstrate something else entirely. Certainly Oersted was well prepared to observe such an effect, with the compass needle and the battery (or “galvanic apparatus,” as he called it) on hand.
Whether completely accidental or at least somewhat expected, Oersted was intrigued by his observation. He didn’t immediately find a mathematical explanation, but he thought it over for the next three months, and then continued to experiment, until he was quite certain that an electric current could produce a magnetic field (which he called an “electric conflict”).
On July 21, 1820, Oersted published his results in a pamphlet, which was circulated privately to physicists and scientific societies. His results were mainly qualitative, but the effect was clear–an electric current generates a magnetic force.
His battery, a voltaic pile using 20 copper rectangles, probably produced an emf of about 15-20 volts. He tried various types of wires, and still found the compass needle deflected. When he reversed the current, he found the needle deflected in the opposite direction. He experimented with various orientations of the needle and wire. He also noticed that the effect couldn’t be shielded by placing wood or glass between the compass and the electric current.
The publication caused an immediate sensation, and raised Oersted’s status as a scientist. Others began investigating the newly found connection between electricity and magnetism. French physicist André Ampère developed a mathematical law to describe the magnetic forces between current carrying wires. Starting about a decade after Oersted’s discovery, Michael Faraday demonstrated essentially the opposite of what Oersted had found–that a changing magnetic field induces an electric current. Following Faraday’s work, James Clerk Maxwell developed Maxwell’s equations, formally unifying electricity and magnetism.”
From the American Physical Society

Posted in physics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Becoming Superman

Style was the clothes; voice was the body.
The instant I hit that realization I felt a circuit close inside me, switching on an engine in my brain. Suddenly all the little unrelated things I knew about writing (or brashly thought I knew) arranged themselves into a pattern so clear and precise that it knocked the breath out of me.”
J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman

Becoming Superman is an autobiography of a science fiction and comics writer, J. Michael Straczynski. It is also a page turner, a powerful story that amazingly enough, is real. As Neil Gaiman concluded in his introduction: “We follow him through several careers, and in each career he learns how to do it, how to set out and make something happen that ought, by any stretch of imagination, to have been impossible. It’s his willingness to learn, his quiet persistence, and his willingness to do the work that are his superpowers. He has become a diamond.”

Reading the book during a weekend, I found there another “superpower”: hate. Hatred for a father he describes as a monster formed the author’s worldview, sustained him physically at times he might otherwise crumble, and shaped his character when the closest he had to a “role-model” were comic book heroes like Superman. This is not, however, a hateful book. The author’s hate does not drip from every page. It is used like lampposts placed to illuminate bends on a road, so a passerby would see what he had experienced as a boy and while growing up, what he overcame, and what he still has to cope with.

A master storyteller, JMS uses his father’s dark secrets from WWII to show how destructive hate and self-pity could be, but Becoming Superman is NOT a simplistic, feel-good story about the American Dream and redemption. The author shows that hate and anger don’t always lead to the Dark Side; that a strong and determined mind can denounce evil and discipline these destructive powers. On one level, the book follows the advertised “Journey From Poverty to Hollywood” – the same page shows a photo of the author’s first check ($15) and his first check for one million dollars. But the book is more than a “rags to riches” tale. It offers a gripping view on how JMS harnessed and funneled his hate, using it to withstand his violent and abusive family, disciplining it to become an engine and fuel to his creativity.

During a long career, JMS faced many forks on the road, encountering temptations to take the less controversial course, to compromise and let go. He did not choose what most people would do. His energies and frustrations were directed into worldbuilding, screenwriting, directing, and writing comics. Not being a Superman, his achievements came with a price – a marriage that dissolved, never raising children, being estranged even from those family members he did not despise.

I’m not a fan of comic books and Sci-fi TV, but I could not put down this autobiography until I reached the last page at 2am. A writer who invented and reshaped worlds, contributed to “Murder She Wrote” and gave a new flavor to old superheroes, had an interesting story to tell. He spent years crafting it, entwining his family’s dark history with personal experiences, many of which no child should have had. He prevailed and succeeded, crafting a life with much more to it than simmering hate. From an emotionally stunted boy, whose compassion is mostly bestowed on stray cats, he became a creator of stories that touched and shaped kids’ imagination. His account how that happened is a fascinating, thought provoking, occasionally dark and disturbing, and sometimes inspiring read.

More about JMS work can be found on TVtropes.

Posted in science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jane Austen and the institution of Marriage

“…I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Charlotte Lucas to Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice.


A book cover using Thomas Lawrence’s
The Children of Sir Samuel Fludyer (1806).

One day a “lost” Jane Austen novel might be “rediscovered” in some attic. The news will spread across the world long before experts will have a chance to study the manuscript, and the few known facts will soon be drowned by speculations about its authenticity. Would it be deemed a forgery, even if the handwriting, the style and word usage are comparable with these found in Austen’s letters and previous works, but the story as a whole lacks the qualities that endeared Jane Austen’s novels to so many readers for such a long period?

One thing we can be sure about this hypothetical manuscript is that it will involve romantic relations and treat the institution of Marriage. Expectations from this institution have evolved considerably in the last couple of hundreds of years, and yet Austen’s treatment of the subject still appeals to modern readers. Or or at least so I thought until I read a recent article in The Atlantic that challenges this assumption. In a piece titled “What Jane Austen Thought Marriage Couldn’t Do”, S. Chamberlain makes claims based on evidence from Austen’s novels. In the following I will address some of those points.

Age of the heroines

“…novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility focus too much on younger women at the expense of making older ones either irrelevant or ridiculous.”

Facts first: Jane Austen made her debut into Hampshire society at the age of seventeen, she was nineteen when she wrote the first draft of Sense and Sensibility, and twenty/twenty-one when she worked on the first version of Pride and Prejudice. Even in these early works Austen created true-to-life, memorable older women, like the sensible conformist Charlotte Lucas and the vulgar, irritable Mrs. Bennet. The ability to create women much older than herself doesn’t mean that the author wanted to contemplate them as her heroines. Simply put, why would a nineteen or twenty year old woman do so, when her pen conjured the lively Marianne Dashwood and immortal Elizabeth Bennet?
In later novels, Austen’s heroines grew older. In Persuasion, the twenty-seven year old Anne Elliot is accomplished, compassionate, and clear-sighted. Not only is she not “irrelevant”, but the discerning Mr. Elliot wants her as his bride, and captain Wentworth prefers her over the much younger and livelier Louisa Musgrove.

Matrimony as a questionable goal

“Miserable married lives in fact abound in Austen, from the badly matched Bennets at one particularly noxious end of the spectrum to the more ordinary, harried type of married parents who seem appallingly familiar to us moderns.”

Most of Austen’s heroines are romantic and intelligent young women, who despite all the matrimonial misery they had witnessed while growing up, feel rapturous joy at the prospect of entwining their future with the hero’s. Are they all delusional in believing that they would fare better than their parents? Or maybe, as the article questions, Austen was “slyly slapping down the institution with one hand even while she seemed to be raising it up onto its contemporary pedestal with the other?”
Based on the fact that Jane Austen never married (although she had the opportunity) and considering the unflattering portrayal of some couples in her novels, I will speculate that she did not see marriage as a woman’s highest goal, but rather as an option as appealing as the partners who make the marriage. The Bennets were ill-suited, and their match resulted in misery. Mrs. Bennet’s brother, “Mr. Gardiner, was a sensible, gentleman-like man, greatly superior to his sister as well by nature as education…Mrs. Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips, was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favorite with all her Longbourn nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially there subsisted a very particular regard.”
Mrs. Gardiner is not a main character, but she is a mentor to her nieces, a role model who finds time to write them lengthy letters without neglecting her own four children, a wife who is a companion to her husband, a woman who has interests beside her household.

Chamberlain speculates that “Elizabeth’s marriage might turn out fine despite her lack of loving guidance and a model to follow.” I think that one should not worry about the fate of a marriage based on a solid foundation of love and mutual respect. Austen doesn’t elaborate about Elizabeth and Darcy’s relations after their wedding, yet we learn that “with the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them;” And Elizabeth becomes a role model for her younger, motherless sister-in-law:
“Georgina had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother…By Elizabeth’s instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.”

Focus on children

“What Austen offers—and what her critics often disparage—is a focus on the temperaments of the individuals entering into a partnership, to the exclusion of her own century’s focus on future generations’ partnerships as the reason for why it is formed in the first place. If she’s more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centered focus of marriage.”

Children of various ages inhabited both Jane Austen’s real and fictional worlds. She grew up in a large family (she was the seventh child out of eight). Her brother Edward married when she was sixteen and had eleven children. Other brothers also provided her with nephews and nieces. While the article brings up arguments by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau “that all good parenting began with a companionate marriage of equals who shared compatible child-rearing philosophies,” and follows with ideas about parents’ role in guiding their children, I doubt that philosophical musings had any bearing on how Austen’s family reared children. Her novels, with the exception of Mansfield Park, do not dwell on “right” or “wrong” parenting. Child-centered issues were usually an afterthought, an illustration of the relations between a couple, or within a family.

That said, I strongly disagree with the article’s claim that “her most content and companionate marriage — that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion — is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.” The Crofts are not the only “content” couple in Persuasion. The Musgrove and Harville families have children, and consequently child-related obligations. Unlike the Crofts, they cannot always be together, and yet their relations are wholesome and happy. And so are their children:

“Such excellent parents as Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove,” exclaimed Anne, “should be happy in their children’s marriages. They do everything to confer happiness, I am sure. What a blessing to young people to be in such hands! Your father and mother seem so totally free from all these ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery, both in young and old!”

Much more could be argued about the complexity of Jane Austen’s worldview, but that goes beyond the scope of a blog post or an article in The Atlantic. Both cherry-picked examples that support their respective point of view. Or, to use the author’s own words from Persuasion:
“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”


Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Hugh Thomson, 1894

Posted in fiction, literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

William Blake in the twenty first century

Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven,
And of that God from whom all books are given,
Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave
To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,
Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!
Thunder of Thought, & flames of fierce desire:
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony.

from the preface to Chapter I, Jerusalem, by William Blake

Twenty one decades separate between William Blake’s only solo exhibition and the retrospective exhibition, titled “William Blake”, that has recently opened at Tate Britain.
The first exhibition was at Blake’s brother’s hosiery shop in Soho. Sixteen pictures were displayed for show and sale, including “The Ancient Britons”, the largest picture Blake ever made. The price for admission was one shilling, the same as the much larger and more prestigious exhibitions at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution. Blake’s exhibition was attended by few, and the only review it received was from The Examiner. It was published anonymously in the issue for 17 September 1809:

“…When the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has indeed attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of WILLIAM BLAKE, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the EXAMINER, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate.”
(from G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake)

The admission price to the exhibition at Tate Britain (one of the most visited museums in the UK) is 18 pounds, but it includes over 300 of Blake’s watercolours, paintings and prints, as well as “an immersive recreation of the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809”, and a promise that one will be able to experience “the impact these works had when they were shown for the first time. In another room, Blake’s dream of showing his works at enormous scale will be made reality using digital technology.”
Those of us who live faraway and cannot see the exhibition, get a glimpse of what to expect in a video trailer.

Modern critics’ reviews are more civilized:

  • BBC Culture calls William Blake “The greatest visionary in 200 years” and notes that “Blake’s ability, granularly, to narrow his focus to a single speck of the material world and to perceive eternal poignancies in it, is instructive for how best to appreciate the intensities and achievement of his own work.”
  • Five stars from the Guardian William Blake review, which starts with “This stupendous show opens with a starburst: the naked figure of Albion rising in glory, rainbows exploding around his outstretched arms. It is a curtain-raiser, a full frontal performance: the beautiful dancer in mid-sashay on the edge of a cliff, bringing light to dispel the darkness. And Albion’s arms are holding out for more – welcoming this new dawn, inviting us all to rise up with him. It is the great wake-up call of British art.”
  • The Economist’s is more reserved, with a title: “A blockbuster show at Tate Britain gives William Blake his due.” The exhibition’s description is somewhat laconic, politely calling Blake “a challenging artist” who was “reading between the lines of this exhibition, a difficult man who delighted in many antipathies…Perhaps the best and most constant relationship Blake enjoyed was with his wife, Catherine. A talented engraver and colourist in her own right, she had a hand in many of his creations. It was only from the stability of their marriage that he was able to give a full expression to his talent, expressiveness and unique vision.”
  • The Telegraph, however, gives the exhibition two out of five stars. The title, “William Blake review, Tate Britain: an incandescent imagination smothered by dull curating”, suggests that the problem is with the exhibition, which “re-positions Blake – presumably for publicity purposes – as an ‘artist for the 21stcentury’”. But the reviewer doesn’t spare Blake. He start’s with his poetry,
    “Have you ever tried reading the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827)? Not the good stuff, such as The Tyger, which is mercifully short. No, I’m talking about Blake’s bizarre epics: obscure, fire-and-brimstone mythologies of his own devising, starring allegorical figures with made-up names, like Urizen, the bearded embodiment of reason and law.”
    And follows with his paintings. “Visually, Blake was forever reshuffling the same old deck of cards. His figures are either exaggeratedly musclebound (check out Eve’s abs in his illustrations to Paradise Lost), or preternaturally elongated and clad in swoopy, vaguely neoclassical gowns. They all have smooth, pretty, child-like faces, with streaming hair and strangely shining eyes. And most behave like drama queens, waving about their arms. Blake’s compositions, meanwhile, are sometimes symmetrical, and often frontal and flat – like designs for the theatre. As a result, his supernatural subjects have an unwelcome, at times borderline comic, staginess.”
    Anything positive to account for the two stars? Catherine, Blake’s long-suffering wife, is praised for her role in sustaining Blake’s career, and there is a bit of redemption towards the end. Despite Blake’s and the curator’s shortcomings, the exhibition is worth revisiting, because “in one dominion of art – the ability to invent – he reigns supreme.”

    Unable to visit the exhibition, one can still wonder what would the critics say if Blake was not one of the most famous British artists. But then, the question would be superfluous, because what would be the chances that his work would be exhibited at Tate?


    William Blake,
    Age Teaching Youth, c.1785–90

Posted in literature, magical realism | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake


Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philips (1807).

G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake, The Stranger from Paradise, follows the creative life of a promising young artist, whose genius and unconventional mindset, both fueled his art and hindered his career. It recounts the growing rift between Blake and the art world, the emergence of his unique style and his unsuccessful attempt to reach the public directly. The last section (before notes and bibliography) is less extensive, as if the biographer was in a hurry to conclude the progressively unhappy story. It skirts around Blake’s poverty and declining health, focusing on the artist finding contentment and on the emerging interest both in Blake’s visions and in his paintings. When the book ended, I wanted to read more.

It is hard to imagine the times when Blake’s poetry and paintings were not famous. In BBC’s 2002 poll, he was placed at number 38 of the 100 Greatest Britons. And yet, “The Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1828” summarizes his lifework quite prosaically:

“BLAKE, Mr. William, Aug. 13, aged 68. This excellent but eccentric artist was a pupil of the engraver Basire; and among his earliest productions were eight beautiful plates in the Novelist’s Magazine. In 1793 he published in 12mo. “The Gates of Paradise,” a very small book for children containing fifteen plates of emblems, and “published by W. B. 13, Hercules Buildings, Lambeth;” also about the same time, “Songs of Experience, with Plates ;” “America, a Prophecy,” folio, and “Europe, a Prophecy, 1794,” folio. These are now become very scarce. In 1797 he commenced, in large folio, an edition of Young’s Night Thoughts, of which every page was a design; but only one number was published. In 1805 were produced in 8vo. Numbers, containing five engravings by Blake, some Ballads by Mr. Hayley, but which also were abruptly discontinued. Few persons of taste are unacquainted with the designs by Blake, engraved by Schiavonetti, as illustrations to a 4to. edition of Blair’s Grave. They are twelve in number, and an excellent portrait of Blake, from a picture by T. Philips, R. A. is prefixed. It was borne forth into the world on the warmest praises of all our prominent artists, Hoppner, Phillips, Stothard, Flaxman, Opie, Tresham, Westmacott, Beechey, Lawrence, West, Nollekens, Shee, Owen, Rossi, Thomson, Cosway, and Soane….”

The obituary goes on, not only to detail Blake’s paintings, but to inform that “Blake has been allowed to exist in a penury which most artists – beings necessarily of a sensitive temperament – would deem intolerable.” Concise and unaware of how future generations would view the artist’s achievements, it doesn’t tell how Blake gained such a wide approval from the major painters and sculptors of his time, nor hints as to why the artist could not find employment that would pay for his daily needs. Bentley’s biography fills these gaps. Without casting blame or forwarding simplistic answers, it presents facts and perceptions, a chronological journey through Blake’s religious and artistic beliefs. The readers are assumed to have some knowledge about the American and French revolutions, for the biographer focuses on the artist’s response to the events. Alongside the effects of the world-shattering drama, he portrays Blake’s growing struggles to advance himself in a profession that relied on patronage and connections, setbacks caused by melancholy, and the scare of the artist’s trial for sedition. Without taking sides, the biographer shows Blake’s strained relations with former friends who succeeded where he stumbled, his nonconformity while attempting to adapt his designs and engravings to the commercial necessities which he abhorred.

Nevertheless, The Stranger from Paradise isn’t told by an impartial scholar. Blake is depicted as a visionary with unbelievable naivete and uncompromising integrity, a workaholic idealist whose incredible talent was unscrupulously exploited by publishers. The chapter titled “I’m Hid” opens with “In the nine years from 1810 to 1818, Blake was largely hidden from the world, so much that some wondered if he was still alive.” The biography shows how despite taking the brunt of merciless commercialism, Blake’s art survived, even thrived. Reaching the last chapter of Blake’s life, it skims over his deteriorating health and the dire effects of a lack of commissions, dwelling instead on contemporaries’ speculations about his visions and sanity. Despite the subject, this is one of the most gratifying parts of the book. It sheds light on how Blake’s work emerged from former obscurity during his last years. Blake did not sink lower and lower financially and mentally, but found contentment in his work, which proceeded due to generosity of people, most of whom were not rich.

The biography reproduces samples of Blake’s paintings and engravings and quotes from his poems, without entering into discussions about his art. Thankfully, professor Bentley focused on unfolding Blake’s fascinating story, and did not distract his readers with discourses, analysis, criticism, symbolism and such. He concludes with:

And if we are wise, we may learn from his life, as from his poetry, to understand the ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour”


The Ancient of Days by William Blake

Posted in literature | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sophomore novel: to publish or not to publish

“Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.”
Myself, January 2019.

I ended my last post prophesying that the decision about publishing the nearly complete manuscript would be based on my readers’ reaction to the story. This was not what happened. Instead, I collated more information about the current state of self-publishing, and then reevaluated my options. Here is what I’ve learned.

One of the oft-cited advantages of self-publishing is that it’s a low risk venture. Theoretically, it doesn’t cost money to a publish an e-book, and if no one sees or reads it (which is what usually happens if it doesn’t get any promotion), then there is no harm done putting it out there. Moreover, there is a chance that lightning will strike, and someone will discover and like a story by an unknown writer. The odds are negligible, but even if nobody will read it, the author has the satisfaction of knowing that they achieved their goal of writing a novel. And holding the printed book in one’s hands — well, it justifies some euphoria.

A deeper look into the realities of self-publishing reveals that the notion of “free” or even “cheap” is deceptive. Professional editing costs money, and so does the cover, and these are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible part, which could stretch on and on and become a huge cost sink, is marketing. “Marketing is not an arcane art; it is a learnable skill based upon well-established and tested principles,” says Nickolas Erik in his “The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing” (the entire guide can be found here). It also says that “Marketing is relatively simple if you regularly produce books that your target audience enjoys.” But what if the author cannot define a large pool of potential readers? Or if they write slowly and don’t have a backlist of novels to offer? Then, marketing is remarkably difficult.

As it sank in that launching a standalone novel would be a time-consuming and costly endeavor, I had three options how to proceed:

  1. Publish and see what happens.
  2. Give the novel to anyone who shows the slightest interest and find out whether there is an audience for the story.
  3. Put it aside and write something else.

The first two options are more or less what I did with my debut novel, which I published in early 2015. Back then, new releases had much better visibility than nowadays, and upon receiving a warm response from beta readers, I was eager to see my book published. Without much expectations to recoup what was invested in editing and the cover (and without paid promotions), I didn’t mind to offer free copies through Goodreads and LibraryThing. Lightning did not strike, and the general lack of interest stung a little. On the plus side, I received several reviews and some compliments from people who knew me in real life. Although the book never recouped the expenses, in terms of personal satisfaction it was a rewarding experience.

I completed my second novel in February 2019, and sent it to beta readers. They liked the story. The next step was to contact an editor, but having learned something from trying to find a genre for my debut, I gave some thought as to whom I should offer the newest story.
Formerly, Kboards’ Writers’ Cafe had been a trove of useful information. Regrettably, it had changed owners in 2018, and a consequent exodus of experienced authors left the forum with little activity and not much updated information. I received some answers about genres, beta readers and targeting audience, at the new forum, Writer Sanctum.

Another place to look for distilled information are recent e-books about self-publishing. David Gaughran‘s Strangers To Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey (published in 2018) taught me that launching a book without a marketing plan amounted to letting in sink into the internet abyss. A newer version (third edition) of Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should (published in January 2018) confirmed that the publishing world had transformed while I was struggling to write the story. After reading several blogs and newsletters, it became evident that what had started as a low-risk opportunity to find readers has become a pay-to-play business. There are too many entrepreneurs and companies making money off selling services to indie writers, and too many writers investing in marketing yet hardly selling any books. In this climate, hiring an editor before having a clear idea about my target audience seemed quite pointless.

So, my sophomore novel is still waiting, but not impatiently, for my characters know that I wrote their adventure to a happy ending, and that I started to write another story in their universe. The first novel took me almost a decade. The second took half of the time. By induction, I’m cautiously optimistic about completing this one in a couple of years.

Posted in fiction, self-publishing, writing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

January is this time of the year…

It has been four years since I (self-)published my novel, Initial Conditions, in January 2015. I began writing a second, unrelated story, in the spring of that year. It progressed very little until NaNoWriMo in November. In January 2016, I read my 75K-words manuscript and could not understand what it was about. Several half-hearted attempts to salvage it resulted in six chapters, which I sent in January 2018 to a beta reader. The reader liked the premise, but gently made it clear that the execution did not deliver; the story was not engaging. A year later, I have nineteen chapters – an almost completed novel, except the last act. I don’t know yet if the story works for anyone beside myself, but, looking back, I can see the roadblocks that I wish I was warned about.

In hindsight, the ability to self-publish and the plethora of available resources for how to do it were a mixed blessing. It’s unlikely that I would have attempted to write the new story if self-publishing was not an option. On the other hand, bearing in mind imaginary “readers” and their expectations was a source of continuous frustration. I tried to shoehorn the story into genres – romance and science-fiction. It resisted the attempts, and pushed back, making the writing hard and so very slow.

Another problem was that of perception. Self-publishing has supposedly opened the floodgates, and the resulting deluge of books made the discovery of novels penned by unknown indie writers increasingly difficult. In theory, that should have little effect on my writing. The problem was that it changed the atmosphere. In 2014, when I first heard about self-publishing, the prevalent advice to beginners was to write what you want and then offer several people to read it. If they liked the story, you paid for professional editing, bought a genre-appropriate cover, uploaded the ebook and let it find its audience on Amazon. This is not the advice I see in the last couple of years. Nowadays aspiring authors are advised to start with identifying their goals. “Do you want to become a full-time writer? Be ready to hone your craft, set daily writing goals, and learn marketing techniques.” Add to that talent, motivation and perseverance, and the indie community might welcome you.

Hobbyists, on the other hand, are mostly dismissed as those who lack the qualities to become professional, and consequently their books, or at least their sales, suck. This prevailing attitude, whether it is true or not, rubs in. As far as I could tell, what distinguishes a professional writer and a hobbyist is a consistent production of books that find a paying audience. Listening to advice intended for professionals, I pushed myself to adhere to writing goals. I analyzed my story according to various recommended craft books. But my characters stared at me bewildered and uncooperative. I kept rewriting, adding to the word count without making the story better.

My last obstacle is also rooted in perception, this time perception that stems from the reactions of nearest and dearest. In my mind, these are the readers I want to draw into my story. When they are indifferent or bored, I tend to look differently at my characters. I try to make them more appealing, stronger, more sympathetic, until I lose the thread of the story.

Since January is a month of optimistic beginnings, I want to end my overview of what hindered my writing with a note about why it started progressing at a much faster pace. Eventually, it dawned on me that the changes in self-publishing are so fast that chasing fashions makes no sense for a hobbyist. I’m not a professional who writes stories on demand. I like the characters. We have been together through many ups and downs, and I want to see them reach the happy ending. When I write, I’m my own audience. Whether I’ll publish the story depends on whether others like it.

Posted in self-publishing, writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Farewell to 2018

Visiting New York on one of last days of the year seemed like a good idea. An extravaganza of lights, food we like but don’t have anywhere near home, the hustle and bustle of a city known for its showmanship and endless variety. From a distance, Manhattan shone with promise – an amalgam of Greek Revivals and skyscrapers, an epicenter of creativity and magic – just being there was bound to cheer one up, to elevate the gloomy mood that clouded most of the year.

a

I recalled these expectations several hours later, after half a day spent in the city. So far, New York did not disappoint. Everyone in our family found something they liked to eat at the Chelsea Market; my sons enjoyed browsing dead-tree books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore; I window-shopped, eyeing the lush, festive displays that one day would probably appear in an unfinished draft of my novel.

It felt good to imagine that we landed in a modern fairy-tale, but then, vacant spaces between the fanciest stores on 5th Avenue shouted that retail reality was not as glamorous as the dressed mannequins, and the prices of the gelato and the French-sounding pastries brought to mind how many home-cooked meals (or school lunches) each bite-size serving could buy.

My personal bubble burst while jostling for a space on a sidewalk on our way to see THE Christmas Tree (at the Rockefeller Center). I don’t know if there were hundreds or thousands of people there, but I felt that they all came to New York for the same purpose, to catch a piece of magic, a glimpse of something bright and shinny, and yet untarnished by revelations and scandals. And so we inched forward, crowded but determined to pass by the famous tree. There were too many people to come close and see the details, but it sparkled from afar, a symbol of continuity, of stability, and maybe a glimmer of hope for a better year.

Happy 2019 !

Posted in photos | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments