The Amazon KindleIf you hang around Amazon’s Kindle store, you probably know that many customers are pissed about the higher prices of Kindle books. They grouse endlessly in various community forums and spit invective at Amazon, at publishers, even at writers. Now their protests have found another outlet. Furious that the Kindle edition of Michael Connelly’s latest thriller cost more than the discounted hardcover on Amazon’s Web site, readers began posting one-star reviews of the Kindle edition. They made no pretense of having read The Fifth Witness. Most conceded they love Connelly’s novels. But they felt something must be done to make Amazon and Connelly’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, take heed.

A couple of years ago, the price of a new release on Kindle was $9.99, far less than half the cost of the hardcover. This price was set not by publishers but by Amazon. The online retailer took a smaller profit (or perhaps even a loss) in order to sell more Kindles. “Look!” Amazon told customers. “Buy a Kindle and never pay more than $9.99 for a book!” Then publishers rebelled. When Apple launched iBooks, they had another venue for their ebooks and threatened to withhold their lists from Amazon unless they determined the price. Amazon capitulated but accompanied the higher prices with the message “This price was set by the publisher.” In other words, don’t blame them for breaking the promise they made when they sold you a Kindle.

By the way, The Fifth Witness now costs $12.99 as a KIndle book, still less than half the full retail price of the hardcover and less than Amazon’s discounted price.

As a writer I have some sympathy for Connelly and other bestselling authors targeted by the protest. Not that they need my sympathy, they’re doing just fine, thank you. Still, the unfairness of those reviews must sting a little. Today I posted a brief review of The Fifth Witness on Amazon, giving it one more star than it deserved to compensate for the many undeserved low ratings.

I have less sympathy for Little, Brown and Company. Commercial publishers style themselves as “gatekeepers” who make sure only quality books are offered to readers; in fact they publish whatever they judge will sell. I once had lunch with an editor at a large publishing house who told me so, bluntly. For a long time traditional publishers have had a monopoly on book publishing, but new technologies are changing things. My dark side is gratified at seeing the arrogant, inbred, weaselly bastards scramble.

Nor do I have much sympathy for Amazon, though the company has always been courteous and fair in its dealings with me. Amazon plays hardball with publishers. They can hardly be surprised when publishers do the same.

In the end, two things determine the price of ebooks: what its costs to produce them and what readers are willing to pay.

Many people argue that ebook prices should be low because unlike hardcovers and paperbacks they cost next to nothing to produce and distribute; only a royalty to the author must be paid. This might be true if you ignore the many expenses of running a business – maintaining office space, paying editors, etc. It seems reasonable to include these expenses when determining what it costs to publish an ebook.

Blow aside their smoke about championing literary quality and nurturing writers and it’s clear publishers are in business to make a profit. Of course they charge what the market will bear. Of course they resist when retailers lower prices to undercut competition and promote sales of other merchandise. And there’s this: the longer readers expect ebooks to cost $9.99, the more difficult it becomes to raise the price. Seeing the long-term stakes, publishers fought hard to wrest control of the pricing from Amazon.

The market for ebooks has created a new economic model, and readers are a major force in shaping what it becomes. When enough readers buy ebooks instead of going to the bookstore, bookstore chains like Borders file for bankruptcy. As bookstores close, Internet retailers acquire a larger share of the market, allowing them to raise prices – up to the point where readers refuse to pay. Those customers protesting the price of The Fifth Witness on Kindle claim that bogus one-star reviews are the only way to voice their outrage. But there’s another way that’s fairer (though less emotionally satisfying). Just don’t buy the book until the price goes down.

By the way, my novel Talion can be downloaded from the Kindle store for only $2.99. (See the link below.)

Here is the entire saga of my adventure in video production wherein I make my own book trailer, “Rad Pays His Respects.” Some readers may have already seen the first posts. If so, I invite them to pick up where they left off.

When I began promoting Talion, I noticed book trailers were hot. I found dozens on You Tube, thirty-second or one minute ads with authors talking about their books or music and visuals to evoke the book’s atmosphere. I thought Talion deserved a trailer too. And I knew right away what it would be. In my novel, Conrad (Rad) Sanders, a serial killer, visits the grave of a victim to remember their night together. My trailer would be a sequence of cemetery shots with a voiceover reading the passage and creepy music playing in the background.

I looked online for a video artist to transform my idea into reality and found it would cost far more than my budget allowed. Disappointed, I knew I should forget the whole thing. But I couldn’t quite do it. The book trailer would be a highly dramatic and visual way to call attention to my novel, and I was proud of my concept. I hadn’t seen any trailers like the one I imagined for Talion. I decided to make it myself. Sure, I had zero experience in making videos. But my husband, Joe, a film professor, had taught filmmaking for years. He would show me how.

I already owned one essential piece of equipment, a Vado mini-cam that I’d bought on sale. It’s not much of a camera, but it does shoot high-def video. One lovely spring morning, I took it out to the local cemetery and shot footage for my book trailer. I rushed home, downloaded the shots onto my desktop, and asked Joe to look at them. I was mortified at what he saw. Surely my hands weren’t that shaky. I had to stop drinking so much coffee. And every single shot ended with a long and pointless pan, as though something off to the side kept drawing my attention.

“I suck,” I said.

“This shot is interesting,” Joe said, pointing to a tree shadow falling across a fresh grave. As for the others, he just shrugged. “If this is what you have, this is what you work with.”

No way, I thought grimly. I bought a small tripod and returned to the cemetery.

My second attempt at camerawork yielded more promising results, and I decided to plunge ahead and purchase editing software. This was the moment of commitment. So far I’d only spent a few bucks on the tripod. Now I was poised to lay out serious money. If I bought the software and never made the trailer, Joe would never let me forget it.

After some research into editing software, I narrowed my choices to three: Sony Vega, Corel Video Studio, and Adobe Premier Pro. All three companies offered free download of a trial version that would function for a month then shut down unless you paid up. So I began with Vega. I downloaded the trial version of Vega and imported my cemetery clips. To my bewilderment, Vega couldn’t open them properly. There was sound, but no picture. Back online I went, trying to figure out why. Thus was I introduced to codecs.

“No,” TechTerms.com reassured me, “this is not just a cheap rip-off of Kodak. The name “codec” is short for “coder-decoder,” which is pretty much what a codec does. Most audio and video formats use some sort of compression so that they don’t take up a ridiculous amount of disk space. Audio and video files are compressed with a certain codec when they are saved and then decompressed by the codec when they are played back.”

So I recoded the clips in a format Vega recognized, using the Windows 7 media encoder. But I had to process them one at a time – a tedious job. Someday, I vowed, I would own a camera that would render all that unnecessary.

After trying Sony Vega and Corel Video Studio, I made a lucky discovery. Adobe offers special pricing to faculty at universities. As an instructor at Eastern Illinois University, I could buy Adobe Creative Suite 5 Production Premium at a fraction of the retail cost. The bundle includes not only Premier Pro and Soundbooth – the two programs I really needed – but Flash Professional, Illustrator, Photoshop, and several others. A deal too good to resist! I did the free tryout first to make sure I could work with Premier Pro. Then I went for it. Adobe offered some free online training, which helped a lot, but I’ve only begun to learn how to use these powerful programs.

Joe laid down the rules. First, I had to make a storyboard laying out the shots of my book trailer and matching them to the voiceover narrative. Then I had to make a rough cut in Premier Pro. My trailer should be 60 seconds long precisely, Joe told me, like an ad on TV.

“But why?” I insisted. “You Tube doesn’t have rules about the length.”

“People get bored if it’s too long,” Joe said. “Besides, you got to work within a form. You got to have some artistic discipline.”

Okay, I understood that concept.

Working on my storyboard, I soon realized the passage from Talion would take longer than sixty seconds to read, so I shortened it. Then shortened it again. I began to see interesting relationships between the narrative and the images, which helped me to choose which shots to include and suggested how they might be arranged. I finished the storyboard and made the rough cut, trimming the shots and placing them in sequence in Premier Pro. Joe said the rough cut should run about 90 seconds. Mine ran close to three minutes. It was extra rough.

Watching it play on Premier Pro, I realized the string of images lacked coherence. I shuffled shots around – removing some, adding others – until my original storyboard was no more than a memory. I went back to the unused clips for more material and rediscovered all my reasons for not using them in the first place. I needed more. Finally, I drove to a tiny church cemetery in the country and shot the footage to complete my grand vision. After further tinkering and trimming, I had a rough cut that looked okay.

I used Soundbooth to record myself reading the passage from Talion. Listening to my own voice was painful. Worse, the recording was peppered with electronic noise and distortion. Figuring I just needed practice using Soundbooth, I fiddled with the settings and made a second recording. More snap, crackle, and pop. I gazed at the pathetic toy microphone in my hand. Clearly an inadequate tool. I went online and spent another thirty-five bucks on a directional microphone, then settled into the task of not botching my own words. After twenty or thirty takes, I had a recording that I could listen to without cringing.

I hoped my voice would sound more impressive with the right background music. Soundbooth comes with access to lots of royalty-free music that can be remixed. These downloads are categorized according to type, so I previewed music composed to evoke horror, suspense, or mystery. Nothing was precisely what I wanted. After much fussing and fretting, I settled on a gothic piece with a creepy choral track that created the right mood, but even muted it had the potential to be overwhelming. I played the voiceover track while mixing the music to make sure that didn’t happen. It only took another ten hours.

I trimmed my rough cut to a 60-second video keyed to the narrative voiceover. Still it wasn’t right. The framing and unsteadiness of some shots made them look like vacation movies. Since they were filmed on three separate occasions, the lighting and color tone didn’t match. All the shots were too cheerfully green for the creepy effect I wanted. But to my relief, Adobe Premier Pro has fixes for these problems.

Shots could be reframed – to a point. Extreme cropping blurred the image. But in most cases I only needed to trim a bit off the edges to improve the composition of shot. In one case I made a radical crop so an inscription on a gravestone that read FATHER MOTHER became HER MOTHER. I liked it enough to put up with a bit of fuzziness.

Here is the original frame:

 


Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

The stone angel, the last image in the trailer except for the book cover, is a more typical example of how I reframed shots. Here is the original:

Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

 

I eliminated shakiness by exporting stills from the footage and using those images in place of the shots. The lack of motion looked absolutely unnatural, an effect I liked, especially in contrast to the shots that had movement – the wind ruffling flowers or spinning a toy windmill. Premier Pro also has a function to minimize shakiness, which I used for a shot that wasn’t altogether palsied.

Next I adjusted the brightness and contrast of the shots to make them consistent. One shot gave me problems because it was so much darker than the others. Brightened, it had a strange sheen. I couldn’t cut that shot; it was necessary to the visual narrative. I kept fiddling with the brightness but never got it exactly right. If you watch the trailer, you can probably tell which one I’m talking about. It did become less conspicuous after I adjusted the color to give the video a more somber cast.

The trailer ended with a shot of the book cover. I wanted to zoom the cover so it came hurtling dramatically toward the viewer, but Joe nixed the idea.

“It’s jive-ass,” he said. “Show some restraint.”

Oh well, one less thing to do.

At Joe’s suggestion I added cross-dissolve transitions between shots, and then my book trailer was finished. Finally. It was precisely 60 seconds long and, I thought, not bad for a first effort. I posted it on You Tube and Facebook and here on my blog. Links to it appear on several Web sites including Pump Up Your Book, If Books Could Talk, and The Hot Author Report. Recently I ended gave a presentation on publishing and promotion to a local group. I ended by showing of my trailer, “Rad Pays His Respects.” Afterward, of course, I sold copies of Talion. There were still buyers in line when I ran out of copies, and I like to think my book trailer had something to do with it.

Talion has received a short but sweet review from Mystee on her blog, A Moment with Mystee .  The blog is worth checking out for the many giveaway opportunities as well as the reviews.

Please join me on my first virtual book tour. The complete tour schedule can be found on my Web site or at Pump Up Your Book promotions.

I’ve just received the kind of review every writer dreams of. Not only does the reviewer love Talion but he appreciates what I’m doing in the novel. He notices style. And has style!

Lu Jakes doesn’t have a chance.

She never had one. She’s a teenager trapped in a Utah trailer with a drunk for a dad and a sadistic slattern for a stepmom. Her only friends are phantoms in her head.

And now she’s attracted the attention of a sexual torturer and serial killer…

Lu is the protagonist of Eastern Illinois University English professor Mary Maddox’s thriller “Talion” (now available from Amazon), a dark gem she has polished to a purple luster.

Peer inside. You’ll see a crime novel, and something else lurking there in the shadows. “Silence of the Lambs” meets “The Turn of the Screw.”

Please read the rest of Dan Hagen’s review of Talion in the Charleston Times-Courier: Dan Hagen%sq243%s review

Here is a brief excerpt of my interview with Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com:

“I’m not quite sure why the macabre draws me. It’s probably a combination of temperament, personal history and literary preferences. I see darkness in the world, in people, most of all in myself. But there’s light as well. I hope readers will see the light in Talion as well as the darkness. In the macabre as a literary form I see two elements – fascination and dread. Edgar Allen Poe’s stories have these elements. His neurasthenic characters are obsessed by the things they fear most. The black cat, the beating heart of the murder victim, the horror of being buried alive. And the reader willingly participates. Why? I guess for the same reason that people can’t drive past a car wreck without slowing down to gawk. It’s strange, gawkers hoping to witness a gruesome injury that will haunt their dreams. Yet they can’t seem to resist the fascination of the accident scene.”

To read more, follow the link below:


http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/2732/1/Meet-Mary-Maddox-Author-of-Talion/Page1.html

Mighty Bear Woman (a.k.a. Daiva Markelis) poses incisive questions on my writing and career. Check it out. And while you’re there, enjoy the thrilling and unpredictable Adventures of Mighty Bear Woman!