Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: Brothers off to war

When looking for cover art for my novel at the Library of Congress website I came across this fine photo. It didn't work as a cover shot but it struck me as powerful so I'm reproducing it here.

Sadly there's no information on who these two were although it's obvious they were brothers. They certainly look ready for a fight, especially the guy on the right. He's got a proper six-shooter rather than a one-shot dragoon pistol. No wonder he looks more confident! Dragoon pistols were fairly common at the beginning of the war but were soon dispensed with as being inferior and outdated weapons. When Captain Richard Addison goes on a shopping spree in my novel, he buys every pistol he can except dragoon pistols. Going up against Bloody Bill Anderson he needs proper firepower!

As you can see, the photo has been colorized by hand painting, a popular technique back then to give a little more realism to black and white images. If anyone out there has a photo of a Civil War ancestor I'd love to share it with the world. Drop me a line!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ebook pricing

I've been thinking about what price to set for A Fine Likeness. It's a full-length novel at 95,000 words (about 380 printed pages) yet as an ebook it's not as much of a "product" as a print book. I feel the big publishers are wrong to price ebooks the same as their print volumes since you can't give it away, resell it or, according to Amazon's rules, really even own it.

In my discussion of why I chose Kindle Direct Publishing, I said that I was going to price it at $2.99, the minimum to get 70% royalties. Factoring in Amazon's 15 cent "delivery fee", this works out to $1.943 profit per copy. I’d need to sell 2,573 copies to make $5,000, the average advance for a first-time genre author.

Two recent posts by fellow professionals have made me rethink. Zoe Winters writes about the 99 Cent Ghetto, in which she lambasts the popular move to price self-published ebooks at 99 cents. She says this author-driven phenomenon is cheapening what we authors do. I agree. Marketing people talk about "perceived value." If something looks too cheap, it probably is. Just watch the average buyer in a wine shop. Beyond the simple decision of red vs. white, a lot of people simply buy by price. Hot date? Get the $20 bottle. Making sangria? Get the $5 bottle. Bad comparison? Maybe, but you see my point.

Dean Wesley Smith also does the math on the Great 99 Cent Debate and proves it's almost impossible to make decent money by pricing your book at 99 cents.

So I think I'm going to price A Fine Likeness at $4.99. With 70% royalties minus the delivery fee that nets me $3.343 per copy. I need to sell 1,496 copies to make $5,000 instead of 2,573 copies. If I do sell my original target of 2,573 copies, I'll make $8.601.54. Nice!

Some Kindle authors will say I'm pricing myself out of the market. I don't think so. If someone is attracted to my book, they'll pay $4.99 as readily as $2.99. It's half the price of a print book, after all. Even if I do lose a few potential buyers, I think the increased revenue per copy will more than make up for it.

So, what do you think?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Version 2.0 for my cover

Last week I posted the first version of the cover for my Civil War horror novel, A Fine Likeness. Many of you fine folks gave good advice here and on the Kindle Direct Publishing forum. Here's version 2.0. The one thing that will certainly change is that "House Divided" will be capitalized since that's the series title. My brother-in-law doesn't speak much English so I think he missed that. What do you think of this new version?

Monday, July 25, 2011

The first Confederate invasion of the North!

In covering all things Trans-Miss on this blog, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this week marks the 150th anniversary of the first Confederate invasion of the Union, which happened in the western fringes of the Trans-Mississippi at Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, across the Rio Grande from Texas.

The story of this historic, albeit small, invasion is being told on an excellent blog called Civil War Daily Gazette. Rather than steal the Gazette's thunder, I'll simply direct you over there. This brave blogger has vowed to blog every day of the Sesquicentennial and his efforts should be rewarded with a hit counter as big as the National Debt Clock.

The fourth book in my House Divided series will be taking place in the New Mexico and Arizona Territories before, during, and after Sibley's ill-fated attempt to take the Far West for the Confederacy. I lived in Tucson for twelve years, not far from the westernmost battle of the Civil War at the Battle of Picacho Peak, so I have a deep interest in this aspect of the war.

[Photo of Confederate flag raising over Tucson courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: A Union officer and his slave

This photo shows Col. Madison Miller of the 18th Missouri Infantry, a Union regiment. The 18th Missouri served in its own state until March 1862, when like many other Tran-Mississippi units, both North and South, it was transferred east of the river, where it stayed until the end of the war. Miller was declared missing at the Battle of Shiloh. Considering the carnage of that battle, he was probably killed and his body never recovered.

The man holding his horse may have been a slave. Since Missouri was not considered a state in rebellion, Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to it. Slaves were not freed in Missouri until a state convention freed them on 11 January 1865. Despite this, Missouri formed its first Negro regiment in 1863, made up of free blacks and runaways from Arkansas. A total of 8,300 blacks served in Missouri units, although it's unclear how many of them were actually Missourians.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Fine Likeness gets a cover!

My brother-in-law Andrés has designed a cover for my Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness. It incorporates a photo I got off the Library of Congress archive. I didn't find this photo until a couple of years after I wrote the scene and was blown away that these guys are posed almost exactly as Jimmy's band of bushwhackers were posed when they got their photo taken. The only difference is that in the book there are six people, while in this photo there are only five. But hey, how often do covers exactly match what's inside the book?

What do you think of this design? I'd like to hear your opinion!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making character quirks part of the plot

If you're writing fiction, one of the challenges is to make your characters well-rounded and believable. One way to do this is with quirks, the strange little habits and idiosyncrasies that we all have and our characters should have to make them seem real. Quirks can tell a lot about a person, or may simply be another identifier so the reader can follow the action in a crowded scene. Quirks can even have some greater symbolism.

In my Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness, one of my main characters is fifty-year-old Captain Richard Addison of the Enrolled Missouri Militia. Now anyone who has read up on the Civil War in Missouri knows this Union militia got their butts kicked on a regular basis. Well, this guy is no exception, especially in the beginning of the book. He has two main quirks--he loves riding and he gets lower back pain any time he rides for long periods of time. Getting old, you see. The war has worsened this condition because he's in the saddle most of every day. Our hero is losing the enjoyment of his favorite activity because of a war he hates.

This isn't a major part of the plot or even particularly important to it, although it does put him in a foul mood much of the time. What it does do is give symbolic example of the weakness of the Union militia and highlight our hero's dislike of the conflict.

Another quirk Captain Addison has is that he strokes his beard when he's thinking, a common practice among bearded men for some reason. After a few repetitions of this action the reader knows that Addison is mulling over something when he strokes his beard.

So when you're writing up characters, try to think of some quirks. It makes the reading, and the writing, a lot more fun.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: Jesse James the Confederate guerrilla

Welcome to Civil War Photo Friday! This weekly series will highlight interesting photos from the Civil War era.

You’ve almost certainly seen this image of Jesse James. It was taken in during a guerrilla raid on Platte City, Missouri, on 10 July 1864, when Jesse was only sixteen. This is the gun-toting youth Jimmy Rawlins and his friends meet in an early chapter of A Fine Likeness.

While Jesse and his brother Frank weren’t famous yet, they were members of the guerrilla band of Bloody Bill Anderson and therefore I couldn’t ignore them in my book! I wanted to use Bloody Bill, who needs no fictional embellishment to make him a good character for a horror novel, and so I got the James boys too. Interestingly, although they only have a minor role in the first book, they have begun to take over my series. Something about fame. . .

Jesse James is shown in typical bushwhacker gear. He’s carrying at least three pistols and wears a loose “bushwhacker shirt” modeled on the garb of the Western plainsmen. It has deep pockets for holding spare cylinders for the revolvers. Although this one is rather plain, many were elaborately embroidered by female relatives or sweethearts.

Like other bushwhackers, Jimmy and his friends all vie with one another to have the nicest guerrilla shirt. Sadly Jimmy’s girlfriend isn’t very good at embroidery. He’s a bit touchy on the subject and a crack shot so don’t make fun of his shirt.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back cover blurb for A Fine Likeness

Below is the tentative back cover blurb for my Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness. This blurb is still a work in progress so any input would be highly appreciated:

A Confederate guerrilla and a Union captain discover there’s something more dangerous in the woods than each other.

A Fine Likeness is a story about two enemies struggling with inner demons, and discovering they face a far more tangible one. Jimmy Rawlins is a teenaged bushwhacker who leads his friends on ambushes of Union patrols. They join infamous guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson on a raid through Missouri, but Jimmy questions his commitment to the Cause when he discovers this madman plans to sacrifice a Union prisoner in a hellish ritual to raise the Confederate dead.

Richard Addison is an aging captain of a lackluster Union militia. Depressed over his son’s death in battle, a glimpse of Jimmy changes his life. Jimmy and his son look so much alike that Addison becomes obsessed with saving him from Bloody Bill. Captain Addison must wreck his reputation to win this war within a war, while Jimmy must decide whether to betray the Confederacy to stop the evil arising in the woods of Missouri.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Confederate flags of Missouri

When most people think of Confederate troops, they think of them fighting under the “Stars and Bars”, the famous Confederate battle flag. In Missouri, however, that flag was rarely used. Instead there were a variety of flags. The most common was the one you see above, adopted early in the war and used both in Missouri and by Missouri troops sent east of the Mississippi. General Sterling Price, who led the 1864 invasion of Missouri that's the backdrop to my novel A Fine Likeness, had a flag like this.
Some units used the flag of the Missouri State Guard, the former state militia that remained loyal to the secessionist state government. Others created flags of their own. The 4th Missouri Infantry under General Van Dorn, for example, used this flag.

[Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons and the National Park Service]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why would a professional author self-publish with Kindle Direct Publishing?

As I mentioned in my last post, I'll be self-publishing my series of Civil War horror/paranormal novels via Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, and Createspace in September. The book will be available in print and ebook format for all ereaders.

Why would a professional author with eight traditionally published books and three more on the way decide to self-publish? Especially after the rants he’s published here and here? The simple answer is that the industry has changed and it now makes economic sense to do so. The full answer is more complex.

The publishing industry is agonizingly slow. I finished my Missouri Civil War novel, A Fine Likeness, three years ago. I sent it off to an editor I knew at Tor. She got back to me after many months:

There is a lot of fine material here. That you can write isn’t in question. I just honestly don’t know how we would market this book--mainstream with horror elements? A quiet horror novel with a mystery wrapped around it? The economic climate these days mandate that we have projects that can go out to the widest audience and this sometimes makes it difficult to get certain books out there.

I also sent it off to some agents. Some turned it down for the same reason, taking months to do so. Some never got back to me at all.

After that I submitted it to Chizine and Dorechester Publishing’s Fresh Blood Contest for unpublished horror novelists. Out of hundreds of submissions I made it into the ten finalists. There were several rounds of elimination presided over by judges from the publishing industry. I got to the top five before the contest opened up to public vote. The idea was to see how well we could market ourselves. Unfortunately, I was traveling in Ethiopia at that time with little access to the Internet! I lost. Maybe I would have lost anyway, but being out of touch sure killed my marketing campaign.

Chizine and Dorchester both expressed interest in my novel and asked to read the whole thing. Shortly afterwards Dorchester became one of many mid-sized publishers to fall victim to the Great Recession. They laid off most of their staff and switched to ebooks only. Many industry insiders feel they’ll go under soon. They never got back to me on my submission and that’s just fine.

Chizine kept my book. I respect these guys. They publish books I love, especially the horror westerns of Gemma Files. I waited. And waited. After fifteen months they finally got back to me:

So sorry it took us this long to get back to you. Our lives have been filled to the brim for ages!
I wish I were writing with better news—especially after your long wait—but unfortunately, we're going to pass on A Fine Likeness. We dig the writing, and it's certainly in CZP's wheelhouse. The main issue, though, is that we've been publishing a similarly themed series (Gemma Files's Hexslinger series), plus we're likely taking on another one that's somewhat along these lines, so it's really just a matter of bad timing, for the most part.
That said, we'd like to see something else, if you have something you think might fit for us—and we promise it won't be anywhere near 15 months to get an answer. :-)
Sorry this didn't work out, Sean, but please do try us again.
Cheers, and best of luck placing this elsewhere—we think you shouldn't have much trouble doing so.

I’ve had enough. The Civil War Sesquicentennial has started and now is the time to publish my series. I'm not going to wait another 15 months to have an editor tell me I have bad timing.

I started investigating the possibility of self-publishing with Kindle and liked what I saw. Setup is free and if I price my ebook at $2.99 or more I get 70% royalties minus a 15 cent “delivery fee”. Most first-time novelists get about a $5,000 advance. Some get less. Some get nothing. Doing the math I would get $1.943 per copy and I’d need to sell 2,573 copies to make $5,000.

I can do that. I’m already known for three Missouri history books and two Civil War books. I have heaps of contacts in mainstream media, the blogosphere, and twitterverse. That’s a good base on which to build a marketing campaign.

While the marketing campaign will take up a huge amount of time and effort, it’s something I would have done if I were traditionally published anyway. Most publishers do very little to market their works and authors are left to sink or swim. I will continue to traditionally publish my nonfiction because my publishers can do a better job producing and selling my books than I can. Osprey Publishing, for example, pays me well for my military history books, does a great job on design, and they have a marketing team that actually knows how to market their product.

So for me, at this time of flux in the publishing industry, it makes sense to remain with traditional publishers for my nonfiction and strike out on my own with my fiction. I’m interested in hearing what you think about this move, and from anyone who has published with the services I'm going to use. Drop me a line in the comments section!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Welcome to Civil War Horror!

Welcome to Civil War Horror, a new blog by yours truly, Sean McLachlan. I’m a former archaeologist turned history and travel writer with a deep interest in the American Civil War, especially the war west of the Mississippi River. The so-called Trans-Mississippi Theater is understudied, yet fascinating. After the fall of Vicksburg on 4 July 1863, the Confederate West was cut off from the rest of the new nation and the conflict there became essentially a separate Civil War.

It had been so for some time. Seven years before the 1861 attack on Fort Sumter, the event most historians use to mark the start of the Civil War, Missouri and Kansas engaged in a bitter border war over whether the Kansas Territory would become a slave or free state. Abolitionist Kansas Jayhawkers raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slaveowners. Proslavery Missouri bushwhackers rode into Missouri, attacking abolitionists and fixing territorial elections.

After the surrender of the main Confederate armies in the East in 1865, rebels in the Trans-Miss fought on for a few months, and the bitter war’s legacy still played a part in conflicts such as the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 and the Baldknobbers feud in the Ozarks in the 1880s.

This blog will cover all aspects of the Civil War while focusing on the Trans-Mississippi in general and Missouri in particular. Guest bloggers are welcome, so drop me a line if you have any photos, anecdotes, or interesting bits of information you’d like to share with a wider audience.

Why “Civil War horror”? Because this blog is also dedicated to my new series of horror/paranormal novels set in Missouri and the Trans-Mississippi. The first in the series, A Fine Likeness, was a finalist in a contest for new novelists and will be published via Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, and Createspace in mid-September. More on that tomorrow!

[Image of Battle of Boonville, MO, courtesy Wikimedia Commons]