Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Archives: February 2014

The E-Book Revolution: Does the Writing Still Matter?

Amazon+Kindle+Touch-1024It’s impossible to discuss the state of modern publishing without mentioning the Amazon Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, and the many other handheld e-readers currently flooding the market. E-books have now surpassed hardcovers in numbers of sales, and liberal self-publishing programs through sites like Amazon, Smashwords, and others have allowed authors of all skill levels to release their words into the world, to sink or swim on their own merits, with no interference from editors, agents, or publishers.

The phrase “Kindle millionaire” has been bandied about by the media, first derisively, and then with dawning reverence. Many previously unknown writers, including John Locke and Amanda Hocking, have garnered headlines for selling obscene amounts of digital books, earning fortunes in the process (and, in the case of Hocking, a juicy $2 million, four book traditional publishing contract). Even former mid-list authors like J.A. Konrath and Scott Nicholson have enjoyed rejuvenated sales thanks to e-publishing.

It’s an exciting time for authors, with bold new distribution systems being introduced almost weekly. As I write these words, Amazon has offered many of its e-books for free rental at over 11,000 public libraries (including my own — I just checked). And next week, Amazon is expected to announce its own sub-$250 tablet computer, a potential game changer for e-books.

But with all this talk about massive e-publishing fortunes, the mass acceptance of digital literature, and potential new revenue streams for writers, you know what I haven’t heard much about?

The writing.

Hocking made headlines for her Kindle sales, but are her books any good? Beats me… no one wants to talk about that. Locke is the first self-published author in history to sell over a million Kindle e-books; you can find many articles analyzing his sales figures, but precious little discussion about the literary merits of his Donovan Creed mystery/thrillers.

What gives?

Yes, some authors are making huge money with e-books. But they are outliers, astonishing but rare success stories, sparked by a combination of hard work, excellent marketing, crowd-pleasing narratives (one assumes), and a certain amount of luck. Anyone who thinks that vomiting out sub-standard content and uploading it to Amazon will fund a lavish new lifestyle is going to be sorely disappointed.

I’m a technology buff, and I get it: the novelty of e-books is strong, and it’s exciting to see what some authors have achieved without the backing of a corporate publisher. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that e-books aren’t widgets. They’re books, even if they aren’t printed on paper. Can’t we discuss them the way we discuss other books? By talking about their strengths and weaknesses, rather than their sales figures and financial aspects?

If I were Locke or Hocking, I’d be insulted.

For the record, let me state that I’m a complete convert to e-books, and will probably never buy another paper book as long as I live. I absolutely love having adjustable font sizes and the ability to carry my entire book collection with me everywhere I go. But as with paper books, e-books are worthless to me if they’re not well-written, regardless of how many copies they’ve sold.

I wish all these “journalists” would remember that too.

How about you? What do you think of digital publishing and the e-book boom? Are we living in a golden age of self-publishing, as some have claimed?

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 23, 2011.]


Things I Wish I’d Known When Writing My First Novel [Guest Post from Scott Nicholson]

flyboymug-247x300NOTE FROM JOE: As I’ve previously discussed, I’m in the process of writing a novel. Although I’ve been publishing non-fiction professionally for almost twenty years, my fiction endeavors have been limited. As such, when I began writing Coffee to Die For, I reached out to one of my favorite writers and asked for his advice.

The author in question is the prolific Scott Nicholson (pictured), an icon of both traditional and indie publishing. In addition to the breakout horror novel The Red Church (which I highly recommend), Scott runs a terrific blog about writing and publishing. Here’s what he had to say in response to my question. I trust you’ll find it as helpful and inspiring as I did.  –Joe

Advice for Joe on the Writing of His First Novel
by Scott Nicholson

Joe, here’s the big difference from when I started writing 15 years ago:

I didn’t know writing was so dog-gone difficult.

I didn’t have the Internet and a billion writing blogs telling me how hard it was to get published, or how great the self-publishing era is. I had to subscribe to paper newsletters to keep up with market listings for the short story market, and go to the library or buy magazines to get lists of agents and publishers.

In a way, the lack of Internet made it really easy to focus. I had a certain number of hours available to me in the morning, and I could get lost in the story. There was no email to check, no hot market tip, no obligation to engage strangers in social media, no latest tech toy that was going to change the face of publishing forever, or at least for the next few weeks.

Don’t get me wrong: e-books are going to help a lot of writers meet their audience in ways that were never before possible. It’s going to be easier for most writers to make money, even if it still will be difficult. And I am very grateful to be here while it’s happening.

But I miss hammering out my stories on an old Selectric IBM typewriter with a clunky print wheel and a floppy disk drive. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment to roll those pages in one at a time and print them out, until there was a big stack beside me at a cost of about a dime a page, only to be boxed and mailed for $10 or $15 per submission. The very cost and inconvenience made shipping it off to a publisher a big enterprise, like launching a ship.

And, back then, most publishers would still look at your slush submission, so I could at least hold out hope that someone would read it, love it, and make an offer. (In fact, that’s how it happened to me). We weren’t aware that the odds of getting accepted were less than one in 100. Indeed, you could legitimately hope that every submission was the winning lottery ticket, instead of the mass email queries favored today, the policies of agents to “only respond if interested,” and with most larger publishers refusing to look at anything unless it was sent in by those same rude, aloof agents.

In the beginning, all I knew was to tell the story the best I could, read every book on the business and craft I could get my hands on, and keep up my leisure reading, which was never fully “leisure” because I was always aware of the wizard behind the curtains lining up words. I’d read something bold and be inspired to write something boldly. I’d read something tepid and hurl it across the room, positive that I could do better.

In the beginning, all I had was my imagination, my fingers, and my words. I was blissfully ignorant. I didn’t know what I was doing was impossible.

So I just did it anyway, without knowing any better.

If I had any advice for an aspiring writer today, aside from warning them away from all advice, it would be this: Ignore everything but the next sentence.

Scott Nicholson is the author of several dozen books, short stories, and screenplays. His non-fiction works include The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, and the essay collection Write Good or Die, which he edited.

[Note from Joe: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 30, 2011.] 



Birth of a Novel: A Conversation with the Writer I Used to Be

young joeGood morning, Old Joe!

Eh? Who said that?


I’m afraid that doesn’t help. Who, exactly, is “me”?

Don’t you remember? It’s me! Young Joe! The kid you used to be, before you got old and fat! The boy who dreams of growing up to be a writer!

Oh… uh, hello. Wow. This is a little awkward. Tell me, why are you in my head today, Young Joe?

I decided to travel to the future and see how my life’s going to turn out! To see if we ever made good on that whole writing dream!

You know how to time travel, Young Joe?

Oh, sure! Remember, I’m a kid with a huge imagination! That’s one of the reasons I want to be a writer when I grow up! I love telling stories!

Hmm… now that you mention it, I do seem to remember that about you. Or me. Whatever. I’m confused.

Nice brain you’ve got here, Old Joe. Although there seems to be a lot of dust lying around. It’s almost like you don’t use certain parts of your mind any more, especially the parts that are about playing and having fun! That’s sad.

Well, it’s a little different when you’re a grown up, Young Joe.

Things aren’t always groovy, huh?

“Groovy?” I haven’t heard that word in years!

Well, remember, Old Joe, it’s still 1979 where I come from. But tell me, is my dream going to come true? Do I grow up to be a writer?

As a matter of fact, Young Joe, you do!

Hurray! I knew I could make it happen if I worked hard enough! Tell me, how did we get started? Did we write an awesome horror story about ninja robot skeletons? Or books about pirates? Or spaceships? Or vampires?

Eh… not so much, Young Joe. You see, I write non-fiction these days.

Non-fiction? You mean those boring books that don’t have any pictures? The kind of books I have to read for school?

Uh, yeah.

Oh. (*long pause*) Do you like writing that stuff?

Yes, I do. Clients hire me to write reports, manuals, grants, and other stuff like that. It’s important work.

And they don’t ever want you to write stories?

Well, no. I haven’t done much fiction writing since high school. Not since I got Miss Rose’s note.

Who’s Miss Rose, Old Joe?

Oh, that’s right! You haven’t met her yet, Young Joe. She was, or will be, our 11th grade English teacher. One day, I mentioned that I wanted to be a professional writer when I grew up.

So why did she write you a note, Old Joe?

Well, she wrote a handwritten message on the title page of a short story I handed in for an assignment.

Was it a nice note?

Well… no, Young Joe. It wasn’t.

What did it say?

You know what’s funny, Young Joe? It’s been over 20 years, and I can still remember it word for word. It said: “Joe, your ideas have merit, but your writing is flat. You aren’t a natural storyteller. Stick to non-fiction from now on.”

Wow. That must have hurt!

Yeah. It did, Young Joe. It really did. And I haven’t written much fiction since then. Hardly any at all, in fact.

Wait a minute, Old Joe. Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You used to write fiction constantly, right?


And you gave it up almost overnight, even though you really enjoyed it?


All because one person said she didn’t like your work?

Uh, yeah. I guess so. Sounds kinda lame when you put it that way.

It’s beyond lame! I wish I wasn’t just a voice in your head, Old Joe! I wish I was actually standing in front of you right now, so you could see how crestfallen I am. The fact that you would let the word of one woman destroy my dream like that! How could you do that to me? How could do that to yourself?

Wow… I’m sorry, Young Joe. You’re right. Even though I’ve written and published a lot of non-fiction, I do miss writing fiction. I never should have given it up. What can I do to make it up to you?

I think you know what you need to do, Old Joe. If you really want to make it up to me, you have to write a novel.

A novel? Really?

Yes! You need to write a novel. And you need to start working on it right now. This week.


Come on, bub! You owe me. You’ve kept my dreams imprisoned for over 20 years. Let them out!

You know what? You’re right, Young Joe. I’m going to do it. I’m going to write a novel.

Good! And make sure you tell other people that you’re doing it, Old Joe! If other people know you’re working on it, they can offer encouragement and support! They can give you all the things that your awful high school English teacher didn’t provide.

Good idea! I think I’ll post about it on my blog.

What the heck’s a blog, Old Joe?

Oops. Uh… well, it’s this thing I write on the Internet…

What’s the Internet?

Never mind. All you need to know is that I’m going to do it. I’m going to share this conversation with some of my friends, okay? It will be my way of letting them know that I’m going to write a novel. And I’ll keep them updated each week on my progress. Won’t that be fun?

Oh wow, it sure will! Good luck, Old Joe! I better get back to my own time, and let you get to work on your new book.

Sounds good, Young Joe. Thanks for stopping by. And hey, I appreciate the kick in the rear.

It’s what I do, Old Joe. It’s what I do. 

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 9, 2011. That was the same week I began the first draft of Coffee to Die For, the first novel in my Clayton Gyler mystery series. Last night, on February 10th, 2014, I completed the third (and what I presume will be the final) draft of the book. As such, I thought today was a good time to repost this conversation with Young Joe. I hope he’s proud of me! If you’d like to keep informed about my further writing adventures, please sign up for my mailing list.]



The Top 5 Reasons I Quit Reading Your Blog

no-blogLike many of you, I expect, I’m thoroughly addicted to reading blogs. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, and my poor RSS Reader finds itself bursting at the seams with dozens of quality sites each and every day. The sheer amount of blog post links that get flung in my face on Twitter alone is enough to fill a hard drive, and yet somehow I always seem to crave more blogs, more blogs, dear God, just a few more blogs.

I’m willing to give almost any blog a chance, provided the subject matter interests me. However, because I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to reading material, I have become increasingly less tolerant of a few blogging traits which hinder, or outright prevent, my ability to enjoy certain sites. As such, here are the top five ways to ensure that I’ll never read your blog again:

1. I can’t find your RSS feed. I do about 95% of my blog reading through an RSS Reader. When I hear about a new blog that I’d like to check out, I type the URL into my browser and spend about 30 seconds poking around the page. Do the posts appear to be engagingly written and properly punctuated? Do the headlines make the content sound interesting? If so, I immediately sign up for the mailing list and subscribe to the RSS feed. Then, in all likelihood, I never visit the main page again. From that point on, my relationship with that blog exists entirely within the confines of an RSS reader.

If I can’t find your RSS feed, or (gasp) if you don’t have one, you’ve lost me as a potential reader, no matter how great your content might be.

2. Your RSS feed only shows me a few sentences of each post. This goes hand-in-hand with #1. You see, I read a lot of blogs on my iPod Touch, which is a wifi-only device. Every morning I launch my favorite mobile reading software, MobileRSS, which syncs up to my RSS Reader and downloads all the latest posts straight to my iPod, in much the same way that iTunes downloads new podcasts for me. This way, I have the posts with me throughout the day, and can read them at my leisure, even if I end up in a place that doesn’t have wifi access.

However, if your RSS feed only gives me a few sentences of your post, and then invites me to “click here to read the rest of the article,” then you’ve effectively ensured that I can only read your content if I’m in a wifi hot spot, which isn’t always convenient for me. That’s just not how media should work in the 21st century. Include the entire post in your RSS feed, and I’ll be your reader for life.

3. You don’t understand third-grade grammar. I don’t have a problem with the occasional typo or grammatical oddity; we all make mistakes. What I cannot abide is a willing and repeated disregard for the basic rules of grammar, which were drilled into my head when I was nine years old and which I’ve never forgotten. I’m referring to the people who continuously write “your” when they mean “you’re,” ten times in the same post.

Nobody’s perfect, but really, if you can’t even get that right, I’m unlikely to have confidence in your blogging skills.

4. You force me to jump through hoops to read your content. I just came across this peculiar situation for the first time: I found a blog that has great writing, and useful information. However, in order to encourage people to join his mailing list, this particular blogger password protects roughly 50% of his posts. The password changes weekly. Every seven days, he e-mails the new password to his subscribers. If they click on a protected post, they must enter that week’s password in order to read it.

Seriously? In order to consume his content, I’m expected to dig through the hundreds of e-mails I receive in a typical week and look for his latest password, hoping all the while that I didn’t accidentally delete it, or that it didn’t get blocked by my spam filter? Sorry, life’s too short. Bye bye to that particular blog.

5. You assume that my knowledge of the subject matter is equal to your own. While there is something gratifying in reading a site that doesn’t patronize me, or treat me like I’m unintelligent, it’s possible for a blogger to go too far in the opposite direction. If I’m reading your blog, it’s very likely that I’m not an expert on your subject matter, and am hoping to learn more about your topic of expertise from you. But if you rely too heavily on elite industry jargon, without including a definition of an unusual term or acronym, don’t be surprised if I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I don’t mind doing a little research to clarify a confusing concept or word, but if I have to perform a Google search to understand every third sentence of your post, your blog probably isn’t for me.

How about the rest of you? What are your own blogging pet peeves? And more importantly, am I violating any of them? Let me know in the comments below!

[NOTE: This post was originally published on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on April 6, 2011.]



Coming Out of the Writing Closet

funny-pictures-cat-pidgeons-star-warsWhen we last spoke, I shared with you the story of how I wrote my second novel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street, over a two-month period by getting up an hour early each day.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve now made this formerly alien behavior a habit, and I can barely remember what life used to be like before I embraced it. It feels so natural, so correct, that it’s hard to believe I ever tried to write at night, after my brain was fried from a hard day of corporate writing and various household responsibilities.

I realize I’ve been living a lie for years, and I can’t take it any longer. I need to come out of the closet. I’m finally ready to admit it:

I am, and always have been, a morning writer. I deluded myself for over a decade, trying to make myself be something that I wasn’t, but I was wrong.

Well, no more denial of my true nature! No more will my novels have to subsist on my intellectual leftovers! Now, Clayton Gyler and his sidekick, the lovely Jennifer Watkins, will get served first at my creativity buffet each day, when I’m at my freshest and most focused.

What has impressed me most about this method of working is not just how great I feel when I’m done (knowing that even before many of my friends have gotten out of bed, I’ve already made substantial strides on a project that matters greatly to me, and furthered my long-term career goals).

No, what has impressed me most is how quickly the pages pile up when a person commits to writing each and every day. Even a relatively small amount like 1,000 words (about four double-spaced pages) can yield impressive results after a few weeks.

Referring back to my notes, I see that for the first 39 days I worked on Phantom, I wrote a total of 44,510 new words (162 pages). That’s about 2/3rds the length of the first book (Coffee to Die For), the first draft of which took me eight months to complete. By the time the first draft of Phantom was complete a few weeks later, I’d written 85,183 words (306 pages). This meant that Phantom was about 25% longer than Coffee, yet was written in one-quarter the time. That’s music to my ears.

Incidentally, I worked on the first draft of the second novel in the morning, and spent any free time I could find in the evening writing the second draft of the first novel. Any new words I wrote while revising were in addition to the words I wrote in the morning, and were not counted towards my daily word goal. (Nor are blog posts.)

I’m thrilled by this new routine, and the progress I’ve made. I’m now finishing up the third draft of Coffee, and am excited by how close to the end I’m getting. Then I’ll turn my full attention to revising Phantom and getting it out into the world, too. (Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list, if you’d like to be notified when they’re available.)

What about you? What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person, an afternoon writer, or a midnight oil burner? I’m genuinely interested.