Category Archives: Reviews

Be the Future?

Be the Monkey: Ebooks and Self-Publishing, a Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Reviewed by John Patrick Tormey.

No question: there’s a revolution going on here.—Barry Eisler

Best-selling spy novelist Barry Eisler and successful thriller novelist and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath’s ebook Be the Monkey is a sprawling discussion as recorded on GoogleDocs; a loud cheer for what they call “indie-publishing”, and an autopsy of the publishing industry as it transitions from a paper-based model to one dominated by digital texts.

Indie-publishing is an umbrella title for everything from self-publishing to new publishing companies working outside the model established by the “Big 6/Legacy” institutions that have dominated the industry for decades, and how that may be coming to an end.

In the part one, the authors pivot off Eisler’s announcement that he passed on a half-a-million dollar advance from a big name publisher in favor of self publishing, claiming he made the decision for monetary as well as creative reasons, and was inspired in part by Konrath’s move away the world of legacy publishing and his proselytizing to other writers to make the same choice.

Konrath and Eisler argue that the paper book is now on the road to becoming a “niche market,” and writers and readers will be better off in the new world of the ebook. It is a convincing theory, one reinforced by Amazon’s announcement that in 2010 the company sold more books for the Kindle ereader than paper copies, along with the popularity of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, a point Eisler highlights early on. This means that writers will make more money while readers will pay less and enjoy access to a wider range of content. The numbers used to support the claim are pretty convincing:

Joe: …the 25% royalty on ebooks [legacy publishers] offer is actually 14.9% after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: …a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agents takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Think of it this way: by publishing a novel or story collection as an ebook on Smashwords or B&N or Amazon, the author retains 70% of the profit from the sales of his or her work. That is a margin too wide to ignore, or as Konrath puts it, “…in the long run a 70% royalty wins.”

The benefits of circumventing the legacy publishers don’t stop there. From the shortened time between when a book is finished to when it reaches the market, to the unprecedented level of creative control, plus a healthy—and growing—list of the indie-published authors enjoying healthy sales, Be the Monkey does, at times, make a very convincing case for going it alone.

Or as alone as possible. In some of the most informative and forward-thinking sections of the discussion, Konrath and Eisler muse on what the digital revolution in book-making will mean for the industry at large, beyond the realm of writers and readers.  They refuse to glorify or gloss over the substantial workload an author is shouldering by avoiding legacy route. The self-published author assumes the role of writer, editor, and copyeditor. They become responsible for cover art, front and back cover copy, the writer’s biography, formatting text, marketing and promotion…the list goes on.  Konrath believes this space may be filled by what he calls “E-stributors…a combination of publisher and manager…” that will take over these tasks for a one-time fee or a percentage of the book’s profits, leaving the author to concentrate on what is his most important job: writing.

When I used the word “sprawling” to describe Be the Monkey, understand that what Eisler and Konrath have written isn’t an actual book; it is a series of conversations recorded over a long stretch of time that covered a wide swath of subjects.

Saturday, 10 April, 2010

Fictionaut Reviewed

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.23.32 PM.pngFictionaut is Flickr for writers. Which, really is to say that it’s a social network built around writing – sometimes drafts of novels, sometimes flash fiction – and so you go to Fictionaut to friend people, and leave comments, join groups, and submit stories, and so on so forth.

In the few months since Fictionaut’s release, a number of writers have described the service as a breath of fresh air. Some use it as a stage before publication – throw the drafts of your latest novel on Fictionaut, and you’re guaranteed a discerning audience. Most striking, however, is this love-letter by James Robinson, who says: “Fictionaut provides a round-the-clock, faithfully attentive audience. Bless its founders.” I saw that, thought for a bit, and emailed founder Jürgen Fauth for an invite.

Here are some thoughts, loosely connected, on Fictionaut.


I’m must say that I’m most surprised at the level of community on the site. The majority of writing websites that I know have communities that aren’t particularly … nice. Fictionaut’s, however, not only seem to be consistently nice, but tend to also refrain from commenting on works they do not like. (If the writing is horrible, you keep quiet and go somewhere else). The net effect is that you feel – when you’re writing there – to be part of this welcoming, supportive group. And that’s a rather refreshing thing to have.

From experience, I’m not sure if such ‘supportive writer culture’ can or will last forever. The culture exists naturally, at the moment, bubbling up from the community, but if at any point Fictionaut opens its doors to the general public, the influx of new members may seriously undermine the tone and pitch of the site. And that’s something I pray won’t happen, though I’m not sure how they’re going to do it. Fictionaut will have to be very careful when they expand; my hope is that they’d get the formula just right.

(I suspect that the solutions for maintaining quality discussion would have to be technological at heart, the same way Paul Graham has programmed several clever things into Hacker News, in order to maintain intelligent discourse. But how exactly this applies to writing I’m not particularly sure.)

Readability baked right in

Fictionaut forces its writers to publish stories according to a standardized, highly readable format. I posted a short story on the site and came away impressed with the quality of the user experience. Reader comments are placed in the sidebar, there’s a section for author notes, and the element placement leads me to suspect that everything you see on-site is deliberately designed to be that way.

There are little flourishes, too, like the beautiful popups that appear when you add someone as a friend, or when you’ve had a failed login:

Javascript Popup

I realize I’m a being a bit of a design geek here, but it’s hard to miss: someone has spent a lot of time making sure everything works intuitively on Fictionaut. I applaud his (or her) attention to detail.

Superb writing

Writing is good on Fictionaut. I sometimes spend hours on the site, reading newer, cooler, better stories – and I can say with some confidence that there’s a high standard to which most Fictionaut writers adhere to. At the very least, there’s a base level of competence that you don’t usually find anywhere else.

A large chunk of the site’s stories are flash fiction, followed by poetry, short stories, and a sprinkling of books-in-progress, posted chapter-by-chapter.

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.31.09 PM.png

I should note that this quality didn’t happen by accident. Fictionaut’s founder, Jürgen Fauth, has a PhD in English/Creative Writing from USM’s Centre for Writers. The core community of the site was handpicked, I think – and new memberships are still dependent on invitations. Accordingly, the site currently leans towards literary fiction, and it feels – at times – like a literary magazine.

At the moment you either get in on invitation, or you apply for an invite. The application page leads me to suspect that Fictionaut enforces a filter for writers – you’ll either have to be competent enough, or established enough to get in (or you’ll have to know someone who’s already in, I suppose). This sounds scary and slightly elitist, but it probably explains the quality of the community and writing on the site today.

There’s a paragraph in the Venuszine Fictionaut review that says:

Pia Erhardt, a seasoned writer from New Orleans who recently had the “most favorited” story, “Ambulance,” agrees that it’s sometimes “terrifying” to post her unedited work, mostly because she respects what her fellow members are writing.

Quality begets quality, and so – again – I’m not particularly sure how they’re going to maintain this without the current invitation system.

(My favourite story on Fictionaut so far is Gold, by Ethel Rohan. To be fair, though, all her stories are just as good.)

Closing Thoughts

Fictionaut’s a little like an oasis, at the moment: it’s quite rare to find a such a large community of good writers online – even at its current size – who’re so supportive of each other. Despite my doubts with Fictionaut’s scalability, I must add that writing and reading on the site has been one of the more enjoyable things I’ve done, lately.

And so – while I’m not sure if Fictionaut can keep it up, or even where they’re headed, I really am quite grateful for the site, for what they’re currently doing for writers. I merely hope that Fictionaut ages gracefully, without the worst of teething problems that so often follows a growing – and social – community. I wish Fictionaut well.

Monday, 8 December, 2008

Life as a Web Fiction Guide Editor

My exams ended on the 4th of December, and I was suddenly left alone with my newfound freedom. I surfed the Internet a bit, clicking about in random directions, in much the same way a criminal may run in circles after being released from prison. His freedom renders him purposeless after years of confinement, the same way I was rendered purposeless after 3 months of crazy studying. I think it’s quite possible for one to equal the other.

I’m back, and I’m sorry for not updating Novelr earlier. My exams have left me frazzled and a little woozy, and it’ll be some time before I can get back into gear here. It doesn’t help that I’ve got quite a few other things to do – I have been spending the last couple of days reading up on PHP, because it’s about time Novelr got a redesign. And there’s design work to be done on Web Fiction Guide (WFG) as well. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

This post is a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a WFG editor. The editors, if you don’t already know, are the people in charge of reviewing and rating the 144 or so blooks listed on the site. I’ve not been a very good editor: WFG was started months ago, but I’ve almost never reviewed anything there. Put it down to my academic schedule, I guess, and bang me on the head with a wooden spoon.

Behind The Scenes: The Art (or torture) of Reviewing

What, you think we randomly choose what we review?

A review assignment usually begins as such: we hop into the Editors’ private forums and skim through the latest discussions. The topics here run the gamut from serious to nonsensical: one might be about a delisting request (the editors decided it was against WFG policy), while another might be about how we’ve been called semi-professional (go check them out!) by a StumbleUpon user. Very often, however, our personal lives slip through and colour our discussions: Gavin Williams had a baby a few months back, and we paused our discussions to congratulated him and the missus.

The chief reason we log into the discussions area is because of a spreadsheet Chris Poirier updates. It contains all the new listings and it tells us who’s reading, or reviewing what. The unreviewed listings are marked in bold, and the editors place R, W or X under their names to mark the various stages they’re going through, with regards to that particular work. An R is for Reading, W means ‘Writing a review’ and X marks a completed assignment. R sometimes last two weeks, if the blook in question is boring as hell.[1]

Wednesday, 6 February, 2008

A Look At Fray

Bloody Hand - Fray Issue 1 Cover IllustrationI’ve no idea how I missed this. Fray has been on the Internet since 1996, puts out a book four times a year (though they do not refer to their issues as blooks) and is one of the best examples of online storytelling I have ever seen. They even have a proper model to sell their independently published issues: subscriptions.

Fray began as a website. It was 1996, and the idea was simple: the web as the ultimate conduit for personal storytelling. A little later Fray started live story telling events called Fray Days ‘that took place all over the world, attended by thousands of people.’ Uhhuh uhhuh. I see parallels with flashmobs here, since both are powered by the Internet. Fray took an indefinite hiatus on 22 Oct 2005.
Fray issue 1 binding
And … they’re back. Issue 1 (Busted) just came out, with almost everything available in the online issue. Notice the blook publisher Blurb at the bottom of the page: they’re one of Issue 1’s sponsors, and I wonder just how they tie in with the whole project. The stories are well written, well presented affairs. Elementary School Confessions, for instance, has a tag line you’ve got to love: ‘Joanne had only two strengths that I didn’t: social intelligence and breasts‘.


I have to say Fray has a good chance of bringing Internet fiction to the mainstream – the people behind it are web heavyweights: Derek Powazek, the founder, was the guy who did Technorati’s original design, and Kevin Cornell, who did the bloody hand cover for Issue 1, is the guy behind the whimsical A List Apart illustrations. Fray is also a part of The Deck, an advertising network for elite blogs/websites … and damn, it looks good.

I am very pleased with the whole idea, and I’ve bookmarked and subscribed to site updates. Fray is high profile and it is web fiction. That, folks, equals one heck of a point of entry site.

[Update]: Just received answers to several questions regarding Fray:

Blurb is a sponsor of Issue 1, along with Media Temple and Wheadon Mahoney. Submissions are by email: Issue 1 was put together a few months before the actual release, and they’re going to release the theme for Issue 2 soon. Derek hints at something more than email submissions this time around – though he refuses to say exactly what. He also reminded me that Fray is not fiction: it’s all true stories, hence the term ‘personal storytelling’, as opposed to just ‘storytelling’.

And guess what? He hates the term blook ‘though not as much as … mook‘. Fray calls each issues a ‘Quaterly.’

Wednesday, 26 December, 2007

Blook Review: Tales Of MU

Female Paper DemonThere are worlds you can get lost in, and there are worlds you just want to get out of. It is testament to Alexandra Erin‘s writing ability that Tales Of MU is set in the former: the characters may be flawed, unlovable and downright weird, but you can’t help but continue reading, no matter what she throws your way. Erin does a marvelous job of hooking and bringing you in, but it isn’t all a gentle ride: very often you’ll find yourself cursing the hook and trying to break the line. And failing.

Mack (our protagonist) is one tortured soul: she is weak, spineless, and uncomfortable with her ancestry. We are introduced to her on her first day of college, and Erin keeps you going with little revelations about the rich world she has created. You want to know more: why are humans repulsed by Mack? Why does everyone carry weapons? And – this is an interesting one, this – what exactly is Mack?

Mack’s character development is a sore point for me: she starts off as a person everyone can identify with, but I found myself despising her for her lack of strength as the blook progressed. She is stepped on, pushed around and manipulated by almost everyone, and Erin offers no respite in what seems to be a solely female cast. But by golly is it addictive: you root for Mack, cheer for Mack, and you pray fervently that she finally gets her day and stands strong against all those weird friends of hers. Erin has succeeded in creating a character with a strong emotional bond with the reader, and that is one of the best things MU has got going for it.

That it is addictive hardly hides the themes MU explores: the story handles racism well, making use of the varied species (humans being uncomfortable with orgres? Priceless!) as a parallel to real world problems. The college divides humans from non-humans, and the segregation is subtle – early on in the blook Amaranth says a remarkable line: “Intolerance doesn’t go away because you legislate against it, it just becomes more sophisticated.”

Monday, 29 January, 2007

Currently Reading


war_and_peace.jpgWar and Peace. It’s nearly finished now, and boy they weren’t kidding when they said that there are no main characters in the book. Over 500 characters, and no main ones. Wow. That being so, i tend to pick which characters i like and then root for them, though the storyline’s so long and convoluted its hard to see what Tolstoy’s got coming for some of them. It’s well planned alright – War and Peace is not a compact, waterproof plot kind of thing – you’ve no idea what’s going to happen in the next chapter, the next volume or to your favourite character who seems to finally have things going for him (mine’s Prince Andrew Bolkonkski, just in case you’re wondering). What Tolstoy excels in, however, is the characters – all believable in actions and thoughts. More on this when i finally finish the book.


sidebara.gifI’m currently reading, which i had read halfway through a year ago but forgot. So i’m revisiting it, and i must say i’m rediscovering the humour in some of the episodes. The chat room sections of the blook are echoingly funny of real world internet lingo. And while it’s eating up most of my online time, i must say things are looking promising. Other reads: The Agency Delta, though i’ve only just started and am not sure how good it’ll be.


Am also checking out The Open Laboratory, published earlier this year. Probably non-fiction, but if you’re interested in science blogs (this is, afterall, an anthology) buy it here at $8.69 for a download and $19.95 for the physical copy.