The Importance of (Good) Reviews

How important is a review? In today’s publishing world, especially on Amazon.com and its international sites, a good review (four or five stars) is worth quite a bit. Dozens of them are priceless.

Shock Totem does most of its sales through Amazon, the bulk of which are digital sales. That’s a great thing, particularly for our authors. Readers are their lifeblood. Ours as well, but while readers keep us afloat on a pride level, we need revenue to sustain us for years to come.

We’ve been around for five years and each of our issues costs around $1,500 to produce. They say most businesses take five years to become profitable. Thankfully, we’re almost to the point where we’re paying for each release with profit from sales. Our last issue, Shock Totem #7, cost $236 out of pocket, which is wonderful.

We’d love to get to a point where we’re not only paying for issues with profit but also making money, enough to expand, raise our pay rate.

And that’s why we still need your help.

The debut issue of Shock Totem is our biggest seller. This is typical for every month. On Amazon, where it matters most, our debut has 28 reviews. That’s eleven more than the closest second, which is issue #2, with 17 reviews.

Our latest issue, however, has just two reviews. And we’re having a hell of a time getting review sites to respond to review requests these days. Not sure if there’s so much self-publishing going on that they’re overwhelmed with review material or if we’re so established they don’t think we need reviews; but whatever the reason, the reality is, we do need reviews.

Why? Beside the obvious reasons, Amazon.com, where sales are highest, has a ranking algorithm (among other things) that helps authors and publishers sell books. One of the biggest theories, and it’s a good one, is that the more four- and five-star reviews a book has, the more it is shown to potential buyers.

Again, our debut issue has nearly a dozen more reviews than any of our other issues and it’s our biggest seller. Signs point to Yes, the algorithm is real and that issue is being put in front of more potential readers than our other issues.

So how can you help? By posting reviews of our work. They don’t have to be long or have literary flair; they just need to be honest.

The more our sales increase, the longer we’ll be around. When so many publications are using Kickstarter to fund their projects, we’d like to earn people’s money. So if you’d be so kind, please consider reviewing anything of ours that you have read. We’d be very grateful.

In parting, and this applies not only to our books but any book, please note the difference in ratings between sites.

Three stars on Goodreads is not the same as three stars on Amazon. (There is another theory that any review given with less than four stars on Amazon seriously impacts a book’s rankings—kicks it right into the gutter, in fact. Again, this is a theory, but based on authors’ experience, it’s a good one.) For instance, a two-star review on Goodreads should be a three-star review on Amazon, as both mean it was “okay.” Therefore, a three-star review on Goodreads should be a four-star review on Amazon, which helps the author quite a deal more. Again, in theory.

And finally, thank you! Five years strong. We’ve lost some staff along the way, but we’re still dedicated and committed to the long haul. It’s been a hell of a ride so far. Help us keep the wheels on!

Posted in Editorials, Publishing, Reviews, Shock Totem News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Resurrecting the Backlist: The Dead Book LIVES!

As a reader, the first time I came across a new edition of a backlist book was Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. First published in 1983, it was full of wonderfully outdated references that, as an 80s child, I felt right at home with. In 2003, Duane re-released the series under a “New Millenium Edition,” complete with bonus material and updated technology like cell phones. I didn’t understand it, so I dismissed it as a marketing gimmick.

My second exposure to the subject of backlist books was as a writer this past July at Necon. I attended a panel moderated by Lynne Hansen, where she, Christopher Golden, Lori Perkins, Heather Graham, and John Douglas discussed the act of “resurrecting” the backlist and general marketing advice for one’s writing. The panel not only interested me as a writer, but also as a reader. Established authors dusting off their “old” novels creates a library of undiscovered stories released either before I was old enough to read them, like Young Wizards, or that just escaped my attention.

Lynne Hansen, owner at Lynne Hansen Designs, specializes in “book covers that tell a story” and helping authors resurrect their backlist titles. Her clients include Christopher Golden, Amber Benson, James A. Moore, Owl Goingback, Jeff Strand, and Rick Hautala. When I asked Lynne about the top benefit for an author to look at their backlist, her answer echoed my own excitement as a reader: “When a fan discovers you for the first time, you hope that they’ll love your work so much that they’ll want to read your other books. The more books you have in print, the more they’ll have to love.”

In the past few years, many veteran authors are discovering that they are sitting on a gold mine of backlist material. Of course, the reason for books to go out of print is that bookstores can’t carry new releases, classics, and backlist titles in brick-and-mortar stores. However, with the emergence of e-books and the Amazon marketplace, space is no longer an obstacle. Many midlist authors are hoping to again have the luxury of cultivating a fan base without the insane pressure to either hit decent sales numbers or see their books out of print.

Throwing books out of print after a short sales period is a publishing practice that pushed veteran authors like Holly Lisle over the edge in favor of self-publishing their work. On her site, Lisle echoes the sentiments of many authors. “Now,” she says, “frontlist is all that matters, backlist dies, and writing fiction for a living has become not building a career but playing the lottery.”

However, Amazon has kept up with it’s reputation for driving change in the industry and has become the best place to find “new” backlist titles. “I don’t think readers look for re-released titles the same way they look for discount e-books,” said Hansen. Sites like Amazon ensure that multiple editions, “paperback, hardcover, audiobook, etc., are all linked together,” which has been a benefit to authors and a convenience to consumers.

Hansen is passionate about her work, not just for her clients but for readers who “say they’ve wanted to read a book for years but could never find it, and they just downloaded the e-book. And I’ve heard folks say they’re re-reading a book, or even an entire series, now that it’s available electronically. That’s a nice bonus.” As a reader, I appreciate Hansen’s dedication. Nothing makes me happier than finding a new author that has a vast catalog that can be ordered with the click of a button.

Of course, one of the largest benefits to authors using a print-on-demand (POD) service like Amazon and Createspace is “you don’t have to print 10,000 books and store them in your garage just to get an affordable per-copy rate. Companies like Smashwords make it easy for you to upload a single Microsoft Word document and get your e-book distributed to a gazillion different retailers.” As Hansen also mentioned, it isn’t so much the format of the e-book that has made maintaining a backlist possible again, but rather the affordability of the process and the accessibility of those titles to readers.

I’ve heard varied arguments for or against self-publishing. There is an impression that “indie pub” has created a market flooded with unedited first drafts, thrown up for public consumption by amateur writers that are not doing their homework, which is making good writers look bad. Hansen has a much different view: “People like to think that self-publishing is The Great Leveler, but it’s not. Good books still rise to the top and bad books still (generally) fall into obscurity. Sure, there are more opportunities, but there are also a lot more challenges, especially when you’re faced with the prospect of having to do all the production work yourself.”

Fortunately for readers, there is a level of professionalism and dedication that an established author possesses to do it right. The writer seeking to resurrect their backlist has intense work ahead of them in order to re-launch and market their title, which is where Hansen comes in. “If your car breaks, you don’t pop the hood and start checking wires unless you have those skills.” Authors are great at writing books, but a lot more goes into releasing a backlist title for a new market. Obtaining the needed components to resurrect a backlist title take time and energy. This energy is better spent doing the most important task to a writer—actually writing.

“That being said, reissuing a book isn’t as simple as pulling up the Microsoft Word document and adding a copyright page,” said Hansen. “You need to make certain you have the final, edited version of the manuscript and have incorporated any line edits that came from the original publisher. You need the dedication, introduction, acknowledgments, afterword, bio, and links to your online presences.”

Hansen also suggests hiring a cover artist. “You want your name and title crisp and readable, and an image that is striking when it’s small. Most importantly, your book cover needs to resonate with the readers of your genre. If it’s a thriller, it needs to look like a thriller, not like a horror novel. You need a designer who understands marketing, because ultimately, your book cover and blurb are the best marketing tools in your arsenal.”

One difficulty Hansen has faced with marketing her client’s backlist books is “they’re not new books. They’ve already been reviewed and promoted and odds are that your die-hard fans have already read them.” Even authors with an established platform would still need to promote their backlist to a new audience. This might be as easy as appealing to a new generation of fans or hitting the market with the right book at the right time, such as Christopher Golden and Rick Hautala’s Body of Evidence thriller series, featuring young protagonist Jenna Blake.

“In today’s marketplace, the Jenna Blake books would be categorized as ‘new adult’ and is much more likely to be read by adults than by teens. It’s a category that didn’t even exist when the books were being written. For the re-issues, I designed covers that were more familiar to thriller readers than to young adult readers, and we tweaked marketing descriptions to reflect the new focus. It’s really helped the entire series reach many more readers.”

One way that authors can promote their backlist titles might seem obvious: “Backlist books are the gravy, not the meat,” said Hansen. “The best way to promote an old book is to write new ones.”

Personally, I’ve snapped up quite a few backlist titles that were released on Amazon in the past year, including Strangewood by Christopher Golden and The Wicked by James Newman, the latter released by Shock Totem in May of 2012. I was also excited to find Closed Circle Publications, a site created by award-winning sci-fi and fantasy authors C.J. Cherryh, Lynn Abbey, and Jane Fancher to market their backlist titles.

Keep an eye out for the above authors and their amazing, high-quality re-releases coming to an Internet near you. I personally will continue to forgo the trip to Barnes & Noble (which I’ve never been a fan of, honestly) in favor of staying at home with a beer, or a coffee if it’s early enough, and scouring Amazon and Google in search of new backlist titles from veteran authors. So far, my purchases have been more than worth it and have exposed me to stories that would have otherwise gone unexplored.

If any Shock Totem readers have questions about specific backlist projects, please e-mail Lynne Hansen or visit her website for further information.

Posted in Articles, Blog, New Releases, On Writing, Publishing, Writing Advice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Conversation with Writers House Agent Alec Shane

I had the pleasure of meeting Alec Shane at the annual World Horror Convention in New Orleans this year. Alec is a friendly, savvy guy who is aggressively building up his client list. He’s also one of the few agents who actively represents horror. Talking to him was a pleasure, and I get the impression he isn’t a guy who lets the grass grow under his feet.

Alec was gracious enough to stop by for an interview. Read up on what he has to say, and then send this man a query!

Mercedes M. Yardley: Very few agents seem to represent horror. Why is this? And why do you choose to do so?

Alec Shane: One of the best parts of being an agent is that you get to represent the kind of books that you love. I grew up loving horror of all types—Stephen King is more or less the reason I’m sitting here today answering these questions—and so it only makes sense that I would be drawn toward the genre now. I learned very quickly that, as an agent, you have to really believe in the book you are representing, and if you are as passionate about the project as the author is, then you will be much more willing to throw yourself into getting it out into the world.

The role of the agent is changing every day, a lot of what we do is editorial, and it’s a very tricky market at the moment, and so it’s especially important to remain very selective in what I do and don’t take on. Horror happens to be a genre that I love, so here I am. I also love a lot of other kinds of writing—mystery/thriller, historical fiction, middle-grade, certain types of nonfiction, and sports to name a few—but horror will always hold a special place in my heart.

MMY: So you personally enjoy horror and dark fiction. Any favorite books or movies?

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Sunday Reads: On Saying No, Joe Hill’s Beard, and Creepy Films

Here are a handful of links from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

If you’ve got an hour, check out Booktalk Nation’s entertaining video chat between authors Joe Hill and John Scalzi.

It’s worth the time.

If you like things with a more literary bent, you may be interested the benefits of creative people saying no in order to protect their time.

The daughter of Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) writes about growing up in a home with fanatical feminist views

We announced Shock Totem #7!

And finally, the creepy short film INSiDE, directed by Trevor Sands. Dig it!

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Sign Up for the The Bram Stoker Weekend and WHC Pitch Session

Why? Because you want to pitch your stuff. And you won’t be able to sign up at the convention. You have to do so now.

The Bram Stoker Awards® Weekend and World Horror Convention are combined this year in New Orleans. Pitches to several publishers and one agent will be held on Saturday, June 15. The editors and agent are:

Alec Shane – Agent, Writers House
Blood Bound Books – Geoff Hyatt
Cycatrix Press – Jason V Brock
Dark Regions Press – RJ Cavender
Hydra, Random House – Sarah Peed
JournalStone – Chris C. Payne
Nightscape Press – Mark Scioneaux
Samhain Publishing – Don D’Auria
Tor – Liz Gorinski

To secure your slot, email RJ Cavender at rjc@editorialdepartment.com with your top three pitch choices. In the subject of your email, please write Pitch Sessions – (Author’s Last Name).

All authors will be signed up for two pitch sessions, available on a first come, first serve basis.

Not sure what each publisher and agent are looking for? There’s a website where they straight up tell you. Read it. See if you have anything that fits. Then sign up, and don’t be nervous.

There will be a dark-haired Shock Totem girl in stilettos who will be helping out. Taking you to your pitch session, letting you know when your time is almost up. Straightening your collar and letting you know if there’s lipstick on your teeth. Join me! It will be fun!

But sign up ASAP. Slots are limited and they started filling up immediately.

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Pay the Writer, But…

For a refresher, here’s Harlan Ellison giving his most famous unintentional PSA:


You go, girl!

Though the bristly curmudgeon is often the punchline to a joke among writers, he is right, and this little video is often cited by proud authors who demand payment for everything they write. Authors are never in low supply when it comes to a Pay-the-Writers protest. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though by the way many writers are reacting to Duotrope’s recent decision to go to a paid subscription service I wonder if they hear much of what else Harlan says in that clip aside from “pay the writer.”

Duotrope’s Digest, the market listing website thousands of writers use daily, has been offering their great service for nine years at no cost to writers and publishers. All they’ve asked for is donations through their Keep It Free campaign. I’ve donated many times, but surely not enough to be comparable to how much I’ve used the site. And so it’s no surprise that after nearly a decade donations are simply not enough. Never have been, in fact. So the folks at Duotrope have just announced they’re going to a paid subscription system in 2013.

And writers have lost their minds over it.

The way people are reacting you’d think Duotrope was asking for their weekly paychecks. In reality, users will be required to pony up either a one-time payment of $50 for the entire year or $5 a month. Either way, the most any writer will have to pay is $60 a year for a service they use all the time. Well worth it, in my opinion. For many, however, this is way too much to ask.

Just look at this Wikipedia entry for the site (which has since been changed):

“Duotrope has announced that it will switch to a subcription-based service beginning January 1, 2013 at a whiplash-inducing rate of $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year.”

A “whiplash-inducing” rate of $5 per month. No doubt written by an author who thinks it’s insane someone would pay $7 a day for a Starbucks coffee but not $5 every now and then for an e-book. But he or she is not the only one with this opinion that $5 a month is too much money. I had thought about quoting some additional comments from people I know, but instead I’ll just point you toward Duotrope’s own Facebook page and you’ll get the idea.

But here’s the gist:

Writers: “PAY THE WRITERS, GODDAMMIT!”

Writers Being Asked to Pay for Someone Else’s Time and Services They Admittedly Use All the Time: “LOL! Fuck you, you greedy, glorified Excel spreadsheet.”

The hypocrisy is delicious.

Now let me be clear: No one has to pay for something they don’t want to pay for. Nor can every author afford to. But I wonder if so many people would be protesting if they understood just how much time and money it takes to maintain a site like Duotrope’s.

I mentioned the comparison between the cost of an e-book and the cost of a cup of coffee. One of the biggest arguments against those unwilling to pay more than a few dollars for an e-book is pointing out how much time it takes an author to write a book. Most readers don’t really grasp that, and I have no doubt that most writers don’t understand what it takes to run a big website.

One of the biggest gripes seems to generate from how their old Keep It Free page was worded:

“If each of Duotrope’s current users and subscribers contributed just $5 this year, we would meet our goal for the year!”

Just $5 a year, while now they’re asking for $5 a month. OMG, ya’ll! But that’s too simple to be a good point of argument.

According to online web-traffic trackers, as a free service Duotrope generates over 6,000 pageviews per day, and between 15,000 to 20,000 unique visitors per month. That number will dramatically decrease in 2013, as evidenced by the countless users vowing to never use them again when it’s no longer free. No one will be getting rich here, that’s for sure.

But go back to the numbers of pageviews and visitors—6,000 per day, between 15,000 and 20,000 per month, respectively. That’s a lot of traffic, a lot of bandwidth, which means a lot of cost for those running Duotrope. More, it’s a hell of a lot of time on their part. Websites don’t maintain themselves; sites such as Duotrope require skilled designers and programmers, content providers, people who update the listings for the nearly 5,000 markets listed on the site, etc. And you know what? They should be paid for their work.

Writers aren’t the only people who deserve to be paid. Crazy concept, huh? And remember this: If Duotrope’s service wasn’t worth $5 a month, no sensible author would be complaining.

Posted in Blog, Market News, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

James Newman’s Holy Rollers: The Short Film

Your help is needed. Watch this video…


[ click here for a conversation with director Kevin Woods ]

Now go here.

I’m disappointed this has yet to reach its goal. I’ve seen people raise $5,000 or more for an anthology, and we all know that it doesn’t cost nearly half that much.

There have been charity anthologies published, paid for by pledgers, with proceeds from sales going to the charity. Proceeds from SALES! Thousands of dollars in donations to create something that will generate hundreds of dollars in donations to the charity, if that. Seems utterly ass-backwards, doesn’t it?

Worse, there are now magazines being funded by Kickstarter campaigns—and they’re making a killing! Now tell me, what happens when these magazines don’t make their funding goal? Who’s going to pay then? Surely not the publishers.

I’ve seen other people donate to someone who wants to take six months off from work to write a novel. People donate money so someone else can do this! Seriously. Stephen King used to write in his laundry room, with a board across his lap and a typewriter on top of the board—all while being a teacher, a husband, and a father—and some of you want donations so you can quit your job and write your novel? Bitch, please.

So I find it disheartening to see this Holy Rollers campaign failing to reach its goal.

James Newman is one of the sweetest, kindest writers in the small press. Better yet, he’s also one of the BEST writers around! He may not be the loudest in the room, or the most adept at spamming you on Facebook and Twitter, but he is undoubtedly the kind of writer we need to rally around—because he’s not blowing smoke up anyone’s ass, trying to impress you with stuff that doesn’t matter; James just writes, and he does it goddamn well.

And Holy Rollers deserves a shot. So please visit the Indiegogo page, check out the perks, and consider donating. There’s not much time left, but there is enough.

Please share this!

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Come Together

Image created by Guy FrancisWe are all aware of the publishing sea change that has been occurring over the past several years. Through e-books and POD publishing, authors have been bypassing the traditional publishing houses in droves, even when the traditional publishers were willing to put their books out.

The logic is irrefutable. A self published book allows an author to make more money on less books sold while retaining all of the creative control. Provided the numbers are good (that puts the burden on the author to promote and distribute their own books, no easy task), why wouldn’t you go this route? It only makes sense, especially when book readers are abandoning the brick and mortar stores for the Internet. It’s leveled the playing field considerably.

The days of big-name writers looking down their collective noses at so-called “vanity presses” is essentially over. Those authors are self-publishing as well, if only to keep formerly out of print works available to their fans.

While this revolution is undoubtedly a good thing in many ways, it has its downside, most notably the lack of quality. When anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish their own books, the inevitable result is a market glutted with thousands of titles that are not worth reading at all. Poor layout, poor artwork, and just plain poor writing is abundant.

Like them or not, the traditional print publishers all had standards, whether low or high, and all of them used editors. Very few authors, no matter how talented, can put out a really good book in the absence of a good editor, a fact which almost every published author will attest to.

It’s even difficult to put complete faith in online reviews anymore, as the recent Todd Rutherford scandal illustrated. How do you know that those glowing five-star reviews were not bought, either in cash or in the nefarious review-trading parasitism that is all too common in the small press? I’ve read bad books that have a string of great reviews, and I’ll bet you have too. So how do we sort through the massive amounts of bad books and find the good ones?


The book you’re looking for is right THERE!

One possible solution is author collectives. These are loose organizations of authors and publishers who are all about maintaining standards of quality, not helping out friends. Ideally, if a book isn’t good, it doesn’t get the recommendation of the collective. Of course “good” is still a subjective term. That aforementioned parasitism can infect a collective as surely as an individual review. I’m wary of any organization where all that is required to get in is to pay a fee.

Even if you find a reliable collective, there is no guarantee that you will like all of the books it recommends, but it still sounds like a far more reliable method for choosing your next beach read than random chance or counting five star reviews.

But big-name writers are getting in on these. I was first made aware of this phenomenon through Killer Thrillers, an author collective that includes David Morrell, one of my all time favorite authors (and a fellow New Mexican). If you haven’t read him, you should. And although I’m not well read in the thriller genre, if Morrell recommends them, I can too.

Awesome Indies is another site I ran across that looks interesting, although I’m not familiar with any of the authors listed. It’s arranged by category, which is convenient, but sadly there is only one horror book listed. I checked out the preview of it, and while we haven’t stumbled upon a new Joe R. Lansdale, it’s pretty good. I’ve certainly read far worse.

I searched around some, but could not find a collective that is specifically horror oriented. If anyone knows of one, please point it out. If one does not exist, perhaps it’s time to start one, but I’m only interested if it’s going to reward good writing. We don’t need another parasitic clique of the sort that the small press is infamous for.

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Announcing Shock Totem #5…

Shock Totem is proud to announce that we will finally be unleashing another great issue of darkly weird fiction!

Our fifth issue was originally scheduled to come out in January, but for reasons which you can read here we made the hard choice to delay it until July. And now with July nearly upon us, that wait, thankfully, is over.

For those who have yet to see it, here is the cover for issue #5:

Another brilliant piece of work from Mikio Murakami, who has done all our magazine artwork since issue #3.

Here is the official Table of Contents:

* Taking Root, by Mercedes M. Yardley (Editorial)
* In Deepest Silence, by Ari Marmell
* Girl and the Blue Burqa, by D. Thomas Mooers
* Digging in the Dirt: A Conversation with Jack Ketchum, by John Boden
* Hide-and-Seek, by F.J. Bergmann (Poem)
* Eyes of a Stranger, by Nick Contor (Essay)
* Postmortem, by Kurt Newton (5-Part Illustrated Micro-Serial)
* Jimmy Bunny, by Darrell Schweitzer
* Strange Goods and Other Oddities (Reviews)
* Little Knife Houses, by Jaelithe Ingold (2011 Shock Totem Flash Fiction Contest Winner)
* Canon, by Anaea Lay
* Bloodstains & Blue Suede Shoes, Part 3, by John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones (Article)
* The Catch, by Joe Mirabello
* Three Strikes, by Mekenzie Larsen
* To ‘Bie or Not to ‘Bie, by Sean Eads
* Howling Through the Keyhole (Author Notes)

We’re really pleased with how this issue turned out. It’s unlike any of our previous issues, which were themselves unlike previous issues, yet as always it is still clearly Shock Totem. We think you’ll enjoy it.

Look for it next month, in print and digital formats. And if you want to get it out of the way now, you can preorder the issue here.

As always, thank you for your continued support!

Posted in Alumni News, New Releases, Publishing, Shock Totem Digital, Shock Totem News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Conversation with Anthony J. Rapino

Anthony Rapino is a dark fiction author with a sense of humor. It was cool to interview him. Hope you enjoy!

MY: So, Anthony, thanks for stopping by! Why don’t you start off by telling me what you have out, and what you’re currently working on.

AR: Thanks so much for having me. I have to admit, my first impulse when you asked what I “have out” was to tell a vulgar joke. Let me just tuck that away. The vulgarity, I mean! Oof. What’s that they say about first impressions?

MY: Your first impression is shot.

AR: Moving on. I currently have a few short stories out in print magazines and anthologies such as the Arcane Anthology, On Spec #86, and Black Ink Horror 7. I of course also have the short story collection Welcome to Moon Hill available through Amazon, and my debut novel, Soundtrack to the End of the World available from Bad Moon Books. They put out a beautiful limited signed hardcover edition as well as a paperback edition.

I’m currently working on a two different super-secret anthology submissions. I’m also working on my second novel, which I published an excerpt of in Welcome to Moon Hill.

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