On Having a Novel Behind Closed Doors

It’s been two months since New Old World was placed on the New Arrivals shelf at Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland. And for the last month the book has been essentially unseen. First there was safe browsing, then browsing gave way to only orders and pickups, and now there’s a green line on the sidewalk beyond which anxious readers cannot step. It’s the spring of 2020, after all. So there my novel sits, all dressed up with a “shelf talker” and no one to buy it!

Click on this photo to read my “shelf talker.”

If I had published in a more mainstream way, New Old World would be searchable on the Annie Bloom’s website. One could order it online and have it delivered or mailed. But as a DIY project, this book has no distributor other than myself. So it takes a phone call to the store to get your hands on one of their physical copies. Of course you can still order it directly from this blog, but it’s nice to give some business to independent booksellers, especially these days.

It could be a lot worse for me. My novel has come out in stages, first as an e-book at Smashwords, then in its Kindle version, and finally this past year in print form. I’ve promoted each edition till I sound like a broken record, but I was just starting to reach a new paper-loving audience when the virus hit the fan. And yet I feel way more sorry for authors, especially debut authors, whose babies are being born during this pandemic but they can’t show them off because their book tours have been cancelled. Talk about being dressed up…

My novel’s appearance in a bookstore was a real milestone. Annie Bloom’s is to be commended for supporting local indie authors with their consignment program, even if it means not showing up in the database and having to design one’s own shelf talker…the one that nobody can see right now. But this entry into the marketplace came with some responsibility on my part to continue promoting the book, including possibly staging a reading at the store. For most authors that’s a golden opportunity — for reticent ones, it’s a gathering storm on the horizon. I’d been pep-talking myself into believing that I could handle that public presence…when suddenly it wasn’t an option anymore! The store’s events calendar emptied, until they switched gears like so many other businesses in the world, and online readings began to populate that broad expanse of April and May.

Coincidentally, I’d already been researching digital ways to interact with readers, particularly in a written format (this blog is one vehicle, though it is certainly underutilized and feels old-fashioned in our Zoom age!). The fact is, I never really wanted to peddle my book — I just wanted to write it, publish it, and have people discover it by some miraculous method involving word of mouth. Pseudonymous author “Elena Ferrante” was my role model, but I went with C.D. Stowell and have been hiding in plain sight ever since. I figured if readers wanted to track me down to talk about the novel, I’d be findable on the internet and happy to engage. But bringing the book to people’s attention in the first place was another matter, requiring a degree of exposure outside my comfort zone.

In a way, I was saved by the novel coronavirus. (The double entendre of “novel” has not been lost on me, not to mention the new significance of my title, New Old World!)  As soon as the sheltering started, any desire I had to promote my book just evaporated. I could take a break!  Take stock!  Pick up the playwriting project I’d put down to make the print version of the book! Have all the time in the world for any number of creative pursuits! As it is, I read the news, I sew masks, I FaceTime with my son, I deliver Meals on Wheels, I feel imaginary symptoms (or are they pollen allergies?)…and I stare at the copies of New Old World stacked up in my office. And worry about the ones locked up in the bookstore.

I’ve watched a few digital readings on Facebook Live and Zoom, some more successful than others, and tried to picture myself in the authors’ place. Who are they looking at while we’re looking at them? How can they possibly talk and read comments and questions at the same time?  What if the video freezes or the technology fails completely?  It seems fraught with potential pitfalls. It seems lonely for the author.

The crazy thing is, I’ve come around to thinking that the easiest, most natural kind of connection over a book might be face to face. That’s why there are book groups and literature classes….and readings. Maybe it’s my mind tricking me, since I know it’s not an option right now, but suddenly an in-store, in-person reading sounds delightfully manageable, even enjoyable! When was the last time we were in a room full of people? Remember that energy?

So all is not lost during this time that my book languishes. I’m exercising, enjoying the beautiful weather, making my own espresso, letting my husband cook — and reading other people’s books. I might even reread New Old World so I’m ready to field any question tossed my way on some hypothetical evening in a book-lined room full of live, warm human beings (and one cat) in a store in my neighborhood.

(If you’d like to support an independent bookseller, please request my book at Annie Bloom’s, 503-246-0053, or order other books at annieblooms.com. You can also buy New Old World directly from me using the button in the sidebar. Or scroll down a bit to the venues where the e-book is available — it’s free at Smashwords through May during their “Authors Give Back” promotion. Thanks!)

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More Books in Stock

I have a tableful of freshly printed books ready for ordering! This run of New Old World includes a more scuff-resistant cover as well as an ISBN and barcode so it can be sold in retail locations.

The first run of 25 books went fast, with fifteen sold and ten given away. The holidays helped, but in this quiet season I’ll have more time to follow up on marketing opportunities, like readings and book fairs. I’m also hoping to find a professional reviewer to get a little buzz going. Stay tuned!

The holidays are a challenging time for reading, much less lugging around a big, heavy book, so I haven’t received a lot of feedback yet. But you can have a look at the back cover of the print edition to get an idea of what a few “early adopters” of the e-book thought. Just click on the image to enlarge it…then slide on over to the “Buy Button”!

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New Old World in Your Hands

A happy new addition to my blog is the Buy Now button you can see to the right. New Old World can now be purchased using either PayPal or most credit cards! The price is $25, which includes shipping.

It’s gratifying to finally be able to offer my novel as a physical object, not just as digital content. And I admit it’s kind of fun to be a shopkeeper, too!  The supply is somewhat limited at this point, but I plan to do a second run soon so your order can be filled in a timely way. (The new edition may have a sturdier cover but will otherwise be the same, and I will announce its arrival.)

For those who enjoy a good digital read, the e-book will continue to be available from various vendors (see sidebar “Where to Buy/Borrow”). The glow of your tablet’s screen or the feel of paper in your hands—it’s now your choice!

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From Digital to Paper: A Teaser

This blog came into being when I self-published New Old World as an e-book in late 2016. Since then I’ve discussed the mechanics of formatting and publishing an e-book, the vicissitudes of bringing a digital work to the attention of the public, and to a lesser extent, the actual contents of the novel.

Now New Old World is starting a second, more traditional life as a book on paper. It did that once before, briefly, when I printed a few copies on the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine at Powell’s Books in Portland in 2015.  It was the length, weight, and cost of that incarnation that convinced me to publish a digital edition instead.

The e-book was received well, if not with a ton of sales.  It garnered positive reviews at Apple Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and was acquired by the Multnomah County Library (Portland, OR) this year through their Library Writers Project.

But I knew I was leaving out a whole class of potential readers: those who either can’t, or prefer not to, read books electronically. By going digital-only I also had no physical object to show or sell at book fairs and nothing to place in the hands of professional reviewers, for whom e-books are essentially invisible.

Of course my hope was that the e-book would be discovered by a major publisher, who would then produce a print version.  But since that hasn’t happened, it was clearly going to be another DIY project.  It just remained for me to screw up my courage to reformat yet again (e-books and print books are whole different animals) and find a good printer nearby.

The woman who operated the Espresso Book Machine told me that some of her customers had moved on to Gorham Printing, in Centralia, WA. Gorham specializes in printing self-published books—of all sizes, shapes, style, and content. New Old World wasn’t too big for them, and the per-copy price was better than the EBM (which no longer exists at Powell’s anyway, the joke being that my big book broke it!).

I took a train up to Centralia in June to meet with staff at Gorham, had many questions answered about their capabilities and procedures, took a tour of the plant including their digital printing presses (not offset), and pretty much decided I wanted them to handle my novel. The rest of the summer was spent reformatting the manuscript, upgrading the photographs to a higher resolution, tweaking some language here and there, and updating the back cover with excerpts from readers’ reviews.

So, almost three months later, two boxes of books were delivered to me, a total of 25 copies (Gorham’s minimum run).  I’ve always dreaded having boxes of books in my proverbial basement, but this is manageable. Certainly I never want to be in the position of Henry David Thoreau when the remainders of his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” came back to him.  Always the wit, despite the general view that he was dour, Thoreau said, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself.”

In my next post, I will officially announce the availability of New Old World as a print book, with the addition of a “Buy” button that will operate through PayPal. But first, I must get ready for a trip to France, which seems to be my go-to method of celebrating.  After all, it was to celebrate the publication of my first book, Faces of a Reservation, that I took a three-month trip to France…which provided the grist for New Old World.


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On Having My E-book in the Library

Isn’t it the dream of every author to have her work available in the local library? My first book, Faces of a Reservation, is safely ensconced on many library shelves around the country, an especially good thing now that it’s out of print. And I mean it literally when I say “ensconced”—it seems always to be available at our county library, as in not checked out!

That’s the auxiliary dream—that your book will actually be borrowed and read. I have that chance again with New Old World, which the Multnomah County Library recently chose to include in their e-book collection. Their annual Library Writers Project solicits e-books from local writers and chooses a number of “standouts” from the several dozen entries. This year the theme of the contest was fiction and memoir, and New Old World, which blurs genres, happened to suit both categories.

It was good fun to watch the initial rush when my e-book first appeared in the catalog along with the other Library Writers Project selections. Readers swooped in and there was an immediate wait list for most of the titles. The library had purchased ten copies of New Old World, and they soon ordered five more to shorten the wait time. Over the next month or so, the wait list dwindled from a couple of dozen to a handful to none. That is apparently the way of all books, even one-time best-sellers, albeit not that fast!

While it’s good for the ego to see people waiting for your book, the beauty of having no wait list is that borrowers can keep and renew the book for as long as they need it rather than having to return it when the three-week lending period is up. Because New Old World is such a long book, I wondered if anybody would actually be able to finish reading it during this first frenetic period. I did get two reviews on Kindle, which is the main platform used by the library to disseminate e-books, and since there hadn’t been any purchases at Amazon, they must have been borrowers who read quickly!

So how does it work? It’s counterintuitive, but e-books behave just like physical books in that one copy can be borrowed by only one person at a time. Residents of Multnomah County who have library cards can go to the main catalog at https://multcolib.org and search for the title or my name. Then they can borrow a copy via the OverDrive or Libby app, a somewhat mysterious process that is more familiar to regular e-book borrowers than it is to me. One thing I know is that you have to choose whether you want it in EPUB (Apple Books, etc.) or MOBI (Kindle) form, depending on what device you have, and both the method of delivery and your reading experience flow from that choice. I’ll stop here before I get myself out on a limb.

As an author, I can say that it’s great to have this access to new audiences, and the library is to be commended for connecting local writers with local readers. It saved me having to market my book to the library acquisition people, which can be daunting when there are so many books and e-books on the market vying for attention.

If buying or borrowing e-books is not your thing, you’ll be glad to know that I’m currently creating a print version of New Old World. My next post will be to announce its arrival.

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Update Enhanced by Reading Guide

There are many layers to New Old World that can be missed on first reading, so I’ve created a new discussion guide for readers who want to dig a little deeper. Questions about style and structure, as well as characters and themes, will help book groups and independent readers get more out of the novel.

An updated edition of New Old World is now available at Smashwords, Apple Books, Amazon, and other retailers.  This 2018 edition also includes a couple of fixed typos and a handful of changes in word choice. But the major enhancement is the reading guide.

Here are a few sample questions from the guide that may spark your curiosity about the book, or nudge you into rereading it:

— New Old World is a novel but it often reads like Ticonderoga Fox’s memoir.  In fact it is the story of Ti writing her story while still living it. How is the first chapter like the beginning of a memoir?  Where else in the novel are we aware of Ti’s writing process?  Consider the changes in narration as well as the passage of time.

— How do the poems that bookend the novel enhance your understanding of the story, or of Virginia and Ti?  In what way are they gifts from mothers to their children, and what kind of guidance do they offer?

— Why did the author choose to make Ti a photographer? How does her visual nature affect the way she perceives the world, interacts with people, and conducts her life?

— How does Ti exemplify the freedoms and choices that faced women of the Baby Boomer generation?   Do you believe Ti ultimately found a satisfying balance of family and creativity in her life?  How might things have turned out for her if she had decided against motherhood and marriage?

To get your free update if you’ve already purchased New Old World, or to buy it for the first time, just click on one of the links under “Where to Buy.”

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Proud to Be an Indie Author—But Not Too Proud

First there were vanity presses, a pejorative term if there ever was one.  Any writer with enough money could pay to have their manuscripts edited, typeset, and printed by “presses” (for-profit companies) that stroked authors’ egos to get their business—and the lion’s share of the proceeds.

Then, when digital advances made it possible for authors to produce their own good-looking books on their desktops—whether on paper or as an e-book—the term self-publishing came into vogue.  “Self” is a bit of an improvement over “vanity,” but not much.  The biggest change was authors’ increasing control over their own material—and the bottom line.

Now, just as my self-published e-book makes its way into the world, we have a new term for people like me: “indie authors.”  I love it!  There’s no judgment involved—it’s a completely neutral descriptor.  But it has great associations from its antecedents: indie films, indie rock, indie design, etc.  Indie authors are outside the mainstream, having eschewed the years-long process of finding agents and conforming to the narrow and exclusive curation of publishers who are as motivated by profit as the vanity presses.  Indie authors are truly independent—of somebody else’s idea of what might sell, how a story should be told, what the cover should look like, and how an author should promote herself.

Of course they may be independent of money and attention, too, which is the risk indie authors take in order to retain control of their art and their lives.  But if they’re not averse to marketing (which I admit, I am), indie authors can find an audience and bring in enough to go out to dinner now and then.

Promoting your self-published book can take as much time and energy as the dog-and-pony shows the big publishers send authors on.  These days, publishers rely on the “branding” you’ve done for yourself, your professional and personal connections, and your physical body and soul to get your book out there.  So why not do it yourself?  In your own style?

Perhaps, like many authors, you’re media-shy, or you don’t like to talk about your book, wanting it to speak for itself.  You don’t like listening to other authors read out loud and you don’t see the point of autographs, so why would you want to put yourself through that?  And hopping from city to city meeting the press and answering the same questions over and over?  You didn’t get into writing to be a celebrity or to wax wise on literature or speak for other writers.  Maybe you prefer to greet the public electronically from home, via e-mail or a blog.  Indies can do or not do whatever they want—and accept the consequences, with only their own reticence or laziness to blame.

But if your book is an e-book, you’ve put exactly zero dollars into producing it, so you get to keep the greater part of whatever you gross.  That’s thanks principally to the e-book publishing programs at Smashwords and Amazon, which allow you to publish for free in return for a percentage of the profits (they keep an average of 40%).  “Free” is a bit misleading, because if you’re smart, you’ve paid an editor to review your work and suggest improvements before you embarrass yourself in public. (This is a cost you might incur anyway before going the traditional publishing route.)  And if you’re not technically inclined, you may have paid a book designer to turn your manuscript into a handsome layout and give it a striking cover.  (I paid an editor but did my own designing and formatting for New Old World.)

So, you might ask, Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing?  I published in both places:  Smashwords for its distribution network and support, and Amazon for its cachet and accessibility.  At the risk of sounding like a shill for Smashwords, I’m super impressed with their program.  With one upload, my carefully formatted manuscript was converted into versions that could be read on Kindle readers, Apple devices, Nooks, or desktop computers.  Within moments my book was shipped to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, subscription services like Scribd, library distributors, and a host of other “channels” of my choice.

Even so, I went on to publish at Amazon because of the preponderance of Kindle owners out there, and the streamlined purchasing and downloading they’re accustomed to when ordering directly from Amazon.  Plus, people know what you’re talking about when you say Amazon!

While the giant was relatively easy to work with, overall I find Smashwords to have the more human interface, taking more interest in your success with a range of pre- and post-publishing support.  Through Smashwords’ technical guides, its blog, and its series of podcasts, indie authors can learn how to format and market their books and keep up with the state of the self-publishing “industry.”  They also have seasonal promotions that authors can participate in at whatever level they choose. (For example, my book is free this month as part of the summer sale, which so far has meant seven new sets of eyes on my pages that I wouldn’t have had at my regular $4.99 price.)

Being an indie author doesn’t have to be a lonely, reinventing-the-wheel kind of existence.  But it can be if you want it to—that’s the beauty of going your own way!

My next step along the indie path will be to create a print version of New Old World.  Not only will this new packaging reach a potentially different audience—those who refuse to give up the feel of a physical book in their hands—but it may send me on a different trajectory.  With a pile of books that I’ve paid for, I may be more motivated to market my novel in order to recoup my expenses.  And it may be an easier sell when there’s something tangible for people to look at and take home, with or without my autograph.

As an indie print author, I will still have complete control over the look and distribution of my book, 100% of the profits will be mine, and best of all, I don’t have to wait for someone minding the publishing gates to decide whether my novel should be admitted to their realm.  I’ll let readers judge.  The new world of indie authordom is not fueled by profit, name recognition, or exclusivity—it’s a wide-open democracy for both writers and readers.

And it has very little to do with vanity.


Here are a few links that might be helpful…

A good history of indie publishing on the Smashwords blog

Smashwords podcasts

Kindle Direct Publishing

And of course my novel, which you can get for free through July 2018 at Smashwords. Other retailers are listed in “Where to Buy” in the sidebar.

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A Word From Our Readers

I’m turning this post over to my readers, so they can tell you what they enjoyed about New Old World. Even though they’re mostly friends, their words were unsolicited and unscripted—just people speaking from the heart.  Sharing these reviews might help you decide to read the novel or to formulate your own thoughts about it.

The first is an anonymous review on Barnes & Noble, unknown even to me and letting me fantasize that at least one of my readers drifted in from the Internet instead of being invited:  “I loved this book! It embraces what so many of us would have loved to experience in our youth.  Ti had the courage to travel independently and fulfill so many of her lifetime goals, whether it was the Indian reservation, jumping onto a rail car or traveling Paris. Anyone who reads this book will love her audacity and bravery.  The story will leave you constantly speculating what the next part of her journey will bring.”

From iBooks:  “This book has it all—great writing, intriguing story, and Ticonderoga Fox, her name a story in itself.  She is a complex character, and I was quickly pulled into her world as she leaves her old life in Oregon and travels to England and France to find a new one.  The chance encounters along the way, the relationships explored, the country landscapes and city life described all combine into a beautifully told, compelling story.  I was totally engrossed–and totally moved, almost to tears, by its perfect, beautiful ending.”

From Smashwords: “This novel is a page-turner! Cynthia Stowell is an excellent writer with a lively, entertaining style. Because the main female character named Ti spends a good portion of the story traveling through fascinating sections of the planet, the vividly descriptive prose never allows the plot to drag. Now I want to go on a bicycle tour of lovely Guernsey Island!  It’s top-notch wordsmithing, perfectly complemented by the author’s artful photography.”

My very first review, also from Smashwords: “This is a brilliant, absorbing, and moving work of fiction. Stowell’s story of a 40-something woman struggling to come to terms with her past and her future rings true to the experiences of women I know.  The style and narrative construction are innovative, but they work—they draw you into the protagonist’s mind and soul.  When I finished, I had to sit for quite a while reflecting on my own life.  Highly recommended, especially for those willing to let fiction challenge their life choices.”

Marketing can be really soul-sapping and riddled with self-doubt.  So, words like these give me confidence and hope as I try to secure my first professional reviews. Thanks, readers!

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An Interview with Myself

One nice feature of Smashwords is the self-interview that authors can add to their profiles.  Smashwords provides default questions, but authors can make up their own, or do a mix. I chose to use primarily my own questions, because I wanted to discuss the way my life intertwines with the novel and to explain a few stylistic decisions I made while writing. It was a fun exercise and I’ve gotten some good feedback from folks who found it enjoyable to read and instructive.

I’m going to tease you with a sampling of the questions, some of which have been partially answered in earlier posts and some of which I’ll discuss at more length in future posts.  Here are five of the ten questions in the interview:

  • What motivated you to write New Old World?
  • Why did it take you 25 years to write this novel?
  • How did you decide on your cover?
  • Why does the narration change from first to third person and include other voices?
  • Who do you think will enjoy New Old World?

Ready to read the whole interview?  You can find it at: https://www.smashwords.com/interview/CDStowell

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A Nice Mention During “Read an EBook Week”

You never know what’s going to happen when you give your e-book away.  But within ten minutes of reducing my price on Smashwords from 75% off to FREE during “Read an EBook Week,” I’d made a “sale”…and a half-hour later I received an e-mail from the buyer!  He hadn’t quite read my “magnum opus” yet (!), but he’d already posted a flattering blurb on his blog under the title “2018 Overlooked Ebook Gems for $1 or Less on Smashwords.”   You can see the post here, and I’ve provided a screen shot of his blurb below.  The blogger is Robert Nagle and he’s not just a writer and a fan of literature, but a producer and promoter of e-books in this brave new world of digital content.  I appreciated his post and hope to work more with people like this to get our books and businesses noticed.

Be sure to go to Nagle’s blog to see what other e-books he recommended, as well as his other posts and essays on a range of subjects: http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/

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