Kindle free book duplicity: Beware of the stealth series

For a writer, selling books with Amazon’s Kindle book platform is a great deal, and makes it easy to get a book online and out there quickly.

But then what? That sound you hear is crickets chirping and a coyote howling in the distance. How do you get noticed when every sentient being with a laptop and a nimble set of fingers is writing also? There is one method I have noticed seems a bit underhanded and, though it is widespread, I wonder if it even works. I’m talking about the stealth series.

One of the tricks Amazon offers authors is the chance to have book promotions by making their book available for a deep discount or even for free for a limited time. The idea is that people who wouldn’t spend money on an author they don’t know will download the free book and be so impressed they will buy anything else the author has written. (Needless to say, this probably is not a good strategy if you only have one book to offer.)

The problem is that the field is so crowded now that people who plow through the free Kindle offerings often find little that proves to be worth reading, or are not sufficiently impressed to spend actual money on the author. Possibly in response to this problem, some authors have resorted to what I call the stealth series.

Series have a long and respectable history in writing. Some are simply more stand-alone adventures of the same characters, and some are like parts of a serial, where each part is not complete without the rest. Romance authors such as Nora Roberts are known for writing series, and why not? Why sell one book when you can sell four or more?

So how does this tie into free Kindle books and the stealth series? Funny you should ask.

Some lesser known authors try to jump start their sales by giving away the first book in a series, hoping people will get hooked and buy the rest. It can be an effective ploy; drug dealers have been using the same methods for years. The sneaky part is that these authors often aren’t honest with their readers and don’t identify the free book as being one of the series. Readers invest the time to read the book, only to come to the last page and find that the story is not finished, only the free part is. (A variation of this method is to give away a book containing only a few chapters of the complete book without disclosing this up front.) Readers are conned into investing their time reading an incomplete work.

Why We Adore Book Series | Quirk Books : Publishers & Seekers of All ...

Even well known authors are guilty of the stealth series trick.The book covers or descriptions of these stealth series do not mention that the book is part of a series, and the other books in the series often have non-related titles that give no clue where they fit into the scheme. Stealth series are often so well disguised that it is hard to tell…

a) That it’s a series at all, or

b) How many books are in the series, or

c) The names of the remaining books

By the time you figure it out, it is too late. You’ve spent hours reading and investing in the story that you will have to pay to conclude.

So is this ploy successful? I don’t know, but most people resent being conned, and I wonder how many potential readers vow never to buy a book from the sneaky author again.

Grammar fads for writers

One trap that some fiction writers fall into is writing with present day slang or expressions in a story set elsewhere. I don’t mean something obvious such as a Roman centurion talking about social media, or somebody, talking about a traffic jam during the Civil War, I mean things that are more subtle. Take everyday expressions. They change constantly, so something that sounds all right today, may not tomorrow. For instance, did people say “Give me a break” in the 1930s? They certainly needed one, but the expression wasn’t in fashion at the time. I once had a 1920s flapper saying “Boop boop be doop.” It sounded right to me, but a little research revealed that the expression didn’t surface until the 1930s, so I had to change it to “Ain’t we got fun?”. Of course, this works the other way as well. Just as you wouldn’t have someone say “cell phone” in the 1950s, you wouldn’t have someone refer to someone as “daddy-o” in 2016. (Well, maybe your great grandfather might.)

On Empire and Anachronism | Imperial & Global Forum

In addition to expressions, there are what I call grammar fads; little phrases or constructions that people don’t really think about, but that become widespread for a while, such as saying “whatever”. If these creep into your writing, it could be embarrassing if readers notice, even though it is likely they won’t. For instance, you may have noticed that in old movies set in the 1930s and 1940s, many people start sentences with “Say,”. “Say, are you that guy I saw last night?”, or “Say, what’s the big idea, anyway?” Come to think of it, what’s the big idea is an expression you don’t hear much any more, either.

Ancient Paths: Is Christianity an Anachronism?

As a writer, you are probably in more danger of letting 2016 talk creep in to a 1980s story than the other way round. Here is a grammar fad I’ll bet you never thought about.; answering a yes or no question by repeating the subject and verb of the question itself.

“Are you going to the movies?”…….. “I am.”

“Was that your husband I saw being led away in handcuffs?”……..  “It was.”

“I heard you split the atom yesterday.”……. “I did.”

Admittedly, this is a very fine point, and most would never notice, but if one of your characters talks this way in the 1960s, it can sound like an anachronism.

Oh, and that goes for something currently popular being referred to as “a thing” also.

Buried treasure in the 1000 Islands!

In late July, we chartered a houseboat in the Thousand Islands region along the St Lawrence between Canada and the US. (Since then, we have been amazed how many people have never heard of the place. Where do they think Thousand Island dressing comes from?) Anyway, we found that piloting a pontoon houseboat with a single outboard is like trying to maneuver a block of ice across a marble floor by pushing it with a pool cue, but we managed to get where we wanted to go and back again without incident.

In addition to being breathtakingly beautiful, the area has a lot of interesting history, not the least of which is friction between the US and Canada during the War of 1812. The picturesque Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, as well as the Martello towers guarding the city are tourist attractions today, but were built to defend against invasion from the United States. The famous Rideau Canal, connecting Kingston with Ottawa was constructed to provide resupply route to Kingston that could not be disrupted by the American navy. Of course, we’re all pals now.

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As you might expect, such an interesting area tends to attract interesting people. While cruising among the islands in our houseboat, we met four couples from Ontario who were on a real life quest for a buried treasure. The remarkable story of that quest, and whether it was successful is told in an article I wrote for Thousand Islands Life online magazine. Here is the link…. ThousandIslandsLife.com

Take a look.

The irresistable allure of the politically incorrect wisecrack

Sometimes I just can’t help myself; I just blurt out something politically incorrect. But in my defense, I have to point out that the straight lines served up to me sometimes make the snarky retort almost irresistible.

Take the morning news a few weeks ago. A morning news show had a story about placing famous women on various denominations of U.S. currency. The female news anchors were positively giddy about the prospect, making it sound as world-shaking as a cure for cancer. They went on about how “historic” it would be, ignoring the fact that Martha Washington got there first in the 1800s.

Martha Washington was the only woman to appear on a U.S. currency note, and that was in the 1800s.

Finally, one of them ended the segment by saying “So you men look out; women will soon be filling your wallets!”

To which I replied out loud, “That will be a nice switch; usually they empty them.”

My wife just shook her head, but I could see that she was laughing, too.

Gobsmacking the reader

Someone, in fact several people, have said that there are only a few basic plots in any story; boy meets girl, the quest, the hero’s journey, revenge, etc. So why do people read fiction? One reason is for the surprise; the twist; the unexpected development. The “didn’t see that one coming” moment.

In my series, the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries, I like to surprise the reader by setting up a scene in where the reader sits back and expects things to play out a certain predictable way, but something startlingly unexpected occurs. The Brits call this “gobsmacking”. (Gotta love the versatility of the English language) One way I like to do this is by having a character introduce a completely unexpected perspective. In Death and the Blind Tiger, Allison Hurlock gets invited to the Algonquin round table in New York by Dorothy Parker and is dazzled by the New York literati in all their quipping, acid-tounged glory. For magazine writer and aspiring author Allison, this is heady stuff, and she tells husband Max how she wants to be accepted by these famous and clever people. The next day she returns early to the Algonquin Hotel dining room, anxious to ingratiate herself with her heroes. At this point, the reader assumes the rest of the scene will consist of Allison trying to be accepted, but that’s not what happens. A waiter appears and is visibly concerned when she says she wants to sit at the round table. He tells her how self centered and cruel the round table denizens can be, then apologizes.

“Well, I’m afraid I’ve spoken out of turn,” the waiter continued, blushing slightly. “Of course you can be seated there if you want. I just thought you didn’t seem like one of them. I know people, you see. After a while you get a sense about people in this job. I can tell you have a kind heart, and I guess I was just trying to keep you away from people that don’t. I’m sorry.”

Allison watches him go, decides she doesn’t want to be like those shallow people, then turns and leaves.

 

In Death in Unlikely Places, Max teams up with a reluctant local sheriff in Florida and they pass a labor gang of black men supervised by overseers on horse back. By this time, it is clear that the chief is not happy to have Max along, and the reader expects some stereotypical southern-sheriff-meets-Yankee-outsider-and-tells-him-how-things-are dialogue. (After all, this is the 1920s) Instead, Sheriff Atley is genuinely outraged and grumbles about unscrupulous labor contractors taking advantage of local blacks. He tells Max how he once let a fugitive escape after giving him five dollars. Max is amazed.

“And don’t you be telling anybody,” said Atley. “I got a reputation to keep up.”

“I don’t see how a sense of justice is necessarily a handicap for a lawman,” said Max.

“You’d be surprised. I been a cop since I got out of high school. It’s all I ever wanted to be, but I wanted to chase criminals, not victims. If that means looking the other way once in a while, well…”

Max smiled. “Sheriff, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”

 

Maybe the best example of gobsmacking the reader occurs in Death at the Lighthouse, where Allison is researching an article on spiritualism and attending seances. She is amazed by the ghostly manifestations she witnesses with local medium Madam De Sousa, until she encounters Houdini himself (it all makes sense in the book) who explains the simple conjuring tricks involved. Feeling she has been hoodwinked by the obviously fake medium, Allison confronts Madam DeSousa. The reader, expecting a storm of Allison’s righteous indignation, expects either a shouting match or the wilting of Madam DeSousa, but that’s not what happens. When Allison accuses Madam DeSousa of being a fake, the medium coolly replies, “Is that so bad?”

“Of course it is!” Allison answers. “It’s fraud.”

Madam DeSousa then shows Allison a book with a list of her clients, explaining the terrible heartache each is experiencing and how desperate they were to contact deceased loved ones for some sort of closure. Madam DeSousa then states her case.

“Allison, you are right. I am a fake. I use tricks and psychology to bring comfort to people that are crying out for it. I give them closure so they can live the rest of their lives in peace. I know they are not really in communication with their loved ones, but who would tell them that? Would you have the heart to crush someone’s hopes by telling them there is no real way to communicate with the dead? So I ask you once more; is what I do so bad?”

“But you make money off of other people’s misery.”

“No, Allison. I make money relieving other people’s misery. Isn’t that what a doctor does?”

“A doctor cures people…”

“And so do I. My clients come to me crushed and distraught, and they leave with peace of mind they could get nowhere else….. If you expose me, where will the people in that book go for relief? Who will sooth them in the depths of their grief? Who will help fill the terrible void in their hearts?”

Now the reader may not fully buy the medium’s justification for her deceptions, but it is certainly a different and unexpected perspective, and this gobsmacking, I hope, makes the reader think a little.

After all, why read anything if you can’t expand your mind a bit?

Haitian salvation

If you lived in Haiti in the late 1930s, you might be excused from being concerned about the rest of the world; you had plenty of troubles of your own. The Americans had occupied the place since 1915 and had only departed in 1935 after fighting a long guerrilla war with local insurgents. The poverty, corruption, disease, and struggling economy remained, punctuated by the occasional hurricane or earthquake. To make matters worse, if that was possible, the world was in the grips of the Great Depression. What Haitian had the time, energy, or resources to even think about helping anyone else? And who could possibly need help as badly as the Haitians themselves?

There was one group in even more desperate straits than the Haitians, however, the Jews in Nazi Germany. The German government was steadily turning the screws on their Jewish citizens, making their lives unbearable and moving towards mass murder. Jews were desperate to escape Germany, but the Nazis would not let them leave.

As bad as things were for the Haitians, no one was trying to exterminate them, but they had plenty of their own problems to deal with. Still, Haiti has always been an unpredictable place, and they were about to pull yet another surprise.

In Haiti, Gontrand Rouzier, a Haitian lawyer and Rafael Brouard, the mayor of Port au Prince collaborated with both the Haitian government and a handful  of local Jewish families to provide financial support and Haitian passports  to some 70 Jewish families and facilitate their emigration, saving some 300 people from the Nazis. About half of these emigres came to Haiti and the others used their Haitian documents to escape to other countries. Some the refugees who came to Haiti remained there, but most ultimately went to New York because the Haitian laws and license fees made economic survival in Haiti almost as hard as in Nazi Germany. But at least they were alive.

Over 70 years later, after the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010, Israeli medical and aid teams traveled over 6,000 miles to  Haiti to come to the aid of the Haitians as the Haitians had once come to the aid of European Jews.

Refugee Bill Mohr and sister Ruth in Port au Prince, 1938

Bill and Harriet Mohr

Bill Mohr today, with wife Harriett-  He has a blog about the survivors and started the Haiti Jewish Refugee Legacy Project to document and remember that time.

How stereotypes get started

In our politically-correct world, we are constantly admonished against the use of stereotypes. Even positive stereotypes such as assuming a Jewish person is good with money or an Asian person is good with math are offensive, we are told. Why anyone would be offended by being assumed to be good with money or math is never explained.

The dirty little secret of stereotypes is that many are based, at least to some extent, on observation. Different cultures develop different habits or values and these habits or values surface in their interactions with others. Here is a case in point. French people or, at least French-speaking cultures, have the reputation for being epicures and placing a high value of food and food preparation. Surely the fussy and perfectionist French chef is one of the oldest stereotypes, but is it based on fact? Well, maybe.

Several years ago, we traveled to a waterfront area in Maine, and stayed at a popular tourist motel. Because of the hotel’s proximity to the Canadian border, The clientele seemed to be evenly divided between Americans and French-Canadians from Quebec. (As evidenced by the license plates on the guests’ cars.) A central grassy area was equipped with picnic tables and barbecue grills for the guests to prepare basic outdoor meals. When dinner time came, the Americans broke out hot dogs and hamburgers for the grill and some beer and soft drinks in coolers, and let it go at that. Many didn’t even go that far, and sat at the picnic tables munching pizza out of cardboard boxes, or Big Macs out of a fast-food bag.

The French-Canadians, however, had other ideas of what roughing it should entail. They had come equipped. They covered their picnic tables with checkered tablecloths and candles and started unpacking china plates, silverware, and an impressive  selection of wine bottles and long-stemmed wine glasses. Next came fondue pots, crepe pans, portable ovens, and an assortment of kitchen accouterments. Within minutes, the French-Canadians were in a Gaelic frenzy of preparing and cooking a variety of fragrant dishes. Soon, they were dining on shrimp, sauteed vegetables, soups, various grilled meats, cheeses, bread, fruit, and several types of freshly mixed sauces, all by candlelight and all accompanied by the appropriate wines. It was like someone had torn the roof off the Four Seasons to expose the diners within. Julia Child would have been proud. And this was practically a campground!

Image result for french outdoor picnics

Flash forward to a few weeks ago in the Canadian part of the 1000 Islands. We were in a boat tied to a dock at Gordon Island, part of the Canadian National Parks. There was no running water, and no electricity. The boat on the other side of the dock had a couple from Montreal and their daughter. Dinner time came and the same thing happened. There on a wooden picnic table on a dock floating on the St Lawrence in the shade of the pine trees appeared a tablecloth, china and silverware, wine bottles and glasses, and portable cookers of various types until the table groaned under the weight of freshly prepared delicacies. (Meanwhile, we enjoyed our hot dogs)

So is the idea that French-speaking people are very particular about the enjoyment of food and fine dining just a stereotype? Maybe, but you couldn’t prove it by us.

Bon appetit!