Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Excerpt, Maintenon Mystery # 6.

Jonathunder, (Wiki.)

Louis Shalako

An excerpt from a work in progress;
'Maintenon mystery # 6'.

Maurice had looked his old man in the eye one day and told him that he had no intention of ever working for a living, or ever doing anything that any normal and rational person would ever consider worthwhile; therefore the old man might as well get over it. A withered smile crossed the banker’s face.

Antoine shook his head at the memory. Maurice, having come of age and somehow managing to stay out of jail since then, had earned at least some measure of respect. Perhaps that was the key to understanding Mo. Inherited status was no good to him.

He wanted to prove that he could do things differently.

His mother doted on him, of course.

Antoine stood blinking at his reflection as a dim figure inside the branch fiddled with the locks. As usual, Antoine was the first one there, although Monsieur Masson and Emilie Martin were also authorized to open up.

“Good morning, Monsieur Noel.”

“Ah. Good morning, Ignace.”

It was the Monday after Ascension Day, a national holiday. Everyone loved a day off. It fell on a Thursday, so there was a natural tendency, for those in a position to do so, to take the Friday off and enjoy a four-day weekend. It was an old joke that one or two of them would require retraining after such a long layoff. There was at least a grain of truth in it for some of them.

An indulgent boss, Antoine had let as many staff take the Friday off as seemed rational.

His own long weekend hadn’t been that relaxing. His wife’s relatives were in town and of course they must be entertained.

A tall, spare, balding man in his late fifties, Ignace wore the formal uniform of a sergeant, the red tunic only slightly ridiculous when one considered the long history of the private security firm he represented. The bulky pistol on his hip had never been used.

Keys jangled in his hands and Ignace re-locked the outer door as there was a while to go yet. 

He would hover in the vestibule until proper opening time.

“Lovely weather—” Ignace had a satirical bent.

It was pissing rain and had been all weekend, but it was slated, according to the radio people, to hopefully clear up later this afternoon.

“Oh, lovely. And how was your weekend?” Antoine was open, accessible, and after all these years, serene and confident enough that he genuinely cared about all of his employees.

The young and ambitious were so much more cruel.

It was the same thing with the customers. Some of them, you had them from the cradle to the grave. You might not see some of them all that often, but when you did, it was an important event in their lives. A young couple looking for a mortgage, hoping to get into that first home, that first flat, often enough they’d fallen in love with the place and it would be a heartless man who didn’t appreciate what it meant to the average customer to have home at all…

“Hah. About what you’d expect, sir.”

Antoine clapped the big fellow on the arm and Ignace went along, flipping on light switches and unlocking interior doors as he went. The inner doors of the lobby would be propped open for the whole day unless it was very hot or bugs were coming in, only the outer doors keeping out the dust and the flies. It was an old building and the air conditioning was always straining to keep up in summer, and the furnace fans pounding away all winter long.

Antoine used his own key to open his office door. He snapped on the warm overhead lights and hung up his dripping coat.

He was just heading off down the short hall to their accounting room to set water on to boil when there came a loud rapping on the thick tinted glass of the front door.

Glancing out, he saw Ignace going forward to let Emilie in, and in the dull light outside, he made out the form of one of the other girls hustling up the front steps under a dripping black umbrella.

It was about time to open up the vault.


“How was your weekend, Emilie?”

The kettle was already whistling as he had put in hot water from the tap. He glanced up at the clock.

“It was wonderful.” She was going away with another girl for the weekend as Antoine knew. 
“See? I am really quite sunburned.”

“Well, the seaside will do that for you. Would you mind opening up, please? I’m dying for a good cup of tea.” His own cook made excellent coffee but indifferent tea.

Antoine liked it very strong and had learned not let other people make it for him; they just waved the tea around in front of it and basically ruined what might have been good hot water. 

Steeping was everything. That was the trouble with philosophy, they ignored the smaller questions.

“Yes, absolutely.” Her hard heels tapped along on the tiles, polished to a mirror-like shine.

Ignace was letting two more of the staff in the front door and he turned for his office in the rear again. Cheerful voices babbled and echoed back and forth as they headed for the staff room.

The persistent whine of the kettle on its gas-ring was as nothing compared to the blood-curdling screams torn from Emilie’s throat as soon as she and Ignace opened the vault and she stepped inside.


Forgetting the kettle, Antoine broke into an instant run. His hard leather shoes, not being the most coordinated of men and getting distinctly older now, slipped on the floor as he tried to make the corner. He went down, sliding along on his left hip as he had been trying to round the corner into the secure area.

He slammed into the shining Porphyry marble of the end wall, but he was up in an instant.

He found Ignace holding a distraught Emilie in his protective embrace. Antoine stepped around them to confront the object of their revulsion.

“Get her out of here.” The guard nodded numbly but they didn’t move.

Antoine, his guts in turmoil and his heart in his throat, had little choice as to his next move. 

Kneeling beside the body, he put his hand on the side of the neck, which was cold. There was no sign of a pulse. Tugging the far shoulder, just to make sure there was nothing they could do to save this person’s life, Antoine grunted with the effort. Obscenely limp and heavy, the body finally turned over when he braced his feet and gave a real tug.

“Oh. Nom de Dieu.” It was Daniel, and Emilie was weeping quietly in the background.

“Get her out of here, please. And I think we’d better call the police.”

His eyes traveled the length of the room, lined with tiers of safe-deposit boxes, the main vault behind a row of floor-to-ceiling bars immediately to his left.

His heart was pounding in his chest.

There was a dead man in his vault, the implications terrible, and yet all of that was still unknown.

Ignace and Emilie still hadn’t moved, staring down at the body of Daniel Masson, assistant branch manager, and until now, one most definitely being groomed for better things a little further on down the road.


“Hello. Special Homicide Unit.” Andre Levain listened briefly, eyebrows lifting.

He looked over at the boss.

“It’s for you—” There was something in the tone and Maintenon nodded.

He picked up, noting that Levain stayed on the line.


 “Gilles, this is Jean.”

Only Chiappe could assume that kind of familiarity. 

He hadn’t spoken to the Commissioner in several months, but there was no mistaking that hard, gravelly voice, a voice like a cement mixer as someone had once said.

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve got a real good one for you.”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

Levain’s pencil was poised to strike…

“We’ve got a dead man, in a bank vault. One of the employees. They were opening up after the long weekend.”

“And where is this?”

“The Credit Lyonnais, Gilles.” The Commissioner gave him the address, but Gilles knew it as it was a kind of local landmark anyway. “The only thing I can add, is that with the present political and economic situation, Gilles, it’s already sending jitters through the market. The sooner we get this one solved the better.”

Levain’s pencil stopped. He stood, his coffee forgotten and the cigarette quickly stubbed out, the earpiece rammed firmly to his head.

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Gilles. And let me know as soon as you get anything.”

“Yes, sir.”

There came the crash of the phone from the other end and Levain winced.

Gilles heaved a sigh, and then firmly closed the file he had been reading.

“Well. That’s it then. There goes our Monday.”

Levain already had his hat on. Hitting the disconnect button on his phone, he dialed the front desk.

“We’re going to need a car, Boss.”


Monday, June 29, 2015

Amazon, Price-Matching, Passive Discoverability and Advice, Bad and Good.

Louis Shalako

Amazon and its price-matching are a real pain in the butt sometimes.

I know we’re not supposed to get angry in this business, but there are times when it gets real personal.

What happened was that one of our authors had a story that was actually selling on Amazon. 

It’s an ebook, and it’s in a specific category. If romance has ten million titles on Amazon and fantasy five or six million, (just a wild guess), the category this one is in might have had a few thousand titles. It might have had half a million titles. It stood a better chance to begin with. It’s in a smaller category—that’s all.

We’ve all heard a little too much about passive discoverability. We’ll get to that in a minute.

In about three weeks we sold sixty books in the U.K. and thirteen in the U.S. And then one day the sales were gone. I peered at the Kindle Digital Publishing dashboard and realized the bastards had started price-matching.

They’ve given away two hundred and fifty-four copies of our story. After a brief exchange of sharp words, (on my part, because they just don’t care and can afford not to take it too personally as they get some kind of weekly minimum wage), they put the price back on it.

I have serious doubts about that book picking up its previous momentum. Many people have remarked there is no real sales bump after a free giveaway. I still find the more books I give away, the more books I sell. This was, in fact, our best month ever—although that’s not saying very much.

But it seems Amazon, presumably following their own best interest, took the wind right out of our sales on that book. What is especially irksome, is that you can rarely get them to price-match when you want them to.

Countless times, I have taken a link from one of our free books on a competitor’s website. I have gone to the Amazon page for the exact same book, clicked on ‘report a lower price’, and pasted it in—all to no avail. Do that a few times, get no result and there is your answer.

What they tell you is that they have sole discretion in terms of price-matching. If you don’t like the terms of service, you can go elsewhere. No one ever does, because Amazon is the biggest player, they have the traffic. They have the readers and the buyers.

Pricing is a powerful tool. Amazon is the only retailer at present who doesn’t allow the author or publisher to set the price of a book at free. I can set a book for free on any other website. In places such as Google Play, that change is reflected instantly. Price-pulsing is a useful and recognized tool for making sales. Traditional publishers have admitted that they do it too. 

Who wouldn’t use it if they could? On Amazon, there is that eight or twelve-hour delay. And you can’t set it for free, and there are an estimated thirty-three million titles on that website.

There is no such thing as passive discoverability on Amazon, (and please listen carefully) because we are unknown, not previously published authors. We are not disgruntled ex-mid-list authors who were dropped for poor sales numbers, a change of editors, or their previous publisher going bankrupt.

We do not have an established following. We start off with one book, no back-list, no experience, and no readers. It takes a long time to build readership, and that’s true whether you can write, spell, edit, proofread, publish, or not. That’s one reason, after five or six years of assiduously reading blogs on writing, the industry, or ‘how to attract a literary agent’, we no longer listen to the advice. It was simply inappropriate for us.

It might have been more useful to others, and it’s only fair to say that.

On OmniLit, and some other platforms, I can give books away for free all day long. I can go there at night, set up a title with a price, and sell a couple of books. Before I go to bed, I can set it for free again, building up some heat in those pesky algorithms. We can’t do it for all the books, but some books do sell. That is the thing that really grips the imagination.

Imagine me—some guy no one ever heard of, selling books across a number of genres, getting reviews, making a little money and learning our way around this, the independent side of the business.

For our purposes, some of the advice was really bad, and we wish we hadn’t taken it.

On Smashwords, changes appear instantly, but this is one of our poorest-performing websites. 

We sell very few books through SW, and their distribution channels do take some time to reflect price or other changes. Some changes never go through including that all-important metadata, new covers, etc.

When you have a hundred and twenty titles, it is a real pain to go through a half a dozen sites and see if all your changes have gone through.

Speaking of passive discoverability, traditional publishers realized that back-list is pure gold. It was a bunch of free products that they didn't have to pay for, except for royalties already negotiated and rates set. They don't have to pay until they sell a book.

What they did, when they realized this was a whole new revenue stream, one that they had pooh-poohed and completely ignored, was to grab and upload as many back-list titles as they possibly could, before the rights reverted back to the authors.

A lot of those authors had no time limit on their contract. In some contracts, the publication of a new edition, say a translation in Spanish of an English-language title, extends the license for a stipulated number of years. In the contract I saw, (but did not sign), a two-page contract, what was left out was more troubling than what was in it. Each new edition would have extended a two-year license for an additional two years. That part was in there, at least. I at least understood some of the implications. With all due respect to the party in question, it would be fairly easy to put a machine translation, (arguably proofread by a native speaker) up in Swahili, and extend the license of a book that might have been doing all right in English.

What do they care if they sell two books a year in Swahili? What do they care if the product, published under a subsidiary name and imprint, in another language, was a bad translation? 

The author would never know. All the author would know is that they had sold two books in Swahili and a few thousand or so in English, and that they were never going to get their intellectual property back. That’s because two years later the publisher could conceivably publish it in Dinka, or Urdu, or whatever. When you consider the literacy rate in some of these third world countries, native speakers might have a hard time reading the book, but then they might just assume that it’s beyond their reading level. Even they might not know it’s a bad translation, unless and until some educated person reads it and reviews it.

The really interesting thing is that the book that was selling used the exact same type of book cover as the books that were not selling. We had the exact same editor, the exact same formatting. The whole thing kind of put the boots to the people who give the same old advice every time.

Write a good book. Use a professional cover, use a professional editor. If you can’t spell, can’t proofread, can’t be bothered to turn on spell-check and grammar check, then absolutely—you need an editor. In our own case, our editorial skills are more than adequate. 

What they really want you to do, of course, is to load up your first novel with five or ten thousand in costs before it’s ever published. They want you to go broke, quit the business and never come back.

Understandably, they’re a bit shy about telling you that part.


My mother asked me a good question the other day.

“If someone who had never done this before came to you, and asked for your advice, what would you tell them?”

For one thing, it really wouldn’t hurt to submit your first few books around. We had about a hundred and twenty-five rejection slips before we ever published our first title. We also had three contracts offered to us, which we did not proceed with, as my initial impression was that it was a vanity press.

We’ve submitted hundreds of short stories around and managed to place a few of them. 

Somebody else decided the thing was printable. In the early days, this offers both reassurance to the newbie author and some small measure of credibility. The money never hurts either, when you are building up your writing business.

My number one piece of advice is figure out what you want from all of this. Want to attract a literary agent? Read up on the query letter. Want a traditional publishing contract? By all means pursue it, and yes—listen to those people who have experience and knowledge of that side of the industry.

But if you want to explore independent publishing, those well-meaning folks might not be giving the best advice for you.

And yet that advice might be extremely relevant to somebody else.

Be very, very careful who you listen to.

Don't take my word for anything, Do your own experiments, learn the business and just keep going.