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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

January 2018

Caution: X-Ray in Use

Amazon has recently begun promoting a way to enhance the reading experience on Kindle books. X-Ray is a reference tool that can be used on Kindle Touch and later models, Kindle Fire tablets, Kindle apps for mobile platforms like your iPad or iPhone, certain Android devices, Fire Phones, and Fire TVs. X-Ray has been available since 2011, but its usefulness is limited in several ways. It is an English-only platform, and it only works if the author or publisher takes the time to implement the tools.
 
I did not know about X-Ray until after I published “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” and I have yet to see it work. I am currently learning about the process by adding X-Ray’s capabilities to my recent novel, “Henrietta’s Journal: A Life of Compromise.” So far, I have discovered that the process takes a great deal of time because you must apply it to each of your books separately
 
Basically, here’s how it works:
 
1. You start by adding X-Ray from the list of KINDLE EBOOK ACTIONS on your KDP Bookshelf (under the three dots). The tool then flashes through your book’s manuscript and produces a list of characters, places, and events that might need further explanations.  When I did this for “Henrietta,” it identified 237 different items to be described or identified.
 
2. You go through the list one-by-one and decide whether you want to keep the term on the list. If you don’t want to save the item, you can simply delete it. If you do keep it, you can show alternate spellings like ‘shopping center” (USA) or “shopping centre” (UK). I made another important decision at this point. Because this book is a novel, with only a few main characters, the same character names popped up frequently (Henrietta, 92 times; Julien, 291 times). To avoid the repetitions, I excluded all of my characters’ names, leaving in only the names of historical figures who played a part in the wider story.
 
3. Next you must decide whether you want to use the canned definition the program gives you, look up a better explanation on Wikipedia, or write your own definition. And here’s where it gets tricky. One frequently appearing term on my list is “St. Philip’s Church.” The X-Ray tool gave me nothing. When I looked up the term on Wikipedia, I found a long list of churches by that name from all over the world, but none of them were the church in Charleston to which i was referring. That meant I had to take the time to look up identifying material, such as dates of construction, the architects, the reason for its prominent and problematic location in the middle of the street, and its social importance. Only when I was satisfied with my own description (limited to 1200 characters counting spaces) could I mark that one term as reviewed and move on to the next.
 
Fortunately, you can do a few of these at a time, but you need to finish the whole list before you publish the definitions. When you are certain that you are finished, you click a button that reads “Review and publish X-Ray.” Only then will your definitions and explanations become visible to the reader. Is it worth it? That remains to be seen. I’ll provide an update after I’ve finished converting “Henrietta.” But don’t hold your breath!

 

Keeping the Tax Collectors Happy



One of my first recommendations to any new or aspiring self-publisher is that they treat their writing like a business. I insist that they establish at least a sole proprietorship and create a home office dedicated to the writing, publishing, and marketing of their books. Why? Well, for one thing, having your own business allows you to take valuable business-related deductions on your income tax. So it will surprise no one to find a whole chapter early in “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” devoted to keeping records and explaining the deductions an author may claim. 

It was also not much of a surprise when shortly after I published my book, the internet broke out in a rash of rumors about what the new tax bill was going to do to destroy the livelihood of independent authors. The worst of these predictions was that authors would no longer be able to claim deductions for their home offices.

Were the rumors true? No, of course not. At most, the new law simply strengthened the rules already in place and promised to enforce them strictly. And what were the rules? Despite the governmental double-talk, there are only two rules to follow.First, a home office must be used regularly and exclusively for business purposes. The office does not need to be a lockable separate room; you can use a closet, a part of a room separated in some way from the rest of the room, or any identifiable space. But you can’t get away with slapping a laptop on the end of the dining room table once in a while and pushing it out of the way when it’s time to eat. Nor can you call it an office if you only use it once in a while when you are bored. 

Exclusivity is an important part of that definition. If you use the desktop computer to pay bills as well as to write the great American novel, it’s not a home office. You can’t let your teenager write her term paper or play games on your computer when you are not using it. Apparently the cat can walk across your keyboard, leaving gibberish behind, but for other family members, the rule is definitely “Paws Off!”

The second rule is that your home office must be the only fixed location of your business.  You can’t claim to have a home office because you hate the drive to your employer’s office building. This is the part of the law that upset several academics. If you have an office provided by your company, you are expected to use it. If you are writing a scholarly monograph as part of your effort to gain tenure, you may work on it wherever you choose, including the local Starbuck’s. However you cannot claim to have a home office just because you have set up a comfortable place to write that monograph on weekends or late at night. That kind of writing  is a part of your employment, and you have a fixed location for that employment there on campus. If, of course, instead of writing scholarly monographs, you spend your free weekends and evenings drawing manga comics, then create your own company and draw away. Just be sure to keep your regular job and your creative fantasies on separate computers.

So there it is. I still advise every self-publishing author to set up a company, create a home office, use whatever it takes—up to but perhaps not including razor wire—to keep the rest of the family away from your creative space, and then start keeping your records. Identify every purchase that goes exclusively to your use in your office, file folders holding receipts for postage, your other business expenses (the editor, the cover creator, the layout specialist), and the cost of the books you purchase for resale. Then you can deduct away!

There Are No Answers--Only Questions


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that was (or should have been) called “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” I had just been informed by the president of our homeowners’ association that with a hard freeze warning in store for that night, i needed to leave the faucets in my master bath running to prevent a pipe in the outer wall from freezing and bursting.  I did so, only to discover that the trap under the sink leaked. So I called a plumber, who said, “We’re booked solid with frozen pipes. Just don’t use that drain until the cold weather is over.” Thus the dilemma: do I let the water run and spend the night mopping up with towels and a bucket? Or do I turn the water off and risk a gusher of water coming through the wall from a broken pipe?  

Sometimes you can’t win for losing. OK, I accept that. But I didn’t expect the same rule to apply to publishing. Several years ago, I wrote a book on how to self-publish your novel. It was a topic that was very much in the news among writers in 2012, and “The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese” was well-received and sold hundreds of copies. However, our world of technology moves at an ever-increasing speed, and books about technology have a short shelf-life. By last year, the “Second Mouse” was getting some pointed criticism among its Amazon reviewers as readers complained that the information was outdated or that I had failed to include current problems. 

The solution, I thought, would be simple. It was time for an update—a second edition. I quickly went to work on “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” making every effort to touch on the very latest innovations and solutions to current problems. I even went so far as to experiment with an online formatting program that I used to format the page layouts of the new book. And then, at the last possible moment, I went back and added a paragraph to describe my findings. The book’s publication came at the end of November, 2017.

But “Damned if you do . . . .” 

Almost immediately, major publishers and software companies leaped in to announce major updates and new solutions.  Even the federal government got involved. Today, January 24, 2018, several of the chapters in my shiny new book are outdated. Obviously I can’t write faster than software designers can think. My solution—for the moment—is to use this blog to make additions and corrections to the new book as they occur. We’ll start this week with the questions about home offices that arose with the new changes to tax laws.

Wait a Minute. How Do I Do That?


Here’s a rough idea of what I want to accomplish with my new book. Last fall, I published Henrietta’s Journal. It took the form of a diary written by a young English woman who came to Charleston, South Carolina as a bride.  The story was set in the 1830s and focused on Henrietta’s struggles to adapt to a society based on the peculiar institution of slavery, an economy based on a single crop—cotton, and a strict patriarchal social order.

The new book, tentatively called Henrietta’s Legacy, jumps ahead some 25 years, landing the reader at the outbreak of the Civil War. The family has undergone some changes, of course, and there are secrets and closeted skeletons galore. The keys to some of the 1860 problems lie hidden in the 1830s diary. I want each book to be able to stand alone, but I’d also like the reader to be able to jump back and forth between the two. In chapter two, for example, Henrietta’s brother-in-law is contemplating becoming a smuggler, a latter-day pirate, and a blockade runner. Henrietta reminds him that he’s been talking about this crazy idea for 25 years. I would like the Legacy reader to be able to jump to the relevant episode in Henrietta’s Journal and read the letter he wrote to his father about the same idea during his first trip to Cuba in 1835.

For those readers who will purchase the trade paper editions of both books, it will be a simple matter to add the appropriate page numbers to the new text. But what about the Kindle editions? Digital versions of the two books should make this possible, but I’ve never seen it happen. Which of these formats do you recommend?

1. The reader has both books separately on the same device, and uses the section numbers to jump back and forth. But how would that work? Can you keep two books going at once on a Kindle?

2. The new book uses footnotes at the end of the new book to show nothing but the relevant quotes.

3. The two books are published in an additional format—as a boxed set that contains both complete manuscripts with internal connections between them. The Journal, by the way, has approximately 83,000 words; I’m guessing that Legacy will come close to 100,000 words. That will make a file of nearly 200,000 words, but will leave the choice up to the reader.

4. Is there another way to handle this?

 


 

Rested, Recharged, and Ready . . . or Not



A month or so ago, I posted several Christmas resolutions about not using the holidays to sell more books, or to insist that I knew what your family and friends wanted to read, or to bribe you into donating to my own favorite charity.  Those resolutions worked (all too well!) for the entire holiday season. I quit posting about my books, and you quit buying them or borrowing them to read.  Maybe that’s because you just didn’t have time for reading between batches of cookies and last-minute shopping trips. Fortunately, I’m now seeing a reversal. In the past few days, several people have started reading again, which warms both my heart and my bank account.
 
I also promised myself that I would try to enjoy the season and take a break from writing. That one worked well, too. I’ve lapsed a couple of times, but my total output for the past 35 days has amounted to less than 5000 words. I filled my days with household chores, decorating, shopping (much of it on-line), cooking, and vegetating in front of the TV. I came close to becoming a reality-show addict—baking contests, remodeling demolition derbies, silly quiz shows geared toward offering lots of money in the early minutes and then yanking some or all of it away at the end of the show. Most of these were reruns but ones I had never seen.  I’m ready to push the OFF button and get back to work, although I fear I’ll be side-tracked by the upcoming Olympics, as will many of you.
 
Still, if you’re reading again, it’s time for me to start writing again.  I have the outline of a new book and files of research materials to fill in the historical details of the start of the Civil War. I also have the germ of an idea to make this new book an innovative reading experience.  The problem? I know what I would like to see happen, but I’m not sure how to get there. I’d like your suggestions. I’ll explain the tentative plan and its problems in tomorrow’s post.  For now, I need to stop blogging and start recreating the world of 1859.