Welcome to Sweet Weasel Words, home of author Crawford Smith.
I love writing, but am not particularly fond of creating and maintaining websites, so please be patient while I continue to beat this site into some sort of order.
I’ve just published a novel about a strange little town called Fester, Pennsylvania. I’ve been working on this story since 2008 – it’s great to see it finally get published.
See the Fester page for more details and a preview.
Still available is the fascinating Jackrabbit. This is a historical crime novel about the latter career of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. This criminal’s life was indeed stranger than fiction – so much so that I had to focus on only the last five months of it to keep from overwhelming myself and the reader. Check out the Jackrabbit page for details.
Sometimes, inspiration for a story can come from unexpected places. This happened to me last weekend. In my case, the inspiration was a “welcome” binder in a rental property.
I am a compulsive reader and all-around nerd, so I always read the guest book whenever we check into a hotel room or whatnot. I want to see the local map, find out what good bars and restaurants are nearby, and know the best way to make a speedy exit if necessary.
When we checked into a 2-bedroom rental for a long weekend in Astoria, Oregon, I immediately thumbed through the binder that had been left on the kitchen table. Tucked in the back pocket of the binder was a number of newspaper pages from the Daily Astorian from 2012. I expected a review of the place we were staying (the “Painted Lady”), or a rehash of a long-past local festival. The first page I saw carried the banner headline “Mary Louise Flavel found.” This piqued my interest right away – who was Mary Louise Flavel and why were people looking for her? As I continued to read through the newspaper articles, it soon became evident as to why, and I soon became amazed at the story that led up to Mary Louise’s discovery.
First, a bit about Astoria. Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria was the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The town was founded in 1811, by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company as a fortress trading post. Given the strategic location as the Pacific connection to one of the continent’s main inland waterways, it soon began to thrive.
Captain George E. Flavel was one of the first licensed sea pilots in Oregon. As the only bar pilot at the mouth of the Columbia, he had a virtual monopoly on sea traffic moving in and out of the river. He charged accordingly, and one contemporary editorial described him as “the bloodsucker at the mouth of the river.”
The Flavel family fortune grew, as Captain George expanded into shipping, banking, coal, commercial real estate and other business ventures. The fortunes of the town grew with the fortunes of the Flavel family. Captain George built a fine house in the Queen Anne style a few blocks from the waterfront. The family eventually donated it to the county historical society, and it is operated as a museum today.
Flavel’s son, George C., also became a bar pilot, and built himself a grand house a few blocks away from his father’s. After the original house was donated, George C.’s became the family seat.
As I continued to read about the fate of the house and the Flavels that lived there, I was amazed. It was an incredible story of the decline and fall of a prominent family, and a town who turned on them. I read through the newspaper articles twice, then grabbed a notebook and filled four and a half pages with notes. The next day, we went to the Flavel House Museum, and I picked up a book in the gift shop that offered some more details on the rise and fall of the Flavel family.
That evening, as I was watching the ships laying at anchor in the river, I had an epiphany: “Astoria is Fester.” Even the geography is similar (although the Columbia is much wider than the Black River flowing through Fester). With that realization, I began plotting how to fit the story of the Flavels into the context of Fester. I grabbed my notebook again, and soon had the outline for about 75% of the story that may serve as a sequel to Fester.
Which leaves me with a nice conundrum: should I pursue this new inspiration, or should I continue with the story on which I had been working, a story about stand-up comedians, tentatively titled Laughingstock? It’s a nice problem to have, for a writer.
At this point, I’m only a chapter or two away from finishing the equivalent of Act 1 from Laughingstock, so I owe it to the story to get at least that far. Then I’ll take a stab at the Fester followup. We’ll see what inspires after that.
Well, my latest novel, Fester, is as published as it’s going to get. That means that I now have to go out and actually sell the sumbitch.
This, for me, is not fun. Some people love being a sales-entity*, but not me. For me, it’s like pulling teeth. However, as a one-entity operation, I have to be the author, the publisher and the sales-entity. As the philosopher Meatloaf pointed out, two outta three ain’t bad. Regardless, slacking on marketing is not going to get my book in front of readers, which is the object of the exercise.
I have been researching how to maximize book sales for indie authors**, and the bottom line is that you can’t really get anywhere with sales without spending on advertising. OK, I can get behind that; it takes money to make money. But here’s the rub: you shouldn’t really be spending money on ads unless you have a minimum number of Amazon reviews in place (~10). There’s no point in driving people to a point of sale without them seeing a number of (presumably positive) reviews once they get there.
Now I am in the uncomfortable position of trying to wheedle Amazon reviews out of my friends and family. This is, to me, odious – I feel like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. I had some issues with this when I was promoting the Fester prequel, Powwows. I offered free copies of the eBook ( Powwows was eBook only) in return for an honest Amazon review. This met with limited success. I think the issue in this case was that people downloaded the book and then forgot about it. Or maybe I’m just an impatient asshat. Probably both.
Regardless, I thought I’d try the same thing with Fester. At first, I offered a free digital copy for an Amazon review. Then, when my author copies finally arrived, I began offering a free hard copy for a review. When I made that offer, a relative who has also self-published books via Amazon suggested that I crank it up a notch, in order to make sure these were verified purchase reviews.
To that end, I decided to offer a $10 Amazon gift card to anyone who bought the book on Amazon, left a review and sent a screen shot confirming this. This seemed a little ethically mushy, but it’s a cutthroat environment out there for self-published and indie authors. I figured what was the harm? I’d get my number of reviews up to double digits, discontinue the offer and proceed with my advertising campaign.
The problems started when I unwisely cross-posted the offer to a FB indie author group that I had signed on with. The moderator of this group is a harridan – y’know the type: they’ve got a tiny chunk of the web they control, so they control it with an iron fist. This moderator saw my offer and went ballistic. Soon, I was getting nastygrams about how people like me were why the indie publishing world had a “bad reputation.” (This was news to me.) The moderator and a number of like-minded pedants were stalking my Twitter feed, and leaving nasty comments on unrelated posts on FB, etc. One of them even ratted me out to Amazon, claiming that I was “…abusing [the] system by offering incentivized reviews, incentivized purchases, sales manipulation, ranks manipulation, etc.”
This abuse seemed a little over-the-top for what I regard as a noob mistake. So I deleted the posts that had so offended the indie author pedants. Then, I checked the official rules*** and discovered that “incentivized reviews” used to be kosher, but they changed the rules a few years back. That’s the problem with Amazon: indie authors are pretty much at Amazon’s mercy if they want to sell book one, so they get to change the rules whenever they like. Also, it seems like there are underhanded ways to abuse the system on a large scale, which was a far cry from what I was attempting to do. Certainly, it seemed like overkill for my misguided attempt at book promotion to compel a complete stranger to act as a corporate snitch for Jeff Bezos.
I looked at some of the other rules regarding book promotion and Amazon reviews. They’ve got all sorts of rules, some of which border on the ridiculous. For example, it is OK to offer a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review – which is absolutely what I was doing. However, the reviewer is supposed to divulge that fact in the review.
Other rules regarding submission of Amazon reviews are a little more Orwellian. Technically, you are not supposed to get reviews from any friends or family. OK, I can (barely) understand rejecting reviews from the same household, but the whole friends and family group? Fuck that noise. Are we supposed to submit a list to Amazon or something? Bullshit. That company has too much of our personal information as it is.
So that’s where I’m at now – still pissy and frustrated. I’ll try to be cognizant of Amazon’s ever-shifting rules going forward, and avoid indie author groups in general. Fthang!
* I started to go with “salesman,” but realized that was sexist. I then thought about “salesperson,” but realized that term was prejudicial against non-humans and ghosts. “Sales-entity” seemed like the most inclusive term for this situation. Also, if anyone knows of a ghost who is looking for a sales position, please let me know.
**There are yea number of places that will , for the proper fee, provide instruction on how to maximize indie book sales. In fact, I was all ready to put my cash down on one of the more reputable courses, but then the radiator in the car blew up, so that was that. So it’s just muggins here who gets to work it out on his own.
*** Which, in retrospect, I should have done first. Eh, I’ve always leaned towards the “salt before tasting” philosophy., anyway
I’ve been preparing Fester for publication for what seems like several ice ages at this point. Even though the deadline is bearing down, it still doesn’t seem real. Right now, I am just reading and re-reading the manuscript, looking for typos and opportunities to polish up the story a little bit more.
This is daunting. I’ve been working on this story of and on for nearly thirteen years now. I’m pretty damn familiar with it at this point. Yet I’ve once again printed out the latest MS, and am preparing to review it yet again.
As I go through the oh-so-familiar chapters yet again, there are some I like reading, even for the umpteenth time, and some that are, at best, meh. Yet overall, the story holds up in my not so humble or unbiased opinion. I think it’s pretty good, fairly coherent, and very funny. I should be proud, for I feel I have written a good book. (That’s not to say that Jackrabbit was not a good book, but it wasn’t my story. It was John Dillinger’s; I just retold it and put a little twist at the end.)
However, while I was getting enthused about getting Fester to print, I ran across two statistics that totally harshed my mellow. The first was the total royalties I had earned since Jackrabbit was published in 2019. I won’t go into detail, because it’s damn embarrassing, but let’s just say it’s in the low three figures. A rough calculation indicates that I’ve earned enough selling books to cover slightly less than 5% of the out-of-pocket expenses involved in publishing: paying the cover artist, paying the editors, buying ISBN numbers, etc. I’ve recouped about one-twentieth of that; as for the hundreds if not thousands of hours spent writing and preparing the books for publication – bupkes, bubelah!
No matter. I didn’t get into this for the money. If I wanted to make money selling books, I would have opened a book store. At least that’s what I tell myself. The real object of the exercise is to tell a story – to entertain, and have the reader transported from their mundane issues and concerns to a world where they can be forgotten for a while. Noble AF, am I correct?
Then I ran into the second of the mellow-harshing statistics: that only about 25% of friends and family members who buy your book will actually read the thing. For me, this is a king-hell bummer, as friends and family members comprise the bulk of my audience. I guess the thought is that if they buy the book, that’s good enough. Well, it’s better than a poke in the nuts with a sharp stick, but it still kinda sucks. Because for me, this isn’t a moneymaking exercise, it’s a story-telling endeavor. I’d much rather you read a free copy than pay for one and leave it neglected on the nightstand.
What’s the point of this screed, then? I’m not sure–except it allows me to blow off a little steam. I’m not really too concerned about alienating my audience, since I’m fairly confident that very few people will read this, either. (And if you are reading this, I thank you sincerely.)
So, to sum up: some writers write to make money, but nearly all writers really want little more than to tell you a story. Indulge them.
Here it is kids! At long last, the final cover for Fester, with a major tip of the hat to fabulous artist and all-around nice guy, Ken Huey. It’s been really cool to see the artwork as it progressed through the design process, and to share the WIP images with you. Now, here’s the final, finished product:
RELEASE UPDATE: I’m still gunning for a June 30 release, although that may slip a bit due to unforeseen circumstances and my own personal idiocy. I’m waiting for Proof #3 to come back from Amazon KDP (shh, don’t tell the local bookshops) for what I sincerely hope will be a final polish. I hope to have some sample chapters up on the Fester page soon.
I’m one month and a few days away from the putative publication date for Fester. It’s exhilarating, exasperating and also a little frightening.
Exhilarating in the sense that I actually started this project in 2008, and it’s amazing to actually hold a proof copy of the book in my hot little hand. I put a lot of work into over the years, and then essentially shelved it to work on other projects. After the publication of Jackrabbit, I went on to a number of short(ish) stories, and another novel manuscript, which I will discuss in much detail at a later time.
Right now, I’m waiting for the second proof to arrive from Amazon KDP. It seems like the turnaround time is a little slower than when I was getting the proofs for Jackrabbit, but maybe that’s a reflection of my own angst and impatience. Because part of this process is actually damn uncomfortable for me.
For example, impatient though I may be to get the next proof in my hot little hand, the thought of re-reading this story again is a bit daunting. I’ve been working this tale over for the past thirteen years, and I’m looking forward to being done with it. Of course, the devil is in the details, and in my opinion, it’s using the fine-grade sand paper that really make the finished piece shine. So, once more into the breach, dear readers, once more.
Also exhilarating is the cover art, which is once again been handled by artiste par excellence Ken Huey. He’s been super patient and gracious with me during this process, and the results have been outstanding. So much so that I’m beginning to worry that the content of the novel. Not that anything that will attract the attention of potential readers or boost sales is anything to be shunned.
Which brings us to exasperating–which for me is promoting and selling the product. Marketing time – a time I always dread, because I am a terrible salesman. Hate it, hate it, hate it. But it’s got to be done, especially with a self-published novel that’s competing against seas of slush. I promised myself that I would begin promoting the novel well in advance of the publication date. Hasn’t really happened. I did engage with a marketing guy to put together a marketing plan, but due to a missed meeting (by me), that effort is going to have to be pushed out to or past the target publication date of June 30.
Maybe I can just push out the pub date, too – in order to stave off the frightening bit, which is to put out this important piece of myself for all the world to see. Because Fester is a much more personal book than Jackrabbit. The latter was essentially a real-world story that I was just retelling – and embellishing, especially towards the end. Fester, however, is all mine, and if someone doesn’t like this or that plot point, I can’t fob it off to historical accuracy. I gotta own it.
It seems that social media has given license to a fair amount of cruelty, especially when it comes to assessing the works of others. Kids these days, with their hair and their YouTube comments! On the other hand, was dead-nuts on when he said “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’d rather have a bad review than none at all. And that’s a difficult enough task, given how troublesome it was to get folks to review Powwows.
Which brings us full-circle (OK, half-circle) back to marketing and sales. This indicates to me that I really ought to wrap this screed up and get on to figuring our how to sell this sumbitch, at least until that proof shows up.
Ah, I thought I’d hit the sophomore slump when Jackrabbit came out, but in retrospect that was more of a freshman slump. Now that I’ve gotten Powwows out the door, do I appreciate what a sophomore slump for a self-published author really looks like.
I read somewhere that of all of your friends and relatives that buy your book, maybe 25% will actually read it. I was appalled when I first read that; now it seems wildly optimistic. Of course, I realize that in thee Covid-confusing times that people can have trouble focusing on naught but the essentials. And of course, there’s a helluva lot of entertainment out there vying for peoples’ attention. But on the other hand . . .COME ON! I crafted this tale to be an easy-to-read piece of entertainment that would make people chuckle about witchcraft murders. Is reading it too much to ask?
Actually, at this point, I don’t even give a flip if people actually read it; I just want them to review it. Once again, I’ve been struggling to get people to post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (but especially Amazon). For self-published books, the rule of thumb I’ve been going by is that you want 10 or 12 reviews available before you start promoting your work. The idea is that why go to the effort of promoting a work, only to have potential buyers see it with only a handful of reviews (half of which are by people that have the same last name as you)?
Of course, I’ve bitched about this before. This time, however, I thought I’d be clever: In an effort to get people to post reviews, a gave away yea number of PDF versions (it’s an eBook-only format) to people with the idea that in return for the free copy, they would post reviews for the sumbitch. Perhaps my mistake there was not including a time frame, as nary a single one has followed through on their commitment. Frustrating; and I’m not sure how to deal with it. Nagging via email and Facebook seems to have limited effect, and I don’t want to come off as pushy (although it may already be too late for that). On the other hand, since there is no physical book that can be rediscovered on the nightstand, I suspect that it can easily be forgotten in these modern, busy, fractured-attention-span times.
Then there’s the issue of sales, which is almost to depressing to delve into at this point. Of course, as I learned with Jackrabbit, one should not go into a self-publishing project expecting to make a lot of money (unless they want to spend every waking hour promoting it on social media).
Now, Powwows was meant to be a loss leader. I set the sale price at ninety-nine cents in order to interest people in the full-length novel Fester, coming out–I hope–at the end of June. The idea was that I would lose a little money on Powwows in order to set the stage for the big soaking I’d take when Fester comes out. However, given the sales figures so far, I’m beginning to question the wisdom of this approach.
Face it, we live in a very materialistic society. I may have groused before (but am too lazy to look it up) about how much Americans equate value with price. I know I’ve discussed this with Ken Huey, the most excellent cover artist I’ve used for both books. As a professional artist, he’s struggled to figure out how to price his work, which, of course, is of inestimable value. So, with that in mind, I’ve got half a mind to jack the price of Powwows up to a whopping $1.99. At this point, I don’t have much to lose other than pocket change, so I may as well put this theory to the test. The only real danger is that the sample size will be too small to draw an accurate statistical conclusion about the relationship between price and sales.
So be it. As with my other works, I primarily write to amuse myself. Of in this case, to vent a little. If you’ve actually read this (hi, Aunt Gail!), I appreciate it. And if you’ve been hedging on whether or not to buy a copy of Powwows, go ahead and do it while the price is still low.
As part of the upcoming “media blitz” for Powwows and Fester, I decided that it was time to update the logo. I trimmed the original image down to the face, and added an endless knot style border. As I was staring – for hours – at that sweet weasel face, it occurred to me that I had never told the story of how the name Sweet Weasel Words came about. So I will now.
First, the sweet face is not a weasel, but a ferret. Pet ferrets were a status symbol in 17th and 18th century Britain. Queen Elizabeth I had a pet ferret named Rascal and included him in one of her royal portraits.
Nearly a century later, Queen Anne did Elizabeth one better by having portraits painted of her own pet ferrets, and insisting that they hang in the National Portrait Gallery. The paintings are remarkable for their time due to the use of a special green pigment in the paint, which could only be made from guano from one of the Galapagos Islands (the small one). The paintings themselves are rather small (~1 1/2″ x 2 1/2″), so I guess not a lot of special guano was required.
Queen Anne’s ferrets were named Chauncy and Impertinence. Chauncy has a sorta “huh?” look about him in his painting.
Impertinence looks exactly like her name in her portrait.
Queen Anne doted on Chauncy and Impertinence, and called them her “sweet weasels.” She insisted on the pictures being hung in the British National Portrait Gallery. There was a fuss about it at first, with many feeling it was inappropriate. The curators of the gallery waited until they figured that Queen Anne wasn’t looking, and then they moved the ferret pictures into the corner by the trash can.
I’ve always thought that the picture of Impertinence was very fetching, and I’ve always enjoyed the phrase “weasel words.” When it came time to put a name to my enterprise, the two random memories just sort of flew together and combined, making a wet slap sound. Thus the name Sweet Weasel Words was born.
The good news is that Powwows is now slouching towards publication; the bad news is that I’m stuck in editorial perdition. Actually, as far as authorial mental states go, there are worse ones to be in. Writer’s block, for example.
The editing process is one that isn’t very glamorous, but oh so important. I’m in the process of editing two pieces of writing right now. My first mistake was thinking that once I’d paid a professional editor to edit the MS, that I’d pretty much be done with editing the story. Nope, not really–the editor has pretty much cleared up the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. I usually get a lot of feedback about timeline issues and historical accuracy (“that movie you’re quoting wasn’t released until two years after this story takes place”). Important stuff for sure, because as an author, there is a whole lot of the forest I can’t see due to my face being firmly planted on the treebark.
So I edit the editor’s edits, then I edit my own edits of the editor’s edits. On Saturday, I find myself changing back the things I changed on Friday. It can seem circular and pointless sometimes, and I frequently just want the whole damn thing to be over with, because I have a whole lotta other story ideas that are begging to be put down on paper. Why should I keep polishing and polishing and polishing what I already have.
Well, the answer to that actually starts to emerge after the sixth or seventh go-round. From the regular cycle of incremental editorial change, something really starts to shine out. That diamond-in-the-rough that began as a very basic idea however many yonks ago, is actually starting to shine! I find myself thinking things like, “Wow–this is kinda good! Did I actually write this?”
Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. Well, what if you don’t want to? That’s something I’ve been grappling with lately, as I labor to get two “new” stories out the door. The quotation marks are because the stories aren’t new; they comprise my first “serious” effort at writing a story from my own little twisted imagination.
It grew from a creative writing class and a sense of place. (As an architect, I was trained to say deep-sounding but vague phrases like “sense of place.”) What I really wanted to do was create a literary locale. I like to say it was inspired by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but that’s just so much pseudo-intellectual horseshit. I haven’t read Faulkner since high school, if that. Truth be known, it was Stephen King’s fictional towns of Castle Rock and Derry that provided the inspiration.
Thus Fester was born. Fester is located in fictional Kerry County, in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains in south-central Pennsylvania. It is a pastiche of the odd aspects of many of the places I’ve lived: Portland, Tucson, and Raleigh, with a dash of Albuquerque and Eugene. Of course, it draws most on where I was born and raised: York, Pennsylvania. I will not go into a detailed history of York here. Suffice it to say that it has a colorful history, from its claim to being the first capital of the United States, to a world-famous witchcraft murder.
I have not been back to York since 1996. I imagine that it has changed a lot since then – at least on the surface. Underneath, however – the people and the forces of history that made it such an interesting place to grow up are certainly still in effect. I’m sure it would be weird to go back there now.
It was certainly weird to revisit Fester. I wrote it from 2008 to 2014, then moved onto other things, such as Jackrabbit and a number of short stories. Somewhere after publishing Jackrabbit, I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to go ahead and publish Fester, figuring that would have to be at least as successful as Jackrabbit. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided to resurrect a story line excised from the monster first draft, and use it as a promo/teaser for the main novel.
I had both manuscripts edited, and now I am reviewing the edits to prepare for the typesetting and proofreading and all the other fun, wonky book stuff that needs to be done before releasing a book on an unsuspecting world. I am now going back to characters and situations that I hadn’t thought of in years.
It’s really quite strange, in many ways – not unlike my last visit back to York. Unlike York, I know that the MS hasn’t changed, but I sure have. I’d like t o think that I’ve grown a bit as a writer (although perhaps not as much as I would have like to). There is a simultaneous feeling of strangeness and familiarity that brings once-mundane details into sharp relief. It can be unsettling for a writer, and I’ve really had to stifle the urge to re-write huge chunks of the story.
Still and all, it’s been fun to walk back into the strange little town of Fester, and revisit the characters who sprung up there. Pretty soon, you’ll get to do the same. POWWOWS, a novella that will be available in eBook format only, is slated to be released on March 31. I’m gunning for a Jun 30 release date for Fester. I’ll be providing more updates here soon.
In the meantime, Jackrabbit is still available through Amazon:
Things are staring to coalesce around the projects that I mentioned in the previous post. To be brief, I have a novel manuscript called Fester that I wrote several years ago that I decided to publish. While the process of editing and general literary turd-polishing is going on, I have a prequel that I wanted to release early as sort of a teaser/promo for the full-length novel.
At first I thought about just posting the story right here, as I did with “Reset.” Then I decided to go ahead and publish it as an eBook, and charge something ridiculously low, like 99 cents. I really didn’t plumb the depths of eBookery when I released Jackrabbit; it was more like an afterthought, an extra box to check on the Amazon KDP form. As I’ve done a little more research on eBook publishing, I realized that I had perhaps skimmed over an important aspect of self-publishing.
At first I thought that I might be shooting myself in the foot by charging almost-a-buck rather than just giving it away. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, though. First, I’m talking about a measly 99 cents. Anybody’s got a dollar to spare, and with this, you get change! How much entertainment will 99% of a dollar get you elsewhere? Not much, my friends, not much.
Then there’s the whole bass-ackwards notion of how we assign value in a hyper-materialistic society. In our world, dollar signs are all. By charging the public for this story rather than giving it away for free, the signal is received that this is worth something. Price tag determines value in the minds of most.
This is especially true in the world or literature and bookselling. I have a good friend who once specialized in rare children’s books. He had a number of really high-demand titles in his catalog that he was listing for very reasonable prices. Despite having collectable titles at great prices, the books weren’t selling. Flummoxed, he asked another bookseller what he should do. The other bookseller took a look at the catalog listings and immediately said, “Double the prices.” My friend was skeptical, but at that point he had little to lose. He doubled the prices of the books, and within a week they had all sold.
The moral of this story: we’re all idiots. I know I sure am.
So, while Fester is getting the editorial beatdown it so richly deserves, I will dive into the deep end of eBook publishing. Stay tuned for further adventures.