SpaceX Grasshopper 250-meter Test Flight

My dad is a rocket scientist, and I was raised with a household with a keen interest in space exploration. Naturally, I was thrilled to see that SpaceX recently completed a test launch of its newest rocket.

Check out this ridiculous video of the launch. The first half is pretty amazing, but the second half completely blew me away. I didn’t know this was possible:


Hugh Howey: Self-publishing is the future — and great for writers

Fantastic article about the economic realities of self-publishing: lots of us are earning real cash writing and connecting directly with our readers. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but hard-working writers are paying their bills with royalties.


Abandoned Ship: Cover Art History

Hey everybody! I was just looking through my archives for the Abandoned Ship project, and I thought you might be interested in seeing the evolution of cover concepts from my own original cartoonish sketches to the concepts produced by professional cover artists.

(You can click on any of these to see an enlargement, or you can hover your mouse over them to figure out which is which, based on the numbering in my notes below.)

Fun facts:

  • Concept #1 was my original idea for the cover. I drew it myself in Adobe Illustrator. All of my friends said it looked like a teen romance novel, and they told me to hire a professional. So I did.
  • I hired a cover artist for $1000 who produced concepts 2 — 7. I was not impressed with any of them. At all. So I sent him back to the drawing board.
  • He came back with concepts 8 — 11. These were definitely an improvement over the first batch, but I still wasn’t in love with any of them. I asked him to focus on concept #9, and I gave him a long list of tweaks to make.
  • But in the mean time, I hired another designer. I just wasn’t confident that the first guy would hit the sweet spot, and I wanted some fresh ideas. The second designer produced concepts 12 — 15.
  • A lot of my friends give thumbs-up to concept #14 with the life jacket. And I agree; it’s a strong design. But ultimately, I decide to disqualify any cover without the truly iconic imagery of the capsized cruise ship. People have seen that image on the news. It’s an immediate attention grabber.
  • Meanwhile, I’ve made some refinements on my own original drawing. You can see it below as concept #16. My friends mostly still hate it. Oh well.
  • The second artist comes back to me with concepts 17 — 19, which use some of the same colors and textures as #14, but with the ship imagery instead of the life jacket. These are nice, but they still aren’t quite attention-grabbing enough for my taste.
  • The first artist finally returns with concept #20 (his refinement of concept #9). He only implemented about half the changes I asked for, and his graphics weren’t good enough quality for print, but he had the nerve to ask for $1250 instead of $1000 because of all the extra work I had asked him to do. I paid him, but I wasn’t happy about his work.
  • So I finished up the rest of the tweaks myself. His images were of such poor quality that I basically had to start from scratch, but by the time I finished working on concept #21, I was very happy with the result, and that’s the cover I ultimately used for publication.
  • But after a couple of months, the cover art was looking a little bit too drab, so I added a richer blue color to the water and created concept #22. That’s the cover I’m currently using.

A Couple of Big Crazy Ideas to Save Barnes and Noble

First of all, let me just say: I adore Barnes & Noble.

I worked as a B&N bookseller all throughout high school and college, shelving all sorts of crazy new books and setting aside the most interesting titles for myself. I probably spent at least half of my meager bookselling wages buying employee-discounted books. On my lunch breaks, I would borrow a book from the shelf and read while I ate Chinese takeout from the food court down at the other end of the mall.

My parents taught me to enjoy reading, but Barnes & Noble is where I fed that passion, and it has always been a special place for me.

And so it pains me to see the company languishing.

Just this afternoon, I got an email from the Barnes & Noble “PubIt” program (the company’s self-publishing service)…


I stared at this message for a long time, thinking about what must be going on at Barnes & Noble headquarters right about now. Amazon has spent the past few years not just building an ebook store but really truly building a platform for independent authors. And it’s only been a few days — just over the weekend really — since Goodreads announced that it would be joining the Amazon family. In the wake of that kind of acquisition, what could Barnes & Noble possibly scratch together that might make a real difference to the self-publishing landscape?

I’d like to be optimistic. I’d like to think that somebody at Barnes & Noble has a game-changing vision for the company or the industry. I’d love to see some bold new plan breathe life into the company. But I can’t help wondering whether my favorite bookstore will squander its last real chance at survival with some half-assed, Johnny-come-lately rehash of an Amazon strategy from three years ago. Is the company poised to announce a new print-on-demand service? A social network for readers and authors? A partnership with one of the “indie” imprints of the Big Six publishers?

I’m not optimistic about the upcoming announcement — nothing innovative has happened at Barnes & Noble since they tried putting a Starbucks inside a bookstore — but as I sat this afternoon ponding this vague message, I thought about all the possibilities. What kinds of ideas might truly change the tides for B&N?

Here’s what I came up with:

Author-Branded Book Clubs

The most influential person in the publishing industry is, without question, Oprah Winfrey.

Think about that for a second… She’s not an author or an editor, or even an agent. She doesn’t even work for a publisher. And yet still, after more than 15 years, there is no better way to create a bestselling book than to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. The publishing industry never really learned how to take this kind of publicity machine and duplicate it, so the major publishers all relied on Oprah to do their promotional work for them.

But what if Barnes & Noble commoditized this phenomenon and offered it directly to authors?

A few years ago, when I finished reading The Gone Away World, I was so transfixed by the book that I immediately went out looking for more Nick Harkaway books to read. But Angelmaker hadn’t been released yet, so I had to find something else.

But what if there had been a Nick Harkaway Book Club? Maybe featuring a monthly or quarterly pick chosen by Nick Harkaway himself? Some of his own favorite books, by a few of his own favorite lesser-known authors?

If such a thing existed, I would have signed up for it immediately.

I’m sure plenty of people would likewise have signed up for the Elizabeth Gilbert Book Club after finishing Eat, Pray, Love or the Jon Krakauer Book Club after reading Into Thin Air.

Now imagine that every author made a list of their favorite books and promoted those books to their own readers. And what if authors could earn a small commission — maybe just 10% — whenever one of their readers joined the book club and bought the book?

If the commission structure was well-designed (with higher commission rates for less-popular books), then authors themselves would act as the gatekeepers for other authors. The high-power A-list authors would recommend books by up-and-coming B-list authors, and the B-list authors would sift through the ranks of newcomers to find the breakout hits. Some authors might become just as well-known for their ability to find new talent as for their ability to write great prose.

A system like this would create a natural ladder for authors to climb, and it would give indies a real chance to be noticed (since other authors would actively seek them out). The biggest problem facing indie authors today is the difficulty building an audience, and there are very few tools we can use to climb up from total obscurity, so it would be wonderful if we could enlist and incentivize our most avid readers (authors!) to be the new gatekeepers.

Shelf Space for Indies

Shelf space is the most valuable asset Barnes & Noble owns. With about 1300 retail locations (689 of their own stores, plus 667 college bookstores), there is no other company in the English-speaking world that can put books directly in the hands of so many readers.

But what have they been doing with that shelf space? More and more, they’ve been selling toys and board games and calendars and greeting cards. That might be okay for short-term profits, but it undermines B&N’s identity as a bookstore and blurs the distinction between other impulse-oriented retailers. And I can buy all just junky board games for less online than in B&N’s stores anyhow. It’s a losing proposition and a waste of shelf-space no matter how you look at it.

At the same time, indie authors are absolutely yearning for that shelf-space. Even with great reviews and lots of publicity, it’s still hard to attract readers without physical books on a physical shelf. It won’t be that way forever, but that’s still where we’re at in 2013.

But what if B&N could dedicate some shelf-space exclusively to indie books? Maybe one bookcase, next to the “Staff Picks” shelf… Maybe something like this:

Barnes & Noble Bookshelf Face Out

You can fit 42 trade paperbacks facing out on a shelf like that, with five to seven copies of each book, depending on their page count. If you had a shelf like this in every one of B&N’s 689 stores (ignoring their college bookstores entirely), then you could have 28,938 face-outs.

And they wouldn’t have to put the same books in every store. They could choose the top 1000 best-selling indie ebooks from the NOOK platform and select them for print distribution. The most popular books would get wider distribution than the slightly less popular books. The scheme could look something like this:

901 — 1000111,100
801 — 900151,500
701 — 800191,900
601 — 700232,300
501 — 600272,700
401 — 500313,100
301 — 400353,500
201 — 300393,900
101 — 200434,300
1 — 100474,700

So if my ebook was ranked #1000 in the NOOK store for April 2013, then I could expect my book to be distributed and faced-out (5 to 7 copies per store!) on the “Indie” shelf at 11 different B&N locations. But if my book was ranked in the top 100, then it would be featured at 47 different B&N locations.

While we’re at it, let’s add one of those big display tables up at the front of the store:

Barnes & Noble Display Table

Each table holds about 50 stacks of books, so we’ll take the top 100 bestselling indie books and distribute each of them to about 350 different stores.

I would love to have that kind of exposure. And there’s nobody else who can possible provide it. Amazon certainly couldn’t do anything like that.

But what good would it do anyhow? I’m sure some of the people reading this right now would shrug their shoulders and say “who cares about a bunch of self-published books anyhow?”

And the answer is: authors.

If there’s one group of people who might be successfully enlisted into the fight to save the NOOK platform (and by extension, Barnes & Noble itself), it’s definitely authors. More and more authors are choosing indie publishing, and the trend will only continue as time marches on. If Barnes & Noble wants to thrive during the next era of publishing, then they need to create attractive incentives for authors. And a program like this would give authors the incentive they crave more than anything else: shelf space.


102 Reviews

This morning, I woke up to a delightful sight: Abandoned Ship has been read and reviewed by more than 100 readers at Amazon​.com. And by the time I got around to writing this post, there were two more!

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to all my readers who have taken the time to write a review or to tell their friends and family about the book.

Thanks everybody! You’re the best!!

Abandoned Ship Has 102 Reviews


In Good Company

Today, I’ve watched with joy and amazement as Abandoned Ship climbed up the Amazon bestseller list, and at this particular moment, I just had to stop and grab a couple of screenshots.

These two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Eat, Pray, Love were both absolutely instrumental in teaching me how to write a spiritual travel memoir.

I’m ever-indebted to Elizabeth Gilbert and Robert M. Pirsig for paving the way, and it’s an honor to have my book cover pictured next to theirs.

Abandoned Ship on the Amazon Bestseller list for Travel Adventurer and Explorer Biographies

Abandoned Ship on the Amazon Bestseller List for Travel Essays and Travelogues


Authors for Wounded Warriors

Hey everybody, I just wanted to direct your attention to the Authors for Wounded Warriors program.

This is a very cool fundraiser! The organizers are loading up a new Kindle Fire full of eBooks donated by supporting authors, and then they’re auctioning off the Kindle to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

I’m proud to support them, and I’ll continue to support them on their future fundraisers too. If you’re an author, they’re still accepting book donations!


Big Promo Success

Life is good.

I planned a two-day promo to give away 20,000 free ebook copies of Abandoned Ship (click here for your free copy), but with still more than five hours left in the first day, I’ve already given away 16,487 books and Abandoned Ship is the #5 bestselling free ebook in the whole Kindle Store.


So I just want to say thank you to everyone who has downloaded so far, and I’ll keep you up to date on what happens tomorrow!

UPDATE (MID-WEDNESDAY): The current total, at 1:15pm EST, is 21,122. We finished off yesterday with 18,448 downloads and then when I woke up this morning at 8am, we were up to 19,773. So far today, there have been about 260 downloads per hour.

In fact, there have been almost exactly 260 downloads during each hour, so the download volume has decreased significantly from yesterday’s average (1600 per hour between 10am and 7pm) but is still holding steady. With no advertisements running today, I’m crediting the book’s #5 position on Amazon’s free book charts for bringing in the vast majority of today’s downloads.

I’m a little surprised that Amazon’s charts haven’t been updated at all since last night, about 16 hours ago. But I’m not arguing. Right now, I’m pretty sure my rank will drop as soon as the charts update.

UPDATE (THURSDAY MORNING): The giveaway is over with a grand total of 25,308 downloads, and I couldn’t be happier. Thanks everybody!


Twenty Thousand Free Books

Tomorrow is a big day for me.

Over the past month, I’ve been organizing a big ad campaign and a promotional giveaway for my book Abandoned Ship. And now, less than 12 hours before the campaign goes live, I want to publicly announce a huge giveaway.

On Tuesday, March 12th and Wednesday, March 13th, you can download a free Kindle copy of Abandoned Ship from Amazon. The projections from my advertisers indicate that this giveaway could generate more than 20,000 free downloads, which will be a fantastic way to build an audience.

So if you haven’t yet read Abandoned Ship, tomorrow is your big chance to download it for free. And if you’ve already read the book, tell your friends to download a free copy for themselves.

I have a good feeling about this!


Save the Trees: Print Books on Straw Rather than Paper

I love the idea of this.

We should be making paper from renewable sources. At the end of every growing season, there’s always leftover plant-matter we could be using to make paper. After the corn harvest the corn, the corn-stalks are still there, and we could be using those stalks to make paper. It only takes one season to grow all those stalks, but it takes years and years to grow a tree.

I love it.