Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Rock and a Hard Place

As it says in my blog intro—and has since it started in 2007—this spot on the Internet is intended to be positive and fun. I believe in the concept that a high tide lifts all boats, which is why I post about the good things I see/read/hear, like sharing a book discovery that thrills my reader’s heart, or talking about what I learned from tackling a new challenge, as I did in my latest blog. I figure that if something I’ve learned is useful and/or uplifting, it’s worth sharing, and I hope that my readers will do the same.

I stay away from publishing industry talk in this particular forum because this is meant for readers.  However, today I find myself between the proverbial rock and hard place, and feel I need to address it here.

Last week, I filed an application to trademark “Royal Scandals,” which is the specific two-word name of the romance novel series I’ve published since November 2013. To date, there are six full-length novels and three novellas in the series. There are also three different collections of these stories. More stories are in the works.

I have spent a great deal of time, effort, and money to build the “Royal Scandals” brand. Get a group of authors talking and they’ll all nod along when one mentions the difficulty of building a brand. There’s a great investment of time learning the craft and establishing a unique story world that readers can rely on and embrace. When readers see “Royal Scandals” and associate that with a particular author and particular series that has run for many years and many books, they should be confident that when they see that series name on future books, it meets their expectations.

I filed a trademark application to protect that “Royal Scandals” brand as it applies to romance novels, because to not do so makes it easier for another publisher to use a confusingly similar series name for unrelated books—books I did not write—and market those stories on the same websites/through the same distribution points, on the same page(s) as my Royal Scandals books, and potentially damage the goodwill and—frankly—the truly wonderful readership I’ve spent many years and a lot of heart to build.

As I said, positive and fun. I’ve worked hard to create that.

The decision to file a trademark application was about clarity. I want my readers to easily find what they want. I also want to ensure they aren’t frustrated or angry when they get a “royal scandals” book and it isn’t what they expect. That hurts them, and that hurts me. It’s why—from the beginning—I made an effort to have cover art that looks similar across the entire series, to use the same fonts and crowned Royal Scandals logo on each cover, and even to use the same narrator for all the Royal Scandals audiobooks.

With that in mind, I truly mean it when I say that I believe a high tide lifts all boats.

I did not file this trademark application to stifle other writers. I love being an author, and to that end, I put my law degree high on a shelf years ago. It’s incredibly dusty and will stay that way, so this isn’t legal advice/a legal opinion. However, it must be said that a trademark does NOT prevent anyone from titling a book however they want or from using certain words in their books. It does not stop anyone from writing about a particular subject. Frankly, if contemporary royalty stories are the rage it helps all authors penning tales of princes and princesses, of kings and queens and their scandalous secrets. Me included.

Trying to prevent other authors—many of whom are my friends—from writing romances about royalty would be cutting off my nose to spite my face, both professionally and personally.

The key to a healthy publishing industry is to have a wealth of stories, but to differentiate them for readers so that everyone gets exactly what they want.

For readers of cop thrillers, maybe it’s the knowledge that they’re picking up one of John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport titles versus a Harry Bosch title by Michael Connelly. Readers can love and read both series—I certainly do—but it’s good for both the authors and their readers when those series are branded to make it clear to readers which book(s) they’ll receive when they click a button to either purchase a title or put it on hold at their local library. Readers who enjoy Davenport probably enjoy Bosch, and vice versa. Sales of one very likely drive sales of the other, because readers want more and more quality cop thrillers when they read one quality cop thriller. But no one wants to go on a Davenport page on Amazon, think they’re getting the next book in that series, and click on a button that gives them a Bosch book. And as long as the series are differentiated, that shouldn’t happen.

That was my goal in filing the application for the specific series name “Royal Scandals.” Clarity for everyone.

Recently, an author filed a trademark application for a single word—cocky—and it was granted. For discussion of how this is now being handled, and why it is problematic and harmful to other authors, check Twitter for the hashtag cockygate (#cockygate.)

“Cockygate” became a “-gate” because it wasn’t a filing about clarity. It has drawn a massive amount of attention over the last few weeks and rightfully so, both over the fact the trademark was granted and over the manner in which the author has attempted to apply it. However, because it has drawn so much attention, there are huge misconceptions floating around on social media about trademark and its proper use.

Many of those misconceptions—and inaccuracies—have been directed toward me in regard to the filing for “Royal Scandals.”

So there you go. I find myself between the proverbial rock (clarity for a brand, a fictional world, and a readership I’ve spent years to build) and the hard place (“Cockygate”-driven worry that a “Royal Scandals” application will impede authors’ ability to write about royal romance, much the way “cockygate” has hurt other authors’ rights.)

From a legal and a business perspective, I believe this application is the correct action. It does not impede other authors’ ability to write royal romances, nor would I want it to.

However, given the immense fear created by Cockygate, at this time I’ve decided to withdraw the application for “Royal Scandals.” It’s a fire that needs no fuel.

It is my hope that Cockygate shakes out in favor of authors and readers. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to ensure that readers looking for one of my stories get what they want by making conscientious decisions regarding what I write, how it is presented, and how it is sold. I urge publishers—whether New York, indie, or something in between—to do the same. When launching a new series, take the time to look carefully at the way the series is packaged. Consider what else is in the marketplace. Think about reader expectations and the likelihood of confusion.

Authors should not be forced to choose between the rock and the hard place. Readers should have an abundance of choice and clarity in those choices.

As both an author and a reader, that’s the robust, uplifting book world in which I wish to live.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Challenge Accepted

I’m not a big believer in setting resolutions at New Year’s. Probably because the term “resolution” strikes me as fixing a perceived negative, such as losing ten pounds, dumping cigarettes, etc. There’s an element of punishment to it. I prefer to think in terms of goals and striving for a positive. For me, that goal could be learning a new skill, tackling a writing project, or taking concrete steps to improve my mental and physical health. 

This year, I set several writing goals (more on those in future blogs), and a big physical one. Author JF Penn (aka Joanna Penn) invited her Creative Penn podcast listeners to join her on an Ultra Challenge: a two-day, 106 km circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Entrants could walk, jog, run, or crawl to the finish.

For those of us who are metrically challenged, 106 km is 65.9 miles. I know because when I heard Joanna mention it on her podcast, I plugged it into the calculator to see.

I contacted Joanna and joined Team Creatives. Tackling 106 km was an audacious goal, but one that excited me. A positive. I started planning my training runs that day, searched out marathon preparation sites, and booked my travel to the UK.

Team Creatives - ready to roll!
In the end, six of us made up Team Creatives. Thanks to Jo, the team also consisted of Ali Ingleby, Guy Windsor, Jane Steen, and Donna (DJ) MacKinnon. At the starting line, we were nervous but excited. While we all started together, the plan was to each go at our own pace and to tackle our own distance goals. The course was planned so that entrants had the option of completing a Quarter Challenge (25 km) or Half Challenge (52 km.) As I stood in the starting pen, reading the bibs on the entrants around me, I realized that a few years ago I’d never run a 10 km race. When I’d decided to try that 10 km, I drove the course first. Even in the car, it felt incredibly far. Yet here I was surrounded by people whose bibs declared they were going 25 or even 52 km—further than a full marathon—and I’d registered to do the full 106. 

One step at a time, I told myself. I'd trained for months. I could do this. We strapped on our backpacks and were off.
The view from the top

The Challenge was unlike any road race. The first indication occurred around the 3 km mark, when I spotted a huge backup in front of me. Those who’d started in an earlier group were at a standstill, looking down. I soon discovered the reason: the trail narrowed to a set of muddy stairs that required a slow, single file descent. I waited nearly twenty minutes for my turn, then was off again. Over the rest of the first day, there was mud—over my shoes, at times—lengthy hill climbs, and more than a dozen fences to clamber over as the trail traversed farmers’ fields. I hadn’t expected the fences. The first time I saw a runner in front of me go over one, I assumed he was diverting from the course because he couldn’t wait for a porta-potty. Nope. He was following the marked trail up and over the fence, through a field, then up and over a second fence on the far side.
Happy pub sign

Okay, I thought. Up and over! To my surprise, I found I liked the fences. There were other good surprises along the way, often found in difficult situations. The giddy laughter as racers stopped to help each other retrieve lost shoes from the mud. The calls of, “Keep going!” and “Well done!” from locals as we made our way through the twisty roads of coastal villages. The stunning sights of mustard fields in bloom and bright sea cliffs that spread out like a movie cinematographer's final shot after we'd climbed a steep hill just before the day’s midpoint. The unexpected pub sign near the day's finish that welcomed goats…a sign I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been compelled to slow down as I rounded a tight corner in Cowes.
Day one mustard field

I made it to the 52 km stop at the end of day one muddy, bloody, and sore…but immensely happy. Some of my teammates were compelled to drop out due to blisters brought on by the heat, but they too made it down the mud stairs and over numerous fences. We all agreed that the views from the midpoint hill had been stupendous and worth the long climb. Each of us had accomplishments to celebrate. I wasn’t sure my shaky legs could take a second day, but I was determined to do my best and walked--slowly--back to my bed & breakfast.

Day one mud
At 52 km...after washing at the 35 km rest stop!

Essential travel item - The Stick
I spent the evening cleaning my mud-encrusted shoes, drinking as much tea and water as I could manage, and using a travel size massage stick on my legs to ease my tired muscles. Despite my exhaustion, the day’s events left me so wound up I couldn’t sleep. I managed maybe two and a half hours, then stared at the ceiling, wide awake ten minutes before my alarm sounded. As concerned as that probably should have made me, I felt ready. Just go, I thought. If I could drag myself to Northwood House, the starting line for the second leg, I could finish.

Ali Ingleby and I met at 5:20 am to make our way to the start. We recapped the previous day’s events as we walked. We each had blisters, we were tired, and we still had race nerves, but we were ready to go.

Ready for day two!
On day two, I kept a good pace to the first rest stop, at the 66 km mark. I refilled my water bottle, drank a cup of fruit juice—which I rarely do—and took off quickly. Most of the day’s course followed cement and hardtop road along the seafront, which became hotter and hotter as the day progressed, cooking my feet. What little mud I found on the trails occurred in small enough patches to be jumped over or jogged around, and there were few fences. There was, however, a long hill prior to the 83 km rest stop. More than once, I moved to the side of the trail, put my hands on my knees, and sucked in three or four deep breaths to rally myself for the rest of the climb. Later—somewhere around 90 km, I think—a set of stairs took us from the seafront to the top of the cliff. I made it about 2/3 of the way, then turned and sat on the stairs for a solid thirty seconds before gathering my energy to move ahead. I'd seen only a few bibs since the 80 km mark. Being alone for such long stretches was simultaneously disconcerting and peaceful. It also meant that if I took a few breaths to rest, no one knew but me. I entered the 96 km rest area triumphant. I’m going to do this! Only 10 km left. It wouldn’t be long and I could drop my backpack, take off my overheated shoes, and enjoy the lasagna dinner the organizers had promised to all finishers.

I stayed at the rest area the minimum amount of time necessary to refill my water and visit the porta-potty, and I was off. I could feel the finish line waiting for me. When I passed the 100 km sign, I smacked it with my palm. Yes!
Surprise behind a wall

Afternoon view
At 102 km, an ambulance idled at the side of the road with two medics sitting beside it. They asked if I was doing all right or needed extra water. I assured them I was fine. “Only four kilometers to go, right?” I asked. “Yes, you’re nearly there!” one assured me. I think I clapped as I passed them. My brain was so fried I wasn’t sure. 

Then disaster struck. At a roundabout in the village of Niton, I couldn’t figure out the signs. I saw another person wearing a race bib heading up a hill, in the direction I was pretty sure the signs indicated I should go. I followed her, passing her halfway up the hill. I was all the way down the other side when I hit an intersection. I couldn’t find any signs. That’s when I realized I hadn’t seen a sign since the roundabout, and that at least twenty minutes had passed since I saw the ambulance.

I backtracked part of the way uphill and didn’t see the woman I’d passed. However, there’d been road signs pointing toward Chale on a road that angled to the left and backward from the intersection. She had to have taken a path that went through the houses to that road. I pulled out my phone, did my best to zoom in on the map provided in the race app, and still couldn’t figure out where I’d gotten lost. It looked like I was right on top of the trail.

Almost there!
The road I’m on and whichever trail that woman took have to meet up on the other side of this hill, I told myself. So I went back to the intersection, took the left, and wound around a bunch of houses to the other side of the hill. The road signs indicated that Chale was ahead, so I figured I’d come across the race trail soon.

Ten minutes later, I realized I should’ve backtracked further. A lot further. Road traffic forced me to ditch into the high grass repeatedly as I made my way back up the hill I’d just gone over, albeit on a different road. No paths emerged from between the houses, though, and I started to worry. The village faded into a series of mustard fields, but still, no race trail. The coast was off to my left, and I knew the trail followed the coast, so I had to be close. I stopped and checked the app again, but still couldn’t tell where I was missing the trail. Finally, at the top of the hill, I spied a pair of men jogging on the far side of one of the mustard fields, close to the cliffs. When I reached a safe crossing, I sprinted across the road and squeezed between the mustard plants and a stone wall until I reached the trail where I’d seen the men. A pink marker indicated that it was the race course.

I won’t lie. There were tears when I realized I’d finally, finally found the right trail. I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it, but I’d gone so far on my detour that I knew the finish line had to be just beyond the stone wall.

I followed the pink markers through the opening in the wall and along a grassy trail…then saw a sign that said 104 km. I still had two kilometers to go.

Just. Finish

I said it to myself over and over as I ran the last two kilometers. Don’t think about the missed signs or the fact I should’ve finished nearly a half hour earlier. Just go. Finish.

I’ve never been an event person. I like running or walking on my own. But crossing the finish line and hearing my name announced was fantastic…a high I’d never anticipated. The congratulatory champagne nearly toppled me, but I found myself laughing at my bobble. I was that person who did 111 km to get to 106 km, but I was okay with it. It wasn’t long afterward that Ali messaged the group that she’d crossed the finish line, too. Even better was the note a short time later in which she waxed poetic over the finish line lasagna.

Mud, blood, heat, hills, and all, the journey was a positive one.  Even if I hadn’t finished, it was a worthy goal. Much gratitude to Joanna Penn for pitching the idea to her audience of writers and other creative entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t have attempted it without her.

As a PS: Never have I enjoyed a breakfast so much as the one served the next morning at my bed and breakfast, The Caledon House in Cowes. Perfect poached eggs = perfect reward for a goal met. Thank you to Mark and Andrea for being such wonderful hosts.

Reward time!