I recognize that this is an extremely charged subject, but I’m never one to back away from controversy, and I’m not about to start now. So if you can’t handle the truth, stop reading now, because this is going to ruffle a lot of feathers.
I woke up today, read the news, and realized I must have been living in a cave for the last few years. And I’m not talking one of those comfortable, government-provided caves, either. I’m talking stone, moss, lichen, the real thing. I guess I’m the last one on the planet to have heard about the latest threat to freedom from the dark forces of tyranny: Muslin extremists.
Apparently these bastards aren’t content with their preferences, their lifestyle, their beliefs. They want everyone else to defer to their dogma and kowtow to their tastes. They refuse to integrate into Western society, preferring to live apart, while harshly judging anyone who doesn’t share similar views – and in extreme cases, acting out with appalling violence.
You can see where this goes. Pretty soon our women are being raped, our country is in tatters, our entire way of life goes into the crapper. Cats dance with dogs, the sun bleeds poison, we’re all speaking French or something, and the only available programming is reality TV featuring celebrity chefs.
Look. I’m open minded. If you prefer your garments to be made from coarsely spun cotton, I have no problem with that. Live and let live, I say. Some favor synthetics, some blends, some wool, some muslin.
But to take and pervert a belief that one fabric is superior to all others, and that you alone know the unique truth, as though from God’s lips to your ear? It’s an abomination, and we can all see…
…Oh… Muslin. Right. Got it.
Never mind. Damned spell check. Carry on. Nothing to see here.
Don’t you have some crap to buy or something?
It was about the end of January, 2011, when I first started seriously contemplating self-publishing.
It took another five months to get my ass in gear, set up the infrastructure to do so (find a cover artist, create a website, interview editors, create a Facebook and Twitter presence, decide what to even write about as my preferred genre), and then produce the first book, which I released in early June – Fatal Exchange, which still reads well, I think, if a bit grittier than my later work.
My, how the landscape has changed since those heady times. Gone are the stories of overnight sensation authors and two million dollar deals, of coming out of nowhere and being discovered at the drugstore, only to have one’s name in lights days later.
Gone too are the easy money promotional aids Amazon seemingly handed out like Viagra at a porn shoot, that could make virtually any book a 10K seller after a free run.
It’s a different world now. A tougher, more challenging world. Many of those who were giddy with success four years ago aren’t doing much anymore – they got accustomed to the crack hit of Select and its resultant high, and never moved beyond it, only to watch their work fade into obscurity once the promotional visibility dried up.
Indie authors now have to contend with services like Kindle Unlimited, with traditional publishers pricing down in the weeds, with a glut of content and a dearth of effective promotional tools. The brave new world we face is one whose promise of endless bounty has been replaced by sobering reality: selling books is frigging hard even in the best of times, and these are no longer the best of times for indies.
My solution is to continue doing what I’ve been doing for 42 months: coming up with what I think are compelling story ideas, and writing them, aiming for a release every couple of months, if not more often, so I’m not forgotten by the time the next one comes down the chute.
It would be super-duper awesome to have one of my series picked up for a movie, be handed F-you money for the privilege, and then sell gazillions of copies when my creation makes it to the big screen.
That happens about once a year. With Hugh Howey. Now with Blake Crouch. Good for them. I wish for nothing more than to be them, only richer and thinner. But that’s a wish, not a plan. And for the other million or so folks toiling away at this, pushing publish every eighth of a second (I totally made that up, but it could be right), it’s not likely.
I have no answers. My purpose in writing this blog is to articulate my approach, offer my thoughts and moody deliberations, and of course, berate my tasteless critics, who can all die whilst suffering horribly. My approach has worked for a number of other authors who are enjoying more success than ever before. It does not mean it’s a surefire winner for everyone, or for most. It simply is one way that seems to work for those who really apply themselves and follow all the guidance in my “How To Sell Loads Of Books” blog (not only a few of the points they like, while ignoring the rest).
This year I have a more relaxed publication schedule. I’ll put out a new JET – Ops Files novel in March, a new Assassin in May, a new JET in June. Second half of the year is a bit murkier. Perhaps a BLACK. Probably one more Ops Files, with another JET for Xmas. Somewhere in there I also have a modern treasure hunt series of which I’ve written the first installment and plan on writing more of, as well as two plot ideas for conspiracy novels tentatively outlined, likely also in a new series – and the conspiracies are stunners. And should that not keep me busy, I have the sequel to Fatal Exchange outlined and wating, and a dystopian trilogy I’m sort of toying with.
In other words, there aren’t enough hours. But the days have significance, are enjoyable, and there seems to be a point to waking up every morning. I’m delighted that I’m earning my keep writing, and hope to continue doing so for some time to come. But resting on my laurels ain’t how I roll, so got to keep mining the writing vein or it might peter out, leaving me with only tequila, meaningless flings with tipsy tourist women off the cruise ships, dancing in a sequin man thong as featured soloist in the Jalapeno Heat all male burlesque review, and dodging creditors and exes as the primary way of frittering away the time.
I think we can all agree that writing is preferable, although don’t you dare judge me. Until you’ve walked a mile in my thong you don’t know what it’s like, and I’m not just talking about cheap synthetics chafing delicate skin.
So buy my crap so the world’s spared that final indignity. If not for me, do it for U.S./Mexican relations. The Mexican people really don’t deserve any further stains on their reputation.
That’s all I have. Except for the idea that my fine work makes a wonderful gift for birthdays, funerals, circumcisions, V-day, or really any occasion where you want to appear to give a rat’s ass. So buy early and often.
Early into my career I decided that I was going to write a lot. As in, seemingly impossible amounts, as my differentiator.
The reason I decided on that strategy, which many novelists believe is one that can only produce dross, is that when I looked at past generations of writers whom I admired as being particularly skilled, most of them came out of journalism. Why is that important?
Because journalists are always writing. That’s what they do. Before television taught entire generations to stare mindlessly at a screen, people read, and that required a lot of written content creation. Enter journalists, who produced much of it.
Writers in the old day became proficient at writing because they wrote a tremendous amount. They got lots of practice. And practicing, they improved.
I’ve been averaging about a novel every five weeks since I started self-publishing 37 months ago. Other authors look at me with the imbedded assumption that what I create can’t possibly be good – the quality has to suffer by virtue of the quantity and my publishing speed.
Which simply ignores how many famous authors of the past got that way. They became good by flexing their writing muscle a lot, constantly, for years.
Somewhere along the way the popular wisdom changed. The speed with which a publishing house could comfortably schedule a print run and a promotional push, which happened to be about once a year per author, defined the accepted speed with which a novel, and I mean a good novel, could be created. Any faster was crazy talk.
Which is pure bullshit, and an extraordinarily limiting belief.
If you want to get good at something, do a lot of it. Seems simple to me. Want to get good at writing? Write a lot. There. I’ve given you the keys to the kingdom. Use them wisely.
While I’m ranting, another thing that bugs me about our culture is that so few people read. I blame the media, of course. Specifically, TV and video games, and to a lesser extent, the web. Why? Because reading, especially reading deep or complicated or well-written material, requires that the reader be skilled at reading, just as it requires the author be skilled at writing. Reading stuff like David Foster Wallace or Pynchon or even Burke or Chuck P require the reader exert effort, because the material’s dense, or just more complex than simple sentences composed of monosyllables. TV and the like require no effort – they’re spectator sports, whereas reading engages the mind and requires intellectual commitment.
If you want to become a decent writer, you have to be a decent reader. That’s the first step in the journey.
And, beating the dead horse, you have to write. No substitute for that in developing respect for and facility with language, and honing a skill you can’t learn any other way.
That doesn’t mean you have to publish everything you write. I didn’t publish the first decade of my scribblings. But I wrote. Constantly.
Talent only takes you a little ways. It’s effort that takes you the rest of the distance.
So for authors who sneer at fast production speed, I’d offer two thoughts: Just because you can’t produce something of quality in X time, doesn’t mean it’s impossible – it just means you don’t think you can. And, of course, your mind will convince you that your deep seated belief is reality, and it will become yours. So believe you can’t, you’re right.
And a final observation: my average novel takes me between 150-200 hours for first draft. If you work 12-15 hour days and don’t screw around, you can quickly see that what might take someone who only has a productive hour or two per day will take a lot less time for someone willing and capable of working marathon hours. Now, I could divide those hours up and spread them across several months, but it wouldn’t make the draft any better. Same with second draft, which generally takes about 100 hours. I could make the whole process of creating a book take six months to a year, but the quality wouldn’t be any different, assuming I’m competent for sustained bursts. So the notion that the quickly produced novel is lacking somehow is actually based more on the limited ability to imagine serious application, than it is reality. Same number of hours. Just condensed into far fewer days. Or put another way, hyper-efficient use of time.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a business where there’s so much poor advice or lousy, limiting thinking than the writing business, nor so much misinformation. Good and commercially successful novels have been created in short time-frames for as long as there have been writers. Consider A Clockwork Orange, or The Running Man, or Mickey Spilane’s I, The Jury, A Study In Scarlet, Farenheit 451, Casino Royale, and on and on and on. To claim or believe that it can’t be done is akin to stubborn insistence that the earth is flat. Believe it at your peril – it’s your career, not mine.
Now back to work for me. Got another 5K words to write before I sleep…
I’ve watched the latest craze of crowdfunding virtually everything from cosmetic surgery to book publishing, and in light of the acceptance of the practice by some of my fellow authors, have started my own crowdfunding effort.
Because I need me a motherf#cking jet.
But who’s got the money to buy one? Not I.
Instead, I want others who presumably work hard for their cash, or don’t (it’s okay if pops was rich – I don’t hate you for being the lucky sperm as long as you toss some cheddar my way), to fund my platinum level travel experience. Because, like so many authors who haven’t gotten around to saving the money to fund the creation of their book but want it now if not sooner, I’m kind of impatient and don’t want to wait.
I know, I know, you’re thinking moral hazard, but that’s so oh-fourteen. Tut tut, I say, it’s a new era, one in which I shouldn’t be expected to scrimp and save and do without in order to chase my dream. Not if I can convince you to pay for it for me.
So here’s the deal. I’ll send everyone who contributes to ensuring that I wing my way around the world in high style, custom digital photographs of myself swigging mimosas with supermodels aboard my new Falcon or Hawker or Gulfstream, or if I have to slum for shorter hops, a Lear 35. I’ll also throw in five minutes of personalized phone consultation with someone purporting to be me, who might have a slightly Indian accent but whom I assure you is actually me.
I only need a few million bucks to do this, and I just know you wouldn’t want me to continue to have to fly commercial, exposing myself to dangers like Ebola, the flu, and boredom as fellow travelers recount tedious stories about their forgettable lives.
If it’s acceptable to crowdfund my production of a book I intend to sell for profit (or as I think of it, my lottery ticket), it’s got to be acceptable for my jet needs, right?
Worst case, if I don’t raise sufficient funds to buy something really bitchin, my next crowdfund will be for a year’s worth of jet charter, and I’ll just have to reconcile myself to the humiliation of having to share the butter soft leather of my preferred conveyance with paunchy hedge fund managers & investment bankers. I presume they sterilize the seats between flights, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine.
For those of you reading between the lines, thinking this might be a sly dig at those who have their hands out for you to subsidize their dream so they can enjoy immediate gratification with zero sacrifice or risk, well, I say don’t be hatahs.
I love everyone equally. I mean, I love those who contribute serious loot to my effort way more than those that don’t, but as kind of a general statement, it’s roughly equal.
Now ante up. And as always…buy my crap.
One of the things I’ve always had a hard time buying into is the nearly religious zealotry with which some authors approach the business of self-publishing and content creation. I mean, I’m all for enthusiasm and passion, but I’m talking more the kind of creepy zeal that those moon-faced people who come to your door to tell you about their evangelical beliefs tend to have.
People. Writing is a craft. One that requires passion and skill if you’re going to do it right. It is not the search for the holy grail. It is not the answer to all questions. It is not a pursuit wherein blind, all-consuming faith is going to help you much.
I remember back in the day I had friends who played music. They would spend every spare hour after school noodling on their guitars, working to get better, to hone their chops. Quite a few were convinced that if they only really, totally, seriously lived the rock life (be it punk, or whatever), that was what was required to make them the genuine article. Some turned to drugs, aping their favorite idols because so-and-so did heroin or whatnot. Just about all of them wound up not making any money playing music, and some destroyed their lives, while still others sacrificed theirs as casualties to erroneous beliefs.
I’ve been warning for some time that it’s going to get harder to make any real money at self-publishing. I think I first warned of it around April, 2013, and have continued since then, because, well, the world’s moving fast, things are constantly changing, and there are mega-corporations filled with very smart people whose job is to sell books to the same people to whom you are trying to sell books.
It is very hard to build a readership. It’s also very hard to write anything worthy of commanding a readership. These two things are unlikely to change. What they are likely to do is become even more difficult as we move through 2015 toward 2016. That’s just the way it is.
Self-publishing is not the cure to your financial woes. It is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not easy, or all that fun, a lot of the time. It’s the business of marketing and selling books.
Content creation for your publishing company, AKA writing, can and should be joyful and immersive and enrapturing. It should satisfy some inner part of you that needs to create. It is extremely unlikely to make you any serious money, and is quite likely to cost you a bunch over time, as do all hobbies. Back to my musician friends; they had to buy guitars and amps, strings, picks, pay for rehearsal space, pay for ads, pay for stage clothes, and on and on. They did not expect to make money unless they knocked one out of the park: got a record deal, and were lucky enough to have a hit or two. But it was still worth it to them, because it was their passionate pursuit.
But I also remember the ones who didn’t seem to get that, who’d convinced themselves that if they pushed all the chips onto the table, put it all on the line, they’d have an edge over those who didn’t. You know what? Maybe in terms of motivation they did, but not in terms of improving their odds. They were still terrible odds. They are today. They will be tomorrow. That’s just the game. Don’t like it? Don’t play.
What brought this all back to me was a long discussion I had with an aspiring writer on a plane the other day. This woman, who shall remain nameless, was convinced she could do it. I drilled down and asked her what preparation she’d done – how much time she’d spent honing her craft, learning how to write a decent story versus a crappy one, feeding her head by reading great books, etc. etc. Turns out not nearly as much time as she’d spent wishing she was Nora Roberts.
I explained in the most gentle terms that she should write with joy and abandon, really enjoy the process at every level, because she and a million other aspirants were all hoping to get the same reward, but that there were only so many treats available in the real world, and that the journey, the process of writing something good, was the critical thing. Because the odds of anyone – me, my buddies, the most capable and erudite people I’ve ever met or heard of, even Nora Roberts – getting to the point where they were making any kind of real money from their writing, were astronomical.
The conversation didn’t go well after that. It was a bumpy flight. I’m not expecting a Christmas card from her.
My point is that if you’re a writer, it’s okay if you believe it’s your true calling, but in my experience, those who narrow their odds of making it nearly universally invest massive time and effort becoming good at what they do, and as well as being lucky, work tirelessly to drag the frigging world to their door so they can catch a break. The becoming good part generally takes a lot of hard work and time – and there are no shortcuts. Everyone starts off believing their special snowflake creations are interesting because they wrote them. Becoming a decent writer is partially disabusing yourself of that conceit and knuckling down for a long, arduous task.
It’s not for everyone. And if you’re writing because you hope to be Nora Roberts? Hate to break it to you. Every author who breaks big does so in a unique set of circumstances that are unlikely to ever repeat themselves. The market, the timing, the other entrants, the zeitgeist, fads, the shifting sands of public tastes, and on and on. There will never be another Colleen Hoover or H.M. Ward or Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey, or, yes, another Nora Roberts. There will absolutely be new breakout hits. But you won’t improve your odds by trying to be one of the other breakout hits. Your only shot, in my opinion, is to become extremely good at creating content that your audience feels it can’t get anywhere else but from you, and then communicating to that audience that you’ve got it.
Note that to create compelling work, first you need to have a command of language, an ability to evoke – to tell a story. Then you have to have a story that’s of interest. Then you need to execute: to put it down on paper, to work it, massage it, cut it to pieces, be your own harshest critic, demand more out of your bleeding fingers than the universe has any right to expect. Once it’s worth reading, you then have to figure out who might give two shits, and then learn out how to communicate to them. It’s the same whether you plan on querying agents or publishers, or go direct to readers. You need to be immediately clear on your value proposition, because everyone’s time is extremely valuable. After all, it’s the only time they’ll ever get.
Even if you do all these things correctly, you’re still only one fish in one of the most massive schools in the ocean. Luck will come into play. So will your ability to execute efficiently at every level. And even so, your chances are anywhere from abysmal to worse than that.
Write because you love to write. Get good at it. Be the most interesting person you know, and write about that, if the bug bites you. Learn to observe, to soak in detail, to roll possible descriptions around in your mind like a wine connoisseur with a prized reserve bottling. Even if the chances are slim you’ll make money at it.
Why do it then?
Because you only have a certain amount of time on the planet, and because writing, and being really good at it, is one way to find meaning, to bring order to the chaotic, to create something from nothing. It’s as close to being a god as you can get. It should complete you in a way that nothing else does, but not because you do or don’t make any money at it.
As with all creative pursuits, do so because you love it, not because you hope to take your interest in gardening and have it make you a fortune as a farmer or horticulturist. If it does, then brilliant, but if it doesn’t, the pride in a job well done has to be reward enough, or go find something else to do that gives you that charge. Because part of your job on the planet is to figure out what does, and then do it.
In this case, no evangelical belief required. Just love for the craft, and a pragmatic understanding of why you should write in the first place.
If you’re one of the fortunate few, and luck comes a calling, that will serve you better than anything I can think of.
That and an uncle who works at Random House.
But I digress.
It’s important to start each year with an eye toward improvement: ridding oneself of bad habits, and developing better ones. That’s really hard to do, so instead, I’ve decided to take a more pragmatic approach to change, focusing more on outcomes than process.
I’ve crafted a list that will address most, if not all, of my remaining shortcomings. I’ve already let everyone in on the secret to my success, which is to sleep your way to the middle and simply change character names and locales and release the same book over and over again, but is that enough? I want to be remembered as the literary All About The Bass, and nothing less, certainly not offensive treble, and that’s not going to happen without some real commitment. So here goes:
1) Write a masterful literary fiction novel that will have acquisitions editors fighting to throw money at it, as well as delight and enrapture MFAs the world over, about fifty-three of whom buy novels, but no matter. I’m thinking a saga of forbidden love set against the sweeping backdrop of post-revolutionary Iran, as the puppet government propped up by colonial interests falls and is replaced by the intolerance of religious zealotry. Of course, I don’t have the time to research all that and know precious nothing about it, so I’ll have to streamline my process some, which leads naturally to resolution #2:
2) Hire better ghostwriters. Time to upgrade the boiler room from Mumbai to the more expensive one in Calcutta. Let’s face it, the difference between $2 an hour and $3 is noticeable, and at this stage of my career my readers deserve the absolute best. Oh, and if you’re reading this: lads? Lose the u in everything – favourite being a typical example. What’s up with that? Learn to talk American, or I’ll have to hire an editor to catch your slop, and that’s just going to drive my finished product price up. Then the reader loses.
3) Get expensive cosmetic surgery. Let’s face it, nobody’s getting any younger. Mickey Rourke’s guy is having a sale, and he should be able to get rid of that bloaty, debauched, jowly thing I’ve got going on, stat. If you want to feel good, you have to look good, and I plan to double down and have him make me over into Johnny Depp, or at least that Walking Dead guy.
4) Take better care of myself. Look, I know last year I did that crowdfunding thing to buy a new liver, and I’m happy to announce that little Haji is not only the right blood type, but is resting comfortably in a custom-made cage until mine gives out. But is that really enough? What about my ravaged lungs? How many organs can I really afford, even at the cut-rates that global internet shopping enable? So I’ve got to quite the booze, the dope, and the other questionable activities, or at least pump the brakes, know what I’m saying? Starting next week.
5) Slow down. It’s exhausting supervising the oversight provided by the talented group I’ve outsourced to manage the creation of the content I claim as my own. So I’m only going to put out as many novels as my readership is willing to buy, no more. I know, I know. I said that last year. But this year I totally mean it.
6) Get serious. I’ll be releasing my eagerly anticipated “How To Write Good” craft book this year, with the best wisdom I’ve found while doing Google searches and reading message board posts on the internet with my computer using my optical mouse whilst sitting, which will not only go deep on how to write blockbuster bestseller novels in all genres, but explain how to do so while working a full time job, raising kids, and getting in ten solid hours of shut-eye per night while losing weight without dieting. As part of my effort, I’ll also include my fifty tricks to savvy internet marketing, which will include brilliant, custom-designed tweets, and heart-warming blogs that pretend to give two shits about a variety of topical subjects that will make you look interesting and informed.
7) Guilt trip Hugh Howey into saying I completely and utterly rock. I figure that should shift a few units. I’ll frigging declare The Shell Collector to be the next War and Peace and suck up like a horny freshman if he’ll just come forth and give it up for me. I really think that’s what’s been holding me back, and barring actually learning to write well, it seems putting him on speed dial is the solution.
8) Create a video with a whining sycophant screaming “Leave Russell Blake ALONE!” That will go viral, and then I’ll make my follow-on vid of “What The Ocelot Said”, which should propel me to an entirely different level of notoriety and enable me to afford that sweet Tesla I’ve been pining for but have had to deny myself.
9) Become Amazon’s bitch. I mean not only suck up to Amazon as I already do, but do so even more. I’ve been remiss in gushing about whatever they’re up to of late, but that stops here and now. Amazon is frigging Shazam squared, we’re talking godhead of innovation and goodness, and if you don’t realize it you’re a total embarrassment and should die of brain ebola and have your enemies dance on your cold, lonely grave with jackboots while ululating in triumph. I’m totally serious. Don’t even think of f#cking with them, because they are the boss, Daddy. Just ask Hachette, who’s mewling in the corner naked, rocking and holding its knees to its chest. Anyone have anything bad to say about Amazon, you have to get past me. They frigging build strong bones and teeth, man, and you should so be thankful you are even allowed to say their name, much less be associated with them. Just get over yourself. They rule.
There we have it. 2015 should rock with all this going on. If you have any resolutions you’d like to share, please do, on your own blog, because I don’t want to clutter mine with your BS. I hope this helps you create your own to-do list, because that’s my purpose in life, aside from being warm and approachable. You’re welcome.
And don’t forget. Buy. My. Crap.
My last blog of 2014 will be mercifully short.
I want to thank all my readers for the support and encouragement through a sometimes turbulent year. Thanks to you, I get to write for my dinner rather than knocking over liquor stores or running for public office.
I’d also like to thank all the authors who share my thoughts via social media, many of whom have become friends.
The arts have always been a tough gig to make it in, especially for any sustained period, and being a working author is no different. Sure, we’d all like to be superstars, but the truth is most of us will be lucky to earn a living from our craft – just as most musicians riffing away in their bedrooms won’t get record deals or sell enough to buy more than cigarettes, most little girls at the barre won’t become prima ballerinas, and most singers will have to content themselves with a smattering of applause on karaoke night rather than winning America’s Got Talent.
That’s always been the case. The arts are a labor of love, man’s search for meaning as we mark time, and it’s rare that one of us gets to do it for a living. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of those, revel in it. If not, don’t bitch or whine – you knew the odds going in. Keep at it, and force the world to recognize your worth.
Success is a funny thing. It’s not the most talented who generally break biggest or have the most noteworthy careers. Music is a perfect example. Madonna is certainly not the greatest singer or dancer of our time, and yet her career was that of a force of nature. U2 doesn’t have the best singer or guitar player or songs ever produced, and yet the band’s going on its fourth decade of commercial success. I could go on and on. The point is that talent only takes you so far, and being awesome isn’t usually nearly enough, or even completely necessary. The universe can be fickle. Deal with it.
In the end, hackneyed as the sentiment may be, it’s not the destination, but the journey. And while we’d all like to make mad fat stacks from writing, the truth is that the work has to be its own reward, because this is an uncertain business at the best of times, and a brutal one at worst. As one approaches the winter of one’s days, the size of one’s bank balance doesn’t have the same weight as it might have had when one was young, when nothing seemed more important than making it, achieving, proving your worth in the world, and when ideas like fulfillment and happiness were dismissed as silliness compared to material wealth and success. I know that was the case in my misspent youth of crass consumerism. It’s only once we begin noticing a hesitation to our step or the effects of gravity on our being that most question the importance of defining ourselves by getting into the hamster wheel every day and running balls out after the treat du jour, only to wind up exactly in the same place as we started.
Our existence can be like that. But it doesn’t have to be.
A life is about what you did each day – you are the sum of those actions. Did you help a stray dog? Were you kind? Did you behave honorably even when nobody was watching? Do you have regrets over your time spent, wish you’d known then what you knew now? If an author, did you write the words that, if you could do it all over, you would again? Each day we make choices, seemingly simple. At some point, and none of us knows when, we run out of days, and what we are left with is that string of decisions and the consequences thereof as our legacy, our imprint on the planet and each other after meager time all too briefly spent.
As I wax philosophical, I’d say the most important thing we can do as artists is to live as though we only have one year to create whatever we want to create, and to mean it with the intensity of a dying man’s last gasps. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “the old bear doesn’t know how many more summers he has to come out of the cave.” Sometimes that gets lost in all the furor over which fad is selling best, or which promotional approach is in favor or out, or who’s killing it and who’s bombing, or how to attract eyes and get visibility.
In my blog I tend to focus more on the nuts and bolts of operating a content creation and retail distribution business – writing and publishing. I don’t go into a lot of craft tips, because the world’s filled with authors airing their preferences with the shrill intensity of jilted brides. I often mention focusing on craft and trying to improve each day, as that’s an essential part of content creation, and the odds of your retail distribution business are related to the quality of the content you produce. But behind all that is the belief that if you’re going to create content, you should do it with passion and relevance, no matter how trite or silly it may appear to anyone else. You have to do it with intensity, because it’s that intensity that infuses it with meaning.
The world has millions and millions of books. More than anyone could read in a hundred lifetimes. If we’re going to try to earn our keep adding to that pile, we should try to ensure that what we produce is as good as it can be. That’s our job, and our promise to our readers. It’s a great job. There are none better. Okay, maybe a few. But most of those will get you arrested.
It’s with profound gratitude that I finish the year, and I hope everyone has a prosperous New Year and knocks the cover off the ball, no matter what the goal is. Another year is under the belt, and the canvas is again blank. That’s both exciting and scary. Live with the old bear’s wisdom in your heart, and make this your year.
And of course, buy my crap.
I’ll be on the road much of next week, so I thought I’d do my annual predictions about the publishing game a little earlier than usual this year, mainly so I can loaf through the holidays and dip into more eggnog than I ought to. So for whatever they’re worth, here they are:
1) Subscription services will make it much harder to sell books. The voracious readers who are most likely to try an indie with a “WTF purchase” will instead tend to borrow instead of buy. This will result in drastic reductions in author take-home pay, all assurances of “increased exposure” aside. A whole group of readers are being conditioned to believe that books have little or no value/should be free/should only be read if virtually free. This will continue. For an idea of where this progression ends, look at music. Musicians can’t earn decent money anymore by having a hit, or even several hits. The economic model is broken in such a way that the artist sees virtually nothing, with the intermediary company that enables the download taking the lion’s share of the revenue. Musicians now earn their livings by touring, by selling merchandise (shirts, hats, etc.), by selling virtually anything but music. Alas, authors don’t have the option of filling coliseums at $50 a ticket or being cool or mainstream enough to hawk $22 concert T-shirts with their likenesses on them, so expect things to get much harder.
2) The importance of brand will increase. What do I mean? Well, I like to use water as an example. In developed countries, water comes out of the tap, and is virtually free. This has been the case as long as I’ve been alive. And yet savvy marketers have convinced the lion’s share of consumers that they need to pay, often large amounts, for a product that is essentially identical (it’s H20) to what they can get free. This is a triumph of consumerism and I believe there’s a lesson in it. As art becomes increasingly commoditized in the eyes of consumers, being able to create demand for a particular brand of commodity becomes essential. Authors who want to have careers doing something besides chasing the next fad will have to develop a brand in their readers’ minds that’s worth paying for. Back to water. Not only is water free from the tap, but there are countless generic bottled water producers. And yet some manage to position their identical product (H20) at many dollars per container, while others are almost free (bottle cost, shipping, filling, inventorying). The difference is the apparent value of the brand. Some brand adherents will go so far as to claim one virtually identical product tastes better or is in some other way superior to those icky generic variants, never mind the drinkable, safe tap water. That’s genius from the brand management standpoint, and smart authors are well advised to pay attention to what’s worked to create billion dollar industries from nothing.
3) Perma-free isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still pretty good. Used to be you could put your first book free in a series and be guaranteed tens of thousands of downloads per month, with some conversion factor to the rest of the series (paid). Now, not so much, in that the number of downloads will be lower. But it still beats putting your book out and tweeting “Buy my book” or “Today only – .99!” until blue in the face. I noticed a substantial drop in free downloads via Amazon once KU came out, so the subscription model has monetized some percentage of those readers who largely or only read free – but at the expense of author discovery. Good for Amazon. Not so much for authors trying to get visibility by giving readers a taste for free.
4) Apple is coming on strong. B&N isn’t. Kobo, yawn. Google Play, mmm, not so much. Exclusivity to any vendor will continue to cost authors more than it earns them over the mid-to-long term. The reason is that exclusivity used to pay better, in that Amazon made it sort of worth your while. Now? If you think selling your novel for $1.39 royalty via borrows is a good reason to forego every other vendor out there, hey, you better than I know what your work is actually worth. But for anything longer than a novella or short story, I don’t see it as a decent deal for anyone but Amazon. And I’m not alone in that perception. Sometimes Amazon throws us a great big meat-covered bone, and sometimes a rotting table scrap. This time, it’s not even a scrap, although I know some authors who have done well. They are exceptions. Diversification across all vendors will continue to be important for smart publishers, indie especially. On a side note, traditional publishers get full royalty on a borrow, from what I understand – it’s only the indies whose work is considered worth a fraction of a sale royalty. That should tell you a huge something about how the vendors view indies as business people, as well as how they view the value of their work. Doesn’t take rocket science to figure it out. Whether they’re right, or wrong, is open to debate. I don’t like selling ten to fourteen hours of entertainment I invested hundreds of hours into and spent thousands editing, proofing, creating covers for, etc. for $1.30-something. Some may well might. Up to them.
5) Trad publishers will step up the competition with lower priced backlist offerings. The reluctance to price lower will give way to shareholder demands for fat profits, meaning a lot of $2.99-$5.99 novels from quality names. This will result in the average price paid for an ebook continuing to spiral downward, reducing the apparent value proposition of indie offerings. As I said in my last blog, if I can buy an edited, professionally presented novel by a marquee name for $4, my interest in paying that for an amateurish, questionably or non-edited screed from someone I’ve never heard of is going to be pretty low. That’s going to make it harder for new names to break out, as well as for many names that have respectable sales to maintain them moving forward.
So there we have it. Nothing revelationary, but hey, what do I look like, frigging Nostradamus? I could make more inflammatory predictions, but wouldn’t have confidence in them. These I believe accurately describe the 2015 playing field as it’s shaping up.
All in all, it’s going to be a tougher year in 2015 than in 2014, which was tougher than 2013, which was tougher than 2012, and so on. However, there will still be breakthrough authors who come out of nowhere and whose work electrifies an audience. There will still be exceptions. Many of those will be indies.
It remains an exciting time to be an author. I certainly can’t complain. To wrap up my year, I was on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and in The Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and a host of others at the top of the year, have sold nearly a million books now (not counting my co-authored tomes), released my co-authored novel with Clive Cussler in Sept. and hit #2 on the NYT Bestseller List with it, sold foreign rights to Germany, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, have a half dozen name production companies nosing around JET and my Assassin series, have a wonderful agent who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the biz, and have generally had a nice run of it. Next year will see a host of co-authored romances, five Russell Blake novels, another co-authored tome with Cussler, and plenty more surprises, I’m sure. For the end of my 42nd month in the publishing game, can’t whine too much, although I certainly do, early and often.
Oh, and for those who buy my crap (which should be everyone at this point), JET – Survival is available on pre-release and goes live December 26th. Hint, hint.
I just looked at the Amazon top 100. #1 is a trad pub title at $2.99. #2 is a trad pub title at .99. #3 is an Amazon imprint pre-order at $4.99. #4 is Baldacci’s latest at $10.99, #5 is Michael Connolly’s latest at $3.99, #6 is Gone Girl at $2.99, and on and on and on.
For those indie authors who have seen a marked downturn in sales since KU came in, I believe that’s only part of the story. The other is that since Amazon got lower prices from trad publishers, the price of trad pubbed books is through the floor. Sure, some of that’s holiday discounting, but not close to all.
Which means that the tried and true gambit most indies have been using, which is selling based on price, at .99 or $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99, likely won’t work particularly well anymore. Because when you can buy Gone Girl for $2.99 and Connolly’s latest at $3.99, why would most readers buy your book at or around the same price?
If your answer is “because I wrote it,” you are likely in for a very rude awakening. If you haven’t already gotten it, my hunch is you soon will.
Readers are now being presented with a host of worthy, readable, high-quality offerings at or below the same prices indies offered their books at, eliminating the bargain perception/edge that indies learned to rely on as a differentiator.
That will translate into crap sales for many, and the effective end to many careers that relied on their work being attractive because it was cheap. In a world where everything is cheap, selling based on price doesn’t work.
Bluntly, if you as an author want to sell books in this environment, you have to do it the old fashioned way: you have to write books your audience will gladly pay for, even if a dollar or two more than the latest Michael Connolly, or Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster. That means you need to up your game, that suddenly story and craft will matter more, and that simply being cheap, with a homemade cover and lackadaisical or no editing, won’t cut it.
That’s awesome news for readers. It’s disastrous news for many indie authors.
(As an aside, I suspect if I dug into the publishing contracts with many trad pubbed authors, I’d find a clause that cuts their royalties to almost nothing when the selling price of a book is greater than a 50% discount. I recall reading about that before – a $10 list price book will pay X percent at $5 to a vendor, and drop to Y percent at below $5, making the author peanuts but the publisher a buttload of bucks if the incremental sales offset the drop in net revenue per unit. All good for the publisher, who shifts double the units to make up any shortfall, but a reaming for the author, whose revenue could drop far more than the incremental increase in units moved.)
So the days of putting out just okay work and hoping it will sell are over. That’s so 2010. This is the end of 2014, and the competitive landscape is going to get a whole lot tougher.
Now for the good news. As my prior blog discussed, more authors than ever before are earning good money as indies. So it can be done. But those authors are very, very good at delivering a reading experience their following will pay for, and they value their readers above all – they don’t put out slop, they don’t think in terms of “good enough,” and they’re every bit as demanding of their work as the harshest acquisitions editor.
At $3.99, Michael Connolly represents an amazing value. If you want to sell a reader your novel, and you’re in the same genre, you need to ensure it’s as good or better, whatever that means. To me it means the editing has to be pro, the story engaging and professionally told, the word choice and grammar above reproach, the cover a professional effort, and on and on (I use Connolly as an example – if you look at the top 100, you’ll see that virtually every genre has similar offerings, so it’s not only mystery).
If you can do all that, and communicate to interested readers that you have what they’re interested in buying, you will probably do well at this, even in the more competitive market. If you can’t – if your work’s amateurish, if you decided to spare the bucks on editing or covers, if your approach to your story is “that’s probably fine – look at all the crappy books that sell,” or any of the other litany of mistakes I’ve covered in this blog more times than I can count, chances are you won’t.
It’s that simple.
My message is that the honeymoon’s over. Time to knuckle down and demand more out of yourself at every turn, because even if you don’t, your readers will. And they now have more choices than ever at lower prices than I’ve ever seen, and those choices are largely good.
Awesome for readers. Good for some authors. Not so much for many others. But in the end, better for the business moving forward. Competition is always good. Always. Except for those who can’t compete. There’s a term for them in all businesses: Road Kill.
Don’t. Be. Road. Kill.
And don’t kid yourself that this is going to get anything but tougher. Pro basketball players don’t tell themselves that they don’t have to be all that great because there are plenty of mediocre players. Pro dancers don’t argue that they should be given center stage because they’re precious snowflakes, and their deficiencies should be ignored. Pro competitors in any arena strive to be the absolute best, and demand the most out of themselves, making no excuses, asking for and offering no quarter.
Welcome to 2015.
I was talking with another author, who does extremely well as an indie, and we started comparing numbers. He/she will earn close to two million dollars this year. Most have never heard of him/her.
I had an email exchange with another indie a few days ago who clears a cool half mil a year. You’ve likely never heard of him/her, either. He/she is friends with another author who works the same genre, who does a little better than he/she does – probably close to three quarters of a mil this year. We all trade tips and help each other – there’s no competitive snarkiness between any of us.
I’m part of a group of authors on Facebook, have been for about two years. In that time, more than a few have gone from earning a few hundred a year to tens of thousands, and in several cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. You’ve probably never heard of any of them, either. As with the above buddies of mine, everyone is supportive of each other regardless of the stage of their career. One of the reasons might be because we’ve all been alive long enough to have learned that you meet all the same people going up as you do coming back down. Another might be that we don’t feel competitive – there’s no limit to how well any of us might do, other than the market’s fickle nature and our own abilities and drive.
I thought it was fitting as we wind up the year to comment on this, and to point out that as much as we whine about the impact of Kindle Unlimited on our sales, and on the dearth of decent ad sites, and the constantly shifting marketplace, more of us than ever before are earning decent, and in some cases, magnificent, incomes, from writing and publishing, without any help from the traditional channels that used to have the book selling business locked up.
What do all of these authors have in common, though? All these indies who are making serious, and in some cases, insane, bank? First, they publish regularly. As in once every few months, and in some cases, once every month. Second, they work in genres that will support them. While most of the top earners are in romance or one of its offshoots, others are in science fiction, which voraciously consumes indie work; some are in my genre (action thrillers), some in mystery, some in fantasy. Third, they all work long hours and take this extremely seriously. Fourth, they operate their publishing businesses like businesses, not like hobbies. They have production schedules they stick to. They market and promote. They invest in professional help when necessary and grasp that you have to spend money to make it. Fifth, they write books readers enjoy reading, as opposed to books their muse dictates they write. That’s an important distinction, because what we as authors often want to write might not be all that marketable. So we compromise based on our understanding of the market. And sixth, they’re constantly adjusting their sails to best negotiate treacherous water and ever-shifting winds. They’re pragmatic. And most have great senses of humor, as well as a keen appreciation of irony. That goes with the gig, I suppose. As does pragmatism.
Some of them write magnificently original novels that push the envelope. But most don’t. They write genre fiction that supplies what their consumers want to buy. Some do it with remarkable prose, some with workmanlike sentences, but the point is that it doesn’t matter to their fans – they write the prose their audience wants.
I’ve been extremely lucky in my career thus far. Writing with Clive Cussler, I’ve learned a lot. Working with my agent, I’ve learned still more. But mostly, being paid by readers to write as many novels as I have has allowed me to hone my skill in a manner most couldn’t only a few short years ago. And seeing what readers respond to has shown me where the path to growth lies.
Most have never heard of Russell Blake. Probably 99% of my target audience has no frigging idea who I am. I find that exciting and motivating. It means that there’s a whole world out there to conquer, of potential readers who might enjoy one or more of my yarns, and might tell a friend.
Most importantly to me, I’ve been able to write novels that I would read, the way I like to write them. The good news is there are plenty of viable styles, and all of them sell well, if delivered with conviction. Certainly, as with reality TV, some fiction is written for folks who can barely make it through TV Guide, and that’s fine. I don’t read that style, but that doesn’t make it inferior. Other fiction is written so densely I can’t get more than a few pages through it without yawning. That can sell well, too. Whether you favor prose that’s more monosyllabic, or that pushes the boundaries of what language is capable of, it’s all good – do it well, and there’s someone who will buy it. In many cases, a lot of someones.
That’s my early wrap-up for the year as I wind it down in preparation for 2015. It’s been a hell of a ride, starting with being above the fold in the WSJ in early January, and continuing from there. How many authors are ever featured on the front page of the WSJ? That alone I could retire on (and some hoped I would). Fortunately, folks still buy my stories so I don’t have to, yet. But the point is I’ve already surpassed any expectations I had for this little writing thing I do.
I find it humbling, as well as inspiring, that so many authors, some of whom were traditionally published and have all the usual horror stories that go with it, but most of whom who never were, are earning incredible livings publishing their own work. It’s a wonderful and ever-evolving literary world that I’m glad to be a part of.
Here’s to 2015! Now get to work. 2015 could well be your year, but if you look at the six things the bestselling indies I know all have in common, you’ll see that hoping doesn’t feature. Hard work, application, being very smart about what you publish and how you publish it, constantly striving to improve your craft…these are the things that make your career. Sure, luck plays a role, but not nearly as large a role as many seem to believe.
There are no guarantees, except that if you don’t do whatever it takes to succeed, you won’t.
That’s been my life lesson so far. I see nothing to change my view now that I write for my dinner.
We live in a magical time, when self-determination as authors is within reach. Revel in it.
And of course, buy my crap.