I wrote a parody of writing/self-publishing self-help books a year ago, and one of the suggestions was to hire a group of Indian boiler-room workers to buy your books, boosting your ranking on Amazon so you would receive better visibility, which would then result in more legit sales as you land on peoples’ radar screens. Little did I know that was what at least one famous indie author (now infamous) who shall remain nameless (hint – it’s the name of a famous English philosopher) more or less did. His defenders claim that it is no worse than what many traditional publishing outfits do. Others claim that it’s fraudulent. Everyone needs to make their own determination on where they stand, although the apologists come off as pretty smarmy, at least to my ear.
NEWS: A really fun and flattering blog and review, about Silver Justice and my sense of humor, from talented indie author RS Guthrie.
I thought that I would assemble a punchlist for new authors of what to do in order to have any chance at all of being successful. Call it my dirty dozen. I left out the, “Buy 300 reviews and game the algorithms” part – just assume that’s always an option.
1) Create a website. It should feature a bio, your books, and some information about you that you feel readers would like to know.
2) Get on Twitter. Interact with folks. Don’t just post “Buy My Book” tweets. They don’t work. Nobody wants a salesman at their door. Be funny, or spontaneous, or whatever you are, but be genuine. Devote twenty minutes a day to building a social media platform. Retweet others if something resonates with you.
3) Get a Facebook page. Some people love Facebook. Obviously not purchasers of its recent IPO, but I digress. You need a Facebook page. I have one. Although I’m not that sure why, but still. Do as I say, not as I do.
4) Blog. At least once every 10 days. Blog about things that interest you. I could recommend that you try for heartfelt blogs that glom onto the tribulations of an ailing celebrity or a sex offender enabler, but that’s already been done, so it won’t work – assuming you believe it ever did. If so, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Call me. It’ll go fast.
5) Write good books. This seems obvious. Don’t put crap onto the market. Take your time, write quality, and then get it edited by someone competent.
6) Write more good books. The best way to sell your last book is to have another good one releasing. And another. And another.
7) Try to be active in forums that interest you. Don’t go because you’re trying to drum up interest in your books. Go to contribute. If you do, eventually forum members will be interested in more about you than just what you post there. They might check out your books. If so, super. If not, you got to make new friends. Stop being such a calculating weasel and enjoy yourself a little.
8) Make sure your book covers are eye-stopping and professional. Most judge books by the cover. Don’t cheap out or try to do it yourself. It’s shortsighted and will make you look amateurish unless you have a background in design. And even then, I’d hire a pro. Why? Because the most important thing I can do as a writer is write. I’m not a designer. Or a formatter. I’ll leave that to those that are. I’m a writer. Given a productive choice, I will choose to write.
9) Work on your product description until it pops. Read other successful ones in your genre and model those. After the cover, the next most important thing in the purchasing selection process will be the product description, so get it right.
10) Distribute books to reviewers. You need reviews. Apologists for the aforementioned not-to-be-named author notwithstanding, they’re important. People read reviews. They do matter. And be nice to book bloggers and reviewers. Unless they’re clowns. You know how I feel about clowns. Grrrr.
11) Scour the internet for the latest on what is working for others and what isn’t. As an example, what was working 90 days ago (KDP Select free days) doesn’t work as well now. Pay attention, people. Stay current on the latest marketing trends so you don’t find yourself working systems that stopped being effective months or years ago.
12) Do interviews. Make them interesting. Be interesting. Nobody wants to read the work of a bore. Try to average at least one interview every two weeks. But be worthy of being interviewed. That’s where the interesting part comes in. And try not to be a self-involved twat. The world has enough of those.
13) Bonus tip: Don’t waste your time getting wrapped up in the marketing part of this. Marketing is important, but writing good books is more important. Spending 4 hours a day with your new twitter friends is fine, but spending 4 mastering your craft is better, in my opinion. So use your time like your most precious resource. In the end, it is the only thing you really have.
There it is. I could take 50K words to tell you this and try to charge you $5 for it, but you probably wouldn’t buy it and I’ve got better things to do with my time. Like writing my next thriller. Which is what I’m doing right now. If you want more detail on what not to do, along with a lot of belly laughs (and some cringe moments now that the cat’s out of the bag on the review debacle), go buy How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) for $2.99. But be warned – I think everything is deserving of mockery. But don’t try that at home. Especially around your mate.
My little odyssey thus far has been an eye opening one, and I recognize I beat the odds. Only a handful out of every hundred thousand authors can do well enough at this game to make a living at it. For that I am consistently grateful. I understand that it could crash and burn at any time, or continue for another twenty years – as long as I’m still plying my craft and delivering value. The above represents about everything you need to have the same shot I had. Use it well.
And now for a little break from our weighty matters, bowing to pressure and in an obvious attempt to pander, I am posting a puppy photo. But in an effort to not leave readers with a cloying syrupy taste in their mouths, as well as to remind them what happens to people that don’t buy my books, I am also including another, far more ominous snap. Something for everyone.
Awww. Little guy is thinking, “Hope someone buys Russ’ books so he doesn’t sell me as taco meat.”
The horror never fades.
The New York Times just ran an article about a review service where you could buy a slew of five star reviews for $100 and up.
Apparently the nice man who ran the business had a number of high profile customers, one of whom was John Locke, who engaged the service right as he was rocketing to startling celebrity in Nov of 2010.
Read the article. I commented on it. Locke defends his purchasing of the reviews. I won’t comment on that.
NEWS: Silver Justice was just spotlit as the pick of the week by Abu Dhabi Woman.
My main takeaways are twofold. First, the article reads like a clever hatchet job on indie authors. The imbedded assumption is that if a book has a lot of five star reviews, they must be bogus. Because there’s no way the book could actually be good. The not-so-subtle agenda being pushed is that readers would be best disregarding the five star reviews as rigged or fake. You see, because some or a few indie authors are rigging the system, then all should be assumed to be crooks (a variation of the all women are whores, all men misogynists, all dogs bite, etc. etc. sweeping generalizations that are used to denigrate a group). Obviously this hurts indie authors, because the logical conclusion is that readers should assume all indie work is garbage with faked reviews. Which then leaves Trad Pub books, which aren’t discussed in the article at all.
Maybe I’m being overly defensive, but it seems like every few weeks another mainstream media outlet comes out with an article that denigrates indie authors. Now, far be it for me to generalize like the article does, but wouldn’t an industry that is losing business to upstart indies put the pressure on their friends at the Times and other mainstream media outlets to write something that paints all indie authors as suspect crooks? I mean, I’m certainly a crook, as are all my friends, but let’s not confuse the issue.
I smell rat all over this. Not because some shifty wanker started a pay for review business, nor because some name authors used it. But because it is a “when did you stop beating your wife” article. It has all the signs of a hatchet job. Selective filtering that focuses on only one segment. Advancing a fear, uncertainty and doubt agenda where an entire group is portrayed as larcenous. I don’t know, but it struck me as odd that there were no balancing examples where publishers trade favors with each other for positive blurbs, or any exploration of whether this is a solely indie phenomenon.
In my experience with the media, there is always an agenda. Always. This has been true for centuries. Mark Twain commented on it, as have countless other wags. So when I read an article that discusses how some prominent indie authors buy reviews to get visibility, I ask, “Who benefits by this being published, this way, now?”
My sense is that the takeaway, which is that indies will do anything to get ahead, and secondarily, that the review process can’t be trusted and thus should be ignored, serves only one group. Those that wish everyone buying $4 highly rated ebooks instead of $15 trad published ebooks would stop doing so and view all indie work as sub-standard garbage whose reviews are manufactured.
Am I being a trifle knee jerk here?
Needless to say it’s probably an ugly sign of the times when authors are buying hundreds of positive reviews. Mainly because I never got the contact info of the company that did it while they were in business, and got into the game too late to avail myself of them. Although I see some of the authors I check on will routinely have 10 five star reviews a day posted for their books, all of which tout their work, declare it to be brilliant, and say they can’t wait to buy the next installment. Perhaps there is an innocent explanation – although these are also some of the top selling names. All I can say is I’m missing out. Can someone send me the link of who I need to talk to about this? Jeez. Hurry up. Pappy needs some new shoes.
A load of positive reviews could mean they are all fakes. Alternatively, they could also mean that the book is really good. To throw all babies out with the bathwater is silly. Those subtly encouraging readers to do this are motivated not so much by altruism but by an agenda.
In the end, the work will carry the day. If a book sucks, the market will likely vote with its wallet. Then again, a lot of sucky products sell well, so maybe not. But I have to believe that you can’t base a career on bogus reviews. Nor should anyone dismiss all five star reviews as bogus. Some probably are. But many aren’t. To discard the review system, which is supposedly a meritocracy, in favor of only trusting reviews from “legit” sources (read big publishing house-related), is as stupid as assuming that all one star reviews are legit. You can go online and find folks advertising who will post a one star slam of your competitor. Why is that ignored? It clearly exists. I’ve certainly had some that smacked of that. Again, in my experience when a reporter is “Shocked, shocked I say” that there’s gambling going on, it’s because it’s in his best interests to ignore what is plainly obvious. “That would never happen” is not a substitute for critical thinking.
I think a better way of dealing with the ability to fake reviews or rig them is to read the excerpt on Amazon – the Look Inside. If the book sucks, move on. If it is well-written and compelling, buy the damned thing and have a nice life. Trying to paint any segment as being undesirable based on the actions of a few is a poor proposition and is the sign of an industry in trouble. The truth is that readers have proved they couldn’t care less who publishes a book. They care whether it sucks or not.
So don’t write books that suck, as some other indie author once counseled.
What do you think?
UPDATE: I will be offering a new service where I’ll read whatever drivel you churned out and declare it to be genius for $20. When I say read, I mean I’ll buy it (wink) and claim to have read it. Mostly I’ll skim the product description and using my patented review generator, create a compelling, believable review that declares you to be a rare talent. Example: “When I read XXX I knew I was witnessing the birth of an incredible story. What wasn’t as obvious until I got into the meat of it was that YYY is an author with a firm command of craft and an all-too-rare gift for writing. YYY will be on my automatic must-buy list from now on. I can’t wait for the sequel. A brilliant example of noteworthy authorship.” For only $20 you can have your name there.
I’ve been told that it’s fine, ethically. As long as I “read” it. Which I will. Wink wink. Fortunately I can read a whole novel in as long as it takes to type your name into the program and verify the paypal payment. And I won’t take work I don’t find irresistible. Of course I have an unusually broad palate and am not particularly discriminating. Cat memoirs, coming-of-age stories, fiction, sci-fi, vampires, dystopian wastelands, tech manuals, poetry, erotica, whatever. Doesn’t matter. If you’ve got a book, I’ve got the time to “read” it. And you’re not “paying” for a “review.” You’re making a donation to my tequila sampling fund. I would never accept payment for reviews. That would be against some rules, somewhere, I’m sure, not that I care that much…and it might “skirt” “ethical” lines – ha ha ha ha ha…whoooooohhh. Don’t worry about it. I’ll have some shyster gin up an agreement where it’s anything but paying for reviews. We’re golden.
If you want to be compared to Stephen King or John Grisham, or Jodi Picoult, whoever that is, that’s five bucks more. Just send me the author name and you’re his/her twin.
This is “a small part” of being successful, but a big part of my tequila budget, so please, don’t hold back. Your book deserves it. Hell, I deserve it. And I’m thirsty.
First 10 orders will get a free bonus 500 word blog expressing heartfelt empathy with a celebrity suffering from a hideous affliction (slight additional charge for Mickey Rourke, Snookie or Cher) guaranteed not to be a known pedophile as of the order date.
This is all legitimate marketing, folks. So dig deep. You owe it to yourself. And to me. Mostly me. It will be our little secret. Wink.
The other day I had a long discussion with an author friend, and we were bemoaning a book we’d both recently read (I couldn’t make it past the 20% mark) and discussing all the problems it had (aside from the lack of editing), and he suggested to me that it might be valuable to create a series on how to write a better book.
WOW! A humorous blog with me, about me, focused on my wants and needs, and what I think and feel, with the lovely Patricia Carrigan.
NEWS: A guest blog with the always charming Wren Doloro. The Women of Russell Blake.
INTERVIEW: A brand new interview with author Mel Comley.
MORE NEWS: Another guest blog on how to promote your ebook!
None of what I lay out is new. Nor is it controversial. But it is often ignored by writers at their peril.
What follows is part one of a series of blogs that offer tips on writing a better novel.
TIP # 1: Eliminate unnecessary words. If that seems familiar, it’s because it is the first commandment from Strunk & White. And it’s a good one. Too often we get all wrapped up in word count and novel length, and I think that creates pressure to be less critical of our word choices than we should be. Some writers tend to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, or a sentence where a word would be more effective. I’m not counseling that you cut your work down to the bare minimum (although that’s never a terrible idea), but rather that you eliminate any lazy words – words you insert that add nothing, or that you overuse – one good tip is if you suspect you’re overusing something, use the “Find” feature in MS Word and see how many times it appears in your doc. As to lazy words, I’m talking about words like “few” or “or so.” “A few soldiers ran…” “It was a mile or so…” Try to be specific. No sentences or thoughts are improved by the insertion of lazy words. If it was a mile away, say so. If there were three soldiers, or six, or a dozen, say so – do the work, think through how many there were, and give the reader that specific information. Sometimes it’s okay to have ambiguity in a thought (to me, especially with character descriptions, I find that less is more and that they work better with the reader filling in the blanks), but mostly it’s just the writer being lazy.
TIP #2: Don’t be lazy. If a reader is to be expected to invest hours into reading your work, you owe the reader your very best effort. A shoulder shrug and the thought, “That’s good enough,” cheats you both. If you are questioning whether it’s good enough, it probably isn’t and you know it. So stop being lazy and do it better. Only once you feel that you couldn’t have expressed an idea or thought better should you be done with it. And you should turn each sentence over with that idea in mind. “Can I do this better? How?” If you take this approach, you’ll find your writing improves considerably because you are demanding more out of yourself.
TIP #3: Write fast, then rewrite. I don’t like to edit as I go. It breaks up the flow, and I wind up mewling like a bitch kitty in a corner, trying to polish each sentence rather than getting the story out on paper (or in this case, the screen). I’ve found that it works better to write at a decent clip and then do multiple drafts, rewriting only once the story is done. Basically, in my approach, the first draft is only 1/3 of the work. The second, which is where a lot of rewrite time is invested, fixes the more awkward language and grammatical gaffes, and then third is more for pacing, polishing and looking for echoes.
TIP # 4: Watch for echoes. Surely you can think of more than one word for anything. If you can’t, get a thesaurus. Nothing bores a reader faster than repetitive use of the same word. Go for variation, but be sensitive about trying too hard. Sometimes using a word like door twice is preferable to portico, and chair works better than chaise. Sometimes not, but usually you want to steer clear of the obscure. Because job number one is to tell the story in as gripping a manner possible, and showing off your scrabble skills might wind up coming off as pretentious or labored.
TIP #5: Use description as punctuation. You should establish a pace, a cadence to your flow, and balancing dialogue and exposition is one way to create a rhythm. Description can be mesmerizing or tedious, and when it’s done well, it can establish valuable pauses in the narrative.
TIP #6: Know the rules, but be okay breaking them if it creates an effect you are after. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell.” That comes from the more important idea of “Keep it entertaining and moving.” But sometimes for stylistic reasons you want or need to tell. I don’t get too hung up in this, as most of these rules are well-intentioned ideas, not mandates. When writers become dogmatic about rules (no adverbs, never end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) they are defeating themselves and confusing helpful rules of the road with narrowly-interpreted absolute laws. Mostly, I find that those who care about this stuff past a certain point got themselves a degree where they’re emotionally invested and there can only be one right or wrong. Again, I’m not saying be ignorant of the rules, but rather learn them well, and then follow them to the extent that doing so makes your writing better.
TIP # 7: It’s okay to love language. You should. You’re a writer. If your goal is to merely crank out ten word paragraphs at a second grade level, you may be a candidate for the James Patterson novel factory, but you won’t be writing evocative, interesting prose. Balance your use of language with what mood you want to create. You’re defining the atmosphere, the environment your reader will be inhabiting. Choose your style carefully so it achieves what you want. My advice is to not try to create a voice that you hope will be one readers are receptive to – rather, just write in your voice, whatever that is, and make your voice an extremely interesting and compelling one – work to develop it as such. Perhaps readers would love twenty thrillers by me, each with a different voice and style, but in truth, I believe that consistency is preferable. When I buy a Ludlum or Grisham novel, I want their distinctive, unique voice, not their attempt at a new one each book. In the end, the more you write, the more settled your voice will become, and the more confident you will be with it. That assurance is essential if readers are to have confidence in you as an author – and there’s no faking it. They’ll spot it a mile away.
TIP # 8: Read as much as you can. The more you expose yourself to, the more evolved your voice will become. I read voraciously – fiction, non, thrillers, economics, politics, you name it – anything but YA, romance or erotica (and poetry). Mainly because I’m a curmudgeon and don’t like it much. I can’t see how you could wind up being a good writer if you don’t read a lot. It’s like trying to be a good cook without eating or tasting a lot of different foods. Exposure to new ideas broadens your horizons, whether it is a device another author used to create an effect you like, or a stylistic trick you want to incorporate in your work, or a tangent the author goes off on that creates an unexpected sensation you’d like to make your own. If you don’t expose yourself to a lot of different work, you will have a limited vocabulary, which will translate into a hamstrung ability to tell an interesting story.
TIP # 9: Write as though your life depends on it. This speaks to quality. Write each book as though it was the only one of yours anyone will ever read. Because if it isn’t good, it will be. More importantly, nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to write. There are more than enough good, and bad, books out there. The world doesn’t need any more bad ones. So if you are going to foist your work off on readers, make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. If you find a passage or chapter your gut says shouldn’t be there, or could be better, your job is to act as the quality control department and either axe it or fix it. You should write with pride and sincerity, and strive to improve each day. Your work is your calling card, and it will build, or destroy, your reputation. If you don’t take what you are doing seriously and assign importance to it, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
TIP # 10: Tell the story as efficiently as possible. Another way of saying this would be don’t waste the reader’s time. Every chapter should be there for a reason, and each paragraph within it should as well. Same with each sentence. If it doesn’t move the story forward or create an effect you’re after or provide information that the reader needs, it shouldn’t be there. I’d rather read a gripping 70K words than a meandering 85K. Cut the fat. Lose the deadwood. Cut to the chase, and ask yourself with each page, “Is this interesting?” If the answer is anything but, “You bet your ass it is!” you should lose it.
TIO #11: Don’t be a douchebag with your vocabulary. You should have as large a vocabulary as possible (in order to best select how to convey your ideas, you need the largest palate of colors possible), but you don’t need to put defenestrated or axiomatic or antidisestablishmentarianism into your book just because you know what they mean. That’s kind of douchey, and it bugs me. It’s okay to use complicated language if that’s part of your style, but don’t write Nancy Drew and then drop in an antipodal or pantheistic for giggles. Keep it appropriate to your voice. Likewise, don’t write to moron level if you don’t naturally do so. Readers hate insincerity, and if you are trying to dumb your work down because you feel it is too smart for your target audience, my advice is to go after a different audience. Daniel Silva shoots for a different audience than John Locke. Neither of them would be good at writing what the other does. So keep it real and just write what you write.
TIP #12: Don’t write for an imaginary audience. Trying to second guess what some hypothetical demographic might like is silly. Write what you like, do it with sincerity, and make it as interesting as you can. In other words, write a book you would enjoy reading. If that means you take risks and push the envelope because you’d find it boring to read otherwise, then trust that instinct. If you try to make everyone happy you wind up writing a book by committee, and please nobody. Write what you would read – not what you would read if your mom was sitting reading with you, or what you’d want to tell your priest or rabbi you read, or what your critique group might be impressed with – if you would find what you are writing boring as a reader, go with that instinct and spice it up. Don’t pull punches, but don’t try to be outrageous for shock value alone, unless you enjoy books that have outrageous, shocking scenes or language for no other reason than the effect. Be true to what you like as a reader and you can’t go too wrong.
TIP # 13: Have fun. Creation can be painful, but at the end of the day, there should be an emotional payoff. There should be joy in it. Some might even say it should be fun. Given that the chances of any writer making real money from their work are miniscule, the work itself is likely to be the only reward one gets, so it should be rewarding. Love what you do, and love yourself as you do it. In the end, nobody gets out of this alive, and you will only have your experiences when you’re lying on your deathbed. So if you choose to occupy your time – the only time you have on the planet – writing, then make it count and do it for real, and enjoy it.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I will write more blogs on the topic as I feel inspired. A lot of this is good for me to state for myself – it’s easy to lose sight of some of these tips when you’re cranking out about a million words a year. So it’s a reminder to myself as well.
What do you think? Any tips you’ve found are helpful to your writing?
I’ve been tracking the sales effect of the Amazon free program, and an interesting phenomenon is manifesting itself.
NEW NEW NEWS: A guest blog on six tips for ebook promotions by yours truly.
BREAKING NEWS: A new blog by author Bert Carson about, well, me. Good stuff.
NEWS: New guest blog on writing with the lovely Emerald Barnes is worth a look. “My Year of Writing Dangerously.”
BOOK REVIEW: A shockingly positive book review on my newest one, Silver Justice, by acclaimed author Steven Konkoly!
First, the effectiveness of free on sales is down to anywhere from miniscule to nil. I’ve run a few programs to test the water, and watched the action on several of my author friends’ books, and it ain’t happening, to put it mildly. I see 15K downloads and a few days later their books are ranked around#20,000. Guess what? If you hit #5 on the free list, and the best it’s going to do for you is position 20K, it is over. Through no fault of your own, but over nonetheless. There are a few standouts, but even those are things like, “I moved from #30,000 to #5000.” OK. Wow. So you were selling 2 books a day, and for a few days you are now selling 12. Guess what? If that whopping increase lasts 4 days, you saw 40 additional sales from 15,000 freebies. For which you also are accepting $2 on loans instead of the $3 or more you might have netted if your book was $3.99 or above. So you net maybe $120, but see at least that many loans, bringing the real net down to $80. I’m afraid that if the best the free program can do even if you’re in the top 20 is around $80 (or even $120 if you still believe that loans don’t eat into sales) of increased revenue, that’s sort of wildly unimpressive. And bear in mind that only a small fraction makes it into the top 20. Most don’t, which means that thousands of books every day see NO sales effect from giving away a bunch of books.
But because indie authors are so desperate to get visibility, they are behaving like’s Pavlov’s famed dogs, salivating when the free bell is rung and behaving as though there is still a treat being handed out, even though there’s now no treat. Authors are still doing free promos, seeing little or no sales effect, but rationalizing it as somehow increasing their readership over time – a hypothetical based on a host of assumptions, not the least of which is that anyone actually reads most of their free downloads.
It’s amazing, but it also speaks to the desperation of authors to get noticed. I know, I’ve been tempted to put one of my newer titles into the program to see that bump I was seeing three months ago – but I’m also logical enough to recognize that it ain’t working, so to do it would only denigrate my brand for no return.
I have free books available. They’ve been free for 7 months. They are the first books in a series. That still seems to drive sales. But a stand alone? Nada.
Whether it’s worth subsidizing the Prime program and giving Amazon exclusivity on a title for 90 days to get the loan $ is also debatable if you are selling your book for more than $2.99. The logic before was that loans didn’t cannibalize sales. Well, guess what? They do. I have tracked it across multiple titles and see the same thing on every one. If I sold 400 of one title last month outside KDP, I put it in the program and this month I loan 100 and see 300 sales. It comes out of the program after 90 days and moves back up to 400. So that is another folksy bromide that I haven’t seen prove to be true.
What does this all mean?
Put simply, if you are doing free programs now, you aren’t seeing much if any sales effect from doing so, and the loans you are getting are likely merely displacing sales. Maybe that doesn’t matter if you sell 50 books a month. But there is a part of me that questions the wisdom of giving away tens of thousands of books if I’m not going to see any measurable effect. Put another way, every day there is a top 100 list of free books. If you really believe as an author that yesterday’s 100, or the last 150 days worth of top 100s, are even close to landing most of those authors on anyone’s radar, all you have to do is track how many of this week’s free titles are selling well next week, and you’ll quickly find that the answer is almost none.
And one of the biggest negative effects we’ve now created as indie authors is denigrating the value of ebooks – specifically indie ebooks, as you’ll find the trad pubs don’t do much, if any, free promo – in the eyes of the audience that buys them. “Why buy your book when I can download 100 free ones?” I have heard that, and I understand the logic. To some readers who don’t make any distinction between good and not so good, all indie ebooks are now sort of the same. Imagine if wine drinkers behaved like that – all wine is the same, be it box wine given away at a picnic for a BBQ rib promo, or a bottle of Screaming Eagle. It’s all wine. Crushed grapes. Why would anyone but an idiot pay for what they can get for free?
Fortunately not all readers are like that. But I believe that enough of them are, especially in tough economic times, to make a difference in sales to many indies. Those were the readers who might have taken a flyer on an indie book they had heard good things about. Now, they must debate spending $5 versus spending nothing, and still getting something to read. Again, if all you are looking for are letters on a kindle, there is a lot of free stuff to read. Most of it’s crap. But it’s free crap.
I would love to hear about some wonderful results in the last two weeks, but I suspect that Amazon has changed the treatment of free yet again, and it is now on an order of 1/20th what it was in April. Or half of what it was in June. I might be overly generous. It could be more like 1/30th.
My point is not to counsel authors whether or not to do free promos. It’s to accurately describe the results I’ve been seeing so we can all make informed decisions. I have my share of, “I had 15K downloads and sold 1500 books!” stories, but they aren’t from June. And they certainly aren’t from August. My bet is that nobody else has any August stories like that either. But bring em on if you do. I’d love to get some counterbalancing info.
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Update. Watching the free books I have been tracking that hit in the top 20 this week, Sat afternoon the rankings started to climb, and now the rankings are more in the #2500 to 13,000 level, depending upon the book. So there is still an effect, but it’s muted. As an example, at 13,000, that represents about 10 books today. At 4000, about 25. And all of these were in the top 20. Hard to do much better than that on free, and if you were one of, say, 5000 books a day that went free, if you were one of the absolutely most popular, you were rewarded with those kinds of numbers. Little different than the good old days when the number 5 position would get you couple thousand in a week. Still, better than nothing. But my question to everyone is, how much better? And more importantly, if you didn’t hit in the top 50, you have seen virtually no sales increase. I know because I had one hit #38, and it’s selling about what it did before I took it free. So it would seem that the top 20 books still see a positive, albeit much less than before, and everyone else is sucking exhaust. Is it still worth doing on the chance you get into the top 20? I think the answer depends on whether you do or not. If so, and you go from 30K to 2500, of course it was. If not, well, not so much. I’m still willing to roll the dice on a few of my titles, but then again, I have enough of them so it sort of is immaterial whether this week’s promo is a winner or not. For you, I guess it depends. In the words of Dirty Harry, how lucky do you feel?
I’m going to try a little experiment as a summer promotion. I haven’t really played around with prices lately, so I figured I’d give it a whirl and see if price made any difference in sales volume.
To that end. I am putting two of my titles, number one and number two in the Dr. Steven Cross series – Zero Sum and The Voynich Cypher – on sale for two weeks in August. Starting later today, both titles will be reduced from $4.97 to $2.99 apiece.
Why, you ask, would you do that, Meester Blake?
Because I’m afraid I’m missing some boat where cheapskates are unwilling to give a book a try if it is over $2.99.
NEW NEW NEWS: A guest blog on six tips for ebook promotions by yours truly.
BREAKING NEWS: A new blog by author Bert Carson about, well, me. Good stuff.
NEWS: New guest blog on writing with the lovely Emerald Barnes is worth a look. “My Year of Writing Dangerously.”
BOOK REVIEW: A shockingly positive book review on my newest one, Silver Justice, by acclaimed author Steven Konkoly!
A few weeks of that will tell me whether that’s the case or not. These are both well-written novels, one over 130K words, the other over 100K. At $2.99 they are priced in the basement. Voynich has already sold about 8000 copies since its release at the end of March, so it’s no slouch, and Zero Sum is almost at that level (although it’s been out longer), so these are not unpopular books. But I would like them to be even more popular. I’d like new readers to gain exposure, and not by giving em away free – most who are downloading free books don’t read what they have. I know I haven’t. I’m probably not alone. I typically put in the time to read something I’ve been willing to pay for. Just the way I am.
So folks, if you could help spread the word of my summer madness sale, I would appreciate it. If over two weeks or so not much has changed in the sales rate, the price goes back up. To put it into perspective I would have to sell 30% more books to be even with the regular price. Needless to say if that doesn’t happen, I just paid a decent chunk of lost revenue to discover the effect of discounting on my work.
As always, please, no wagering.
Russell: You spent years as a journalist. Now you’ve moved into fiction. What is the transition like? Does it require a completely different skill set and approach, or do you find that your non-fiction chops have helped you in your novels?
Adam: I’ve always been attracted to narrative in my work, as well as hardcore research, which I’ve also tried to incorporate into my fiction. But the truth is that I started out as a novelist before pursuing journalism; in a sense, journalism was a fall back career. And before that I was a jazz trumpet player and composer.
Long story short I started playing trumpet professionally when I was 16, wrote the music to my first off-off Broadway show at 17, and when I was 18 I began performing and playing on records with Galt MacDermot, the composer of “Hair.” By the time I was 21 I realized I didn’t want to be a professional musician any more, and enrolled at Reed College in Portland, OR, where I got a BA in Economics. When I graduated I received a Watson Fellowship, and because I had been a fairly listless student, my topic revolved around music. This sent me off to India, where I studied raga forms to combine with Jazz, and Japan, because I had the opportunity to play in jazz and salsa clubs in Tokyo. I basically worked and traveled around Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Central America for four years, bicycling more than 10,000 miles, hitch hiking through Eastern and Southern Africa, overlanding India, Nepal to Tibet, trekking in Thailand… you get the picture.
By the time I returned to NYC I was 28 years old, flat broke, and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. So I started writing a novel based on my experiences in Japan. Meanwhile I also started freelancing to The New York Times, Mother Jones, Wired, and any other publication that would pay me. For the next six years I wrote fiction half the day and fact the other half. In that time period I wrote three novels. It became clear, though, that I could earn a good living as a journalist where I was practically starving as a novelist, so I took a staff job at forbes.com in 1997, after working at Wired.com for a four months before that.
Now I’m back writing fiction. The skill sets are somewhat different but there is a lot of overlap. Good writing is, after all, good writing. I love the freedom that fiction gives you, the opportunity to create a world of your own imagination. You don’t need to adhere to pesky facts. It’s liberating, a joy.
Russell: What’s the easiest thing for you about writing fiction? And the hardest?
Adam:I don’t think anything is easy, but what I enjoy most is crafting dialogue and creating a whole world peopled with interesting characters living interesting stories. The hardest part is simply focusing–but that’s true for non-fiction books, as well. It’s so easy to become distracted by the million things we all have to do every day.
Russell: Describe your process. Are you a plotter or seat of your panster? Do you write an outline before beginning, or just dive in?
Adam: I’m definitely a pre-planner. I believe in structure, and I try to visualize the entire story before I sit down to sketch out the structure. Then, as I write, the story and characters take off in other directions, but because I have a plot in mind it’s possible to bring them back just in time.
Russell: Do you have daily word goals, or is your approach more project-based? Or is it unstructured?
Adam: I use time as my meter. I once read that Hemingway would get up early and write for three hours and no more. This allowed him to write every day without burning out. I think this is a good model for me, because I’m prone to burn out, too. I write for three hours, then spend the last 15 minutes sketching out the story line for the next day’s writing session.
Russell: Where do you draw your ideas from for your fiction? Do you have any sort of a group you bounce them off of, or do you get an idea, flesh it out and write it?
Adam: Stories are everywhere you look. Every experience you have can be the foundation for part of a novel. All the traveling I did–some 55 countries–helped me paint the world that Virtually True takes place in. All the tech reporting I’ve done over the years informed my futuristic view of the world. The teaching I do at NYU, the deconstruction of great long-form narrative works, assists me in my writing. It all influences what I do, what I write, how I think.
Russell: If you had to mention one name whose work you would say is much like yours, who would it be?
Adam: I’ve always loved Martin Cruz Smith, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Raymond Chandler, and am a sucker for mysteries like Jacqueline Winspear’s Masie Dobbs series. I go through periods when I’ll completely gorge myself on one author. I read the Dragon Tattoo trilogy practically in one sitting on vacation one year and will do the same with classics. If I really like a book I’ll read it then immediately start over and either read sections again or plow through the entire story.
Russell: How long does it take you to finish a novel, from rough idea to finished first draft?
Adam: Virtually True took about a year, and so did Trial & Terror. Most non-fction books take a little longer–a year and a half minimum, and up to three years for Tragic Indifference, because of the amount f research that goes into them. I end up interviewing between 60 and 100 people for a non-fiction book. for fiction, I just sit with a yellow legal pad and pen and sketch out ideas and characters.
Russell: What’s your work environment like? Music? Window? Organized or chaotic?
Adam: I’m a jazz freak and to me there is no greater joy than putting on Coltrane, Miles, Art Blakey, Booker Little, or some other music as a soundtrack while I work.
Russell: Do you find yourself calibrating your writing to accommodate a desired audience, or do you write pretty much as you like and let the writing find its following? In other words, do you self-censor or simplify language, or just write and let the voice sort itself out?
Adam: I try to write about things and ideas that I care deeply about and hope readers feel the same way. I’m not very good at writing for someone else. For fiction I have complete freedom. For non-fiction, however, there are boundaries I can’t cross. If I write for a magazine editors influence what is published. If you write non-fiction books that end up being ghettoized into the tech and business categories, where mine usually are, then with that come responsibilities and expectations.
Russell: What’s next for you? Anything in the pipeline?
Adam: I have to hand in a non-fiction book on game mechanics in September/October, which will be published in the spring by Portfolio/Penguin. That’s another fun book to do, and challenging. And I’ve been redirecting my energies toward becoming an entrepreneur, and founded a company called Estorystudio (http://www.estorystudio.com) that is launching a DIY self-publishing platform for multimedia books. If an author creates a book on our platform we’ll help them with marketing, sales, and putting them in touch with graphic designers and videographers and publicly available material that is not covered by copyright. We’re very excited about the possibilities.
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Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University who has written for Fast Company, Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, Slate, Playboy, and the Economist. A former senior editor at Forbes and a reporter for Forbes.com, Penenberg garnered national attention in 1998 for unmasking serial fabricator Stephen Glass of the New Republic. Penenberg’s story was a watershed for online investigative journalism and portrayed in the film Shattered Glass. Penenberg has published several books that have been optioned for film and serialized in the New York Times Magazine, Wired UK, and the Financial Times, and won a Deadline Club Award for feature reporting for his Fast Company story “Revenge of the Nerds,” which looked at the future of movie-making. He has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show as well as on CNN and all the major news networks, and has been quoted about media and technology in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wired News, Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, and many others.