R.S. Guthrie is an indie author whose work I’ve enjoyed tremendously. I would put him the top tier of the wordsmiths I’ve read over the last couple of years, and I read a lot, even if not as much as I would like due to my insane writing schedule. I thought it would be fun to have him on the blog before his career went parabolic and he was too busy to mingle with the little people, who I’m sure he’ll forget once he’s drinking champagne out of NY debutantes’ shoes or whatever it is successful authors do these days. I also am hoping to steal some of his secrets for my own selfish use, of course. His latest, Blood Land, should be required reading for every indie author who wants to see how it should be done. And he shares the belief that comedian Louis CK is the funniest man in America. It is therefore with tremendous pleasure that I welcome my guest, the one, the only, R.S. Guthrie!
Russell: Let’s start with some process nitty gritty. How many words do you average when you’re writing a novel, per day? Or does it vary?
RSG: It varies, honestly depending on what other non-writing (e.g. marketing) activities I have to do during the day. I try to always get in 2K (which still sometimes doesn’t happen), but on a good day, free of distractions, I can do a nice comfortable 5K.
Russell: How many drafts do you typically do of a book before it’s “done?”
RSG: They’re never done. I mean that. To answer the question, I usually go back to my first draft at least once, sometimes twice, before sending it to my editor. Then I incorporate most of his edits (he’s good—I rarely disagree with him at all). THEN I send to a proofreader. Honestly, that’s why a book is never done. My last book had at least seven sets of eyes (mine going over it endlessly) including the paid proofreader. Just before publishing the e-book, my wife and I were doing our ritual of reading it side by side in bed on our Kindles. I found a typo on the first page. It’s crazy. I need a software program because Word sucks and is almost no help at all.
Russell: Do you listen to music when you write? Or does it have to be quiet?
RSG: Usually quiet. I’ve tried music because I LOVE music and I need it in almost every other aspect of my life (exercising, driving, airplane while reading, etc.). I think I love it too much and the songs distract me. I have recently found I like ESPN News blathering in the background. I say blathering because if you ever watch that channel, they run the same 30 minutes of footage over and over again all day. I listen once, pick up the news I want, and then my mind tunes it out.
Russell: I would describe your writing style as sparse yet evocative. How long did it take you to find your voice?
RSG: A while. I fuel myself by reading writers that challenge me in my genre. I’ve read many of the great series in Mystery/Detective/Police Procedural: James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux, Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland), Tony Hillerman (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee), John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee). MacDonald is widely considered the greatest Mystery writer ever (Stephen King called him the best writer ever). Hillerman and Burke are both winners of the Grand Master Award given out by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and recipients of MWA Edgars (Burke earned two, a rare feat). So I always knew I wanted to write gritty Mysteries.
My wife, however, wanted me to add a little paranormal to the first series. I grew up as a kid reading King, and I love my wife, so the first of my series (Clan of MacAulay)—while still all about a Denver Detective Bobby Mac and the crimes he must solve—also has a historical family paranormal aspect to it. I call it “a twist of paranormal”. That’s why I really sunk my teeth into Blood Land. No paranormal, no zombies, vampires, or any devices: just a deep, big-hearted, flawed hero of a lawman who must battle between delivering justice or exacting vengeance. I love gritty stories about real characters to whom we can all relate in one way or another. All my writing is character-driven.
Russell: Adverbs. What’s your take? Is Stephen King right, and they are Satan’s footsoldiers, or are they a boon to writers?
RSG: Satan’s footsoldiers. Although I like how Elmore Leonard puts it best in his “10 Rules of Writing” (which should be required reading for any writer): “Never use a word other than “said” to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify “said”. And if you have more than 2-3 exclamation points per 100,000 words, it’s too many.”
I make it a point to never have a single exclamation point in my books. Ever. They are Satan’s handmaidens.
Russell: I don’t think I’ve ever used an exclamation point in one of mine, either!!! Although my feelings about adverbs are not as negative, but we can leave that for a bar fight or another day! Tell me what you’re working on now, and let’s cover your latest release!
RSG: Funny thing is, what I’m working on now and my latest release are intertwined. My latest release, Blood Land, is a Mystery/Thriller set in small town America. I grew up in a place like this so I know the people, the tough law enforcement there, and the fact that big crime doesn’t just happen in the big cities like L.A., Chicago, etc. It’s the work closest to my heart and I am preparing to write the sequel—the plan is for it to be series.
Russell: That brings up a good point: you have two series, right? Why write the series instead of a stand-alone book?
RSG: Yes, I have two Mystery/Thriller/Police Procedural-type series. I grew up reading the recurring character series (John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux, Dennis Lehane and the Kenzie/Gennaro books). I write character-driven stuff. I love great characters, so when I finish a book about a character I can really relate to or love reading about, I never want it to end. You miss them as a reader, so there’s just nothing better than knowing they’ll be back.
Russell: I notice you have several “genres” listed when you categorize your books. Why is that?
RSG: I find it hard to categorize these days. Technically, my books are Mysteries—people are dying and someone is trying to solve the crime. Mysteries to me, though, used to be Agatha Christie whodunnits, kind of a class in and of themselves. I think now they’ve grown more into an overlap with the Thriller category and with the forensics and investigative techniques being of more interest now, “Police Procedural” comes into play in all my novels. So how do you stick it in one category? I like to give my readers a rollercoaster ride.
Russell: I would think the newer, non-paranormal-tinged books like Blood Land would be harder to write with the forensics. How much does research play into your writing?
RSG: Great question. I think research is one of the top three items on writer’s checklist (just behind characters and plot). Even if it is for a sentence or two, or a reference to a device or a procedure, I want it to be as accurate as it can be. This way I learn something and so does the reader. There is a fine line, however, because I am writing a great story, not a manual on police procedure or forensics, so I don’t want to put my readers to sleep either. I keep it relevant, to the point, and interesting—but the key is accuracy. After my first book a writer who is a full-time cop and one of only twenty certified forensics processors in the state of Pennsylvania said my accounting of a crime scene was one of the most accurate she’d ever read. I told her I do my research.
Russell: Changing gears; when did it hit you that writing fiction was something you wanted to do for a living?
RSG: Well the first memory I have is in the 4th or 5th grade. We had an assignment to write a short story, so I thought about these hikes my buddy and I always went on where we crossed this railroad trestle (bridge). Now the real trestle was only maybe ten feet in the air and very short. But I wrote a story where two little boys were caught in the middle of a HUGE span with the train pinning them and they were forced to hide in the timber right beneath the roaring train as it rumbled across, nearly shaking them loose and dropping them hundreds of feet to the rocks below. Unknown to me, she submitted it to some kind of scholastic children’s writing competition in NYC and it received an honorable mention. I don’t think I actually considered doing it for a living until much later, when I saw all the other options.
Russell: I have been both a plotter and a pantser. I know you take a certain amount of pride in being a pantser. Talk about that.
RSG: It’s not really pride so much as a belief: personally I feel that if I the writer doesn’t always know what’s coming next, and writes twists as they occur, based on intricacies he or she knows about approximately where the story ends up, how can the reader not be surprised? Honestly that’s really just me rationalizing my own style. Every writer is different.
Russell: Pantsing can be risky, though, don’t you think?
RSG: Yes. Especially if the victim has embarrassingly skinny legs.
Russell: Do you set deadlines as to when a book will be finished and/or how many words to write a day?
RSG: I do, and then the daily chores of everything from answering adoring fan mail to doing author spotlights (ahem) keeps me from making them. In all seriousness, I do set goals—the amount of words per day is a little softer than when I want to have the book finished. In college I learned a very important skill: cramming.
Russell: You’re a dog-lover like me and a lot of other people. Do you find that makes you a more compassionate person?
RSG: Not necessarily. I consider my dogs my entourage. They keep me centered and when I am the a-hole in the group, their unequaled friendliness, unconditional love, and constant bright outlook helps mask me and my human failings. I will say this: although I try really hard with people, I many times find that I like my dogs more than a lot of the humans I run into out there in the rat race.
Russell: One place in the world you must go before you die.
RSG: There’s actually two. Scotland, where my ancestors are from, and Amsterdam. No explanation required.
Russell: What advice would you offer other authors, if you only had thirty seconds?
RSG: Write. It’s the most important thing. You have to hone the craft. And READ. Read and write, just like your teachers always told you.
Russell: You have a minute to sell yourself. What do you say?
RSG: Reviewers have compared me to James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, and Dennis Lehane—three of my own literary heroes. My books have been described as sparse yet elegant; gritty yet emotional; hard yet comforting. I write human stories no matter what the genre; paranormal twists or none, it’s my human characters that distinguish them. And if you love the edge of your seat, good, because that’s where you’ll be.
Russell: Well, that wraps up this episode of the Author Spotlight. And here’s the shameless plug, although amazingly not for my own books this time. I would encourage everyone to check out Blood Land, which is available at a special sale price at Amazon for a limited time. As always, feel free to comment or ask any questions of the guest author using the comments section, and thanks for dropping in and checking out this very special interview. Until the next time, stay safe, and don’t let the clowns boogarize you.
As part of my continuing blogs on craft, I thought I’d do a short one on editing.
I’ve been very vocal about the need to use a pro editor and proofreader. That hasn’t changed. But the more polished your work when you hand it off, the better the eventual result will be. With that in mind, I offer a couple of tips that have made a large impact on my polish draft.
First, beware of echoes or overused phrases. Everyone has them. Sometimes we use them without realizing it. If you suspect you are overusing a word or phrase, plug it into the MS word find function and see how often it pops up. A few here and there aren’t so bad, but if you use the same word four times in two paragraphs, you’re probably being lazy and should revise the work to eliminate at least two. And eschew tautologies. Be on the lookout for them, and be relentless in eliminating them.
Second, forget all about spellcheck. It will give you a false sense of assurance. It will, for example, find no fault with they’re, there or their even if you are confounding the three, just as it will gladly approve its and it’s and than and then. There is no substitute for basic literacy and spending a few hours poring over your tome.
Third, and this is a big one, read your work on kindle, changing the font to Sans Serif when you do so, before sending it off to the editor.
I repeat. Read your work on kindle first with a new font.
Why? Because just as printing out your book and reading it on paper changes the entire experience and enables you to catch all sorts of uglies, going over it on the device most will read it on changes the experience. You’ll be amazed at the number of flaws you’ll find on your perfect manuscript. I actually save my final polish round now for the kindle read, as I know I’ll find so many errors and poorly-worded sentences that there’s no point in trying to do it on screen.
Fourth, actually READ your book, like a reader would. Do you have a character whose mouth is full or is gagged, suddenly talking? Someone whose hands are bound brushing a lock of hair away? Twelve attackers two pages ago, and seven this page? This seems rudimentary, but are your characters’ names the same throughout the book? Are your dialogue tags clunky and stiff? Are you overusing adverbs (I will do an entire blog on this. People. Adverbs are your friend. Anyone who thinks that you shouldn’t use them is an ass hat – just don’t overuse them, he said blithely)? In other words, read your own work, really read it, like you would a book you’ve just picked up and were unfamiliar with. Does it flow? Are there sections where you’re groaning? Be critical of your work, because I guarantee you will get some reviewers looking to tear you a new one at the slightest opportunity. Better you catch the flaws than they do.
I will usually do three drafts and then my final polish. Then I send the book off to my editor, who sends back changes I approve. Then it goes to a copy editor for a line edit for grammar and punctuation and spell checking. Then to a proofreader who catches all the nits everyone else missed. And even after all that, it’s not unheard of to find something wrong once the book is released. Just like Trad Pub. But I can tell you that if all those steps weren’t taken, there would be way more. My rule of thumb is to avoid writing by committee, but get as many eyes to spot errors as you can. And always listen to all feedback, leaving your ego at the door.
Now for the bad news. I can assure you that no matter how good you are, you probably won’t be able to edit your own work sufficiently. I am coming up on two million words written – actually that’s just published. Probably more like three and a half million written. And I can’t edit myself well enough to be satisfied. I don’t know anyone honest who can (okay, maybe I just don’t know anyone honest). I hear all sorts of excuses from people who put out sloppy, unedited work as to why they do so. My favorite is, “I can’t afford an editor.” I tend to say, hey, you invested hundreds or thousands of hours in writing your screed. Even if you only value your time at minimum wage, it’s a chunk of money. If you can’t afford an editor and can’t figure out a way to trade favors or do something creative, guess what? You can’t afford to be published. Because you’ll put out substandard work, readers will shun it, and word will spread. End of career. Put another way, how much would you pay not to have your dream career killed before it even starts? If the answer is nothing, then that’s the value you are putting on what your career is worth and that’s the value readers will likely assign to your work. Nothing.
Consider it an investment. Like violin lessons. You don’t expect to recoup the cost of the lessons immediately, if at all. Now imagine that you wanted to be a concert violinist, with your work recorded and bought by enthusiasts, but then complained that you didn’t have the money for lessons. What would your efforts probably sound like? What would be the likelihood you achieved your goal? And how reasonable would it be for you to even have that goal since you couldn’t pay for the lessons you needed to master your craft? Please. If you are trying to edit your own work, you are shooting yourself in the head. There are a million books on Amazon now. You’re asking for readers to discover and purchase yours. Why should they, if you can’t be bothered to figure out a way to ensure it’s up to par? Answer: they won’t. Or a few might, but they won’t return.
Having said that, I know a few excellent writers whose wives or their beta readers/writing group act as their editors and do a good job, so if you’re motivated you can find someone. Obviously someone with a relevant degree and experience is preferable to a well-dressed friend, but even that is preferable to nothing. To me, there is no excuse for putting out unedited work you are asking readers to pay for. Why should they, if it wasn’t worth your time and money to guarantee it’s as good as it can be? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve given up on by page 20 due to the obvious lack of editing. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that. But when I see typos, grammatical mistakes and omitted words in just the first pages of the preview, I’m out. And that’s a surprising number of books. A shocking number, actually.
If your career is important to you and you value it, act like it. Polish your work till your eyes and fingers bleed, then get someone qualified to edit it, or you’ll be doomed to failure before you’ve gotten out of the gate. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. And I know you think you’re different. Everyone does, just like all the other different people.
Talent and drive only take you so far. If you want to sell a high quality product, you need to invest in making it one. Perhaps you don’t care whether you are selling something high quality or not. That’s fine, but I think it’s a loser as a business plan in all but the shortest term. As more books hit the market, there will be an ocean of unproofed, poorly written work vying for the reader pool. The only way I can think of to differentiate yourself is to craft the best product you can.
So far so good.
I was recently alerted to the fact that a number of my books are available on pirate sites. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, and I thought it would make suitable fodder for a blog so I thought I’d toss my hat into the debate.
On the one hand, I’m flattered. With almost a million indie authors out there who can’t get arrested, that sites feel my work is in suitable demand to offer it, albeit pirated, can only be considered a compliment. Another way of looking at it is that pirated copies are basically no different than the freebies I give out during free promos, and the more readers familiar with my work, the more are likely to buy something eventually.
Still another way of looking at it is that this is merely book lending, albeit with no limit on the number of times a book can be simultaneously lent. In the physical world, you can only lend a book one at a time, like a library. In the virtual world, you can do the equivalent of counterfeiting, which is where you fire up the Xerox machine and make 10K copies of that one book and distribute them. There is a reason that copyright wording restricts the ability to copy to the copyright holder, not the purchaser of a single copy of the book. If you want to look at it clearly, the content of the book is licensed for that single use copy, and the copy is the property of the buyer – but not the content, at least not to reproduce it. Because again, that would skew supply and demand.
NEWS: How about that? The Geronimo Breach is featured as an example in a blog on self-editing for indie authors. Worth a read.
The other hand is less pretty. That perspective is that piracy is theft, pure and simple – a book’s intellectual property is still property, as clearly articulated in the copyright notice, and it’s not anyone’s property but the copyright owner. That’s not ambiguous. One might argue that’s unfair, or bad, or shouldn’t be, but the one thing it isn’t is ambiguous. So if you are pirating, it is clear you DON’T OWN the property you are electronically copying and distributing, and that it is AGAINST THE LAW to do so, because the law views the taking and distributing of material that isn’t yours as copyright infringement – a kind of theft. Those offering pirated goods are offering stolen goods, and those downloading the stolen goods are participating in the theft – they are benefiting by getting something they would have had to pay for if they obeyed the law or if the stolen articles weren’t available for download.
I’m familiar with all kinds of arguments for piracy – that the receivers of the stolen property might not be able to afford the goods, or that it does no real harm and is thus a victimless crime, or that it can have a benefit for authors by familiarizing readers with their work, or that protection of intellectual property is basically greed-driven and “old paradigm.” I can sympathize with all of these arguments, but in the end I find them to be rationalizations for stealing. Inevitably those with broken moral compasses try to muddy the water and debate whether stealing is wrong or not (if you had to steal to survive, is it really so wrong? To save your baby? And so on), but I’m pretty clear that whatever it is, it isn’t right.
If I invest several thousands of dollars in editing and creating covers and the like, I hope to recoup that cost, plus a reward for my time in creating the work in the first place. That’s reasonable – as per the copyright, I own it, so I’m entitled to expect compensation (if I have the work for sale) for my effort. When someone decides to download a pirated copy of one of my books, they are gaining the benefit of my work without compensating me. All other arguments aside, that’s the net of the transaction. I don’t see the revenue that is my due as the intellectual property rights owner.
I’ve heard folks who say, yeah, but it’s not really hurting your sales anyway, or the sales of big companies, who are making tons of money and thus can afford to be victimized by criminals. The problem with that idea is that it assumes that I’m not being harmed. I would argue I am being even more harmed than a large company that can afford to have some lost revenue due to theft. Because I’m a small business, every lost sale hits me directly in hundred cent dollars. My self-publishing business is a business, not a philanthropic enterprise. It pays bills. It does so by being paid for the product it distributes.
I believe that the more people who read my work the better. But it is my right to decide which work I make free, and when, and to whom. If someone bought a hard copy book of mine (assuming I had them) and lent it to a friend, who lent it to a friend who did the same thing, I would have no problem with that. Because the form factor limits the ability to distribute it – there’s no chance of that same copy being lent 10K times in one month, or simultaneously. Likewise, I have no problem with someone selling it for 10 cents at a used book store or garage sale, for the same reason. But with an ebook it is very different.
It’s my right to decide, as the IP rights holder, when and how I want to give stuff away free. It is not someone else’s right. Forgetting for a moment any moral arguments, can we agree at least that if something is illegal everywhere, it’s probably illegal for a good reason? Now, one might argue that it’s OK to break bad laws, and I might even sign up for that. But the real question comes down to, how much of someone else’s property that I have no legitimate right to is it OK for me to use and receive the benefit of and distribute? Put another way, how many hours of your 40 hour workweek, after you deduct the roughly 20 hours you work for the government, and the 10 to 15 you work for the bank and insurance companies…how many of the five remaining hours are you willing to work for free, for me, so I can have the benefit of your labor? One? Two? All five? How would you feel if a criminal syndicate showed up and simply stole one hour’s worth of post-tax, post-mortgage/CC money from you every week? Would you be ambivalent? Would you be furious? Would you figure that you weren’t really being harmed, or worse, that you were being “greedy” because you sort of had use for that money you worked so hard to make?
Or we can look at it another way. You are a sculptor who has managed to create a line of work that is unique, and you have protected it so nobody else can knock it off and represent their copy as your creation. You make little sculptures for a living, and you have opened a store to sell your designs. How many sculptures is it OK to steal from that store? 1%? 10%? 20%? Or how many copies of the protected work is it OK to make and sell, represented as the sculptor’s work, in a shop right next door?
I’ve heard pirating likened to book lending. It isn’t. I’ve heard arguments that say “the more pirating of books, the better, as it increases my sales.” Well, maybe so, if you sell hard copy books through stores. But when the only thing you have to sell are the bits and bytes that compose the intellectual property of a book, there’s no such distribution or form factor-based differentiators. There is simply product X, which consists of bits and bytes, and pirated product X, which is identical in every way. I’m quite sure that if someone was operating a factory to create hard copies of Neil Gamon’s work and sell them alongside his legitimate work in bookstores or at the airport, he wouldn’t have the same laisser-faire view he tosses out now. If Barnes decided to print copies of his book, foregoing that annoying part where they have to pay the author or publisher anything, and then sold them for nothing as a loss leader to drive store traffic, what would the value of his identical legitimate offering priced at $12 be perceived as, right along side of the identical copy for free?
The answer is obvious. But somehow the concept that in cyber-space, because the bookshelf is virtual, versus in a store, it makes it OK to do the same thing. Except even a cursory analysis shows that it isn’t OK at all. If Nora Roberts has a book for $8.99 at Amazon as an ebook, and Shiftyreads has the identical book available as a free download for anyone who wants it, it DOES have an impact on how many books she will sell at Amazon. Of course it does. I can go on and on. If Baskin Robbins charges $4 for a scoop of Y flavor here, and right next door they give away knock-off Baskin Robbins flavor Y for free, will it have an impact on Baskin’s legit sales? Figure it out. Of course it will.
About the only two arguments I’ve heard for piracy being good are anecdotes from authors who seem to mistake correlation with causality (sales increased by 100% since being pirated), and those comparing it to book lending via libraries or in book clubs. Let’s address the first. If one makes the mistaken assumption that pirating didn’t occur BECAUSE the author was picking up steam and becoming more popular, one could mistake that for pirating RESULTING in higher sales. It also requires that one confabulate print books with ebooks. I could see where if you have a radically different product (print books) than the pirated ebook, familiarity with the author’s work which was a function of reading a pirated copy could boost paper sales. But I think it’s fairly obvious that they aren’t going to boost ebook sales of the available-as-pirated titles, if all the same work is available either as a pirated good or as a genuine one. If you think it will, go back to my Baskin Robbins scenario. How much more of flavor Y will Baskin sell out of its location if Pirate Ice next door gives away the identical thing for free? My gut says not a lot. Now assume that it’s a virtual storefront, and that the store is everywhere at once, available to everyone at once. Same question – how much ice cream will they sell? The answer – less than if Pirate Ice wasn’t giving it away right next to them.
In the end, I have arrived at several conclusions. First, pirating can increase visibility of an author’s work, which is good. No question. Second, theft of intellectual property is still theft, just as counterfeiting a stock or a note is theft (it deceives the receiver, and robs the remaining genuine articles of their value by the number of fakes in circulation – diminishing the true value of the real thing due to increased supply. All markets are supply/demand driven, in that if you increase supply to one unit more than existing demand, the price goes down). Third, I believe those taking the stance that pirating is OK haven’t thought it through, or are making some flawed assumptions (mistaking causality with correlation).
I think it comes down to whether you believe that theft is OK, or not. Because none of the pro-piracy arguments can surmount that one niggling detail – that copying and distributing the work is prohibited by copyright, and violating that prohibition is copyright infringement, which amounts to stealing from the intellectual property owner.
Put me down as anti-stealing, I guess. Call me old fashioned that way. If I seem intolerant on this topic, it’s probably because it’s my shit being stolen, not yours.
What do you think?
Authors are a special breed. We are generally both readers and writers, and yet too often, when we think, if at all, it’s as writers. We leave our reading hats at the door, which is usually a mistake. Especially as self-publishers.
What do I mean?
I had a discussion today with a friend of mine, also a writer, about genre, and writing cross genre, or genre-blending books. Which gave me a chance to pontificate – something my blog readers know I enjoy doing, whether I know anything about the topic in question or not.
Specifically, my thinking about genres is that we should view them as readers, not as authors. What do I mean?
NEWS: My new guest blog on Tinderboox is raising some eyebrows.
When a reader buys a Russell Blake book, he/she is probably expecting something along the lines of Ludlum or Forsyth – in other words, a thriller with some conspiracy or action/adventure overtones, preferably both. And yet I’ve written several books that don’t really fit that genre – most notably The Voynich Cypher, which is an Umberto Eco-style treasure hunt adventure, and my latest, Silver Justice, and my first, Fatal Exchange, which are really police procedurals with action/adventure and conspiracy overtones. And I think that could have confused early readers – if someone bought all my Assassin novels, or buys my forthcoming JET series, they expect mile-a-minute action/adventure tales from all my books. So then they buy Geronimo Breach or Dephi – no problems. More of what they like, or at least close enough so they nod along. And then maybe they buy Zero Sum, which is also what they expect, and then buy the second volume in that series, The Voynich Cypher, and they get…an action/adventure novel of the type Dan Brown has made popular. Now, many love that, but I can see where it would be disorienting. “Damn. I thought I was going to get more typical Blake, and suddenly I’m in the Roman catacombs decrypting ancient clues.” Fortunately, most seem okay with my dalliance in a type of fiction I love, but if Voynich was the only of my books anyone had read or I only had two or three books out, and then they moved to any of my other books, I could see the danger of them thinking, “I wanted Foucault’s Pendulum, not the Bourne trilogy,” and deciding not to buy any more of my work because they didn’t get what they were expecting.
My readers tend to be a bright bunch, and luckily they’ve entertained my lapses into something off the beaten path now and again. But I could see an author with, say a couple of books in a series that were, I don’t know, Hard Boiled Noir Detective genre, who wrote a masterful medical thriller, and then had a hell of a time getting folks to buy it. Why? Because the chances are that the audience he developed is a hard boiled detective audience, and it won’t necessarily like or want or appreciate a medical thriller, no matter how brilliant. His/her detective readers won’t buy the book. Because it’s not something they’re interested in.
Publishers know this. Le Carre is espionage thrillers. Ludlum is conspiracy thrillers with action aplenty. Harris is serial killer thrillers. You know what you are getting when you buy the name. Harris doesn’t put out a romantic comedy. At least not deliberately. Or sober.
People are creatures of habit. We like the familiar. As readers, we tend to seek out whatever we prefer as a guilty pleasure because it makes us comfortable, or entertains us in a particular way we like. We like easy choices. That’s why a series is an easy buy. We like book one, we know what to expect in books two through twenty. We like that. Maybe we will move to another series of the same type by the author afterwards, or maybe even try his other books, as long as they aren’t too far outside of our designated comfort zone. But we don’t want to wind up with a spy novel from our favorite science fiction author. We’re likely to never buy the author again if we get that kind of surprise, unless we have stayed with him through a ton of books, in which case we may be willing to forgive him just that once. But now we, in the back of our mind, are thinking, “Is he going to do a switch on me again?” when he comes out with his newest, so we might, just might, not be quite as interested in hitting buy.
That’s how many readers are. And before you start telling me about how you are different, which you may well be, understand that we as a species tend to be, A) lazy, and B) stupid. Not everyone. But many. One might even argue that it’s a majority of us that are, at least as far as our entertainment goes. That being the case, my counsel to authors is to keep it simple. Figure out what audience you are writing to. What genre. Then stick to that genre. Not some other. Not two genres. Understand what genre you write to, because if you don’t, then how the hell is your audience supposed to know? You’re job as a publisher (as opposed to an author) is to clearly define a product for a clearly-defined audience, which presumably you believe is worth marketing to. If you’re unable to do so, and get all authory, a la “Oh, my work’s different, more of a romantic suspense space detective literary fiction thing,” they guess what? You are saying you have no idea who your target market is. “All readers” or “readers who enjoy diversity” is not an answer. That usually equates to no readers.
If you want to build sales over years and have a readership that follows you, stick with what you, as a brand identity, are known for. But what if you don’t have a brand identity yet, you mewl? Then now’s the time to develop one. If you have no idea who you write for, how would you expect a reader to figure it out? Job number one as a publisher is to communicate clearly what your book’s target market is so that the audience can find it. If you don’t communicate it, then you’re muddying the waters and making it harder for readers to choose your books, as opposed to someone who is targeting well. Take Harlequin. They publish romance. You aren’t expecting Silence of the Lambs when you buy their books. And you don’t get it. You get what they are known for – alternatively, if you buy a Tom Harris book, you don’t get Love’s Silent Fury.
Or consider McDees. They make mediocre burgers that are relatively cheap that always taste the same and are served fast. You know what you’re getting. They make it easy to think, “I’ll go there, I know what they make.” Maybe they are trying the new McFiestaBlowoutWrap, but my hunch is you didn’t choose to go there because of it, nor are you that likely to order it or enjoy it if they gave you one by mistake. Because you had an idea of what you wanted when you went in. And that’s what you want.
Authors. Learn from Coke’s disastrous New Coke experiment. People don’t want a surprise. They buy Coke because it tastes like Coke. They don’t want Coke to taste like Pepsi. They would buy Pepsi if they wanted a soda that tastes like Pepsi. If you are asking people to buy your books, my advice is to keep your voice the same book after book, and keep the genre clear and well defined. Because if you build a readership, or hope to, it won’t want you to switch to something else. It wants what it buys you for. You are the brand. You are Coke.
I know. As authors we want to be able to say, yeah, but we are so much more than just Coke. We’re Coke, and Pepsi, and Mountain Dew, and Hawaiian Punch. Guess what? You’re an author that nobody is likely to buy, because you’ve confused the consumer – and they don’t want to be confused. They want what they want.
Without belaboring this, authors need to think like readers. While there are a few exceptions (Stephen King can write whatever genre he wants and people buy it because he’s Stephen King – he IS the brand), genre fiction readers want to read within a genre. Not across two or three. If you don’t believe me, try it, and watch your sales do nothing. Again. Keep it simple, and communicate clearly what you do so your readers can find you and then stick with you.
If you want to write in other genres, do so under a pen name. Let your audience know you’re doing so. Some will want to shift over and see what you’re up to under your other name. But most may not want to. So your pen name can develop its own readership. Want to write about trolls? Fine. Can’t be the same name that writes psychological thrillers. It’s confusing. You’ll lose everyone, and nobody will be happy. Your troll audience will be confused by your books that aren’t about trolls, and your psych thriller fans will hate you for the trolls. They won’t want to spend money pulling the handle of a slot machine to see what you are thinking your next book should be about, genre wise.
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of authors complaining that it’s so limiting, and that they’re different, and that the new era of ebooks means all those old rules are out the window. Guess what? No they aren’t. It’s called brand marketing. It’s been around longer than you have. It will be around longer than you will be. Ignore it or fight it at your peril.
Note I’m not saying restrict yourself in what you write. I’m saying take off the author hat and put on a publisher’s hat, which involves thinking like a reader. So here’s your next book. What product is it? How to describe it so the audience you know you need to sell it to in order for it to be successful, buys it? Who is that audience, and what does it want?
My forthcoming new JET series is filled with nuance and contradictions and depth. But at its heart it’s an action/adventure series. Like my Assassin series. My elevator pitch for it is four words: Kill Bill meets Bourne. That’s it. Everyone knows what it will deliver from those four words. You liked the movie Kill Bill? You like The Bourne Trilogy? You’ll love JET. Looking for love among the cactus or a glittery vampire tome? Not so much. By understanding what I am, and what I write, I have targeted my audience with precision. I try to make it easy for that audience to find me, and take a flyer on my work. And I try to make it easy for my current readers to stay with me. I’m not throwing them for a loop. There will still be surprises, and the work is not formulaic, but it knows is what it is. I repeat. It knows what it is.
If you have books that aren’t selling, part of the problem may be that your audience can’t find you because you don’t know what your book(s) is(are). You aren’t selling because of a failure to communicate. If you pen a space cowboys novel, it’s not a western. It’s sci fi. With cowboys. But it’s not a western set in space. It’s sci fi featuring cowboys. Why? Because you may find some sci fi fans who are entertained by the idea of cowboys in space, but you are probably not going to find a lot of western fans that are thinking, “Shit, put a rocket and a ray gun in there and I’m all over it!”
Be clear about what you write. Then communicate it clearly. Package it so the audience can easily figure it out.
Selling books of any kind is hard. Don’t make it harder. Give the nice readers something they can understand, so they can decide if they want to read what you are selling. Easy.
Now go write.