I participated in a lively discussion today about book reviews, and how other authors approach the delicate matter of reviewing work that they feel is, er, wanting, to say the least.
Which got me thinking.
I don’t leave a lot of book reviews. Mainly because I don’t have nearly enough time to read, and when I do, it’s usually one of my faves, something that delivers the sort of read I want with dependability. And I don’t feel compelled to review these authors – there are usually hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews extolling their virtues, so I don’t believe my two cents is going to afford any additional illumination.
But I will occasionally review a peer. Only one that I can give 4 or 5 stars, though.
Why? It’s obviously not because I have any problem putting forth controversial opinions. It’s mainly because if I read 10 books, I’m lucky if 2 of them would rank that high. The rest will vary from 2 to 3 stars – I don’t bother reading the 1 star books more than a few pages. And I don’t want to leave 2 or 3 star reviews, because my dislike of a book, or my thinking that it’s okay but nothing great, isn’t a typical reader’s take. I’m extremely hard on my own writing, so I’m hard on that of others, as well, but the things I may dislike may have absolutely no relevance for average readers. If I dislike echoes and am particularly sensitive to them, or feel that the word choice is lacking, or that the pacing is plodding or amateurish, that’s the author in me talking, not the reader.
I liken it to the difference between a film student going to see a movie, and me going to see the same movie. The film student may deduct points for things like camera work, angles, lighting, composition…a whole bunch of crap I have no idea about, not about which I particularly care. I just know whether the film was entertaining, well done (meaning acted and written), and satisfying. So my four star review might be the film student’s two star.
My two star book review might be someone else’s four or five star. Because I’ll likely be dinging it for technical issues that are invisible to the average reader. And that’s not fair to the book, or to those reading my reviews. And also, it feels like a waste of my time, because I wasn’t set on the planet to tell others how I think their books suck. The marketplace will more than determine that over time, so I’m redundant in that process. Thankfully.
Writers tend to want to pick apart the work of others. It’s an occupational hazard. But I recognize that failing in myself, and try to curb it, and not allow it to ruin my enjoyment of a book I’ve picked up for pleasure. It’s tough to do. You can’t view everything through the eyes of an editor, and then just switch that off when you’re reading someone else. You can try, but it’s tough.
Anyway, that’s my elegant rationalization for why I don’t leave more reviews, or reviews that are less than four stars. Life’s too short. It’s also why I no longer accept books from my fellow authors. Mainly because I have a year’s backlog on my kindle now, but also because while people say they want to hear criticism, most don’t really want that. They want to be told the book’s good. So when someone like me comes along and says something like, “it read like it meandered – you should cut 10%,” they take that personally. And I don’t want to piss anyone off. Again, because life’s too short.
What do you think? As readers, do you want authors you respect to leave reviews, even if they’re scathing? And authors – how do you approach this kind of thing?
I was considering the problem of infinite regression in cosmology the other day (code for drinking – wink wink) and found myself talking to a friend at a social engagement (barfly at the local cantina) about the burdens of being an acclaimed indie novelist (glorified panhandler and vocational liar).
Soon, the chatter turned to genres and markets (as do many of my inebriated monologues to my fellow celebrants – I don’t get invited to a lot of parties, in case you’re wondering), and I made the declarative statement that I was a niche market novelist, in that I write for the very small subset of thriller readers who want something written at college level. I’m well aware that most of the big selling books are written at what is euphemistically termed as sixth grade level, which is in reality fourth grade level, because American sixth graders score at about a fourth grade level on reading.
What that means to me as a novelist is that I would be far better off writing at just above Hardy Boys level as opposed to whatever the hell it is I do.
But I can’t. I mean, I’ve tried, but I don’t have it in me. I can maybe get down to an eighth or tenth grade level, but my gag reflex triggers when I try to move further downstream.
Which will affect my ability to sell to the broad market. Look at what James Patterson’s books read like – and the man’s the top selling novelist in the world. Or consider EL James’ 50 Shades of Gray – a book written at more like a second grade level with lots of BDSM sex. One out of every six books sold last year was 50 Shades. Or how about Twilight? Massive. I could go on. But you get my point. It’s that if you want broad success, you’re better off writing in as sophomoric manner as possible.
And I’m fine with that. I believe that the book market is rapidly fragmenting, so a niche author like myself can earn a handsome living writing for a relatively small audience.
Let’s say that the world thriller market is 20 million (I have no idea what it is, but play along here). And let’s say that 90% of those thriller readers believe that Patterson reflects the best of the genre (I have no problem with the man, BTW – he’s a masterful marketer, and back when he was actually writing his books, some of them were engaging). To my mind, that excludes 18 million readers from my sales strategy. They aren’t my customers. Never will be. Unless hell freezes over or I get Beyonce pregnant. Which could happen. But I’m not banking on it.
But the good news in my mind is that it leaves about 2 million who are my possible audience.
Now let’s say of those, 1 million would sneer at my simple-minded attempts to entertain with my little stories. If it’s not Daniel Silva, they don’t want to read it. That’s fine. Still got a potential market of a million.
I guess when you look at it like that, being a niche author in this genre isn’t such a bad thing.
Now maybe you would argue that it’s not 20 million, but rather is 10. Whatever. It’s still a buttload of people I can reach. If I write 3 books a year, and only reach 1/4 of my target readership of a million, I would be selling 750 thousand books a year. I’d be fine with that.
Obviously, I’m not there yet.
But I’m okay with the way the numbers lay out. I don’t need a jet (nobody needs a jet) or three Ferraris (ditto – I mean, three seems gratuitous) or a hundred foot boat. I’m far happier writing what I write than trying to write something that I’d really need to force, all in an effort to reach the Dan Brown audience. I mean, look at his books. 25-30% of the reviews are one and two stars. And almost all the reviews at that level are eloquently written by those with masterful command of the language. Meaning people who obviously read at considerably above a sixth grade level, and who hate his books because they view them as puerile pap. They mock him because the plots are unbelievable, the formula hackneyed and the prose sub-custodial.
And you know what? They’re right.
And it doesn’t matter.
Because a whole segment of the reading public loves his novels. The five star reviews wax enthusiastic about “learning something when you read his books.” In other words, most thriller readers don’t care about anything I just described. In fact, it’s quite possible that they don’t even register any of it. And that’s just the way it is.
If you want to make a fortune in TV, produce reality TV shows, not Masterpiece Theater. If you choose to do MT, you aren’t going to have nearly as many viewers, and the ones that do tune in are likely to be really annoying know-it-alls with effete sensibilities who sneer at the idea of commercials and wouldn’t know a Kardashian from a Pepperoni pizza – not that there’s a lot of discernible difference. But I digress. My point is that I’ve chosen to write what I like to read, and everyone can suck it. Okay, no, perhaps that’s not it. Maybe a better way of saying it is that I can no more change how I write after a certain point than I can change my facial features. It’s just part of my author DNA, and is a function of what I grew up reading. To try to pander to some larger crowd would immediately be obviously insincere – not that I’m particularly sincere to begin with, especially after a few cocktails, but that’s neither here nor there.
So I write what I write, and am thankful that readers are responding well to it. I’m sure I’ll have books that some of my core audience dislikes (I’m guessing that my next one, Upon a Pale Horse, polarizes my readers – some will love it, and some will hate it, specifically because the pacing is more Grisham-like than my usual fare, and because the core science behind the novel’s premise is so disturbing that many will just hate the message, and therefore the book, because of the questions it raises). It’s inevitable, unless you want to do nothing but write car chases and gun battles with an occasional plane trip thrown in. Not that I sneer at that – one could argue most of my work falls into that category. Whatever. Back to where if you don’t like it you can bite me.
What this leaves me with as a writer is really no choice. I need to write what I write, and not focus on how to become a mass-market bestseller. Word of mouth is building nicely, and sales have never been better, so I’m fortunate beyond imagination. I get that. I’m of the belief that you’re better off doing something you love, rather than churning out something that you dislike or hate. Which is why you won’t be reading 50 Shades of Yarn for Mr. Mittens anytime soon. The irony is that would be my bestseller, without a doubt. You have kink. You have sex. You have cats. Yarn. It’s got it all.
Some would argue the world is a better place without that epic manifesto. I’d be the first. But mainly because I’m shiftless and lazy, and couldn’t write it properly. So I won’t try.
Unless a publisher wants to hand me a seven figure advance, in which case I’m so all over it. Agents and publishers, take note. The Mr. Mittens trilogy could be yours for a song, really. Unmarked hundreds in a briefcase are fine. Call me. Really. I’m totally serious.
Over the last week, because of my burst of posts on the Kindle Boards, I’ve gotten a number of PMs from authors asking for counsel on one matter or another, so I thought I would take the time to lay out my thoughts so that the info is available to everyone. Obviously, this is intended for authors. Readers, just skip over this, it’s all technical crap you won’t be interested in unless you’re a masochist.
This does not represent the only way to do things, but it’s my way, and is the synthesis of everything I’ve learned over the last 23 months of self-publishing:
1) Pick one genre that’s popular and with which you are extremely familiar, and then write in that genre. Stick to it. Don’t hop around. It confuses your potential readers and muddies who you are in their minds, and will hurt your sales. If you want to write different genres, use a pseudonym, and if you like, let your readers know that moniker is you. But stick to one name, one genre, because you’re building your brand, and brand building is a function of clarity – clearly communicating what you do, and what your product is.
2) Write a series. Why? Because readers like series, and you want to give readers what they like. Or you won’t sell as much. You can try stand-alone – I have – but my series outsell my stand-alone books 4 to 1. Once you have at least three books in the series, make the first one free. Earn your income from the rest, but give readers a whole novel to decide whether they like you or not.
3) Write a lot. By that I mean try to write at least 3 novels a year. Don’t bother with short stories or novellas (40K or under) if you’re writing fiction – erotica, romance and non-fiction reportedly to do better with short form, but I don’t know from personal experience. Write 60-90K installments in your series, and release them AT MINIMUM every four months. Every three months would be better. Every two, better still. Momentum breeds success, and readers have short memories. The current market is a hungry animal, and you need to feed it, or risk being forgotten by the time your next one releases. Sorry. It’s the truth. And don’t start whining about how X famous author only puts out one book every Y years. If you’re Dan Brown and you sell tens of millions of novels each whack, then do whatever the hell you like. If you aren’t, listen up, or chock your strategy up to, “Become the next Dan Brown” and stop reading this blog.
4) Read a lot. To write well, you need to read things that are well-written, and that serve to inspire you to greater heights or provide insight on how to improve your work in some way. You are what you eat. If you aren’t reading a decent amount, start, because otherwise you’re unlikely to write nearly as well as if you do.
5) Allocate time every day to write, and be disciplined. I suggest minimum one hour per day, or 1000 words. I actually ignore that and shoot for 5000-7000 a day when writing a novel, but that’s just my approach, and it’s not for everyone. My point is that you must be disciplined about your writing and develop that muscle. If you don’t make it a habit, you won’t write enough to put out one novel every four months, and you’ll already be way behind the curve.
6) Allocate time every day to market. I recommend a 75%/25% writing to marketing mix. So spend an hour writing every day, and fifteen-twenty minutes marketing (social media, blogging, interviews, message boards). Two hours writing, half hour to forty minutes marketing. And so on.
7) Stay off the internet when you’re writing. Set aside the writing time, and do only that. Leave placeholders for stuff you need to research later (XXX city is Y distance from ZZZ city, etc.). Stopping your writing to research breaks your momentum. Don’t do it. Checking your e-mail, checking in with your Facebook group, reading a tweet – none of these are going to write your book for you, so stop it already.
8) Get professional help. Do pro covers. It’s the first thing your potential readers will see. Put out something amateurish, and they will go to something that looks worthy of their time, and it won’t be you. Get pro editing. You are asking people to pay for your product. They won’t, and shouldn’t, if you haven’t ensured it is a pro product, which means it must be edited and proofread. If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.
9) Make sure your product description rocks, is short and compelling, and sucks the reader in. After your cover, the product description has to sell the book. Don’t give too much info, don’t spell out the plot like it’s a test. Give the high points that will interest a reader in knowing more. And make sure it’s coherent and there are no typos or bad grammar, as that will kill most of your sales out of the gate. A product description is ad copy, nothing more, so it should be the ad for your book, and with advertising, whatever makes the reader click buy is good advertising.
10) Now for the actual book. You have five pages to hook the reader. The first five. Make those amazing pages that demand the reader continues.
11) Know your audience. You do that by reading a fair amount in the genre, and by looking at the reviews of your competitors/the bestsellers in your genre. If you’re writing for a genre that’s 90% cat ladies, you need to know that going in. If mostly older males, know that too. Teen girls, ditto. Whatever your audience, figure it out before you start writing. Do a little research. It will pay dividends later.
12) Brand yourself as the go-to author in that genre. Become synonymous with your genre. Define it, if possible. Even better would be where your name is shorthand for the genre in your readers’ minds. As an example, Dan Brown is synonymous with a genre Umberto Eco pioneered with Foucault’s Pendulum – the theology-based conspiracy treasure hunt. Nowadays, when readers try to articulate that, they say “it’s a Dan Brown kind of book.” You should live so long, but make that your goal.
13) Price competitively and intelligently. Look at your genre. Where are most books priced? Are you undervaluing/underpricing your work? Price to sell, but don’t go cheap, no matter what Locke or Hocking did years ago. Use low prices occasionally to move product, as promotional pricing. But price your product consistently with the rest of your peers. Over time, you can increase prices, if your product warrants it and your readership is willing to pay it. My advice here is don’t price too low, or too high. Obviously, if you are racing up the charts at $3.99 and believe that moving to .99 will get you into the winner’s circle, go for it, but that’s rare. Price intelligently, and constantly play around with. By way of example, I tried $2.99 and $3.99, and then $4.99, and my sales were basically the same. So my readers are willing to pay up to $5 with no issues. My new releases are always $5.99. I do that because I want to brand myself as a quality read, and also because that’s still a bargain compared to my trad pub peers. I’m nosebleed level for indies, but I’ve only been pricing there with success this year. All last year, $4.99 was the ceiling. Something shifted, probably due to my introduction of the JET series in October, and I haven’t seen any fade at $5.99 vs. $4.99, so I price at what I consider to be reasonable for my work. The point is not to gouge readers, but rather to deliver good value, whatever the price is. But my genre is different than yours (probably) and it took a while to get there. I mention this not so you price however I do, but rather so that you see that pricing isn’t static, nor engraved in stone.
14) When writing, write as a craftsman/artist, and strive to improve every day. Force yourself to constantly up your game. Make your early work look like crap compared to what you’re writing now.
15) It’s okay to go back and rewrite your early work once you’ve evolved past it. I’ve rewritten probably half my novels by now. I will continue to do so. As I get better, I want all my work to get better.
16) There is no such thing as “not my best work.” Imagine that every book you write is the only one anyone is ever going to read, and they must make a decision to read the rest of your backlist or not, based only on that one book. Or imagine that a big 5 trad publisher is considering doling out a seven figure advance, and will only read one book, and it is your weakest. Ensure even your weakest is as good as you can write, because if not, you’re screwing your most important resource: your reader.
17) When finished writing, put on your business hat. This means that when done with your artistic work (writing), you are now a book seller. Your business is selling books, not being an author, at the point you ask someone to buy your books; to part with their money in exchange for the product you created. As a business person in a commercial enterprise, you need to be dispassionate and make smart business decisions, or you will fail. Book selling is a highly competitive business, and you are up against people who work tirelessly at it. If that’s daunting or gives you pause, you might want to reconsider whether this is a business you want to be in. In the book selling business, saccharine bromides of “just go for it” and “follow your dream” are about as useful as a bowling ball to a fish. Writing is art and self-expression, something beautiful and intensely personal. Book selling is a commercial enterprise. Confuse the two, and you hurt any chances you have of success, if success to you means selling a bunch of books.
18) Businesses require investment. All businesses, whatever the industry. Nobody with a brain goes into business with no money, no research, no plan, and no time or effort. Expect to spend some money on product development (cover, editing). Expect to spend either money or effort on marketing (preferably both). If you don’t have the money to properly edit your work or get a pro cover, you aren’t ready to be in business. Save some. Then try. Or borrow some from investors (which would be an eye opener, because most would want to see a business plan, which would force you to actually think all aspects of your new business through). Alternatively, become a graphic design/book cover whiz people would gladly pay $200-$500 to design their covers, do it for about a decade, and then do your own cover. Or spend 20 years editing, and then try your hand at editing your own work, going over it at least three times. If you don’t have 20 years of germane acumen, you probably aren’t qualified to edit your, or anyone else’s, work, so you need to hire professional talent. If you don’t, you aren’t investing in your business, and you’re radically reducing your chances of success. Not too many businesses that have no budget or acumen succeed. That’s the harsh truth. If you believe this one is different, knock yourself out and let me know how that goes. Until then, my counsel stands. Treat this like a business, not a dream of winning the lottery.
19) Have realistic goals. Look at what the average person does in their first year, and their second. That’s average. It ain’t pretty. If you want to be better than average, you need to do something better/different, and you need to make your own luck. Don’t get bummed because you haven’t been an overnight sensation. I sold $300 of novels in November, 2011, after six months of 15 hour days and seven releases. In December, 2011, I released five novels I’d been working on for months, to create a massive Xmas surge. I leaped to $1450. With a dozen books out. That’s not exactly a ton for the big Xmas season. But I continued writing as though my work was in hot demand. And I kept investing in my product, losing money, until it turned the corner and I started making decent money in Jan of 2012.
20) Book selling is a retail business, and retail businesses are promotions intensive. You’re only going to be as good as your last, and next, promotion. Promotions are a necessary fact of life in retail. You have to generate noise – the product won’t do it by itself. There are millions of books out there. Yours are just more books. Figure out how to get some visibility. I won’t advise you on how – there are plenty of ‘experts’ that will charge you $5 for a book on what worked two years ago. Simply put, it’s constantly changing, so you need to experiment and push the envelope, share information with others and stay ahead of the curve. But if you aren’t promoting, you’re stalling. In business you’re either shrinking, or growing. If you aren’t promoting, chances are you aren’t growing.
21) Assess what will be required to make it (and define what make it means to you in a coherent, attainable way), and then decide whether you are willing to do it. That doesn’t mean figure out what you can comfortably do, or think is reasonable. It means evaluate what it will likely take to get where you want to go, and then calculate what it will cost – in time, effort, money. If you can’t afford whatever that is, then you either need to scale back your goal, or you need to increase what you’re willing to invest of yourself and your resources. Hoping you make it while putting in 30% of what you estimate will truly be required is delusion. It’s like hoping you live to be 100 while smoking two packs a day, never exercising and being 50 pounds overweight. It could happen, but the odds say, not so much. This is called getting real with yourself. Lie to everyone else if you must. Don’t lie to yourself. Life’s too short, and you’re the best friend you’ve got. Oh, and BTW, if you think the secret to operating a successful book selling business is to just write and hope people discover your products, your strategy amounts to, “Once upon a time.” Not in the real world. I mean, anything’s theoretically possible, but so is marrying a billionaire. Don’t make that your business strategy. It’s a non-strategy.
21a) Decide whether making it is worth the cost. See #21. Now that you know what it will realistically take just to have a shot at the brass ring (whatever that is to you), determine whether it’s worth it. If not, do some soul searching and come up with a better objective for yourself – one that won’t make you miserable and unhappy. Ideally, writing should make you happy, and should be its own reward. If you decide to start a self-publishing business to sell books, that’s a commercial enterprise, and most commercial enterprises exist to sell things, not for self-actualization. If you can be happy and sell lots of stuff, so much the better. But the first goal of any commercial enterprise is to sell products, not to coddle the owner and make him/her feel warm and fuzzy. The business world is competitive. The book publishing business is one of the most competitive I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. It will take extraordinary luck, effort, commitment and drive to make it, even at a nominal level, much less a big level. If you are only able or willing to invest part time effort into it, don’t expect more than what you might make at a part time job. If that. Even if you are willing to go full time and give it your all, it is still no guarantee. Sorry. Know that going in. Don’t mean to be Mr. Buzzkill, but better you know the truth and look it squarely in the eye up front, than figure it out over time. And folks? If you’re an outlier and put in 4 hours a week and are making five grand a month, hat’s off to you. Take a picture. Write a how-to book.
22) Be true to yourself. Don’t try to act. Don’t create a personality that is what you think others might like. Be yourself all the time. People can smell insincerity. If you suck, that’s okay. Could be there are plenty of others who also suck, and might enjoy hanging out with someone who sucks. Maybe even buy your books.
23) Pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t. This is so obvious, and yet is so often overlooked. Everyone is going to have an opinion of what you should do, and how. Most of those won’t have been successful at what they are advising you on. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does mean you should be skeptical of all claims, and use your head. And pay attention. If the market is telling you that your books are poorly written, then you need to either improve them, or get used to being punched in the face by reviewers for wasting their time. If it’s telling you that your editing sucks, figure it out (and you have obviously not paid much attention to this little diatribe) and fix it. Ditto for your covers. And your blurb. And your marketing efforts. Pay attention. Modify your approach. Model those who are doing what you want to do. Model success.
24) Don’t try to be all things to all people. When you write, or when you brand and market. Be whoever you actually are when you write, and then brand and market what you are so those interested in what you are know you have what they want. Be clear at all times. Your job as a writer is to tell your story clearly, in your unique manner, as evocatively as you deem fit. Your job once you brand and market yourself is to honestly tout your product, and its strengths. Don’t try to please everyone or you’re likely to please nobody.
25) Nobody has ever heard of you. That’s cause for celebration. Even I, who sell a decent amount now, am unknown to 99% of my target readership. That’s a huge amount I can grow. It’s good news. How I go about changing that is contained in the prior 24 points. Every day I ask myself, “What can I do, TODAY, to increase my discoverability for my target market?” And then I figure out what I can do, and set aside time to do it. Today, I wrote this post, and will post it as a blog, as well, so it does double duty. Because as odd as it may seem, I’m fairly lazy. And if I can get one bit of writing to serve two purposes, that’s a big WIN.
26) Finally, don’t waste your time. Don’t do things that don’t work and are a time suck. I won’t tell you what those are. You will have to figure them out for yourself. Some advise tweeting a bunch, others say Facebook is the thing, some swear by Google +, others by Triberr…point is, there’s a universe of stuff out there to use, or not. My personal feeling is that many authors I speak with seem unable to make the distinction between what is effective and what is completely pointless. Maybe I’m wrong. But the authors I know who sell consistently, and who have built or are building sustainable careers, optimize their time and try to use it wisely.
26a) Having said all this, your best chance of making it is always writing your next book. You should always be working on the next one, and the next, and the next. Nobody ever succeeded by quitting. So if you’re going to do this, do it, stop whining, suck it up, and get to work.
That’s basically what I’ve been sending to those who have contacted me, but in snippets, because I’m currently finishing up my WIP, and figuring out my next one. I don’t have tons of time to respond to everyone personally, for which I apologize, but this contains about 80% of what I’ve learned so far. Take what seems useful, reject or vilify the rest. The intent from my standpoint is to offer a framework, an approach, that has worked well for me. It does not mean it’s the only way, but it does mean it’s my way. I can’t speak to what’s worked for others. I can’t even say that this will work ever again, or for most, but I sincerely believe it’s your best shot if you’re a beginning, or even not so beginning, author. Use it, or don’t, with my compliments.
The market is constantly changing, so be prepared to change with it. Nothing is the same as it was, nor shall it be a year from now.
The book is dead. Long live the book.