Almost a year and a half ago, I posted a blog chronicling the death of Select freebies. My position was that the program had been gutted, and that free no longer was a particularly effective tactic to drive sales.
So what’s the state of the union, you ask? What’s changed? What does any or all of it mean?
Free still sucks. And yet there are still eager lemmings willing to give the Zon an exclusive for 90 days so they can run free days, only to see them generate few or no sales, and in fact hurt their ranking when they come back to paid. Amazing, but authors are desperate for visibility, so they’ll do things that aren’t in their best interests if they think it will get them somewhere. Sad, but it’s not my problem. All I can do is what I perceive to be best for my book selling business, and allow everyone else to find their own path.
To that end, I have books that are permanently free. JET, the first in the series of that name, and Night of the Assassin, the prequel to King of Swords and the first book in the Assassin series. And The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1, which was my experiment with writing a serial trilogy, which didn’t do so well, mainly because people don’t comprehend what a serial trilogy is. They see the word serial, and think it’s a breakfast food or something. I’ve explained until I’m blue in the face, the product description goes to great pains to clarify that the books represent one story arc that is told across three books, and that there is no satisfying conclusion to books 1 or 2 – that it’s the totality of the books wherein the story is told. All to no avail. I still get outraged reviews of it saying things to the effect, “Aw, man, this is a rip-off, it’s not a complete book, blech, this sucks and I hope the author dies of brain ebola – if I want to read the whole story of 160K words, he actually expects me to pay for the final two episodes.” Rather than continue to try to educate those for whom reading comprehension appears to be limited to text messages and smiley icons, I just ignore it all and mush on.
But I leave these three books free, and promote them, because the first book in a series free is the single best marketing tool I’ve found. Still. Two years after making Night of the Assassin free, it sees many thousands of downloads per month, as does JET, and the conversion rate to paid sales of the second book in the series is good – anywhere from 10-15%, meaning if today, 500 free downloads occur, I will see maybe 50-65 sales today of book two. From there, the conversion rate is more like 90%+, from book 2 to book 3-whatever. In other words, most who actually think it’s worth paying for book 2, go on to buy book 3, 4 and 5. Oh, and the reviews are generally more positive moving forward through the series, too, which is expected, as those buying the fourth book have already qualified themselves as believing the books are meritorious by their act of purchasing them.
It has never been harder to get noticed as an author. The golden years of self-pubbing are now behind us, when anyone who could fog a mirror could bang out a couple of hundred pages of dross, run a free promo, and then go on to write a book about how to become a bestseller. The glut of free books certainly hastened the end of that period, as has Amazon’s de-clawing free as a legitimate means of creating visibility – for example, free books won’t show up in the also-boughts, whereas before, they would, which would give the title visibility after a promo or a free download as a perma-free. Now, not at all.
I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I enjoy selling lots of books, and free was a marvelous tool I could use to increase discoverability. On the other hand, I do think it created an entire audience that views books as an entitlement – that books should be free, and that authors should work for free to keep their audience entertained. I’m still okay with the practice, because, as my conversion rate shows, it’s worth it to give away some books in order to familiarize readers with my work – because I believe that my voice is distinctive enough that, once exposed to it, a healthy segment of readers will want to read more of it. So far, so good. 2013 looks like it will easily exceed my goal for the year by 15%, for which I’m grateful. Next year, though, is going to be a bear, because if I want to double again, it will mean selling a big number – as in, a really big number. I have no idea if I will be able to do that, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve that should prove interesting. One of which will be stepping up PR – once I make my big announcement, the objective will be to ensure everyone on the planet hears the news, not that I write another 10 books in a year. With 25 novels out by end of December, I’d argue that there are sufficient Russell Blake books in the marketplace for readers to get an idea about whether I’m someone they want to read. I’m not so sure having 35 out by the end of 2014 is the answer. My approach will shift to fewer novels with more time between them, and more marketing of my existent body of work.
I will say that I believe 2014 will be my banner year – the year I break big. Call it a hunch. If not, boo hoo, poor me, but I really have a good feeling about it, and am optimistic.
We don’t have long to wait.
And for everyone who is wondering what my big November news is, consider it to now be my big December news. I’ll break it soon. I promise. And this time I’m not just lying for practice, as is typically the case.
BLACK Is The New Black is in final editing and should be out within a couple of weeks, and then JET VI is targeted for Xmas release. If all goes well, I’ll make it. Next up will be working on BLACK 4, for Jan/Feb release, and then another Assassin book, then JET VII while I’m still in that vibe, and finishing up 2014 with JET VIII. A much more sane schedule than 2012 and 2013. Of course, I’ll also have some collaborations to fill my time with, so it won’t be lounging around on beaches cavorting with nubile natives. Or at least, not only that.
In December, I’m also going to do a couple of interviews with noteworthy authors. One will be with the legendary Lawrence Block, whose first self-pubbed tome The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons releases on Christmas day.
Happy holidays, everyone. Remember, nothing says I love you like a stocking filled with Russell Blake crap, so don’t cheap out. My crap’s also perfect for weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, baby showers, a first or latest tattoo, an offering to a prospective mate, or really anything where you’re thinking about exchanging your money for something – preferably, my crap. And for a limited time only, I’m offering 10% more crap with every bit of crap you buy. That’s right. Just go buy it, and you’ll see. Even more crap for your valuable crap dollar!
Until next time, be nice to each other. We pass through this life way too quickly. Try not to break anything on your way, okay?
Pseudonyms. Noms de Plume. Pen names. The recent Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling novel The Cuckoo’s Calling reignited the debate among authors about the merits of using one, with some sounding in vociferously for, and others against, the practice.
I’ve made my position clear numerous times. I’m for them.
My opinion is that if you’re going to write in different genres, you should use a pen name for reasons of clarity with your readers – different genre, different name. That avoids confusion, so when they see Bob Jones, they know he’s writing dystopian novels, and BE Jones, that he’s writing romance. You don’t want to have your Bob Jones readers, who want another adventure tale set in a troubling tomorrow, to wind up with “Love’s Tragic Fury.” They won’t buy your books anymore. Any of them.
Another scenario for using a pseudonym might be because you have a career that doesn’t go well with your literary one. Let’s say you’re a nun, and you write erotica. Or a politician who writes books on honesty and integrity. Some things just aren’t believable, so pen name, it is.
In the trad pub world, the practice is common if you’re prolific, because often, your publishing house can’t or won’t release books as fast as you produce them, and the only way to get the work out there is to have multiple names.
Sometimes the choice is driven by literary motives – to see if your work would sell if nobody knew you wrote it, as with J.K. Rowling putting out her novel as Robert Galbraith. Or Stephen King putting his out as Richard Bachman.
Authors have been using pseudonyms for as long as they’ve been writing. A common reason for doing so is a deceptively simple one: because you’re a private person, and you want to keep your literary life separate from your “real” life.
When I started my literary career, I chose a pen name. The reasons were twofold. I figured I’d be writing about some controversial topics, and I wanted the freedom to do so without having to worry about black helicopters hovering over my house in the middle of the night. And because I had a business in Mexico I was involved in, and I didn’t want to mix my writing life with my private life.
As my sales grew, another dynamic came into play, namely that in Mexico, as anyone who can read the news should know, if you’re successful or any sort of a celebrity, you’re a target for predators. Kidnappers being a big one. Robbers, another. My neighbor has two full-time armed bodyguards to drive his wife and kid around. He has a third he goes everywhere with. It’s one of the uglier truths of living here. While most of the citizenry are good, decent people, there are some real shitbags who prey on others, and they do so aggressively. So the last thing you would want is to be known as a celeb of any kind. Might as well just staple a target to your chest and say, “come and get me.” Hence, adopting the Russell Blake name for all things literary and keeping it separate from my “legal” name seemed prudent, and continues to be the right call.
It’s worked out well. I have a nice existence. Everyone leaves me the hell alone, and I can make an ass out of myself without worrying about sullying my literary reputation, such as it is.
I’ve toyed in the past with making the fact known, but figured, who would care? I mean, does anyone even remember what George Orwell or Stan Lee or Joseph Conrad’s real names were? Is my reading of 1984 somehow improved or diminished by the moniker on the cover? Believe me, if I thought I’d see more book sales out of it, I would tout the fact in a heartbeat, but it’s a yawn, so no point – although if I could get anyone to believe I use one because of my background as a CIA assassin, maybe it would be worth playing it up. And, hey, it’s always possible that I wrote Harry Potter, so you might want to go buy and my entire backlist, just in case you’re missing some rare gems…
But back to the central question – should you use a pen name, or not? I’d say it doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re consistent with the offerings under that name. Because that’s your brand, and you don’t want to surprise the reader with something out of left field. Again, you always want them to know what they’re getting. Always. The second they’re confused, they aren’t clicking the “buy” button.
As to how to select a name, the easiest is to pick something close to your own so you can remember it. Maybe your middle name as your last (that’s very common), or using just your initials and then a last name (every third book on Amazon is by JR Smith or something similar). But whatever you choose, try to make it memorable, and if possible, distinctive and appropriate to your genre. It can only help if you’re writing, say, thrillers, to be Samuel Stone rather than Florida Stafford, if you’re hoping to get a male audience looking for something that reeks of testosterone.
I’m on record for having multiple names for multiple genres. As an example, I’ll be doing a collaboration with a NY Times and USA Today Bestselling author next year in the contemporary romance genre, and I’ll be using RE Blake as my name for that work, because I don’t want my Russell Blake readership to get confused about what they’re getting. Nor do I want my RE Blake fans to be disappointed when they go to find more of my work and get a book chronicling the adventures of an ex-Mossad operative fighting for survival, rather than another girl-meets-boy-and-finds-love tale.
What’s the takeaway? If you think it’s a good idea to use a nom de plume, then do so without hesitation, but stay consistent. If you’re trying to differentiate genres, use multiple, and try to come up with names that represent to the reader what they’re going to get, if you can.
On to another subject that’s near and dear to my heart: Me. I will have some huge news, er, really soon. It was going to be by the end of November, but circumstances out of my control (code for hangovers) have interfered, and it will now be middle of December before I can break it. Believe me, it’s worth the wait. Or maybe not. But given that you have no choice in the matter, you’ll have to wait.
One thing I want to mention. Lawrence Block, an incredible talent and a legend in the business, is releasing his latest novel on Christmas day, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy. Let me just say this. The man can write. It’s an enormously articulate, viciously funny, poignant, whimsical, and erudite mystery entitled, “The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons,” and you could do far worse than picking up a copy. It’s also his first self-pubbed offering (yes, he’s come over to the dark side), and as such, deserving of our support. This marks another big name who has elected to self-publish rather than go the trad pub route, and is worthy of noting. Buy it and read it. For an author looking at how to write mystery, it’s like going to school.
That’s about all I have for now. BLACK Is The New Black is at the editor’s and should release, oh, I don’t know, mid-December, and I’m sending JET VI off to the editor tomorrow, so it should release around Xmas time, give or take a bit. In the meanwhile, BLACK and BLACK Is Back are selling well, and the rest of the catalog is moving nicely, so can’t complain. Although I do. Early and often. But that’s neither here nor there.
Now go buy my crap. I keep producing more of it, so you really have no excuse. It’s the holidays. Give a little.
I had a long discussion with a buddy yesterday about whether what we as authors do is art, or entertainment. It was timely, because later in the evening, I made a post to the KB boards in response to a top 10 list of “writer’s rules,” which forced me to think through what my most important rules are.
And I realized that number one was that whatever I write has to be entertaining.
Not whether or not words should be simple or complex, or sentences 7 word or six lines, or some arbitrary guideline about how much plot to back story or dialogue to description or active voice versus passive. Not whether one should use the shortest word possible or aspire to crafting literary castles in the air. Not debating adverbs or adjectives or any of the rest of it.
The first and only real rule of writing is that it must entertain, because entertaining is synonymous with engaging. If it’s not entertaining, it won’t get read. Perhaps that’s not true in non-fiction, but even there, I think one of the reasons authors like Malcolm Gladwell do respectably and others don’t is that they haven’t mastered the…for lack of a better word…art of entertaining, while teaching or preaching. So, for the purposes of this discussion, entertain = engage.
Then I had my discussion with my buddy. To whit, when we write, when we sit down to create, are we artists, or are we entertainers?
A fair question. I’m under no illusions that I’m an artist. I try to be artistic in my renderings of descriptions, of word choice and cadence and pacing – the lyricism and musicality of the language. But I’m not David Foster Wallace. He, in my opinion, was an artist. A guy like James Lee Burke is an artist.
But the reason I know their names is because they are also entertaining.
Artists tend to starve. I believe they generally starve because they’re so focused on their art, they forget the entertaining part. They rationalize that their art would be sacrificed in some manner if they made it entertaining – it would cheapen it, make it less…artistic.
Back to the question at hand. Put simply, entertainment can be art, and art can be entertainment. But all successful art is entertaining at some essential level, or we wouldn’t register it/be engaged by it. And by successful, for the purposes of this rant, I mean commercially successful, as in, art that people are willing to pay money for (preferably while the aahteest is still breathing).
I think that many authors forget the entertainment aspect of what they’re doing. God knows it’s easy to do. You spend so much time on craft, honing your chops, it can become myopic and suddenly you’re in a swamp of possible word choices, sentence structures, whether to eliminate most or all detail that’s not essential to the story, etc. etc.
So I’ve come up with this one piece of advice: Keep it entertaining. Whatever you do, make it entertaining, because if you want to get read, you need to entertain. If you want to make people think, best to do it in a way that carries them along on a ride they want to be on, or can’t bear to get off (sometimes you sort of don’t want to read on, but feel compelled to, even if your views are being challenged or you’re being pushed out of your comfort zone. That won’t happen if you aren’t being entertained while it happens).
Back to the question, though. Is what we do art, or entertainment?
I think the answer is, in its best form, it’s both. Effective art moves you, evokes emotion, transports you, can jar your senses and sensibilities. But it doesn’t get to do that if you aren’t entertained enough to bother with much of it.
Much entertainment isn’t art. Pulp fiction. Genre fiction. Bruckheimer films are not Fellini. Reality TV ain’t Masterpiece Theater.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that the stuff that tends to really sell well isn’t art at all. But it sure as hell is entertaining. So perhaps, from an author’s perspective, the question should really be, do I want to write stuff that will sell well? If so, my advice is to make it entertaining. Be as artistic as you like, but better keep the audience riveted, or you’re going to be sitting around in coffee houses in your black turtleneck, scowling at passers-by while stabbing to emphasize points with your pipe, wondering why you haven’t sold any of your masterpiece while all that complete crap gets consumed by the masses.
Nobody is forced to buy books. In fact, readership has never been lower during my lifetime. Part of the reason is that, in my opinion, much of what reading means to many is associated with tedium. Boring academic brain fry. It’s hard. And people are lazy. I know. I’m a person. And I’m definitely lazy.
Part of the reason that reading is associated with boredom is because it seems like the trad pub cognoscenti have long looked down their noses at fiction that’s really entertaining as being “too facile” and “fluff.” It’s an intellectual snobbery I understand well. I’m guilty of it. I think the more immersed you are in craft, the easier it is to lose sight of the importance of the entertainment aspect of the work.
When we publish (we, the self-pubbed author), no matter how noble our intent, like it or not, we are creating a product. It has a cover, it has a blurb, and most importantly, it has a price tag. In theory, we want to sell as much of that product as we can, unless we have no interest in the business of book selling, and we’re publishing to make a statement or whatever. Fine. But even then, even if you’re writing to a very narrow genre that’s got little commercial appeal, it’s a product.
Products in the entertainment business like music, film, TV, and books, do best if they’re entertaining. Not necessarily the best crafted. Not necessarily the most intellectually stimulating. The most entertaining.
Ergo, even if you fancy yourself to be an artist, if your art is boring, you’ve failed at your essential purpose, if you’ve put it up for sale (because now it’s a product) – which is to sell it.
Some might argue that if we modify our art to make it more entertaining, we’re selling out. No, we’re not. We’re making it better from a product standpoint, in my opinion.
I’m not sure what to add to this. I could make a long list of “rules” to write by, but for every one, I could find plentiful examples of where, if a particular author had followed that list, he would have failed. But I can’t think of one author who has been commercially successful who wasn’t entertaining his/her audience. There may be no rules, only guidelines with which to craft your story, but I think mine is pretty clear:
Keep it entertaining, or you suck.
There’s really nothing like getting finished with over twenty hours of travel, after a relaxing few weeks of vacation (shorthand for binge eating and drinking), to face a wall of emails, unfinished business, deadlines, cryptic commands from voices only you can hear, etc.
You would have thought I would have been able to come up with something more timely and poignant than this, “I’m back” missive, which is kind of weak and lame. I apologize for letting you down, as I have most of the loved ones in my life, and certainly any business associates or those expecting an honest day’s work out of me.
The only thing I could come up with other than this were snapshots of adorable kittens in a basket playing with baby chicks, but I figured I’d save the really cheesy for next year’s big romance roll-out. So the cats had to take a back seat to my half-baked literary meanderings. Your loss. All right, stop whining. There are some new cat snaps on the Pet Wall. Go look. You know you want to. Let’s not pretend. We’re all adults here. At least, that’s what my legal disclaimer fine print assumes.
During my absence, I’m delighted to report that the bundle I’m associated with is still selling like gangbusters, and the first JET novel was named one of the most popular stories on Wattpad. Which I suppose is a bit like having one of the most popular porn vids on a free download site. I mean, okay, so you liked it, but what are you doing to help me out – where’s the frenzy of buying implicit in that? Not that I’m not deeply touched that my words have resonated with so many of Wattpad’s users. I actually can’t wait for the deluge of purchases all those free reads will bring about. You Wattpad readers reading this? Anytime you want to start buying, it’s totally okay by me. Now would be good. As in, before you finish reading this blog.
I also had a 5 star review for JET pointed out to me by a good friend. It says something like, “this is the best book ever written, and it’s a shame the rest actually cost money”… implying of course that while it might be a masterpiece, the notion of paying even a few bucks for any book is laughable. Yes, it’s a shame that tequila and women of questionable virtue aren’t also free, as well as food, clothes, housing, ostrich cowboy boots with sterling silver tips…you know, all that most excellent stuff I certainly enjoy, but dislike paying for. I’ll be happy to start a petition or something if all we need is some stoked outrage so I get everything I want, especially if well-crafted, for free. Believe me, I completely understand that we should all receive the highest possible quality everything at zero cost (at least to us), and I’m 110% committed to dropping my prices to zero just as soon as I get the landlord and the credit card company off my back.
On the plus side, I know I’ve been promising to break some big, big news soon. As in November. And here we are, almost done with November, and what have I given you besides empty promises and threatening gestures that might be actionable in some states? Nada. For which I also apologize.
But I’ve been sworn to secrecy, and it may take another week or two to have everything lined up, so my commitments are, sadly, as empty as the Social Security trust fund and as dependable as a Chicago politician’s promise.
Does that make me a bad man? No, I say. Plenty of other things make me a bad man. The devil living in my heart. The way I eye the cutie down the street. How the last time you let me stay over, your iPhone and wallet were missing in the morning and I’d smoked all your cigarettes and had the last of your bourbon for breakfast before, er, borrowing your car. Plenty of things qualify for making me a bad man. This doesn’t even come close. Trust me on that.
The good news is I’m done with all the drafts of BLACK Is The New Black (which is either about my harrowing year in a women’s prison tricking dimwits into doing my bidding by buddying up to them, or about Artemus Black’s foray into the world of modeling) and the editor is now trying to force my participles to stop dangling and my colons to be less semi. I know, not a pretty mental image. It’s tough love, and requires protective clothing. As well it should.
I’m also on rewrite for JET VI, which I am doing my best to have ready for eager consumers by Xmas. The thought of the little ones’ eyes sparkling like little diamonds, when instead of a new bike or a puppy, they discover Mommy spent the money on Russell Blake’s newest screeds, drives me to continue working double shifts in the ink mines just to get all of you off my back. I can’t take the guilt. I’m a special snowflake. Leave me the hell alone.
I’m off on vacation, where I’ve sworn to stay away from computers, which I’ve facilitated by going to areas where there’s no internet. This will be a remarkable test for me, as I’ve pretty much been glued to a screen for the last 29 months.
Which brings me to an important milestone. I just finished my 27th novel. Looking back, that’s one every month or so. Which is an insane pace I plan to stop, beginning 2014. Mainly because my wrists and my back won’t tolerate it, not to mention my significant other, as I like to refer to my inflatable doll.
Be that as it may, since I’m being hounded relentlessly by my three fans, I’ll be releasing BLACK 3 in late November, and JET VI in December, probably around or just after Xmas.
So what will 2014 look like? Probably 4 releases. That’s it. I swear. Other than some collaborative efforts I’m really looking forward to. But those are more as time permits than rigidly scheduled. These people are wildly popular indie authors in their own right, and the stars need to align in order for everyone to have time to work on em. I can say you’re going to see a NA action romance, a dystopian novel, and a contemporary romance from some huge indie names along with yours truly, probably using the abbreviated name RE Blake for the romances so I don’t scare all the cat ladies away with my gruff demeanor and manly six pack abs. Which I so totally have. Chiseled. I’m considering modeling for romance covers next. But only at least partially nude ones.
So what will I be doing with all my spare time? Reading. A lot. I haven’t had nearly enough time to read, and I miss it. I have Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke and a host of others on my kindle for my vacation, and I forgot how much I love reading. But I’m getting reacquainted with having spare time, which is really what vacations are for – I mean, other than the problem drinking, gorging yourself on fatty foods, and questionable liaisons. Although this time I am not going to wake up after a three day binge on a freighter bound for Jakarta spooning a 300 pound Samoan cook named Peaches. I mean it. I’ve changed.
I’ll probably also be hitting the gym more regularly (note the committed sound of the ‘probably’, as though I might have to join a group of super heroes and fight crime or something that could take me away from that resolution). I have to say that the treadmill desk is now a permanent fixture in my worklife, and I’m averaging two to three hours a day, or expressed in miles, am walking 5-6 miles a day while I write, which is probably the only thing keeping my heart and lungs functioning, such as they are, these days.
What I will not be doing in 2014 is what I did this year, where I swore I would write only six books, and then found myself having penned, well, lets just say a few more. And this time I totally mean it. I intend to become a slacker – one of those effete writers who’s annoyingly lounging around the pool for an hour considering the weight of a sentence, or swearing that I’m working even as I watch comedy on YouTube, or penning polemics about the looming dollar crash and reset of the global economy that’s going to wipe out 80% of the world’s middle class and result in widespread social unrest in virtually every country on the planet.
But until November 20th, when I return, I will be sipping elixir out of coconuts or whatever the hell they drink around here, and doing little but staring at my navel, which sounds pretty good right about now.
Be nice to each other in my absence. Our time on this watery sphere is all too short, and this time is never different, and the only things that really matter are happiness and relationships. And tequila. Of course. Now go buy my crap so I don’t have to worry about how to pay for that next steak.