As a continuation of my rant from the other day, about my acquaintance who never got around to writing the book he’s got an idea for, I thought I’d discuss my take on the value of ideas.
Simply put, ideas don’t have a hell of a lot of value – they’re a dime a dozen.
What do I mean?
There’s an old saying in the venture capital world: ideas are worth, at most, 10% of the deal.
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In the business of writing, it’s probably even less. I can sit around with some drunk friends for an evening and come up with a plausible thriller. That’s the idea part. “The Federal Reserve can’t give back any of the gold it’s holding for foreign governments because it hypothecated it and sold it off over the last 40 years to keep the price depressed. One man learns the truth when he gets top secret internal Fed paperwork documenting the sales. And now the Fed’s owners will do anything to keep the secret.”
There’s the premise. Man on the run. A secret. A conspiracy (that’s actually probably 99% factual, as the NY Fed – a private bank, incidentally, contrary to what many people think – hasn’t been able to give Germany back its gold, and told it that it would take 7 years to give it back a fraction of what it’s “holding;” after refusing to allow Germany to see its own gold that the Fed says is “safe” in its vault, with a, “trust us, we’re the Fed!” Germany said, mmm, not so much, and demanded a portion of it back, you know, just for giggles. After stalling and posturing, the Fed delivered only half of what it committed to last year, and the bars it sent weren’t Germany’s – they were newly minted bars, absent the German government stamp). A cabal that will do anything to remain in power.
There. I just gave everyone a great, fact-based conspiracy to run with. Took me one minute. In a day or two I could flesh out a passable outline. You might be able to, too.
Now turn it into a page-turner. Oh. Not so easy. 100 people could write that story, and maybe one would be really good, a dozen would be competent but plodding, and the rest would vary from yawn to blech.
I’ve found that ideas are a very small part of being a successful writer. I’ve got enough of them to last me the next 100 years. Every time I read the news there are 20 ideas that occur to me. Malaysia Air crash? Sure – who or what was on board that made “them” need to take it down at all costs? Ukraine? Bam – the CIA has operatives posing as insurgents to destabilize the area as retribution for Russia blocking the US on Syria and Iran. 9-11? Don’t even get me started – not only are a slug of the supposed hijackers alive and well and working as pilots in Saudi Arabia to this day, but dust residue from an apartment across the way from the towers was tested and had significant levels of sulfur, the primary bi-product of thermite…as well as another ingredient that’s exclusively used in U.S. military thermite, for which there is zero explanation, and which is ignored by the media. Or perhaps less recent – America goes to war over the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which history now shows never happened (when it was reported, there were many claiming it didn’t, but the US press ignored the issue, toeing the party line). But at the time it was a CIA false flag attack to get the country into the conflict so that the small corporation whose largest shareholder was the President’s wife could become a centi-billion dollar conglomerate supplying infrastructure during the endless war effort (Halliburton). Or want to go back further? Try the Spanish American war, where the US claimed it was fired upon in Havana Harbor, which later turned out to be a boiler exploding on the ship. Corporate interests wanted the war, so they contrived an event to lead the country into it.
History gives us more good ideas than we can use in ten lifetimes. We just have to be able to read.
These are all good conspiracies based on fact. Go ahead and write em. Let’s see how you do.
That’s what people don’t get. Concept is good, but it’s execution that’s everything. You want concept? I’ll give you concept from the bestseller lists: Wool: Chick in a dystopian world bucks status quo to discover a better world. Da Vinci Code/Foucault’s Pedulum/The Voynich Cypher: Hero must solve puzzle to discover the dark secret powerful forces will do anything to keep hidden. Hunger Games/Harry Potter/The Matrix/Star Wars/The Hobbit/Dante’s Inferno/Jason and the Golden Fleece/Great Expectations/The Three Musketeers/Lord of the Rings/90% of adventure fiction: Hero who doesn’t realize his special qualities must overcome obstacles and ultimately his/her own fear to transform into new, more powerful/enlightened hero, seeing his former ordinary world in a new light.
You can come up with these ideas pretty easily. I could probably generate a widget to create them at the press of a button by combining various archetypes and tropes.
Making them into a book someone wants to read’s a little harder. And that’s where the art and magic lie. The telling of the tale, the particular perspective of the author that’s unique to his or her little noggin, the phrasing, cadence and word choice of that writer, vs. that of any other.
So the next time someone approaches you, upon discovering that you’re an author, and tells you what a great book idea they have, tell them what I do: “Super. I’ve got a million of ’em. My problem is there aren’t enough hours in the day to write ’em all!”
At least you’ll be telling the truth.
And now, given that I’ve been conspicuously remiss in self-promotion recently, here’s my gratuitous pitch for you cheapskates who can’t pay a lousy five bucks for some quality entertainment: Zero Sum, my Wall St conspiracy thriller, is on sale for .99 today on a countdown sale. Go buy it. Just do it. It’s like 140K or so words, some of them decent. Don’t be a miser. You can’t take it with you, and if you want to read the third novel I ever published, now you can do it for pennies.
Beyond that, I hope to finish first draft of Requiem for the Assassin by Thursday. It’s a good one, I think, and it’s going in unusual directions, which is always fun. Unless I can’t figure out what it all means. Then, maybe not so fun. Guess we’ll soon know for sure…
I was talking to an acquaintance today who I haven’t seen for years. He asked what I’ve been up to. I told him, with whatever sincerity I could muster, “I’m an author.”
His reaction was interesting. First, you could see his eyes widen and a look cross his face like, ah, you slick bastard, if anyone could figure out how to make money for nothing, it would be you. Because everyone knows that authors basically sit around and stare at things like the slow kid in elementary school in between bouts of binge drinking, and occasionally, and I do mean as infrequently as the media reports anything resembling the truth, write something.
Which may not be far from the mark, but still. Ouch, you know?
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So anyway, he then said what I’ve heard so many times that it’s all I can do not to drive my stiffened fingers through the speaker’s thorax.
“Oh, that’s great. I’ve been thinking about writing a book, too. I just never have the time.”
My response? “Yeah, I can see how that would be tempting for an attorney like yourself. I totally understand the feeling. I’ve been thinking of arguing a case before the Supreme Court, but just never find the time.”
Or if it’s a doctor, “I know what you mean. I’ve been thinking about performing open heart surgery, you know, to get it off my bucket list, but life keeps getting in the way.”
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of folks who are uploading their ill-crafted screeds onto Amazon and pressing “publish,” so the stereotype that basically any idiot can be an author isn’t that much of a stretch. I suppose what bugs me is to be lumped in with the person who spent all of minutes learning their craft, wrote their little ditty with about as much care and attention as I devote to wolfing down a pop tart, and published it.
People don’t seem to get that it’s easy to be a contestant in an open-call talent show. But it’s fairly infrequent to make it to the finals. One does not equate to the other. And being an author that makes a living is akin to being in an open talent show with a million entrants, and only a few thousand finalists, if that.
Perhaps the biggest irritant is the perception that being a writer sort of something you do when you’re bored working your greeter job at Walmart. Perhaps being a bad or marginal writer is, but being a good one is an elusive goal. I’d argue it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve never shied away from challenges. But being a self-published author tops the list, more difficult than it was learning architecture and going on to design dozens of large custom homes, or operating a construction company that specialized in the absolutely highest end for the most demanding people on Earth, or running a successful international import/export firm in dozens of jurisdictions, or making wine with one of the biggest wineries in Argentina…I could go on, but the point is that I’ve done a few tough things which required a fair amount of effort and mental dexterity, and writing makes them all look like child’s play.
The unfair part, is, of course, that being a good, or even great, writer, doesn’t mean squat. I mean, I’m guessing, not because I am one. But play along – the point is that you can be really, really good, and it’s still no assurance that you’ll make any money at this, much less have a career. If you go the trad route, especially now, if your work doesn’t fit in a tidy pigeonhole that represents exactly what a committee of acquisitions editors determines is the most commercially viable (meaning easiest to sell, in their opinion, forgetting for a moment that 90% or so of everything they sign fails to sell much), safest choice, you won’t get a deal.
The point is that if you pursue the trad route, the odds are overwhelmingly that you won’t ever get offered anything, and if you do, that it will be such a shit deal that only a moron would sign it. That’s not such great news for those who devote the ten thousand hours to mastering their craft.
If you go the indie route, the odds of making some money are better, but still stink. The good news is that while your odds of being an outlier who earns tens of millions a year as an indie are almost nil, your odds of being one of the emerging middle class that earns a good to great living are far better than going trad. But they’re still crap. I mean, imagine being handed a revolver with a chamber that held ten thousand rounds, only one of which wasn’t loaded, and volunteering to hold it to your head and pull the trigger, versus being handed one with the significantly better odds of only a thousand rounds chambered and one empty.
Still not great odds.
I counsel authors to write because you love it – to do so for any other reason is delusional given the actual odds of making more than beer money. But that’s different than saying that writing well is easy, or that anyone can do it, hence the poor odds. It’s more like because there are so few slots and it’s such a mercurial business that you can have a thousand wildly gifted authors, and only a few will catch. It’s still extremely hard work to be any of those thousand. I know to laymen it often doesn’t seem that way, but it is.
So if you’re someone who has always thought about writing a book but never found the time, perhaps you’re lucky. Because it’s only once you try something that you appreciate how difficult it is to make it look easy. I think that’s what many miss. They see a gymnast or a dancer executing impossibly hard routines and making it look effortless, and mistake that because, when done well, IT’S SUPPOSED TO SEEM EFFORTLESS TO THE AUDIENCE, it must be effortless to execute, too.
Not so much.
End of rant. I spent my day uploading crap to Wattpad and doing cover stuff and writing this blog, and now the day’s gone and I have to find 5K words somewhere in my head. That will keep me working till midnight. Again. Like I did yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.
It really ain’t as easy as it looks. Like most passions, do it because you enjoy it, not because you expect a reward other than the work itself.
Sucks, but there it is.
Thank God for tequila.
So you’ve decided to self-publish a book, and you’ve read countless blogs and perhaps a few helpful tomes, likely by people who sell fewer copies in a year than I do per month. You’ve got a cover, which hopefully doesn’t look like some sort of clip-art/stock photo kluge you did with Gimp in your spare time, your tome has been proofread by someone other than a few disinterested, questionably literate acquaintances, you’ve done at least three or four drafts, making it as good as it could ever be (as opposed to as good as you can make it for free in your spare time, because life got in the way or looking after your dozen cats or two kids or whatever was more of a priority than ensuring the product you expect people to pay for was competently executed).
You’ve seen all the stuff about social media, you now refer to yourself as John Doe, Author, and you’re wondering what you can do to alert the world that your novel about a misunderstood student coming of age while struggling with her hormones and the challenges of preparing for a life crocheting sweaters from cat fur while being wooed by hot billionaires, is available.
Here are a few tips: 1) Following several thousand other budding authors on Twitter is about like going to a convention for used car salesmen and trying to sell your junker. You’re pitching to the wrong crowd, assuming you’re pitching anything. Which brings me to my next point: 2) Twitter is largely useless anymore.
Why? If it’s so useless, why do so many books and blogs recommend you use it to “raise awareness” or “broadcast your message?”
Because they’re hopelessly clueless and passing off two to three year old wisdom as current. And it’s appealing to you because you hope to make money investing little or nothing, and Twitter’s free.
Here’s reality. Nobody reads their tweets anymore, or at least damn few do. Why? Because everyone’s got something like Hootsuite software (also free), which enables you to filter the never-ending streams of gibberish from Twitter, and only see things you’re mentioned in or you’ve flagged as interesting. So basically, being self-absorbed and wanting to eliminate the equivalent of junk mail from their streams, everyone filters so they only see stuff with their ID in it, or from specific users whom they’ve decided matter, which ain’t you.
So if you’re putting out tweets trying to hawk your book, a la “Another 5 star: Cat Hair Crocheting called a Riveting Reed!” nobody’s seeing it. Anyone who is will probably ignore you, because you’re doing the equivalent of Twitter telemarketing, but that will be very few, because just as most are automatically programming their tweets so they don’t have to actually interact with people, they’re also filtering them so they don’t have to read your crap. So not only are you wasting your time, whether programming your tweets or not, but you’re also assuming that everyone else doesn’t use Twitter as you do, filtering the overwhelming, unreadable tide of tweets down to only a few interesting tweeters, who aren’t those pushing their books.
Some might say, hey, can’t hurt, but they’re wrong, so ignore them. Of course it hurts to waste your time doing something counterproductive so you lull yourself into feeling like your meaningless action is somehow going to sell books for you. Your most precious commodity is your time. You have a finite amount of it, and being a spam broadcasting station hurts you in the minds of anyone who sees it, unless they’re the kind of person who would pay for a DVD of infomercials. There aren’t many, so stop it.
Now I know I’ll get some comments from people who sell miniscule numbers of books, saying, “But when I don’t spam the crap out of my twitter feed, I don’t sell any!” OK, so you want to master how to sell two books a day, be my guest, follow several thousand people, mostly authors, nearly zero of whom give a shit whether you drown in your own bile or not, and spam them early and often. Let me know when you sell your first million.
Twitter is only good, as far as I can tell these days, for interacting with people who already think you’re interesting for some reason – and hint, putting “Author” next to your name ain’t the reason, unless they also follow several hundred thousand other hopefuls who have the same thing next to their name. (In case you aren’t reading between the lines, that one bugs the crap out of me – it was advised by Locke in his tome where he left out that he bought several gazillion reviews to game the algos back when reviews played into them, and was pure hucksterism, sort of like advising authors to sit in a quiet room for a half hour each day and visualize being Anne Rice or Stephen King – the problem is, of course, that it does exactly nothing, and doesn’t in any way, shape, or form, work, other than to identify to those with a clue that you don’t have one. Of course it’s been widely adopted by a certain type of budding author, exactly NONE of whom have gone on to sell anything of note, because, you guessed it, it gives the illusion of achievement without having actually achieved anything. Sort of like declaring oneself to be John Doe, Human or John Doe, Upright Biped, or even better, John Doe, Psychic or Wizard. Meaningless, and discarded as such by most. Only nobody will tell those doing it that they’re identifying themselves as clueless twats. So I will. There. I said it. Stop it, and start doing things that actually do or mean something.)
Anyway, if your plan is basically to use Twitter to raise awareness of your books, you’re about three years too late.
Facebook is a little better, but again, only a little, because in order for it to work for you, people have to come to you and read your timeline, which implies you’ve given them a reason to, which I guarantee isn’t post after post about your book, your writing, your latest review, your book signing, your thoughts on writing, your cover, your latest price promotion, etc. etc. Again, if it feels like hucksterism and spam, it probably is. Do you go to Facebook pages that are unending streams of ads for whoever’s page it is? Neither do I. So why would you assume anyone would go to yours if that’s what you offer? Because you’ve been told it’s a good way to get your “message” out there in one of those books or blogs, I’ll bet.
Here’s what I’m trying to impart: Think critically. Don’t be an asshat. Don’t waste your time with stuff that doesn’t produce verifiable results. Spamming doesn’t work other than to get your name quickly added to the list of douchebags everyone ignores.
I’m not going to try to list the things that I think are effective, because I already have in many other blogs. They are, simply, blogging and interacting on message boards about things you are passionate about and which really matter to you (that’s not the same as trying to figure out how to glom onto some topical item or celebrity and insert your thoughts into the discourse along with a pitch for your book – another piece of advice that immediately announces you as clueless and desperate to anyone reading), engaging with people via social media (not trying to reach readers via social media, engaging with people, some of whom are probably readers, many of whom are not, none of which should matter to you) like Facebook, and generally being interesting and worth interacting with.
The problem is that it’s hard to write a book that says, “Writing well takes years of hard, dedicated effort, and marketing your presumably competent writing only once it’s actually good takes thousands of hours of extremely hard work and application and money.” Because nobody wants to buy that book. Nobody wants to buy, “Cook like a Michelin chef after spending only a decade working to become one!”
How To books sell when they promise a magic shortcut, a way to cut to the head of the line, presumably without paying the dues or doing the work. Or worse, they promise something they can’t deliver, in which case they are simply snake oil, lies, and manipulations to separate you from your money. Be skeptical of all of these, because in case you haven’t noticed, exactly none of the big selling indie authors who have broken out in the last 3 years did so because they put “Author” after their name, or fired off an endless stream of spam at prospective readers, treating them as dolts. They all respect their readers, do their very best to produce work that resonates with them, in many cases put out a LOT of books before they hit (I think Hugh had 7 out before Wool gained traction, and I know HM Ward had at least a dozen out, Melissa had 5 or 6, Elle had 10 or so, I had 10 or 11, etc. etc. etc.), and kept at it, trying new things, changing gears when necessary, and never wasting their time with idiocy that had no impact on their craft or their sales.
If I sound like Mr. Grumpy, I’m really not. I’m just fed up with people being encouraged to slam their heads into brick walls, or engage in pseudo-scientific BS that doesn’t work. And that’s what the books largely encourage – spending lots of time on things that will create negligible results, but will keep you from practicing your craft. Worse yet, there’s a certain type of book out that not so subtly encourages authors to become carny barkers, treating prospective readers as rubes to be conned or duped. Nobody else will tell you how bad an idea it is, and how damaging it is to your career as well as your self-image, so I will. Don’t buy into it. If it feels like you’re doing something irritating or desperate, it’s because you are, and all anyone will ever remember is you covered with a glistening sheen of flop sweat as you perform an epic fail. Don’t be that person. Reject it, and behave responsibly. Develop a following by writing things they want to read. Doing so on your blog is a good way to start. If you’re a decent writer, prove it. Go write. If you have to give away samples of your work and you believe that will get folks to follow you to your paid content, then do that. Do things you can identify as productive and effective, and have zero patience for silliness that doesn’t work.
I know nobody really wants to hear that.
Now on to other fare. I just sold JET in Germany, so it will be translated into German shortly, which I’m quite excited about, given that King of Swords was translated into German by Amazon Crossing and is selling well, and Voynich just sold to Bulgaria. And it’s only about 90 days until my co-authored novel with Clive Cussler is live, which is also pretty damned cool. I’m almost done with Requiem for the Assassin (targeting June 4th for first draft completion), and JET VII will release next month, and has already gotten a massive number of pre-orders. So all in all, can’t complain.
That’s it for me. Hope you have a productive or relaxing week. I’ll be writing away.
You know, as surprising as this may seem, I have my pet peeves.
Yes, even a figure of Gandhian tolerance and understanding like myself, a shining example to children and recidivists alike, sometimes gets annoyed with stupid shit.
This time, it’s with asinine author marketing.
NEWS: A new interview with Tim Knox at Interviewing Authors. Worth a listen.
What do I mean? Well, I actually bothered to look at a bunch of my spam folder emails, and there are countless Goodreads book launches, .99 sales, and free book announcements. When I go to those authors’ Facebook pages, every post is a pitch for their books. Ditto their tweets.
Does anyone really believe that plastering the equivalent of “buy my book” all over the internet does anything but make you look like a desperate douche? I mean, really? Is it not obvious that 99.999% of the planet is resistant to hucksters trying to sell them crap, and thus if your communication stream is an unending series of advertisements for your book, you look not only clueless, but like the type of self-involved twat who tries to convert every statement or discussion into a pitch for their shitty screed? In other words, like exactly the type most want to avoid at all costs?
Guess what. Trad pub releases something like 300K books a year. Indies easily release double that. Which makes the fact that you wrote a book about as rare as people who have bought a cup of Starbucks coffee at some point in their lives. Contrary to what you might think, the fact that you were able to tap out a few thoughts, slap your slow cousin’s drawing from the refrigerator on it and figure out how to upload it to Amazon, does not make you interesting, and nobody’s going to buy your book if all you can manage for creativity is “5 Stars! Beaver Team Bravo a critic’s fave!” or “Now only .99 – Billionaire Werewolf Bondage!!!” as your communication strategy.
I believe that the only way social media works is if you interact with people. I was asked during an interview today what my social media mix is, and I said about 95% interaction, 5% alerting folks to sales or new releases. Why? Because I don’t believe anyone buys books because some blowhard tweeted in his stream about his own work (if others genuinely like a book and are recommending it, that’s different), or because they saw it on someone’s author blog, or because there’s a Facebook page dedicated to aphorisms about the author’s books, written by, you guessed it, the author. I especially hate the silliness wherein authors tweet a sentence from their own book with the wonder reserved for new parents posting photos of their ugly brat. Get. Over. It. Nobody cares.
Being a self-published author is about as rare as liars in Congress. Every third person has now published their memoir, or the WIP they had in a drawer for 15 years, or a collection of their thoughts on aging, or parenting, or breathing. There is ZERO barrier to being an author. If you can fall against the keyboard and claw out a few lines of sub-custodial drivel, presto, you’re an author. So it’s not fascinating to anyone but you. Honest. It takes more.
If you want to sell books using social media, here’s my suggestion: develop an interesting personality, blog, tweet and Facebook about things that genuinely interest you (that don’t involve you trying to sell someone your stupid book), and maybe, just maybe, if you demonstrate that you can write, are relevant, and have interesting things to say, some folks might think, “hey, maybe I should check out one of his/her books – they might not completely suck, like most of the rest of the dross clogging the drain these days!”
BTW, being as my interests run to writing, publishing, animals, and boozing, that’s what I blog and Facebook about. Actually, I don’t write about boozing, because it’s kind of like telling your mates about your night with a hot chick you met in a bar – they don’t care, and it’s really only interesting to you. So that leaves pets, publishing, and writing.
I’m pretty sure that few or no books have been sold as a result of my blogging. Mostly I’ve pissed off authors who want to believe that if you only slap a big sticker that says clueless sycophant on your forehead and follow some completely bogus three year old How To book’s misleading guidance, you’ll sell a bunch. No you won’t. I know exactly ZERO authors who have sold even reasonably well following the best known example of the How To ilk’s spurious advice. I said three years ago when I started, that if anyone could point to authors who have hit by writing heartfelt blogs about celebrities or declaring themselves to be, Joe Blow, Author, or any of the rest of the stupidity being advocated like penny stocks in a boiler room, I’d eat my bandana. So far, bandana’s intact.
If you’re an author, here’s your newsflash: everyone is lying to you so you’ll spend money on their course, book or whatnot. Exactly none of the How To books or guides I’ve seen will help you sell books. At best they encourage some harmless practices that amount to positive thinking mantras or advice that’s about as useful as, “pray.” At worst they fill your day with tripe, with meaningless activity and silliness, to make you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. They are as false a god as if I scraped together a bundle of sticks and mud, formed a cow head out of it, and declared it to be Basamor, the creator of the known universe. They demean you because they assume you’re an idiot, and their authors should be hunted down and driven from the land on a rail. There should be a zero tolerance in the community for people who mislead in order to separate you from your money, especially peddling silliness that’s as realistic as a guide to unicorn hunting or a list of honest bankers and politicians.
I’ve told you everything I know about publishing, for free. I haven’t told you to manipulate people or view them as rubes or marks, I haven’t advised you to treat your potential readership as cretins, or any of the other mumpsimus that passes for wisdom. I’ve counseled you to improve your craft, spend much of your time writing or reading decent books, to write out of love rather than because you think you’ll make a dime at it, to package and polish your work professionally, to publish regularly, to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about your abilities and the quality of your work, and to hold your audience in the highest possible regard (unless you’re targeting idiots, in which case, never mind that last bit). I recognize that’s a kind of blasphemy to those who are looking for the yellow brick road to publishing success, but it’s the truth. Anything else is obliquity. Silliness. And a complete waste of your time.
I was also asked about my writing and rewrite process, so I’ll share my rewrite approach in a few words, because it should be yours, too: Assume everything you wrote is complete garbage, be extremely suspicious of every word, every sentence, every thought, simile, trope, observation, idea, and make it your mission to fix it. If it seems okay to you it’s because you’re either lazy, ignorant, or delusional. No it isn’t. Do the work, make it good, and if you think it is, learn more, come back, and you’ll see it ain’t by a long shot.
That’s my rewrite process in a nutshell. It’s not forgiving, but it does cut down on the output of complete crap (my work notwithstanding – do as I say, and all). It isn’t designed to make you feel good about yourself, or self-actualized, or talented or special. It’s designed to ensure you create readable prose your audience might actually like, and which might have a chance.
No charge. Although I’m pretty sure if I put this into a How To book nobody would want to buy it, so it’s worth what you paid for it.
There. I got that off my chest. Mr. Buzz Kill hard at work. Now back to the WIP, which is what you should be doing, too, instead of wasting your time with stupid blogs.
Jason Gurley worked his magic on King of Swords, and the result is pretty damn cool, if I say so myself. Again, as with the JET covers, I’m looking for a brand look that differentiates the series from the other series (JET, BLACK), puts a common look and feel in place with an image of a person on it, is eye catching even as a thumbnail (which is how 99% of folks will first see it), and conveys a host of information: genre, title, USA Today blurb, etc.
I think he did a great job.
Next week he’ll be working on the rest of the series. Now, this is the fourth go round for me on the Assassin novels. As a little trip down memory lane, here are the covers, with Jason’s the last one.
Cover 1, the original. This wasn’t bad, but in retrospect, I asked for too much and made a tactical error using the image from the tarot card from which the book draws its name as the primary image. I’m sure a lot of readers were, “WTF is that?” Anyhow:
So then we move to different thinking. Some common elements, namely the sniper scope, to indicate that this is an assassination thriller, but more jarring use of color, and losing the tarot card image in favor of a classing man in the crosshairs theme:
That remained the cover for about 10 months, and then I contracted another very talented designer to do something completely different – a grunge look that was edgy and contemporary and fresh. I really like this cover, and it’s remained the cover of choice for a year or so:
So why change? Well, I like to tinker with the cover until I believe it’s right, right meaning conveys all the elements effectively in a satisfying manner. Here’s Jason’s take on it:
Now, while only time will tell on any impact on sales the cover might have, my personal take is that this has that “trad pub” finished cover look, is just different enough from other books in the genre to be eye catching, and gets a lot of info across – we have an assassin, we have the cover telling the reader that the book is part of the Assassin series, we have the USA Today info, and the title is put across in a slightly different, but polished, manner. We’re still fine tuning a couple of the elements, but I think we’re as close as you can get without buying each other jewelry.
The other departure is that this is the third set of covers where I hired a model, to ensure I have the same look across all the covers. I’m liking that approach.
That’s my thought for the week. I’m now well into Requiem for the Assassin (unless I can think up a cooler title, or you can), which should release in August/Sept, and so far it moves along nicely. Other than that, can’t complain. BLACK is doing nicely after a month of strong sales linked to promotions, I’ve got all sorts of exciting things going on behind the scenes with Hollywood types, and my attitude is as bad as ever.
Now go buy some of my crap. Papa needs a new pair of shoes or whatever.
I get a lot of emails from authors who are just starting out, or who are on the road but frustrated at the level of success they’ve seen thus far. I wish I had more time to correspond with everyone, but the truth is I’m usually slammed with writing/publishing related tasks, and don’t have a lot of opportunity to do more than offer a brief sentence or two.
But the last few missives I received got me thinking about what I wish someone had explained to me before I started self-publishing in June, 2011. So here’s my top 10 list, such as it is:
1) There are lots of talented writers out there. Lots. And it seems like everyone’s now got a book, or books, on Amazon. Being good isn’t enough to guarantee you anything but satisfaction for a job well done. It should, but it doesn’t. Don’t take it personally.
2) There are lots of crap writers out there. Lots. And while many sink to the bottom of the swamp with nary a whimper, some sell well, and some even become bestsellers. This is because the world’s unfair and, depending upon the genre, oftentimes readers don’t care much whether they suck or not, as long as the story entertains or reaffirms some conviction or bias the readers have. These authors succeed in spite of their abilities, rather than because of them. Don’t take it personally.
3) The internet is filled with gurus who know nothing. It’s hard to turn around without bumping into a writing or self-publishing expert. Most of them are completely full of shit, and don’t sell many books – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to get you to part with your money to hear them tell you what you need to do to sell well. Whenever you hear advice, consider the source. If it’s a million selling author, that means more than from someone whose work ranks slightly lower on Amazon than the collected love poems of Adolf Hitler in original German. Seems like everybody but me is selling seminars, courses, or how to books that promise much and deliver nothing. Must be a good business there, but I prefer labeling my fiction as such and putting in a car chase or gunfight rather than trying to trick the dim or desperate out of a few bucks.
4) You need to be able to put out books at a decent clip. Sure, you might hit huge off one, but probably not. You’ll be building your readership the hard way, which means one reader at a time, and the more quality books you have on your virtual bookshelf the more likely one will catch someone’s eye. This doesn’t appeal to a lot of authors’ wish that they could write a book every year or two and have a nice living. Sorry. I have yet to see that happen. But it’s a seductive siren song, so lots of newbies listen to it like it’s still a viable way to go. In self-publishing, not so much.
5) Most authors will mistake causality for coincidence. And most will use the inverse of this to rationalize to themselves why their approach, even though it hasn’t yielded fruit, is still viable. Drives me crazy. I’ve interviewed dozens of successful authors (not successful defined as “if I feel like a success, I am one!”, but rather successful as in having multi-year careers earning six or seven figures self-publishing) and they all have one thing in common: they all work their asses off with single-minded determination. And while they have that in common, they don’t follow anyone else’s path – they blaze their own, paying attention to whether what they’re doing is getting them the results they want, and if not, they change on a dime. They don’t take philosophical stances or make ideological points with their careers. They’re pragmatic, business minded, and are some of the most aggressively competent folks I’ve met. And they didn’t get that way buying someone’s course or book or tuning in on their blog. They researched, figured out for themselves what works or doesn’t (and they change when tactics stop working), and are hard at it early and often. In other works, they augment their literary flourishes with very determined marketing and promotion efforts, and don’t view some things as beneath them or unimportant compared to writing. They do everything, and most of them do everything well.
6) Screw moral support. You don’t need a village to raise an author, and there shouldn’t be any requirement for hugs to make you feel good. This is a very hard business to succeed at, and you need to lose the need for affirmation and community. It will do you no good but connect you with thousands of other authors who aren’t selling anything, either. If you want to feel good, write something really meritorious and put it out there, and then do it again and again until someone notices how good your work is. I’m not saying you should shun the company of your fellow scribes, rather, I’m saying that being the most popular person in the soup line is still a lousy place to be. So aspire to greatness, and do whatever it takes to get there. Every hour you spend on Facebook or Twitter or some forum mewling to other kindred spirits about how your sensitive inner self sometimes gets so confused is an hour of your life wasted that you could have put to good use improving your craft. I’m not saying don’t participate in social groups. I’m saying it shouldn’t matter to you, and you shouldn’t need constant stroking. If you do, fine, join a support group, but don’t mistake being an author for going to meetings.
7) Time is not infinite, and it goes by quickly. Don’t waste it. Don’t write crap, don’t put out stories that are forgettable or that you wouldn’t read if you weren’t the author, and don’t take your audience for fools. Their time is valuable. More than yours. They are paying for your work – you aren’t paying them. That makes them the customer, and you should hold your customer in high regard because without them, you’re nothing. So don’t waste their time with sub-par dross, and don’t waste your own on work that isn’t your very best. You have no idea or guarantee how many breaths you will take between when you read these words and when you keel over. Don’t act like you have forever. You absolutely, positively do not, and the great lie, the most destructive conceit, is that there’s still plenty of road left. No, there isn’t. There might be, but there also might not be, and nobody knows for sure. So don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, and prioritize your shit so you’re doing things that matter, like you’re only going to be around for a few more hours or days. If you’re wrong, nice surprise. If you’re right you won’t have frittered away what you had left playing some idiotic game or staring at the tube or exchanging vapid pleasantries online. Treat your time as precious and use it wisely.
8) Being a successful author is not a game or a scam or some lucky break. It is a job, just like any other (if you’re lucky) and it requires lots of application and concerted effort, or you’re fired. You are the CEO of YouCo, Inc. and as such have to stay ahead of all curves, drive yourself to consistently outperform, and master new and uncomfortable skills. That’s the gig. If you don’t want to do it, start querying agents in the hopes one of them decides you’re the next Hemingway and he/she is going to make you a massive star. Be sure to let me know how that goes.
9) The quality of your writing, in your ability to turn a phrase, to spin a yarn, is massively important. It can seem as though it isn’t, especially if you listen to all the morons out there advising you to spend N hours on blog tours or giveaways or X hours on social media or Y assembling street teams or Z pricing your work as though you were Ludlum and chasing down distribution so you can compete for physical shelf space with the 300K trad pubbed books that will release this year. But while anything can happen, usually your ability to make a real go of this will come down to how good your storytelling is and how relevant you can make yourself to your readership. All the rest of this nonsense is like cheap icing on a birthday cake. Your job as author is to ensure that you can make a cake like nobody’s business, and once your target customers taste it, they recognize its superiority and come back for more. The notion that you can just fart out cakes that are half-baked is as destructive as any corrosive ideology I’ve seen. Some authors can put out a consistent stream of high-quality work on an aggressive schedule, but they are in the slim minority. Most who do so have to work very hard to keep their quality high, and it’s mind-numbing, demanding work. I’ve had a number of articles and interviews devoted to my publication speed, but guess what? That’s not the story. The story is not being able to release 10 books a year. The story is being able to release 10 books your readership thinks are good and thus sell well. Don’t confuse yourself, and don’t settle for good enough. There’s no such thing as good enough. There’s as good as you can possibly do, and nothing less.
10) Pick a genre that’s large enough to support you. Understand the genre well before you try to write for it. Don’t chase fads. See my point #7 again. Don’t waste your time. Write every book as though that’s the one that’s going to be the breakout. Because neither you, nor anyone else, knows whether or not it is. But if you didn’t put your all into it, it probably won’t be. And there’s a small universe of potential readers for your work when you’re starting out, and they are leery of trusting you. They have good reason to be skeptical. They’ve been burned too many times by sub-par work and sophomoric craftsmanship. So they’re looking for reasons to hand you your head and dismiss your work as garbage. Don’t give them the ammo with which to do so. Know your genre cold, make damned sure you’ve read hundreds of books in your genre, and ensure that your audience, should your work be well received, is large enough to keep you in pens and paper.
A caveat: don’t genre jump. You’re not an exception. Sure, you feel like you are, because you’re so special and different, but the only ones who are going to agree with you are other authors who also aren’t selling anything, and maybe your mom. Pick a genre that’s a decent size, write appropriately to it, spend time letting your potential readers know your work’s available, and develop a system that you can live with. I counsel spending 25% of your time on marketing/promotions/production work, and 75% on writing. I’ve found that a good mix. You may feel differently. That’s fine. Figure out what works, and I do mean really think about it hard – as though your life depended on it – then work your system, and pay attention to whether or not it’s delivering results.
If it isn’t working, change it up. Not after fifteen minutes, but if you haven’t gotten where you want within a realistic period of time, find a better way of doing it, because otherwise you can spend years spinning your wheels. Nothing wrong with that, but I prefer results over effort and I value outcome over process. If my process isn’t working I find something that is, usually by modeling successes in the field and analyzing what they’re doing right.
And my bonus item:
11) Which I never needed anyone to tell me, but still: It’s possible to do it, and it’s possible that you will be the one to do it. It’s more possible that you won’t, but that’s what makes it interesting. You need to find inside of yourself the stuff that matters and do it for real. While that’s no guarantee, there are so many who don’t do it all out, who phone it in or kinda sorta do it, just being one of those who does it balls-out can be an edge. You’ll need all the edge you can get, and being willing to do whatever it takes is certainly an edge.
The good news is that every month, someone does it. Every. Single. Month.
Question is what you’ll do to make one of those your month, and once you’ve had your month, what you’ll do to have a career of ’em.
That’s what I wish someone had told me three years ago. Now I’ve told you.
Go back and read my “How To Sell Loads of Books” blog, and my “Author Myths” blogs. Combined with this list it’s as good a place to start as any, and I won’t charge you $5 or $50 or $500 to hear it.
Just go buy one or two of my books if you found this valuable. If not, hey, you got your money’s worth, so don’t whine. But you can still buy one of my books. Wink.
I was looking for a way to update and upgrade my JET covers, and managed to convince talented cover artist (and author) Jason Gurley to tackle the job. Jason’s a kind of cover art god, having done Hugh Howey’s Wool and Sand covers, as well as just about anybody who’s anybody’s work. By throwing indecent amounts of money at him and threatening his loved ones, I got him to sully his reputation with my stuff, and I think the results are pretty cool, with a uniform look, a more updated theme, something more contemporary.
Here they are. I’m happy to report I still have a number of shots from the photo session, too, so can continue the look for a few more books.
Now, some might say, hey, you’ve sold boatloads of JET books, why dick with it? Why fix it if it ain’t broken? My answer is, because that’s what we do as retail marketers. We have to constantly strive for better, faster, cheaper, for innovation, or someone will eat our lunch. So if we can come up with a cover that’s even 10% more memorable or eye-catching than what we had before, that’s a 10% edge in stopping the reader and convincing them to look harder at the book. In a crowded market, that’s a big part of getting the sale.
So there we have it. I’ll be releasing JET VII – Sanctuary, end of June, delayed by my broken mitt, and am starting the next in the Assassin series next week, which I’m totally excited about, as I think the plot is the best yet in that series. Guess we’ll soon know for sure. After that will be the first book of a new series, which I believe will be a knockout, and then the summer belongs to romance! I’ll be doing my ab crunches so I can be the cover model on that series – I’ve been working on my brood and my pout, and I think I have that down, along with my come hither glower that hints at approachability. Who knew it was all so hard?
As authors, many in my blog audience tend to focus on mundane issues like how to sell books or how to write good ones. Natural fodder given our choice of vocation, or avocation, as the case may be.
Rarely do I see commentary on how the inexorable decline in popular literacy affects society as a whole – most of the time my blog, and the vast majority of others, focus on commercial, marketing, or craft issues rather than more macro ones addressing literacy. While I can appreciate that burning questions like how to improve one’s chances of selling more books are popular with authors, I’ll invite everyone to consider the ramifications of a population that is increasingly illiterate, and which communicates in text message bursts and abbreviations instead of in English as I know it (although I’ll freely admit I see the same thing with Spanish here in Mexico – there’s an entire generation for whom spelling and whole words are unknown; a casualty of texting and tweeting).
NOTE: All of the comments were wiped out on this blog due to a server change issue by the hosting company. I have recreated them thanks to Alexander, who is both a gentleman and a scholar.
America prides itself on being a classless society – that’s the essence of the American dream, after all, poor boy makes good and builds himself an empire, or at least a decent home with a nuclear family replete with leased cars and mountains of credit card debt. But that classlessness is an illusion (probably has always been, when one considers the history of the land, wherein the more successful merchants and financiers became moguls and industrialists, but that’s beside the point) as a growing chasm separates the haves from the have-nots. And it’s not strictly financial, although that is certainly where the divide is most easily observed. It’s a divide in basic literacy. In our comfort with the language, and being able to read and write well enough to convey ideas more complex than “let’s eat” or “that feels good.”
I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus.
It seems to be that somewhere over the last 20 or 30 years the level of remedial literacy possessed by the average person has declined to a state where most are comfortable reading at a level I associate with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, which is to say at an adolescent level, at best. The average literacy has slid, declined to a point where many readers have no idea what the difference between their, they’re or there is, much less the difference between shuddered and shuttered or breaches and breeches.
Why does that matter? Because as a society loses its basic grasp of literacy, the ability to impart important concepts, its very ability to reason, is lost. Ignorance of one’s mother tongue, much less other tongues, is a terrible thing, and isn’t to be celebrated. It creates a class-based system as surely as share cropping or indentured servitude does. The elite go to the best schools, are literate and capable of grasping and expressing complex ideas (either in writing or through oration), whereas the rank and file are relegated to simple-minded communications, short attention spans, and a sense of apathy that an inability to understand, much less participate in, the discussion, banishes them to. Illiteracy is exclusionary. It is a huge step backwards, to where the only ones who can read are the cognoscenti: academics, priests, and the ruling class.
If you read the Federalist Papers, or anything by the founding fathers, these were people with tremendous powers of not only persuasion, but an incredible facility with and grasp of the importance of language. Literacy was prized as the force that could move you from bondage to freedom, be it racial inequality, or social. Go watch some Youtube clips of MLK or Malcolm X if you want to see erudite arguments for social change from the sixties from men who understood the importance of the effective use of language.
I have to think that the dumbing down of the population serves no good purpose, and is divisive as any racism or bigotry. A population that can’t read at above a second grade level likely can’t reason at more than a first or second grade level, which leaves it entirely unable to grapple with the important issues of its time. It can’t inform itself because it doesn’t or can’t read – any idea beyond that second grade level is lost on it as it tunes out, preferring something more accessible, more facile to grasp. The internet certainly doesn’t help, given that it encourages the assimilation of information in small chunks – only the most cursory treatments. Television doesn’t help, either. The problem being that nuance, that complete and meaningful answers to important questions, explorations of ethical or moral of philosophical or social issues generally require more than whatever can comfortably be contained in a paragraph or two, or the equivalent of a sixty second sound bite, or a text that reads something like, “OMG, he’s so ttly fine, LOL. C U Soon!”
So we wind up with a pool of voters who don’t understand the issues they are deciding, don’t understand basic logical reasoning, don’t understand much of anything – a pool that requires their menus to be presented in pictures, their cash registers to be labeled with icons, their dialogue to be whatever can be contained in a Dr. Seuss-level discussion. That results in an erosion of society over time, as it makes it far easier for dogma to be substituted for reason, and authoritarianism to serve in the place of rational persuasion. It’s a recipe for inequality and fascism, for injustice, for the exploitation of the many for the direct benefit of the few. It creates rulers, who have knowledge and all that goes with it, and the ruled, who are largely ignorant.
I find this trend particularly appalling as a writer, because as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more powerful than language. It can convince, scold, motivate, embarrass, enrichen, impoverish. It can cause parents to cheerfully send their children to war, to bomb innocents out of existence in order to free them, to force our next generations to foot the bill for our wastefulness by arguing we can spend our way out of debt. Language defines our perception of reality, and he who can most skillfully use language can convince the masses his way is best. It can also excuse the most horrendous of acts through rhetorical sleight of hand, where stealing becomes liberating, where killing innocents becomes collateral damage, where cheating a nation out of its financial legacy becomes equality or redistribution of wealth. Words, and our ability to use them, define how we think about things.
The less comfort we have with words, the less command we have of them, the less we can think in a meaningful manner. We lack the terms, the basic vocabulary, with which to frame the narrative or debate. We can’t reason, use logic, because we don’t understand its basic concepts and rules. We don’t understand what argument from authority or post hoc reasoning or any of the other logical fallacies are because we don’t understand the concepts or the words used to define them, so we make poor decisions or are easily deceived. Again and again. Like a smoker who makes the poor decision to light up a cigarette 20 or 30 times a day, and who ultimately winds up with respiratory problems or worse, we as a society make poor decisions on a daily basis that result in an unhealthy host, a diseased culture riddled with morbidity.
Where am I going with this?
I dislike the trend in popular fiction towards dumbing down. I understand the trend. We want to sell, and if what sells are monosyllabic screeds with the complexity of a comic, then that’s what we’ll write. But one has to ask whether there’s not a better way. A way to raise the bar some, to not pander to the lowest common denominator, and still sell well?
As custodians of the written word, of language, do we want to be the equivalent of pop songs that come and go in popularity every week, or shoot for something more substantial? Is it possible to be relevant and entertaining and popular without being slack-jawed and mouth-breathing?
Look, I write action thrillers and mysteries. I’ll be doing a foray into romance soon. So I’m not saying we should all be aspiring to be Harper Lee, or be trying to write the next Lord of the Flies. I get that we need to balance popular taste with our creativity, and produce products people want to buy. What I’m saying is that, given that the majority of the nation either doesn’t or can’t read, are we not better served trying to raise the bar a little in our offerings for those that still can?
I’m not sure I have a point here. Just more of my ramblings. But as I said, I was struck by how intelligently so many of the books from forty and fifty years ago were written – popular books, too – compared to what’s passes for pop fiction these days.
Call me a curmudgeony old man, I suppose. (Shakes fist. “You whippersnappers have no idea what it was like! The end is nigh!”) And so on. I’m sure I’m just railing against that which I can’t change. All I can do is continue to try to write well, and hope that my audience grows, however that happens.
Now go buy some of my crap. Please. You could do worse than with JET – Ops Files.