Authors are a special breed. We are generally both readers and writers, and yet too often, when we think, if at all, it’s as writers. We leave our reading hats at the door, which is usually a mistake. Especially as self-publishers.
What do I mean?
I had a discussion today with a friend of mine, also a writer, about genre, and writing cross genre, or genre-blending books. Which gave me a chance to pontificate – something my blog readers know I enjoy doing, whether I know anything about the topic in question or not.
Specifically, my thinking about genres is that we should view them as readers, not as authors. What do I mean?
NEWS: My new guest blog on Tinderboox is raising some eyebrows.
When a reader buys a Russell Blake book, he/she is probably expecting something along the lines of Ludlum or Forsyth – in other words, a thriller with some conspiracy or action/adventure overtones, preferably both. And yet I’ve written several books that don’t really fit that genre – most notably The Voynich Cypher, which is an Umberto Eco-style treasure hunt adventure, and my latest, Silver Justice, and my first, Fatal Exchange, which are really police procedurals with action/adventure and conspiracy overtones. And I think that could have confused early readers – if someone bought all my Assassin novels, or buys my forthcoming JET series, they expect mile-a-minute action/adventure tales from all my books. So then they buy Geronimo Breach or Dephi – no problems. More of what they like, or at least close enough so they nod along. And then maybe they buy Zero Sum, which is also what they expect, and then buy the second volume in that series, The Voynich Cypher, and they get…an action/adventure novel of the type Dan Brown has made popular. Now, many love that, but I can see where it would be disorienting. “Damn. I thought I was going to get more typical Blake, and suddenly I’m in the Roman catacombs decrypting ancient clues.” Fortunately, most seem okay with my dalliance in a type of fiction I love, but if Voynich was the only of my books anyone had read or I only had two or three books out, and then they moved to any of my other books, I could see the danger of them thinking, “I wanted Foucault’s Pendulum, not the Bourne trilogy,” and deciding not to buy any more of my work because they didn’t get what they were expecting.
My readers tend to be a bright bunch, and luckily they’ve entertained my lapses into something off the beaten path now and again. But I could see an author with, say a couple of books in a series that were, I don’t know, Hard Boiled Noir Detective genre, who wrote a masterful medical thriller, and then had a hell of a time getting folks to buy it. Why? Because the chances are that the audience he developed is a hard boiled detective audience, and it won’t necessarily like or want or appreciate a medical thriller, no matter how brilliant. His/her detective readers won’t buy the book. Because it’s not something they’re interested in.
Publishers know this. Le Carre is espionage thrillers. Ludlum is conspiracy thrillers with action aplenty. Harris is serial killer thrillers. You know what you are getting when you buy the name. Harris doesn’t put out a romantic comedy. At least not deliberately. Or sober.
People are creatures of habit. We like the familiar. As readers, we tend to seek out whatever we prefer as a guilty pleasure because it makes us comfortable, or entertains us in a particular way we like. We like easy choices. That’s why a series is an easy buy. We like book one, we know what to expect in books two through twenty. We like that. Maybe we will move to another series of the same type by the author afterwards, or maybe even try his other books, as long as they aren’t too far outside of our designated comfort zone. But we don’t want to wind up with a spy novel from our favorite science fiction author. We’re likely to never buy the author again if we get that kind of surprise, unless we have stayed with him through a ton of books, in which case we may be willing to forgive him just that once. But now we, in the back of our mind, are thinking, “Is he going to do a switch on me again?” when he comes out with his newest, so we might, just might, not be quite as interested in hitting buy.
That’s how many readers are. And before you start telling me about how you are different, which you may well be, understand that we as a species tend to be, A) lazy, and B) stupid. Not everyone. But many. One might even argue that it’s a majority of us that are, at least as far as our entertainment goes. That being the case, my counsel to authors is to keep it simple. Figure out what audience you are writing to. What genre. Then stick to that genre. Not some other. Not two genres. Understand what genre you write to, because if you don’t, then how the hell is your audience supposed to know? You’re job as a publisher (as opposed to an author) is to clearly define a product for a clearly-defined audience, which presumably you believe is worth marketing to. If you’re unable to do so, and get all authory, a la “Oh, my work’s different, more of a romantic suspense space detective literary fiction thing,” they guess what? You are saying you have no idea who your target market is. “All readers” or “readers who enjoy diversity” is not an answer. That usually equates to no readers.
If you want to build sales over years and have a readership that follows you, stick with what you, as a brand identity, are known for. But what if you don’t have a brand identity yet, you mewl? Then now’s the time to develop one. If you have no idea who you write for, how would you expect a reader to figure it out? Job number one as a publisher is to communicate clearly what your book’s target market is so that the audience can find it. If you don’t communicate it, then you’re muddying the waters and making it harder for readers to choose your books, as opposed to someone who is targeting well. Take Harlequin. They publish romance. You aren’t expecting Silence of the Lambs when you buy their books. And you don’t get it. You get what they are known for – alternatively, if you buy a Tom Harris book, you don’t get Love’s Silent Fury.
Or consider McDees. They make mediocre burgers that are relatively cheap that always taste the same and are served fast. You know what you’re getting. They make it easy to think, “I’ll go there, I know what they make.” Maybe they are trying the new McFiestaBlowoutWrap, but my hunch is you didn’t choose to go there because of it, nor are you that likely to order it or enjoy it if they gave you one by mistake. Because you had an idea of what you wanted when you went in. And that’s what you want.
Authors. Learn from Coke’s disastrous New Coke experiment. People don’t want a surprise. They buy Coke because it tastes like Coke. They don’t want Coke to taste like Pepsi. They would buy Pepsi if they wanted a soda that tastes like Pepsi. If you are asking people to buy your books, my advice is to keep your voice the same book after book, and keep the genre clear and well defined. Because if you build a readership, or hope to, it won’t want you to switch to something else. It wants what it buys you for. You are the brand. You are Coke.
I know. As authors we want to be able to say, yeah, but we are so much more than just Coke. We’re Coke, and Pepsi, and Mountain Dew, and Hawaiian Punch. Guess what? You’re an author that nobody is likely to buy, because you’ve confused the consumer – and they don’t want to be confused. They want what they want.
Without belaboring this, authors need to think like readers. While there are a few exceptions (Stephen King can write whatever genre he wants and people buy it because he’s Stephen King – he IS the brand), genre fiction readers want to read within a genre. Not across two or three. If you don’t believe me, try it, and watch your sales do nothing. Again. Keep it simple, and communicate clearly what you do so your readers can find you and then stick with you.
If you want to write in other genres, do so under a pen name. Let your audience know you’re doing so. Some will want to shift over and see what you’re up to under your other name. But most may not want to. So your pen name can develop its own readership. Want to write about trolls? Fine. Can’t be the same name that writes psychological thrillers. It’s confusing. You’ll lose everyone, and nobody will be happy. Your troll audience will be confused by your books that aren’t about trolls, and your psych thriller fans will hate you for the trolls. They won’t want to spend money pulling the handle of a slot machine to see what you are thinking your next book should be about, genre wise.
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of authors complaining that it’s so limiting, and that they’re different, and that the new era of ebooks means all those old rules are out the window. Guess what? No they aren’t. It’s called brand marketing. It’s been around longer than you have. It will be around longer than you will be. Ignore it or fight it at your peril.
Note I’m not saying restrict yourself in what you write. I’m saying take off the author hat and put on a publisher’s hat, which involves thinking like a reader. So here’s your next book. What product is it? How to describe it so the audience you know you need to sell it to in order for it to be successful, buys it? Who is that audience, and what does it want?
My forthcoming new JET series is filled with nuance and contradictions and depth. But at its heart it’s an action/adventure series. Like my Assassin series. My elevator pitch for it is four words: Kill Bill meets Bourne. That’s it. Everyone knows what it will deliver from those four words. You liked the movie Kill Bill? You like The Bourne Trilogy? You’ll love JET. Looking for love among the cactus or a glittery vampire tome? Not so much. By understanding what I am, and what I write, I have targeted my audience with precision. I try to make it easy for that audience to find me, and take a flyer on my work. And I try to make it easy for my current readers to stay with me. I’m not throwing them for a loop. There will still be surprises, and the work is not formulaic, but it knows is what it is. I repeat. It knows what it is.
If you have books that aren’t selling, part of the problem may be that your audience can’t find you because you don’t know what your book(s) is(are). You aren’t selling because of a failure to communicate. If you pen a space cowboys novel, it’s not a western. It’s sci fi. With cowboys. But it’s not a western set in space. It’s sci fi featuring cowboys. Why? Because you may find some sci fi fans who are entertained by the idea of cowboys in space, but you are probably not going to find a lot of western fans that are thinking, “Shit, put a rocket and a ray gun in there and I’m all over it!”
Be clear about what you write. Then communicate it clearly. Package it so the audience can easily figure it out.
Selling books of any kind is hard. Don’t make it harder. Give the nice readers something they can understand, so they can decide if they want to read what you are selling. Easy.
Now go write.
I’ve been starting my interviews and guest blogs for the upcoming launch of Silver Justice, my newest novel that will release on July 23. As part of that, I’ve been asked time and time again about the underlying framework for the novel, namely the cause of the 2008 financial crisis. The book is set in New York, and follows Silver Cassidy, an ass-kicking FBI Agent who’s running a serial killer task force that’s hunting a brutal murderer of financial industry players. A big part of the plot involves the slow unveiling of my supposedly fictional account of why the 2008 crisis happened, resulting in the worst recession in our lifetimes. I already know this is going to be a book that polarizes readers, who will either love it or hate it. It’s a shocking ride, and the conclusions it draws are disturbing at a very basic level. Many don’t like living in a world where things are deeply disturbing, so they’ll hate it, rather than becoming outraged or curious. I get that. It’s worth the risk.
BREAKING NEWS: New in-depth interview with yours truly on craft, self-publishing and the price of coffee is worth a look.
NEWS: I was fortunate enough to be named one of the top 100 indie authors for the 3rd month in a row. #50.
As part of writing it, I was forced to become somewhat of an expert on everything from Keynesian economics, to fiat currencies, to the creation of the Federal Reserve, to how and why the IRS was created and by whom, to why the gold standard mattered, to the reasons the dollar has lost 90+% of its buying power since 1971, to fractional reserve banking, to market manipulation and how arcane instruments like credit default swaps and other derivatives work. The tail wagged the dog in this case. By the time I was done, I became convinced of two things: 99.999% of all people have no idea why the middle class is being wiped out and the world is in the pooper and getting worse as we speak; and that that’s not accidental. The ignorance is by design. It’s encouraged, and there’s a big machine devoted to keeping reality from slipping into the equation.
Now, I can appreciate how there are many more important things to do than know about why the biggest financial calamity of our lifetimes took place. I mean, there are reality TV shows to follow, and claims that America’s got talent, and the search for the very best dance crew, whatever the hell that is. I get that most are otherwise occupied, and prefer to debate one political party’s invented rhetoric over the others, or consider which mammoth flat screen TV would look best in the living room. These are heady times. But it occurs to me that ignorance has an incredibly high cost. As an example, the Fed revealed a week or so ago that the average middle class family’s net worth has dropped to where it was in 1982, erasing 30 years of savings since the financial crisis in 2008. That means that if the average was $78K in 82, it is still $78K in 2012.
The ugly truth is that it’s much worse than that. An ounce of gold was $360 in 82. It’s now $1600. So it takes almost five times more dollars to buy the same commodity. That means that a dollar in 82 had five times the buying power it has today. So really, the middle class has lost five times its net worth from 82, when adjusted. The short version is that most of the wealth accumulated by the middle class over the last 40 years has been confiscated – stolen by the relentless erosion of inflation, and by the markets in 2008. (By the way, anyone who thinks measuring the value of the dollar against an ounce of gold is silly would be advised that until 1971, gold was money, for thousands of years. It was only once the US violated its agreement to stay on the gold standard, got caught doing it, and then abruptly announced it wasn’t honoring its agreement anymore, that the new folksy wisdom that ‘gold isn’t money’ started being advanced by the media. Until then, of course it was. FWIW, it still is. It’s just that a collection of uber-rich bankers have spent the last forty years trying to convince everyone that it isn’t, because otherwise people would rebel and demand that the money they are working like slaves for actually possess some actual worth, as opposed to a mere promise of steadily declining worth from the government.)
I also understand that blogs that aren’t railing against free books, or are pro-kitty, or that purport to offer writing tips, don’t get read as much. They aren’t as popular. Because most people’s heads hurt when they are required to think, and to consider any sort of a macro picture of reality that diverges from whatever is advanced as the truth by the media and its owners. People want to believe that the system works, and protects them, and even with its flaws is still the best ever. They have a lot of emotional investment in that idea. So even when a chink appears, and it become obvious that most or all of it is an obvious lie, human nature is to ignore the data, and instead focus on more pleasant things.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a cost to that. In real terms, it’s a cost where most will be wiped out within another 10 years, if they haven’t already been. By the statistics, I’m saying many already have been. But some haven’t. They think it’s all going to somehow get better. That’s because they are ignorant of what is actually taking place, and what the true drivers are. The precarious construct that is their reality has a very, very expensive price tag. And I’m afraid for most, the price will be everything they have – just as in the Great Depression, when millionaires (and there were many in the US by the late 20s) discovered after a few years that they were penniless, and owed everything to the bank. It was considered impossible until it happened. Right now, tell someone with a two million dollar home in Scottsdale or a one million dollar home in New Jersey or a five hundred grand home in San Diego that they could be close to penniless in no time, and they would sneer. Just as people sneered in the 20s.
The research I did for Silver Justice has changed my perception of reality to the point that virtually anything is possible, and it appears that the real powers that be are hell bent on destroying the prosperity of the middle class, just as they did in the Great Depression (about which I could write a book). And my hope is that Silver Justice gets enough traction so that it makes people question the illusory status quo and wonder how much in it could actually be true. While I’m normally aggressively self-promotional in a transparent way, this book is different, and so is this blog. I’ll write another one when it launches, but let me just say that what I’ve learned has me pretty glum about many peoples’ chances moving forward, unless there’s a massive change in the majority’s awareness. The only hope is that they figure this out while there’s still time. Silver Justice is my small effort to move people in the direction of that requisite awareness. We shall see whether it has any effect.
End of rant. For now.
For a synopsis of Silver Justice, as well as a short interview, click here.
Darcie Chan is a phenomenon. A star. A sensation. Her book, The Mill River Recluse, sold more copies than Elvis or the Beatles’ books (they had books, right?) and she’s inked a high profile trad pub deal. In this installment of my Author Spotlight series, she takes some time to share her ideas on the trade and the craft. Rather than sullying her moment here with my usual inappropriate jabbering, I’ll just cut straight to the interview, tempering my usual shameless self-promotion with a subtle suggestion that you buy all my books or clowns will hunt you down. And you don’t want that. Nobody wants that.
RB: Your first novel is a blockbuster. To what do you attribute its success?
DC: I certainly did not expect The Mill River Recluse to resonate with readers to the extent that it has. It’s impossible to know exactly why it did, but my best guess is a combination of 1) a story and characters that touched people enough to start word-of-mouth recommendations, 2) marketing and advertising that worked to get my novel in front of enough readers to start that word-of-mouth chain, and 3) luck.
RB: What was your journey as a writer? How long have you been writing, was this your first stab at it, etc. Give us the dirt.
DC: The Mill River Recluse was written years ago, and it is the first substantial piece of fiction I attempted.
I remember winning a school-district-wide writing contest when I was in seventh grade…I was only 11, but I came home with my little trophy and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a writer. My English teacher mother immediately said “Great! You can do anything you set your mind to. Follow your dreams!” My very practical and honest father, who worked in special education administration for much of his career, told me that writers have a hard time earning a living and that I should think about doing something else as a career to provide financial security. In the end, I decided to do what each suggested – i.e., I would go to law school and follow the dream (read: write fiction) in my spare time.
I didn’t have much time to write for pleasure in college and law school. I might have written a short story here and there, but I never attempted to get them published. My intention was always to focus on book-length fiction. After I’d finished my education and had been working as an attorney for a few years, I finally felt as if I had enough time to try to write a novel.
RB: Let’s talk process. Do you outline, plot and structure, or do you just sit down and write? How long between when a book idea comes to you, and when it’s ready to be written?
DC: Given that I’ve completed only one novel thus far, I’m not sure that I have a fully-evolved writing process just yet. But, as of this point, I first take some time developing an idea in my mind before I’m ready to put it on paper. After I come up with an idea for the central story arc, I think about sub-plots and create initial profiles for the necessary characters. Once I feel comfortable with my concepts for the main plot and characters (which happens once I know how the story will begin, who will be involved in each plot and sub-plot, and how each plot within the story will be resolved), I write out a chapter-by-chapter outline. Only then do I start writing. My outline generally becomes more detailed as I work my way through the story and other ideas or twists come to mind. So far, it’s taken me a few months from the time I first conceive an idea for a story until I finish my first outline and actually start writing.
RB: Do you have a set schedule for writing? What’s your typical writer’s day like?
DC: I’ve recently left my legal job to write full-time, so I’m now able to devote a lot more time to writing. I usually start working around 9:30…I use the first hour or so each day to take care of emails, social media, etc., so that once I begin to write, I can really settle in. I usually take a break for lunch in the afternoon and a “play break” to spend some time with my son at some point. I stop writing for the day around dinnertime, although I sometimes sneak back to my computer after my son and husband are asleep to get in a few more paragraphs. I really liked working as an attorney, but I truly love what I’m doing now!
RB: Do you have monthly or annual word goals? How is your discipline?
DC: I would say that I’m pretty disciplined…I’ve always been very happy working independently. Also, being able to write full-time is really a dream come true for me, and I’m determined to give it my best effort. I don’t have specific word goals, but based on the length of what I’m writing and the time I have to write it, I have a rough idea of about how much I should be finishing in a given time. Right now, that’s about a chapter each week, give or take a little.
RB: Longhand or computer? Any trick software you favor for writing?
DC: I use Microsoft Word on a PC, nothing more. Radical, huh?
RB: How do you come up with your characters? Based on real people, pure invention, or a combo?
DC: Most of my characters are invented, but some have characteristics, mannerisms, or personality quirks that I’ve encountered with real-life people.
RB: Do you ever have issues with motivation? Writer’s block? If so, how do you move past it?
DC: I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block yet, and I’m hoping to keep it that way! I’ve found that unless I know my characters and where the story is going (including how it will be resolved), I’m not comfortable trying to write. I think that’s why I spend quite a bit of time thinking through the plot lines and coming up with characters. Once I have those things established enough to put down in the form of an outline, I have sort of a “roadmap” of where I’m going, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck.
Another thing that helps me is to stop writing for the day at a point at which I know exactly what’s coming and what I’m going to write next. It’s hard to stop like that, as my inclination is to keep pushing words onto the page as long as the ideas are flowing…but it makes it easier to hit the ground running the next day.
In terms of motivation…I’m thrilled to be doing what I’m doing. No lack of motivation here! J
RB: Describe your work environment. Quiet? Music? Window? What is it like?
DC: My office is the “bonus room” above our garage. It has three windows looking out in various directions, each of which has a beautiful view of trees. I prefer it to be quiet while I’m working…I love music (and have played piano since I was very young), but I find it to be completely distracting and disruptive when I’m trying to focus on a story.
RB: How many hours a day do you write? Are you consistent every day, or is it sporadic?
DC: I would say that I write on average about six hours per day during the week (when I have childcare) but less on the weekends. It varies, though, depending on deadlines and whatever else life throws on my plate. I find that I’m most productive when I do some writing or editing every day.
RB: How many times do you polish before your manuscript is ready for edit – how many drafts?
DC: Many! Once I finish a first draft, I put it in a drawer and let it sit for a few weeks. I also give it to a handful of trusted readers to get constructive criticism. After that, I read through the whole thing, carefully consider comments I’ve received from my test readers, and revise until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore and feel as if it’s as strong as I can make it.
RB: What do you think about the current state of trad pub vs. self-publishing? If someone came to you and asked which to do, what would you say?
DC: I think we’ll see some volatility in the publishing world for some time to come. The rise in popularity of e-books, both traditionally published and self-published, has certainly changed the way lots of people read, and I expect that it will continue to do so. Traditional publishers and indie/self-publishers will have to continue to adjust to this reality. I would guess that e-books will continue to become more popular for reasons of convenience and price, but I don’t think there’s any way that good, old-fashioned print books will disappear any time soon. I think the greatest thing that could happen out of the whole situation is that people begin to read more, which would benefit authors everywhere and society as a whole.
In terms of choosing between traditional and self publishing…that’s a tough question, because I think the best path to take is a very personal decision, and what’s best for one writer might not be best for another. I feel that, for me, there are several benefits of traditional publication that far outweigh the advantages of going it alone.
The first is that it is currently very difficult for a writer to get a self-published print version of a book into the brick-and-mortar stores (such as Target, Barnes and Noble, and Costco) where readers of print books typically buy them. Most retail stores will not stock self-published titles, and even if they did, most individual authors have neither the financial nor logistical ability to achieve wide distribution of a self-published print book. As a writer, I’d love to get my work into the hands of as many readers as I can, and for all of these reasons, a traditional publisher can help me reach many more readers than I could on my own.
A second plus with traditional publishing is help with marketing and publicity of a book, and by “help,” I’m not just referring to a marketing budget. A publisher can open doors to mainstream media coverage that is so difficult to get as a self-published author. It also provides to authors access to the expertise and advice of an entire department of marketing and publicity staff. I knew nothing about marketing an e-book before I released my first novel. I had to play catch-up after the fact, and learning basic book promotion by trial-and-error wasn’t easy! Now, after having done all the marketing and promotion of my first novel myself, it is quite a relief to know that I’ll have my publisher’s support and guidance to help me when it’s time to promote my next two books.
A final major benefit of traditional publishing, and what I believe to be the most important, is the fact that, with a publisher, a writer has a team of experts in every aspect of book production — i.e., editing, copy editing, legal review, when necessary, cover design, formatting, marketing, and publicity — who work together with a common, vested interest in making a book the best representation of the author and the publishing house that it can be. This is not to say that an indie author cannot assemble a team of experts to provide those kinds of services to produce an indie book. An indie author can and should do this. However, hiring experts and overseeing the book production process takes time which could otherwise be spent writing, and again, the professionals hired by an indie author to help with a book may have no connection or working relationship with each other.
At the end of the day, the story is the heart of a book. Distribution, marketing and publicity, and a quality package are really important, but the story itself is what will ultimately determine whether a book succeeds. It’s my job as a writer to provide a quality story. I have a full and busy life, and I cherish and am very protective of the time I have to write. So, for me, having the option to use my time to write the best story I can and to let my editor and publisher coordinate and help with everything else that is required to produce a quality book is extremely appealing.
RB: What counsel would you offer a newbie who was interested in pursuing the author’s path?
DC: My advice would be to read as much as you can, including books that you might not typically choose. Write as much as you can, and try to write at least a little bit each day. Seek out and take to heart constructive criticism. Don’t give up when you experience rejection, and don’t be afraid to take an alternative path to get your work out there, once you’re confident that it’s ready.
RB: What’s your biggest writing regret? The one thing you wish you could do over, or differently?
DC: Two things come to mind. I wish I’d taken more writing classes in college. Since I changed my major to English late in my junior year and still wanted to graduate on time, I didn’t have much time to take anything other than the core English requirements. And, second, although I felt The Mill River Recluse was as strong as I could make it before I first uploaded it to the Kindle Store, in hindsight, I wish I’d hired a professional editor to go through it before releasing it to the world. Yes, it’s resonated with readers in a way that I never dreamed it would, but I think I got lucky in that respect. The saying “you get only one chance to make a first impression” certainly holds true for writers. The Mill River Recluse was my one chance to make a “first impression” as a writer, and there is certainly more that I could have done to make it stronger.
RB: Whose work most influenced you, and why?
DC: I don’t think I’ve been heavily influenced by any one person or writer. I try to learn something from each book that I read. That said, my favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is timeless, and such a beautiful, heart-wrenching, uplifting story. I read it every few years, and I learn something new every time I do.
Also, in college, I took a poetry class taught by Yusef Komunyakaa, and the graduate assistant who taught my small section was Khaled Mattawa. During one session, the graduate assistants gave readings of their own work for all of the undergraduate students in the lecture hall. Khaled read a poem he had composed about looking through the Sears catalog when he was a boy. (The poem is online and can be read here: http://www.webdelsol.com/
RB: What’s your current project? Can you tell us anything about it?
DC: Currently, I’m working on my second novel, which (along with my third novel) will be set in the fictional world of Mill River, Vermont, and will involve many of the characters from my first novel. The second book involves a new story and some new characters as well.
RB: What’s the best thing about being an author?
DC: Being able to do a job I love, one I’ve dreamed about doing my whole life, and to do it from home, where I can be close to my son while he is so little.
RB: Reader e-mails. Respond to them all? Some? Never? How about reviews?
DC: I read and try to learn from reviews posted for my first novel, but I’ve never commented on any of them. As for emails – at this point, I try to respond personally to every e-mail I’ve received, although sometimes it takes me a while to get through them.
RB: You’ve been extremely gracious sharing your time and views. What advice would you leave budding authors with, if you only had thirty seconds to impart it?
DC: Come up with a story that you feel passionate about telling – a story that moves you emotionally – and then put your heart into the telling of it. Hopefully, your emotion will carry through and move your readers. I’m convinced that if you don’t have a story that touches readers in some way, nothing else you do to try to make your book a success will matter.
RB: Tell me about your writing journey. How did you get started as an author, and what’s your history?
MF: I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I started an HR company at 20 years old and was earning six figures by the time I was 22. I also founded a nanny placement agency, and eventually took a Director of Human Resources and Administration position. My entire corporate career, although exciting, was a hold-over until I was able to dedicate my time to writing. In 1999 my husband and I changed our lives dramatically. I quit work to stay home with our kids and write, but with a gaggle of children running around, I found myself unable to concentrate (can you imagine?). Instead, I painted murals (kidsmuralsbymelissa.com) and donated several to a local hospital for children. I was biding my time. I’m not someone who can write in fits and spurts. I need hours to climb into my characters’ heads and find their voice. In September 2006, when our youngest son went to kindergarten, I found my keyboard, and I’ve never looked back.
RB: You’ve had a number of very successful novels. What do you think sets your work apart from others in your genre?
MF: Luck, mainly:-)
RB: Do you have a set schedule for writing? Or just fit it in whenever you can?
MF: I covet my writing time like it’s a newborn baby. This month I’m writing from 7:30am until about 2:00 pm. During the school year I write from 8:45am-2pm, and I don’t write during July or August. That’s my rejuvenation time with my family.
RB: Do you plot and outline your stories first? Or just fly by the seat of your pants?
MF: I am a proud pantzer. Every time I sit down to write a new book, I look at the blank page and think about outlining. After staring at it for about two hours, and the page remaining blank, I accept that I just can’t plot, and off I go.
RB: How many hours a day would you say you write? Do you have word goals?
MF: Right now I’m working on word goals rather than hours, and my goal is 5K words each day. But during the school year I work towards hours of writing rather than word count.
RB: Describe your process from start to finish. You get an idea. Now what?
MF: Okay, let’s see. I get an idea and look around for something to write it on–a napkin works great. Then I generally spend a few days sitting alone and pondering where the idea might go. Once I have the plot and characters floating around in my head, and I feel I’ve gotten to know them well enough, I sit down and write. I send my work to beta readers along the way–usually half way through and then again at the end, and through many revisions. After the first draft is complete, I do a complete read through (printed out) and make changes, then I send that revision to my editor. We generally go back and forth 2-3 times before it’s ready for my beta readers to give me an entire critique. After the critique and revisions, it goes back to the editor until we’re both satisfied. What happens next depends on how I will publish.
If I self publish, I then work with the cover artist, work on formatting, and put together a marketing plan. Right now, though, I’m working with my agent, and my manuscript is on submission to publishers. We’ll see where that goes…
RB: Rewrite and polish. How many drafts do you do, generally? Do you focus on different things on each draft?
MF: That process depends so much on what and how I had written the manuscript. I rewrote Chasing Amanda five times, and Megan’s Way was edited and polished probably 4 times. Come Back to Me was edited twice and polished, and then ready to go. I think we become stronger writers with each book. Traces of Kara, my newest manuscript was edited twice and then I made another pass at revisions for my agent.
RB: Editing. What’s your approach? How has it worked for you?
MF: I’m awful at editing my own work, so I don’t even try. I have a marvelous editor and I rely on her for developmental and structural advice. I use copy editors for grammar and punctuation. What works for me, is to let the experts do their thing. I write the story, they help me to refine it.
RB: Writer’s block. Ever get it, and if so, how do you move past it?
MF: You know, I used to think writer’s block was garbage. I had never experienced it until this year, and then, I believe the only reason I did experience it was that I was trying to write a book based on someone else’s expectations, and losing that creative control cost me, in many ways. I will never do that again. The way I moved past it was to push aside what was expected of me and write what I felt. It felt great! BAM! Writer’s block was gone.
RB: How about environment. When you write, do you listen to music? What’s your work area like? Can you describe it?
MF: I’m a music hound. I must have it on at all times. In fact, music plays 24/7 in my office and my kitchen. I gain inspiration from my environment. I cannot write without windows. I had my office cut in half (literally) and put windows on two sides and glass 9′ doors on the third–they look out into two window-lined rooms. My office is comfortable and creative–nothing matches, but everything feels right. It’s like walking into a very small Pier One Imports.
RB: Do you ever get the urge to go back after a book is released and rewrite parts of it? Or is it done once it’s done?
MF: I get the urge to rewrite, for quality of the writing, but I don’t think I’ll do it. I think both Megan’s Way and Chasing Amanda could be written more succinctly, but I’m done with them, and as writers, the more we write, the more we know. When I write the follow-up book to Megan’s Way, then the writing will be stronger. I am not embarrassed to have grown as a writer, and I want to be able to look back at those books and recognize how far I’ve come.
RB: Whose work would you say influences yours the most, and why?
MF: I hate this question. I learn from every writer that I read–whether it’s learning about what I want to mimic or something that I need to steer clear of, it’s all valuable.
RB: Why did you become a writer? What made you passionate to do so?
MF: This is funny, but true. In about 1991, I put my son down for a nap and had an overwhelming urge to write–out of the blue. I grabbed my IBM Thinkpad and a yellow legal pad, sat in a chair beside a window that overlooked a lake, and began writing. I craved the writing process from that moment on, but it took 15 years before my children were all in school and I could begin writing.
RB: Is there one quintessential Melissa Foster book that best defines your work? Which would you recommend a reader get if they could only get one of your books, and why?
MF: I can’t answer that, lol. The most well written is probably Come Back to Me, but the one that means the most to me is Megan’s Way. That book reveals a lot about the things I believe in.
RB: You work with a lot of indie authors with your World Literary Cafe. Tell us a little about that – how did it start, why did it start, and how has it changed? What is the ultimate animal going to look like, and what’s its goal?
MF: I love the WLC. When I started writing, I had very little help. I reached out to authors and was told they were too busy to provide guidance. Jodi Picoult was kind enough to answer my emails (thank you, Queen Jodi!), but as far as marketing and navigating the world of publishing, I was on my own. I decided right then and there, that I would never be too busy to help others learn the ropes, and that I would do whatever I could to help authors find everything they needed all in one place.
WLC began as a way to help authors learn to cross promote and market their books. It quickly took over my life, and the lives of the WLC volunteers, who are the most helpful and supportive group of women you could ever meet. I am in awe of their selflessness, their wit, and their energy. We have recently redefined where WLC is heading. We’re stepping out of running every promotion as a monthly stint, and driving the site to more of a community, where readers and authors have more interaction, bloggers and reviewers can connect and choose books based on availability, and education spans every aspect of self-publishing, from harnessing the power of social media to creating strong websites and platforms, and effective book marketing. Our educational arm, Fostering Success, has been established because I was doing a tremendous number of one-on-one seminars each week, and I still could not help as many authors as were coming to me. This venue will allow for hundreds of authors to take part in an economical and valuable fashion.
Where is WLC headed? An all encompassing community where authors will be given the opportunity to shine, learn to market their books, and connect with readers. Readers can look forward to literary events, giveaways, and personal connections with authors.
RB: If you had one minute to impart all the wisdom you’ve learned to date to other authors, what advice would you share with them?
MF: Eat a lot of chocolate and do what makes you happy. Write more, stalk your sales number less.
Award-winning, bestselling author Melissa Foster is a touchstone for the indie publishing community and a tireless advocate for women. She is the founder of the World Literary Café, Fostering Success, and The Women’s Nest. Melissa writes emotionally-driven contemporary fiction and suspense with passionate characters that remain with the reader long after they’ve read the last words. Melissa is a friend, mentor, brownie connoisseur, and book fiend.
Melissa’s site links:
Fostering Success: http://www.fostering-success.com
Facebook Melissa Foster: http://www.facebook.com/MelissaFosterAuthor (Fanpage)
Find Melissa’s Books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble
I care a lot.
I really do. About many things. Mostly, about how much abuse one’s liver can take, and whether it’s possible to collect the social security payments of one’s deceased neighbors in a foreign country. But other things, too.
One of the things I’ve found myself caring about lately is the wisdom of making my work free periodically. I speak to many authors, and most are concerned about the creation of a culture that doesn’t value our work. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I can’t wait for that to go free so I can read it” after hearing that one of my books has been rated well. Often, that sort of a statement comes from another author.
NEW! Three Questions – a hyper-short interview with Van Heerling. Worth a moment of your time.
WOW! 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading
BOX BOX BABY: What’s that, you ask? Why don’t I have any box sets? I do now! Three of my enduring faves at a 20% discount!
Which raises the question of whether we have created an environment where the very thing we do, which is write, is considered near, or completely, without worth. My hunch is that there is a decent audience out there that hasn’t bought a book in months. Why would you, if every day thousands go free? Doesn’t really make much sense to, does it?
I’m not sure what to do about it, as there is still merit to putting one’s work free via KDP Select, albeit at a 10% effectiveness rate of what it was 2 months ago. But you see 20K downloads, and then a net increase in sales of 200 books, does the incremental financial gain justify the damage that is done by creating an ocean of free content? Specifically, are we causing our own demise chasing nominal sales bumps?
Some argue that it’s all good, and that we shouldn’t fret all the free content. That the majority of readers still will pay for content they find worthwhile. Perhaps, but my sneaking suspicion is that a fair percentage of the small minority that were willing to take a chance on an indie name have converted to those who will do so, but won’t pay. I’m not sure what percentage of that group is no longer buying books, but my hunch is that it’s substantial. I know this because I haven’t bought a book in about four months, and most of my friends who read haven’t either. And we used to – before December, when the free thing hit. But now, I’ve got so much content waiting to be read, I haven’t bought anything for a while.
Now, some might say that makes me a bad man. Others claim I’m bad for a lot of other reasons, but that’s not my point. Whatever I am, I’m probably typical of a fair number of folks out there. I mean, I want to and understand why it’s important to support other authors by buying their books. And yet I haven’t. Actually, I take that back – I bought three this year so far. But last year I probably bought thirty.
Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe everyone else is buying like crazy. But I suspect not – unless you’re a romance author, in which case you’re occupying most of the top 40 indie slots and your books are selling like coke at Studio 54 (how’s that for a dated reference?). Most of my author acquaintances aren’t selling very well over the last 45 days. Most are complaining that their sales are off by 50% or more over the last 2 or 3 months – and I’m talking around a hundred authors. Now, nothing scientific here, but if only a few out of a hundred are doing anywhere near what they were in April, then that’s not seasonality, or genre, or fickle markets. That’s a trend.
For that reason, I cancelled my plans to put my new release, Return of the Assassin, free when I launched it at the end of May. And my newest WIP, tentatively titled Silver Justice and targeted for a July 4 release, probably won’t ever go free. Neither will the next WIP, Jet. Because in the end, the hoped-for sales bump that was the lure for doing the free thing isn’t nearly as meaningful as it was, and I now see no evidence that giving away 150K free books (that’s about how many I’ve given away this year) is worth the potential damage it causes to my brand. When giving away 20K books translated into an extra 2K in sales at $5, that made sense. For an extra 200, not so much. And it fosters an environment that is counter-productive long term.
My goal in writing is to write the best work I can. My goal in running a self-publishing business is to sell enough books to make it worth doing. My business goal is to have a dozen or more paid thriller titles available by year’s end (not counting deliberately free books like Night of the Assassin or the first book in Delphi). My thinking is that if I can sell a reasonable number of each title at a reasonable profit, that’s a decent business. It’s not a get rich quick business, and it’s not an easy business, but it’s one that could be sustainable and might build over time – one would expect sales dollars with twenty competent thrillers out to exceed what one would see from ten, and so on.
Free is antipodal to my long term goal.
My long term goal is to continue writing and make a decent return for my efforts. I can’t see how free will do anything but perpetuate a negative from here on out. I have a few free promos for the month, but I think that’s it for me. The extra few hundred books I might sell isn’t worth the long term damage I believe free is causing to the perceived value of books. That’s an emotional response, but I think it’s a legitimate one. And I don’t think I’m alone in that observation. We all delighted in the sales spike free brought before the algorithm change over a month ago. I know I did. Those were heady times. But they’re over. And now, like most drunk jags, we have to deal with the hangover. And this will be quite a hangover, I think. I believe we’re already seeing it in indie sales. Take a look at the Amazon Top 100 today. What percentage are trad pub or magazines? A quick glance says a much larger chunk that two months ago. I count 24 indie titles in the top 100, of which 80-90% or so are romance novels. The rest are trad pub. That is about 75% trad pub. I don’t think it was nearly that high a few months ago. Am I wrong?
So where does that leave me as an indie author? I’m still writing. I will still be putting out another five novels this year. Already know which ones I intend to write – Silver Justice, Jet, Fatal Deception, a Delphi sequel and an Assassin sequel. Already finished SJ, and will be editing for the next few weeks before launching into Jet. Next year, more like three novels. Maybe four. More of a sane pace. If you call that pace sane.
That’s where my thinking is today. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow. But I probably won’t. Unless I do.
Funny thing has happened of late.
Many midlist indie authors who were ranked fairly well fell into a black hole around the first of the month, and their sales never recovered. A few of my titles did the same thing.
I found it suspicious that all of a sudden, one day, several of my titles could drop from being ranked in the 2000 area to the 6000-8000 level.
Seemed weird to me.
WOW!!! New 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading.
GUEST BLOG: Sex. How much is too much? Yes, I’m writing about sex this time around.
NEW: Author Spotlight with screenwriter and novelist Lee Chambers! First of the season.
UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!
UPDATE REDUX: What’s that you say? Why don’t I have any box sets? I do now! Three of my enduring faves at a 20% discount!
Equally odd was how several of my other titles could sell 60% less than a few of my fellow authors’ books, and yet be ranked higher. I saw that multiple times. It wasn’t a glitch.
So I developed a theory.
As theories go, it wasn’t much. I posited that Amazon must have changed more than the way free units were accounted for around the end of April. I guessed that they had started basing ranking on dollars, not on units.
That gut feeling has been validated, at least partially. You can see an excellent blog on the topic here. I won’t duplicate effort by belaboring its points. Just read it.
This marks a turning point for indie authors. Amazon’s apparent tinkering with their algorithms has just made the now poor counsel to price your books at .99 a disastrous one. Besides undervaluing your work (unless it’s crap, in which case, you know your work better than I) it is now a recipe for lower ranking, and poor sales. Self-fulfilling prophecy, that.
I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I believe that the .99 cent thing was a shoddy gimmick and poor branding. And it will now be even worse for anyone who followed the advice, because as I’ve said numerous times, it is very hard to move from being a .99 author to one where your work can command many times that amount. So not only are you now facing the whammy of having to sell 5 times as many books as a $5 book to rank the same (at least on popularity lists – don’t know what the future holds for bestseller lists), you don’t have any pricing power for your work, as you’ve valued it at a third of the price of a cup of big city coffee. On the other hand, I wonder how we indie authors will get any visibility, if Amazon is calculating ranking based on list price, not on sales price, as it would appear they are doing. That gives the trad pub gang, and Amazon’s own trad pub label, a huge advantage, as they can list price a book at $14 even if the actual selling price is $7. If I am correct and that artificially inflated price is the one the algorithms recognize as the “price” of a unit sold, then the game is forever rigged in favor of trad pub books. They will virtually always place better on some of the lists, if not most.
Is this the end of the world?
Not really. It just means that the crack high of free books and boom times from the associated promotions are largely over for indie authors. Because now that Amazon has won the war for market share and dominance, it is going to get down to making money. And a $10 title makes it a lot more than a $3 title. So which would you focus your efforts on selling if you were the company? To me it’s obvious. You go where the money is. Companies are not in business to better humanity or prove points. They are commercial enterprises whose sole reason for existence is to make a profit. I get it.
I don’t think Amazon is targeting indie authors for extinction in any way. I think that many will become extinct as a byproduct of this, though. Which brings me back to my blogs of six months or so ago. About why you write. To repeat myself, if you write because you hope to hit it big, or even make a decent living, you are writing for the wrong reasons, as the odds say you’ll starve. To me, that’s the wrong reason to write.
If, however, you wish to open a self-publishing business, where you create a product you hope to sell enough of to recoup your investment of time and money, and generate a profit, you need to care about these developments, as they radically impact your chances of succeeding. My own company included.
In the end, I think we can safely assume that Amazon will do what’s best for Amazon, just as your company will do what’s best for you. That’s how things work. But if you are still hoping to use last month’s strategy of going free to boost sales, or are thinking that cheap will translate into sales success, you’re badly mistaken, and will learn the hard way.
Or you can read this blog, and know about trends real time. Or at least, as soon as I become aware of them.
Good luck out there. For what it’s worth, I also believe that free is rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. It still has a tiny bit of life in it, but it’s on life support, and I bet it is dead within 30 days. I’ve pulled all but one of my promos for that reason.
Oh, and check out my new boxed set below. It will build strong teeth and bones, and keep Satan from your door. Mostly. Mileage may vary.
As always, if you want the artist’s contact info, drop me a line.
Until next time, go buy a bunch of my crap. Buy two. I need to pay my bar tab.
Amazon’s KDP Select program, and its feature of enabling authors to make a book free for a few days, has treated me well. Since participating in it my sales have boomed and stayed high long after the giddy glow of free is over. So what could possibly be the negative?
Glad you asked. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much reason to write this blog, other than to tout my crap in unabashedly self-promotional fashion. Which I will do, early and often, but that’s besides the point.
As every one is by now aware, if you rank fairly high on your free days, you see a bump in sales for four or so days after, due to the Amazon algorithms treating free downloads the same as paid downloads for the purposes of things like the Movers and Shakers list, as well as “also bought” recommendations. That exposes your book to a whole new universe of potential readers, some of who will buy your book to give it a whirl. All good. Everybody wins. Or do they?
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One well documented downside to putting your book up for free for the majority of authors is the dreaded one star review – the drive-by slam that slags your work, often written as though the reviewer didn’t even bother reading it, by a reviewer who’s never reviewed anything else. My pet theory is that free exposes you to readers who would never buy your book and for whom it was never intended – they don’t like the genre, or they don’t like whatever the topic or underlying theme is, etc. But because it was free, they loaded up their kindle with whatever was hot on the lists, and then they started reading, and…blech. That book sucks.
Sometimes a book sucks. In fact, books often suck. Sucking isn’t unknown with indie books, where authors may have failed to get professional editing or proofing, and manuscripts can read more like incoherent first drafts than finished product. Typos, grammatical issues, continuity problems, echoes…and on and on.
But professionally executed books also get one star reviews, invariably after going free. Often, the review will say something like, “I don’t normally read erotica because of all the sex, but I thought I’d give Spank Happy Oiled Gladiators a try, and was reminded of why these books suck a bag of d#cks. I couldn’t finish it. Ugh.”
What we have here is a failure to communicate. (Note that I am not saying that low reviews are always, or even mostly, unwarranted. Everyone has different tastes, so one person reads Da Vinci Code and finds it gripping, and another finds it sub-custodial twaddle. That’s what makes a market. No, what I’m describing is well documented – the spate of one and two star reviews that invariably follow a free promotion, on a book that has universally gotten only positive reviews until then – where the consensus is that it’s a decent example of the breed)
The free reader who is leaving that one star slam wouldn’t have purchased the book, ever. It’s safe to say that reader wasn’t the audience it was written for. But free brought them to it, and now they feel they must share their dislike of it with the world. Hence the one star reviews after free. It’s just a theory, but my hunch is that if you are willing to pay $4 for the epic tale of greased up, corporal punishment-crazed warriors, you know what you’re buying, and thus are more accustomed to the norms in the genre, the content, etc.
It’s rare that I put a book free and don’t see the one star effect. Many authors dread it. I tend to be more philosophical. Free brings out all kinds, many of whom aren’t going to ever like anything you write, or in your chosen genre, because the filtering mechanism that is the reader laying down his/her money to read the work has been eliminated. Just as readers get everything from complete drivel to brilliant discoveries when they download a bunch of free books, authors get a mixed bag of readers from free – from “U ar a stoopid riter and ur buk suks!” to “Scintillating, salubrious sophistry structured with sartorial slyness.”
That’s just how it is. Welcome to the free book binge.
The other negative I’ve seen is that the fringe buyer for indie books, the reader at the margins who might have been willing to give a new author a test drive in exchange for a few bucks, now doesn’t. Instead, they download free books. Their kindles are clogged with books they will never have the time to read, but they can’t help themselves. It’s free, GD it! Getcher free stuff while you can! Obviously, poop and dirt are free, too, but most don’t load up and eat it just because there’s no cost. But the problem is that there is a glut of content that has taken those fringe readers out of the mix for indie authors, as they’re struggling to digest 1000 free books, and so aren’t buying anything right now. I believe that’s substantially contributed to the lower sales I’ve heard so much about over the last 30-60 days from many name indie authors. These aren’t folks struggling to sell a few dozen books. They are established authors with plenty of titles who are well regarded. And yet their sales are down, across the board, by at least 40-50%.
My pet theory is that this is the inevitable effect of free, and it will likely take the remainder of 2012 to rinse through the system.
What will stop the race to free for authors is the other negative nobody likes to discuss in polite company – namely, that the “bump in sales” effect free can create has gone from hundreds or thousands of sales, to only a few. The market has absorbed the promotional technique, and it’s no longer effective – just as other techniques worked until they didn’t – think .99 for an example.
In 2010, .99 was almost a guarantee of massive downloads. In 2011, not so much, and in 2012, it’s hit or mostly miss, at best. You still see some authors doing it, because they are reading “how to” books written in 2011 about what worked in 2010, but most quality authors don’t like the idea of making 1/6 the revenue at 35% commission on .99 as they would on 70% commission at $2.99. So it has lost effectiveness for two reasons – readers believe (often correctly) that .99 equates to barely readable dross, and authors believe that they are giving away their work at that price, undervaluing their product to no good purpose. Some still do it and are successful, so whatever, but most don’t anymore if they have any pricing power at all.
Free is great until it isn’t, and readers finally figure out that there’s a resource more precious than a few dollars: time. If they can pay $5 and be guaranteed of a read that gives them 10 hours of well-executed escape, that’s a better value than poring through dozens of marginal or worse books they got at no cost, only to delete them after the first twenty or thirty pages. Time is a commodity that doesn’t replenish, so in the end, I believe that most discerning readers will pay an equitable price for competent work. What that price winds up being is debatable. But it won’t be free, and likely won’t be .99, except as limited time promotions.
And now we come to the crassly commercial part of the blog. Check out the new cover below – I’m in the process of redoing the covers for Zero Sum, Fatal Exchange and Geronimo, and am almost done, so if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, get your credit card ready. That’s it for my blatant self-promotion for this episode. Now go buy something.
So there’s your installment of the view of the literary marketplace as seen through a tequila shot glass on the beach in Mexico. As with all things, your mileage may vary. In the end, the only things you can really control are the quality of the writing, the level of professionalism of your finished product, and the number of hours you invest in marketing. The rest is up to a finicky and randomly chaotic universe, so don’t quit your day job…
On June 7, I’ll have been self-publishing for exactly one year.
My first offering, Fatal Exchange, continues to sell well – in fact, it’s selling more now than ever.
My second book, How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) is languishing. I guess authors don’t buy books, or perhaps they don’t have a sense of humor about the business. So that’s been somewhat of a dud from a sales perspective, although a hoot from a creative and acclaim perspective. Go figure.
My third, The Geronimo Breach, is also selling well, although it varies from white hot to so-so, depending upon pricing and promotions I’m running. Still, it’s gotten rave reviews, and is one of my favorites, and I have to give it a thumb’s up from a sales standpoint. That’s one I think will still have appeal a decade from now, so I’m confident it will earn its keep.
NEWS: An interview with author Felicia Rodgers and yours truly on The Voynich Cypher.
UPDATE: New guest blog at Manic Readers on writing The Voynich Cypher. A good one.
I’m not going to list all my books. Don’t worry. You didn’t come here for that. You came here because of the free stuff I routinely give away, and the nude photos, I know. What? There aren’t? Oh. Never mind then.
Self-publishing has turned into a truly awesome experience for me – far better than I’d ever hoped. I’m selling at a clip that I’d hoped to hit within three years of entering the market, not ten months. So that’s great. But it has also given me a chance to live my dream. No, not being a pole dancing male burlesque stud grinding for the drunk tourist women at Jalapenos – I just do that for the cash and the workout. And no, also not naked ice dancing, although that’s certainly my first love. What I’m speaking of is being an actual author who makes his living writing books.
I had sort of given up that dream after my only encounter with the whole NY traditional publishing game in another life. It just seemed like I was going to have to surrender all my control, and dance like a trained chimp to the beat of countless editors, agents, marketing consultants, etc. while making peanuts, if that. I don’t have the patience for doing things on other people’s timelines, which is why I’ve never been a good big company player.
When I first heard of success stories in self-publishing I was skeptical. Konrath, Locke, Hocking, Eisler… I don’t know. It sounded too good to be true. But after I bought my first kindle I got it. I understood why that simple device had changed publishing forever, as had Amazon. I saw the future; one where tens of millions of devices were voraciously devouring high quality content, and I realized that if I could create even an interstitial awareness of my writing, there might be a there there. So I went the OCD route, and committed to write as close to a million words by the end of 2011 as I could manage. I got pretty close. 12 releases. None I have to be ashamed of.
2012 I’ve slowed the pace, and have targeted releasing 6 to 8 novels, depending upon my mood and the muse’s availability. I’ve got two in the can, and have started the third, so hitting my goal isn’t going to be a problem, I don’t think.
2012’s first release, The Voynich Cypher, has been big so far, and I hope it continues to attract reader attention. The next one, Revenge of the Assassin, a sequel to King of Swords, will release end of April, and then another sequel to King will release end of May.
Because of self-publishing, I’m getting to make my living, in retirement, as an author, and doing so on my terms, at my pace, with my vision of what the work should be like, what the covers should portray, and what price the books should sell for. As a creative person, I can’t tell you how good that feels. Happiness is fleeting, and getting to do something I love and get fairly compensated for it, as well as connect with readers, defies description. It’s a rush. It makes everything seem worth doing. I recommend it highly.
For that opportunity, I’m grateful. And while I at times have a love/hate relationship with Amazon, without their visionary approach to self-publishing, I’d be relegated to laying around on the beach considering my navel. So for that, I owe them one.
As I owe those who have purchased my work, and then told a friend. Without readers, a writer isn’t very fulfilled. It’s readers that make the experience complete.
So for everyone out there who might be debating self-publishing, all I can say is that to date it’s the most rewarding decision of my life at a host of levels. I hope that continues, and would encourage you to take the plunge and give it a shot. The water’s warm, and the view is just fine. Although the hours can be brutal, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll walk away from it with much more than the glow of the experience. Much like life, that.
I had an interesting short discussion tonight, the topic of which was where the hell the world is going. Specifically, where the world of books/publishing is going.
A major concern for many authors is the free & .99 book phenomenon. One person advanced the idea that the whole pricing model will wind up being free (or almost free) for all content, essentially shutting out most authors who hope to make a livable income writing. Ultimately, if you can’t get paid to write, many will bow out, leaving only those who write for passion publishing their work. And of course, not paying for things like editing and covers, because there’s no way to recoup the investment.
Another wag chimed in that the future is likely to be ads on kindle, or some other mechanism whereby authors can get paid for creating decent work. I suspect that will be closer to the truth. Or at least, I hope it will. Looking at the glut of demo tapes parading as “free” content from every musician with a sampler and shareware editing software, and seeing how robust the music business continues to be a decade after all was supposed to be lost because of CD purchases going the way of the Constitution, I tend to think we’ll adapt. Amazon isn’t going to want to be in the book biz long term to give it away for free. Even if that has been the short term effect on the indie publishing business of their KDP program.
I think we’re all seeing, as authors, the impact of KDP making free an option for everyone with an ebook. Which has created a glut. Ditto for the marketing guidance that one should price one’s wares at .99 – it’s interesting that even the pundits espousing the wisdom of .99 are now struggling to make decent sales at the $2.99 point, having lived in a .99 purgatory for long enough, it would seem.
I’ve played with pricing. I think there’s a place on a book introduction for a short time to price at .99. How long is more art than science – and even then, I believe only until you’ve established a reputation as being worth more. I was at #165 in total paid kindle sales with The Geronimo Breach for a few giddy days in January at .99 as a cheapskate promotion. When I raised the price, sales dropped off. Now, I realize there are many factors that could have affected sales besides pricing. Other offerings hitting. Saturation of those interested in giving me a whirl that week. A belief I suck harder than a Hoover. Whatever. Next time around, maybe I’ll keep my .99 book on an intro or a special for a few weeks, rather than a few days. We live and learn. I don’t think it’s going to much affect my overall trajectory. King of Swords, I went out with at $4.99. Sales are decent and trending higher. My $3.99 roster are selling well, if not briskly.
I’ll try .99 again in a while, maybe on Geronimo, or with another book. Maybe The Voynich Cypher when I release around first week of March, although I’m inclined to price it at $4.99 right out of the gate. I’ll be asking a lot of opinions before I do. But I will state that I’m disinclined to offer all my books on a rotating basis for free, or .99.
The market, ultimately, will decide what my books, and yours, are worth. It’s a weighing machine, that pesky market is. A product is worth whatever the market will pay for it. No more, no less. You can create liquidity (sales) by lowering the price, but if you want to maintain brand integrity, price wars are a lousy way to go. It’s best to just know what the product is really worth, and not try to get more, or less, for any length of time, as that will establish what the market perceives your brand as being worth. It’s either cheap crap, or overpriced. You won’t be able to please everyone. But if you have a good sense what other similar books are selling for in the same genre at the same level of writing and production/editing/cover, you should know what yours is worth.
My caution is if you are selling it for .99 when the “real” authors are at $4 or $5 or higher, you need to rethink what you’re doing, because you might be digging a hole you can never get out of, and tarnishing our work out of the gate.
One thing I do believe is that there’s value for mainstream readers in having a filtering mechanism to sort through all the dross and find quality books. It’s no secret that many free or cheap books are lousy, or marginal. People are generally surprised when they aren’t. I believe there will ultimately be a value proposition someone will pay for to find the decent, so they don’t have to sort through 100 duds to find a winner. What that mechanism is, I’m not sure. It’s not going to be Big 6 traditional publishing houses trying to get $12.99 for something that is presumably reasonably edited, and may also suck. There’s value in the filter, but for many, not THAT much value. Somewhere, my hunch says in the $5 range, there may be a middle ground. I don’t pretend to know. Or maybe the business will go to the ad driven model, where advertisers pay to be in your book based on the demand. Whatever it is, there will be a mechanism whereby authors of merit get paid. It’s just the intermediaries that will make a lot less. At least, that would be my hope.
Having said that, I do think that free is here to stay, until Amazon pulls the plug on it. At some point they’ll look at their overall book sales declining versus whatever they hoped to make off KDP, and some bright lad will figure out that it’s not a good direction. Or maybe not. I have two titles for free at the moment, purely as promotional loss leaders, and ironically, neither in KDP – the philosophy behind my free titles being that if you try my work, a substantial portion of you will not mind parting with the cost of a cup of coffee for more of it. So far that’s working, but I’m not sure how I’d feel if I only had one or two titles. I’d probably be railing against the free thing. Maybe not.
I waffle on all this quite a bit. For a while, I believed that all content would eventually get to the .99 point, as in the music model created by Apple. But that ignores that a song is 3 minutes of entertainment, whereas a novel is many hours. So maybe not. Maybe most readers won’t find it burdensome to pay $3-$5 or whatever for an author whose work they like and trust. I’m quite sure there will always exist a segment that won’t pay for anything, and believes that everything should be free – except of course, whatever it is they do for a living. They howl like spanked dogs if you propose they work for free – it’s just everyone else that should. That segment will always exist, as it has with music – but I note that Eminem isn’t quitting and getting a day gig as a result of all the free demos masquerading as finished product.
So what do you think? What’s going to happen? Are we going to be living in a world of free content, where the real talents fold up their tents and sell real estate instead of books? Or will there be an alternative mechanism to monetize the work, just as there is now an alternative delivery system to dead trees for pages? I tend to think the latter. Or maybe that’s just hope.
What do you think? What will the future look like?
Update Two: At the end of day three of my Twitter moratorium, sales are basically unchanged, as is the trend. Blog traffic, however, has dropped by 40%, signalling that Twitter is an effective way to market it. Also, I’ve gotten a number of e-mails and messages from folks who chimed in to point out that they’d have never heard of me if not for Twitter, thus it works, or did on them. Therefore, I think it’s valid to resume tweeting, but at a reduced rate. How’s that for waffling? Didn’t affect sales, did affect blog traffic, unknown on how much it affected would-be buyers – that’s the sales growth part of the curve. How many more people would have bought? I mean, I can assume none, but that assumes a static market, which it ain’t. So my approach will be akin to some people’s approach to prayer: can’t hurt. There are no atheists on Amazon.
Update: Two days into my Twitter holiday, my sales are basically flat with where they were with dozens of promotional tweets per day a week before. I’ll give it one more day, and if still flat, will be scaling back my Twitter presence to some product specific promotional tweets, a few review reprises, and mostly just me shooting the breeze with whatever comes to mind whenever I have a break. Nude ice dancing and clown warfare included. Interesting, as I would have expected a huge drop off. But reality is that Sunday, the last day of 50+ tweets per day effort, was down from Sunday a week before by 10%. Monday was off by 13%, and Tuesday was up by 4%. Which tells me what everyone else has been saying is likely correct – social media saturation is ultimately meaningless, and perhaps accounts for 10% of sales, once you’re established. After three days of it (assuming similar results manana) I think it’s safe to say that I don’t need to live on Twitter. There’s no point. That should be freeing for those of us who have been doing so. That’s all for now.
Is Twitter relevant for me as a reader? I mean, I know I’ve been told a million times how critical it is to me as an author, but how about as a consumer of books, as opposed to a shameless self-promotion machine?
Another fair question is, to what extent does Twitter help me, versus suck my time and my will to live?
The answer to the first question is easy. Of the 15 or so books on my kindle that are currently unread, I’ve heard about 100% of them from Twitter. Now, that may well be it’s because I spend what small amount of free time I have, when not writing, on Twitter, thus I am what I eat. Having said that, Twitter has been undeniably important to my reading habits, and I’ve discovered several good authors I would never have encountered had it not been for their tweets.
How about as an author?
I’ve been told by my marketing guru friends that I shouldn’t be tweeting more than a couple of times a day. I’ve been told that posting repetitive tweets hawking my books is annoying, and the mark of a rank amateur – which I cheerfully confess to being. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a book marketing guru, and I can honestly say that if you ask 10 folks who have done well on the indie author circuit, all 10 will give you a different answer to the question of how much to tweet, what kinds of tweets to put out, how much to retweet, etc. etc.
Here’s what I’ve concluded.
First, I think that the social networking thing is evolving so quickly that it’s almost impossible to stay current on what actually works. Because what worked last week might not work this week. And because nobody seems to have any idea as to what will work next. As an example, we’ve all read the self-help tomes advising us to write a heart-warming, seemingly sincere blog that will then go viral, propelling us to success. Except that hasn’t happened. To anyone. Not a single person I can think of. Or know of. Or have heard of. If I’m missing someone in the last eight months who followed that counsel, please leave a comment and point me in their direction. Because I don’t know of them. Which leads me to conclude that trying to do so is probably right up there with the following the advice, “Start a burger restaurant selling cheap, mediocre crap, and then build them all over the world, and brand them with a cute cartoonish character – and you’ll be rich!”
In other words, I am of the opinion that those helpful tomes advising you on how to spend ever-larger amounts of your limited time on “going viral” are of questionable value. Or no value. As in, nobody has been able to achieve success following the formula, ergo the formula isn’t what made the author successful. Seems straightforward to me. If I publish a tome advising that dogs barking causes cancer, because my dog barks a lot at the mailman and he got cancer, then the test would be to check for other examples of that causal effect. Which has led me to be a big party-pooping buzz kill on social media, in general, and the hours spent working it versus the reward seen from the work. I have read the books on establishing a brand, and building a following, and Facebooking and Tweeting and everything else, and have applied myself with singular diligence. But I have no idea if any of it matters.
If one clocks the number of hours one would have to be on the various platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Triberr, etc. etc. etc.) one would quickly conclude that being a piece worker in a Malaysian sweat shop pays better on an hourly basis. So yes, I think you can reach people, but it’s a question of effort versus return. I could also reach a certain penetration rate if I stood at the beach and handed out cheerfully-colored 10 page excerpts of my work. I’m quite sure if I did so 15 hours a day, my penetration rate would increase, at least in an absolute sense – I’d see more readers giving it a whirl over their margaritas, the more hours I stood there. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to do it.
I guess I’m questioning the usefulness of posting dozens of tweets per day. The salesman in me understands that frequency is key, but the marketer in me understands that sales and marketing are after different goals – sales cares about selling today, marketing is about positioning my brand (if bitter, old, cynical, clown-hating alcoholic misanthropes are a brand).
I think I’m going to try something in the next few days. I am thinking I’ll just stop tweeting for three or four days, and see what happens. If sales plummet, then I will know that Twitter is critical to broadening my reach and spreading the good news of Russ. If sales stay flat or increase, it will give me at least anecdotal evidence that it doesn’t much matter, and I would be better off throwing a tweet out every so often, and leaving it at that. I honestly have no idea which it will be. But I am interested in finding out, because as far as I can see, social media is consuming a large percentage of my time, which means I’m not writing, or living, when I’m doing it. So a part of me really wants it to not much matter, and just be yet another folksy truism that turns out utterly false.
I’ll let everyone know how it goes.
As always, it’s a great experiment.Ironically, I will be depending upon Twitter to spread the word about this blog. The circular futility of the act is not lost on me, but I can still laugh about it, so hey, at least I have that.
On other news, I am plowing through the edits on my next book, The Voynich Cypher, which has turned out much better than I’d dared hope. It will be somewhat of a departure for me – more of a pure suspense/adventure book than a conspiracy thriller. Hopefully it will be warmly embraced by young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black, white, brown, yellow, or of whatever orientation – religious, political or any other differentiating metric you like – and will be a mega hit, enabling me to infuriate my critics as well as the angry throng of clowns that continues to congregate on my front lawn once I’ve had a few pops to take the edge off (and don’t tell me we haven’t all been there). Alternatively, maybe a few people will think it’s a good book, in which case I’ll probably write another.
That’s all I have for today, folks. Kindly comment, if you feel a need to vent. Or don’t, and instead Tweet something. I’m sure I’ll see it amidst the thousands of messages that fly by every hour…