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Independent writing

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?

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NEWS: My new guest blog on Tinderboox is raising some eyebrows.

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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.

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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/mattawa/km-part2.htm)  The entire lecture hall listened, spellbound, and Khaled received a huge round of applause.  I learned that day that a writer can transform something as ordinary as the old Sears catalog into a thing of wonder and beauty.

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.

 

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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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NEWS: New book review for King of Swords sequel, Revenge of the Assassin, by bestselling author Steven Konkoly.

MORE NEWS: Book review for pet biography An Angel With Fur from Pets Weekly.

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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…

 

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It’s almost the end of March, and I promised everyone following my self-publishing saga an update on how the month went.

Frankly, it surpassed all my expectations.

As of today, 5:00 p.m., 3/24, I have sold over 10,000 books in March. Those are paid copies, not free downloads. Free, I’ve seen north of 60K this month. One way to view it is a 20% ultimate ratio between paid and free – maybe a little higher, as I still have till the end of the month to see all the sales on the titles I went free with this month.

That’s a lot of books.

++++++++++++++++++++++

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.

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Why the big jump from January and February’s 3000 books per month? One reason is that on March 17, I released The Voynich Cypher, which sold over 3,000 copies in the first three days, and to date, has sold within kissing distance of 4000 copies. That was unexpected, and looks good to continue, if not strengthen moving into April. Feedback has been positive, so it looks to become one of my most popular titles. My personal feeling is that it could be my breakthrough book, but who the F knows anymore? Let’s just say it’s looking good so far.

I had a body blow, too, though. Zero Sum disappeared from Amazon for 24 hours, with no explanation, about a week ago, midway into a promotional push. Just vanished. The resulting loss of about 70 sales during that period was painful, but more painful was the drop in rank from 1480 to 3500. The momentum I’d built on it came to a crashing halt, through no fault of mine. There was never any explanation of what happened. To call that frustrating is to understate it in the extreme. It hasn’t recovered, which makes sense, as below #2000 rank it gets recommended based on the algorithms, but above that number it doesn’t.

This underscores that we indie authors are creatures of Amazon, whether we like it or not. They give, and can take away. Like a deity, they can be mercurial, or accidentally cause large, unintended consequences – perhaps those numbers don’t seem like the end of the world, but when one considers the additional incremental decreased sales (25 a day versus 70) it starts looking like hundreds of books. Ouch.

Still, all in all, I can’t complain, and am very fortunate that readers like my work enough to catapult my books to well over 10,000 books sold this month, so far. I would guess sales will ultimately wind up being more like 11K to 12K by the end of the month, but one never knows. Even if we pull out the 4000 Voynichs, that means that my existing titles jumped from 3000 to 7000-8000 by month’s end. My hunch is that I’m getting better visibility over time, and word of mouth is slowly spreading – remember that 99.99% of all readers have never heard of me. My job over the next few years is to change that, to the extent that it’s possible.

Loans increased to over a thousand, as of this writing. That number isn’t counted in my above 10K – those aren’t technically sales. But they do throw some cash to the bottom line, and I’m happy to report I won’t run out of tequila or diesel fuel this month. The number is actually lower than it would be, as I’ve had several books expire from KDP Select and haven’t re-upped them. King, Delphi, Angel, Night, all are out of the program, with only Voynich, Geronimo, Zero Sum, Fatal and Gazillions remaining in. ZS will exit next week at some point, and Fatal in a couple of weeks; then it will be down to only three in the program.

So that’s the roundup. I will do a year-end summary for those playing along at home, and while there are no guarantees, I think it’s safe to assume that barring a disaster, sales for the year could exceed 100K sold. I could probably double or triple that number by moving a few titles to .99, but I don’t want to do so. I believe the work is under-valued at a buck a book, and I won’t sell a title for that. I’d rather give ‘em away for free. Which is what I continue to do on Night of the Assassin, and The Delphi Chronicle Book 1. Although I am considering ending those free promotions in June or July, writing a bit more content for Night, and making it a paid title as well. I’ll be releasing the sequel to King of Swords, for which Night is the prequel, in late April – Revenge of the Assassin – so it might make sense to take Night paid at that point, as it starts to look like a real series then. I already have the idea for the next one – Return of the Assassin – so that’s a strategic play. Return will probably be my next book, while my head’s still in that groove.

Here’s the takeaway for indie authors:

1) I began doing this in June, 2011. I made $16.87 that first month. Sales exploded to $80 by August – after three months of nonstop marketing, writing, and releasing 2 more titles. It took till December to make $1460 that month, by which point I had released twelve titles, and promoted tirelessly. Now, ten months after my first book, Fatal Exchange, went live, things are moving. Obviously, it takes time, and hard work, and good quality product.

2) It is possible to make good money as a self-pubbed author – way more than I’d be making if I was trad pubbed with those kinds of sales numbers. So the landscape has changed. Obviously, if I sold millions via a good tradpub deal, that would eclipse my results to date, but nobody’s knocking with that deal, so it’s a moot point. As it is, I’m seeing roughly double income from what I’d see trad-pubbed per unit. That’s significant, and there’s no agent taking 15%.

3) Part of the secret, at least for me, has been building a substantial backlist to promote. So if you are writing, write more. More good books is like fishing – more lines in the water to snag the passing schools.

4) Write most of the time. I write about 12 hrs a day, and tweet and facebook maybe two to three. Be prepared to work hard for many months, or years. I still do, and plan to, as I understand that one good month does not a career make. Neither does one good year. That’s just how it is.

5) Treat your publishing like a business. That means invest in editing, proofreading and copy editing, as well as professional covers. Be sensitive to what’s working, and what isn’t. Be willing to adjust your prices to meet the market – this isn’t about ego, it’s about selling books. As an example, I believe Voynich is a $6+ book, but I have it priced at $3.33. Why? I want maximum readership and a relatively low barrier to entry. The price will increase over time, as it has with King of Swords, which is selling briskly at $5, but to maintain max sales at a fair return for the first phase of the Voynich Cypher launch, I slashed the price and have kept it slashed. And I’ve done one facelift on all my fiction covers since last year, and am in the midst of a second phase of improvement – it’s a visceral world, so putting forth something visually appealing is worth spending time and money on. On the editing front, I’ve added a copy editor and a proofreader to my normal editor, so three sets of eyes checking for errors. I still get them, but far fewer. In other words, I do what the trad pub houses do – I invest in quality control so my brand has integrity and consistent appeal.

Thanks to all the readers who are enjoying my books. It’s inspiring to see so many downloading and reading, and mostly, liking. A few hate me, but as always, they can bite me before returning to their apartment in their mom’s garage, or dressing their 14 cats in Christmas outfits, or waiting in sleeping bags for the next Twilight movie release. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for those who get it. If you’re reading this blog, that is probably you.

 

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David Foster Wallace was the most important author of my generation.

That’s a rather sweeping statement, however having just finished re-reading Infinite Jest after a decade of it collecting dust since my first read of it, that’s the only conclusion I can arrive at. The man was a genius. His evocative use of language and fearless pushing of the post-modern sensibility was awe inspiring. Many use Thomas Pynchon in the same sentence, however that doesn’t do DFW justice, IMO.

Is he easy to read? No. There are sentences that run half a densely-packed page, and endnotes that run four or five pages. Is the story coherent? Depends on what you mean by “story” and “coherent.”

But is it an incredible, one-of-a-kind read that can and should redefine what fiction can be? Does it make one feel ashamed and unworthy to set words to paper? Does it make one sad that a talent this immense, this outsized, took his own life, robbing the world of a virtuoso the scale of a Mozart or a Nijinsky?

Yup. All that and more.

It’s also the literary equivalent of a nine-course gourmet French meal prepared by three-star Michelin chefs. My suggestion is that if you’re a writer and are unfamiliar with David Foster Wallace’s work, you should pick up Infinite Jest and take a month to read it – not to demoralize or bewilder you, but rather to give you a sense of the possible.

I know this is all off-topic, however between finishing up The Geronimo Breach and editing the final revision before publishing it, and doing my final polish of Zero Sum, I gravitated to the bookcase and became re-acquainted with DFW, which is somewhat akin to going to church, at least in my lexicon.

On a different note, I’ve gotten several e-mails asking me what’s next now that Fatal Exchange is available on Kindle and beginning its sales ramp with a few positive reader reviews (gracias for the kind words). Well, I’m about 20K words into The Delphi Chronicle, and that should be done by August 15, on the outside. Then I’m going to switch gears, and move from the smushed-together amalgam of Ludlum/DeMille (Nelson, not Cecil) that I tend to favor for my stories, to a stylistic departure, wherein I serialize the protagonist from Zero Sum (which should be on Kindle beginning of August, with any sort of tail wind whatsoever), but in a completely unexpected way. Think Da Vinci Code crossed with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and liberally sprinkle some Foucault’s Pendulum.

I’ve always wanted to write something like this, but lacked the desire to do the mountain of research a good effort requires. We’ll see how that goes – I can say that so far, at least at the outline stage, it’s by far the most Byzantine and complicated story line I’ve done, but it also gives me goose bumps when fleshing it out, which is a good thing. After getting through with Geronimo, where the protagonist is a deeply, chronically flawed character with every imaginable vice and shortcoming (which is easily the most fun character I’ve ever created, at least to write) who survives in spite of anything he does rather than because of it, moving to a research-intensive novel with heavy historical elements is as much of a departure for me as shooting for writing Harry Potter Meets The Android King. But that’s what keeps it fun, no?

I’ll try to blog more often over the summer, although I’m keenly aware that my opinions are seldom in as brisk a demand as I’d like to imagine (apologies to Strunk & White), however for better or worse, they’ll be online with at least some regularity.

Oh, and a final thought. At the risk of being Dr. Obvioso, this Christmas will be the year of the e-reader. I heard a voice in my head, and it never lies. Hardly.

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