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self publishing

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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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I’m proud to have as my guest Melissa Foster, author of three popular novels and creator of the World Literary Cafe. I pestered her to do an author spotlight, and she graciously agreed against her better judgment, fearing justifiably that this would be a dark stain on her career. Be that as it may, below find her interview and thoughts on the craft.

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:

Website: http://www.MelissaFoster.com
Facebook:
Twitter: @Melissa_Foster
My World
Fostering Success: http://www.fostering-success.com
Facebook Melissa Foster: http://www.facebook.com/MelissaFosterAuthor (Fanpage)
Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3023973.Melissa_Foster
Find Melissa’s Books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble
MEGAN’S WAY
http://www.amazon.com/Megans-Festival-Generation-Finalist-ebook/dp/B002LISR7C/
ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1317083196&sr=1-1

CHASING AMANDA
http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Amanda-ebook/dp/B004WF5202/ref=pd_sim_kinc1?
ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2

COME BACK TO ME:
http://www.amazon.com/Come-Back-To-Me-ebook/dp/B005V2MWM6/
ref=sr_1_1_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1324353899&sr=1-1

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9 Jun 2012, by

I Care

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.

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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!

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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.

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I have gotten a number of e-mails from concerned authors asking what the Amazon change on the ranking weighting and the Free promos means to them. I thought I would answer those in a general, public manner so everyone can see my thought processes.

First, I believe that at any moment, Amazon may reduce the weighting of free downloads to zero, or close to it. They will do that whenever they get around to it – they have already won the war with Select – there is no credible competitor, so they don’t need to create a scenario where their higher price titles are displaced by indie authors, whose work is by now clogging millions of kindles from all the free downloads. Sure, if someone wants to put their title up for free, in the hopes that translates into greater exposure, they’ll let ‘em, but it won’t have any effect on sales, so most will not do it as it won’t make any sense any longer, except perhaps for the first book in a series (to pull along the rest, assuming anyone actually reads the free first book, and then likes it enough to pay to read more).

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NEWS: New interview with Deanna Jewel on my process, including an excerpt from my latest!!!

WOW!!! New 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading.

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!

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I think that succeeding in self-publishing will get even tougher, so much so that the majority of self-pubbers who have enjoyed some small success will see their businesses dry up. That will discourage most, and result in the mad self-publishing gold rush we’ve seen to abruptly come to an end. It will take a while, like an oil tanker shutting down its engines and requiring five miles to stop, but once folks figure out the implications of a world where the big names command most of the virtual shelf space, the love will be out of the game.

Stories of John Lockes and Amanda Hockings will be comfortable fairy tales, when back in the good old days you could hit big in self-publishing with seeming ease. But what will quickly become apparent moving forward is that if the lists don’t have you on them because they favor higher priced offerings, then nobody knows you exist, and all the Tweeting, Facebooking and Google Plusing in the world won’t broaden your reach. If you can’t have a list price of $14, you won’t be able to compete with those that can, unless you sell a sh#tload of books – the odds of which decrease given that the algorithms that are the kingmakers won’t tout you, and so your sales will be meager. It’s a vicious circle, where if you aren’t already part of the club, then you won’t stand much chance of ever being invited into it.

I don’t know what Amazon has up its sleeve, but I do know a few things. First, it costs them something to upload every book and create a page. If that book never sells enough to cover those costs plus a tidy operating profit, the chances are poor that they will keep doing it. They’ll want to discourage it. Or perhaps even start charging to create a presence for those who aren’t traditionally published. I don’t know, but I do know that it doesn’t make sense to do free stuff once you have won the war.

And make no mistake – they have won the war. I can’t say I will be sad if they do that, because let’s face it – there’s a glut of books that should never have seen the light of day. Every person in the world has by now dusted off every manuscript they churned out in the last twenty years, created a cover, and slapped it up on Amazon, hoping to cash in on some of that easy self-pubbing money. After all, didn’t Konrath make $100K in three weeks selling stuff that was rejected? Didn’t Locke sell a million of penny dreadfuls? Anything is possible, and in all feeding frenzies and manias, the sense is that this time is different. Anything can happen. And if you don’t buy a lottery ticket, you can’t ever win.

I think we are seeing the not-so-slow-motion popping of the Amazon self-publishing bubble. Whether it will be abrupt, or gradual, is the only thing I’m unsure of. The dawning awareness that this is an extremely hard business, where the odds favor those who are already successful, will come slamming us all in the face, and for many, will be a kind of epiphany. No, sweetie, you can’t pick dot com names with a dart and wind up a millionaire. Sure, for a while the game was rigged to make it seem like you could, but most didn’t, and that era is over. Likewise, it seemed like you could always depend on there being a sucker to pay more for your McMansion than you paid for it the prior year – until you couldn’t. It’s human nature, and all manias have that characteristic. The impossible becomes achievable, at least conceptually, to most everyone – and by the time everyone is participating, the odds of all but a slim minority exiting with a profit are slim to none.

If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Written a century and a half ago, it’s still a great book. And human nature hasn’t changed. We want to believe that we can prevail, and that winning doesn’t involve being part of a club we have no hope of ever joining. We live in hope. We have to. The alternative is too depressing.

I’ve said numerous times that you shouldn’t be writing if you are motivated by selling a gazillion books. Or even earning a living at it. Because 99%+ odds say you won’t. For a brief moment there was a kind of Camelot, a renaissance in the industry, where for a few giddy years the sky seemed to be the limit. I believe that is now over.

Perhaps I am overreacting, and Amazon will act as a proud parent, dolling out treats to us all for being good. My hunch is that ain’t going to happen. What’s more likely is that they focus on their own Thomas and Mercer brand, making it successful, and push the offerings of the trad pub world, because they make more, and because those are likely higher quality than most of the indie stuff.

I see every reason for them to do so, and few to foster a world where every man is a self-publishing empire. The economics are against it. And in the end, ALL commercial enterprises are about making a profit. As much of one as possible without getting arrested. That’s what businesses do. It’s their reason for existing. If you want to know what Amazon will likely do in the future, just look at what will make Amazon the most money. This isn’t hard, folks. It’s common sense.

I think this is the first salvo in a continuing strategy. I don’t think they want to kill indie. I don’t think they care about indies much, beyond the leverage catering to that market bought them in achieving their short term business objective. Which they did. They shook up the trad pub world, got a proud and vain industry to understand where the real power lies, and changed the negotiating landscape. So now, time to tweak the software and get down to making some money.

I don’t blame them. I frankly have always viewed the Pollyannaish sentiment that they would treasure us and nurture us like precious hothouse flowers to be somewhat naive. Why? Why would they? What’s in it for them, other than selling a lower profit SKU in place of a higher profit SKU? Who would push the lower profit SKU? I wouldn’t. Not if I understood that my market would largely buy the higher priced one if that’s what they were exposed to. Because running a business, the smart business decision would be to sell the item that will make you the most money, all things being equal. So that’s what they are likely to do. The end.

What does the future hold? I believe it holds tough times ahead. I think the lower sales most are seeing this month are the start, not the end, of a trend.

I have never wanted more to be wrong about anything.

Time will tell.

I will try another free promo next week to confirm what I’m hearing from just about everyone, however I have very low expectations – maybe 10-15% of the impact on sales the same promo might have had in March or April. It may net out to still being worth doing – if you see a 200% bump in sales for four days, hey, that’s something. But what won’t be happening is placing in the top 10 with ease, and then seeing a thousand books sold in the following week. Those days are over. Sad, too. I loved those days.

Better buy me a drink. I start crying in a few minutes.

On a shameless self-promotional note, I launched Return of the Assassin today – the fourth installment in the continuing adventures of El Rey, the “King of Swords.” It’s another barn burner and has more twists than a mountain road. Buy one for every person you know, or would like to know, or think you might know at some point. It’s for a good cause.

Me.

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17 May 2012, by

How it works

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.

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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!

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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.

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Sales for every author I know have been dumping since March, on a month over month basis. This could be due to seasonality, but I suspect that it has far more to do with changing consumer behavior. We, as authors, have trained readers that they don’t have to buy books. They can just wait for them to go free. What kind of chump pays for a book when they can get the same thing for free, fer chrissakes?

I’ve heard this again and again. So while free has been good for some authors (like me) in the short term, in the longer term, it has established a new kind of hoarding behavior where the value of the work is degraded. We have done this to ourselves. We have seen the enemy, and it is us.

I’m guilty of it. Most I know are, too.

And sales across the board are languishing. Since Amazon changed the algorithms, my sales are down 35% from April, which were down about that much from March (which were almost 5X what Feb and Jan were, so can’t complain too much). The difference is the free promotions, or rather, the success thereof. In March, I would do a free promo, see 15K downloads in two days, and the sales would boom to couple hundred a day of that title for four to five days, then slow gradually, maybe hundred and fifty day six, hundred day seven, sixty day eight, and then settle into a “long tail” where they would bottom at around fifteen to twenty a day by week three.

The point is that by running a free promo every week, I would see that spike on one title per week, which was an extra eight hundred to thousand books a week. Averaged across a month, that was four thousand books. That’s a lot of books.

Now, though, I have done three different promos in three weeks, and seen 10K per free promo, I’ve seen sales struggle to maybe 20% of what I saw in March and early April, with the fall happening much faster. I believe that’s because of how the books appear on Amazon’s lists – they aren’t getting favorable placement any more, due to the algorithm change. So now you are invisible to readers, just as you were before, except for maybe one or two days of placing far down a list that has also been changed, again, as noted in earlier blogs.

That would argue for pulling out of KDP Select. No more free lunch. No benefit. And an actual harmful net effect.

And yet, I am staying in, for now, even if I’m not going to do many more free days.

Why, you ask?

Loans. As of April, Amazon increased the loan fee for each borrow to just a hair shy of $2.50. So if you get 1000 borrows, there’s an extra $2500. It’s actually not extra, as it cannibalizes a sale, but at $2.50 net, what do I care? That’s great compensation on a net basis (even if you have your book at $3.99, you won’t see $2.50 average net, as all the affiliate and non-US territory sales cut into that at a 35% commission rate, as opposed to 70%, blending out at more like $2.25 on average across a month). To my thinking, I’m now being compensated as if all my titles that are borrowed were retailing at $4.50 or so. That’s a sweet deal. Sweet enough to have me keeping my titles in the program to reap that reward.

I see about 30% borrows to sales. Sell 1000, you see roughly 300-350 borrows. How does that suck? Well, you are foregoing nook and other platform sales (although not really, if someone is willing to convert the MOBI and you haven’t enabled digital rights management). But no way are my nook sales 30% of my total.

One tell is that my UK sales have now grown to be 30-40% of my mix. But they don’t have borrows there. That would explain why sales have been growing even as US sales are falling. Far fewer seem to take advantage of free promotions there, and they can’t benefit from loans, so they just buy the books. I also note that the refund rate is far lower. In the US, I see roughly 1.75-2.25% returns. Doesn’t matter what title. That’s the average. I used to think it was because some were offended by language or politics or religion, but no – my dog bio sees the same returns as my most controversial work. In the UK, the return rate is more like around .25 percent. Perhaps there’s just a philosophy in the US of refunding things for whatever reason. Perhaps UK Amazon’s return policy is harder. Dunno. I just know that UK readers seem to whine less, return less, and buy more.

Viva the UK!

So what does this all mean for authors? Free is over, as I said before, unless you consider a 10%-20% effect worth it. Instead of seeing 150 books day two, you’ll maybe see 20-30. And that’s if you placed in the top 40 free overall. There will be exceptions, but that’s become the new rule, so free as a mechanism to increase sales due to the heightened visibility of the free/paid cycle is done. I do think the negative is that it is going to be a long time before the fringe crowd that would pay to read a new indie title does so – why buy when you have 100 free titles already on your kindle? That fringe buyer is who many of us were courting, and they are largely out of the game. Hence, sales slump, in addition to seasonality. And what you are trading for that extra 20-30 books sold for 5 days, is the death of your longer term sales market. Seems like a dumb tradeoff, to me, anyway. Maybe it’s worth it to some. But only, by my math, if you plan to sell maybe 200 books total per title. Otherwise, free is a bad deal now.

My tactic moving forward will be to run out the clock on the promotions I have scheduled, keep my books in KDP Select, but not offer them free. I will do this for the $2.50, no other reason. And if that declines, I’ll be out completely, focusing on other promotional tools.

And writing.

I think the single biggest differentiator I have from most of my peers who started publishing when I did, is my large and growing backlist. I’m so convinced that makes a difference I have committed to writing five more novels this year, if it kills me. I think once you have critical mass of, say, 15 paid titles, there is a lot more chance for someone to stumble upon one of your works. And when they do, they might work their way through all your books, which translates into considerably higher revenue over the long term. Because you have gained a reader, not made a sale.

In the long run, and I’m talking years or decades, I believe making a living as an author will come down to supplying consistently high quality work in the genre your readers like and want. Promotions, pricing, giveaways, hype – all are good, but nothing will build a career like putting your head down and writing as well as you are able. Not as fast as you can, but as well as you can, at a sustainable rate. So if you can only get out one or two novels a year, my advice would be prepare to do that for the next five years, and dig in for the long haul. That’s what I’m doing. My magic number is to have 15 paid titles, then next year I will back it off to maybe 3 or 4 books a year from there on out. Because it’s not like I don’t have enough titles out. But all of last year, I felt hunted and driven, because a part of me said, “You need more.”

Turns out that was right.

I have been told that summer will be miserable from a sales standpoint, and also, in the same discussion, that sales will increase due to summer beach reads being bought. My gut says free saturated a lot of those discretionary indie beach read purchases, but I hope I’m wrong. However that may turn out, I’ll still write my five more books, and be gearing up for the Dec-March boom again.

Because Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will any career be. Unless you’re a Kardashian. Meh.

Speaking of shameless self-promotion, check out my new box set – that’s a lot of books for a lousy ten bucks. As always, the art was done by my usual guy, whose contact info can be yours for the asking.

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The crazy, mad crack high of free books is now officially over.

I can’t say for sure, but I am about 99% confident that Amazon has made changes to its algorithms, so instead of seeing massive spikes in sales coming off free, you will see a paltry spike, if that.

I have several friends who just came off free in the last week, saw 15K downloads, and saw a marginal increase in their sales – maybe 10% of what they would have seen a month ago.

+++++++++++

BREAKING NEWS: New interview with Kevin Rau and yours truly. Because it’s all about me.

NEWS: An excellent new blog featuring my thoughts on promotions by @inkwellHQ. A good read.

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

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE TWO: A lengthy interview wherein I cover everything from the war on drugs, to central banking, to writing.

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I just did the same thing with Zero Sum. Actually, that was an odd one. I think Amazon hates Zero Sum. Remember that it “lost” the book for 24 hours, trashing the ranking when it “found it.” Went from #1300 or so to #8500, and never recovered. Nice. Thank you, Amazon. Whoops!

But this time, Amazon didn’t pull it off free at midnight when it was supposed to, at the end of day two. No, 12 hours into day three, and it was still free. Which made the promotions I’d scheduled a moot point. But it saw over 10K downloads and hit #30 overall. So not terrible. Certainly not bad for the third time it’s gone free.

Day one paid, I priced it at .99 for one day, to boost paid sales on the critical first 24 hours, when the algorithms used to give a sh#t. I saw a whopping 100 sales at .99, versus 350-500 on similar promos just a few months ago. So not as large a bump – maybe a quarter or less what April might have brought. Then, in the first 24 hours at a discounted price of $3.47, I saw 21 sales.

To put that into perspective, the book typically sells 20 a day. Some days 15, some 25.

So a modest effect on deeply discounting the book, and then virtually nothing once at normal price.

Two months ago, I was seeing 150 a day following a free promotion at full price, and that lasted 7 days. Now, not so much.

Thus, the giddy days of big sales from going free are officially over. I’m hearing similar tales from everyone I know. So it’s O-V-E-R. We’ll have to come up with something new.

I won’t be doing any more free promos if there’s no lift from the free days. Makes no sense. I’ve already seen well over 150K of my books downloaded free over he last 6 months, so another 10K of one title or another ain’t going to bring in the tide of readers. I’ll run out the clock on the existing promos, and collect the loan fees on the borrows – which DO offset sales, contrary to some claims to the contrary (I’ve seen it now for several months, where the first few days of the month borrows go through the roof, and sales drop by precisely the same amount – makes sense, as those folks are waiting for their free book from Select, rather than buying the title). But as to breaking big on a book because of free, I believe that’s finito. It was certainly fun while it lasted. But now the hangover sets in.

I wonder how long it will take others to figure this out? My prediction is 30-60 days, if they don’t read this blog. Allow me to be the first to proclaim the end of the free era on Amazon. Long live the new, new thing. Whatever that might be.

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One of the things I get asked a lot, besides “When does the statute of limitations expire?” and “You seriously don’t understand why you can’t say that in a book?” is “What steps have you taken that have made a difference in your promotions?”

I would have to say that the KDP Select free days have had a massive positive impact (although how long that continues is anyone’s guess), as has my my participation with Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe.

+++++++++++

BREAKING NEWS: New interview with Kevin Rau and yours truly. Because it’s all about me.

NEWS: An excellent new blog featuring my thoughts on promotions by @inkwellHQ. A good read.

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

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

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE TWO: A lengthy interview wherein I cover everything from the war on drugs, to central banking, to writing.

+++++++++++

WLC, as it is known in shortened form, is a gathering place, author resource network, promotional site, and much, much more. I originally was introduced to it by Andy Holloman, for the launch of his book, Shades of Gray, in which I featured The Geronimo Breach as one of 9 books that helped support his launch. My experience was positive, so I signed up for their tweet teams (reciprocal tweet groups) and then did a few launches – most noteworthy being The Voynich Cypher, my first launch with them March 20, which sold 4,000 copies within a week of the launch, to which I attribute much to WLC – it was a featured book, had an excerpt on the site, featured a blog by yours truly, etc. I have no doubt I wouldn’t have gotten the visibility I received absent those promotions, and I continue to use WLC for my launches – I’ve integrated them into my strategy. The cost is a no brainer, more than reasonable, and the results speak for themselves. I used them for the launch of Revenge of the Assassin and saw a big run of sales, and will continue using them for the foreseeable future. They’re a quality outfit, and the founder, Melissa Foster, is a caring and supportive bestselling author in her own right.

They can be found at WorldLiteraryCafe.com.

Another thing that’s made a difference is @TweetYourBooks doing promotional tweets for me. Hard to measure the success directly attributable to that, but my gut is that it is substantial. Their sister service can be found here.

I have also tried advertising with little success, blog tours with some success, interviews with some success, and all sorts of other promotions, with inconclusive results. The few things I can say that are part of my arsenal moving forward are the two I just mentioned, as well as trying to respond to every e-mail and comment from readers, and keeping my blog interesting as I can – although I’ll grant you that it is very author-centric at the moment. Perhaps next week I’ll focus more on fluffy kitties or cute puppies. Or clowns, and the ever-present menace to thinking upright bipeds that they represent.

While the aforementioned types of promotional vehicles (except for the clowns and puppies/kitties) definitely can add to your visibility, the truth is that success in publishing is as much luck of the draw as it is skillful planning. Being in the right place at the right time, luck, a fluke, a mention from out of the blue…any or all of these can have just as much to do with exposure and sales as any strategy I’ve seen. Having said that, I can’t help but think that the harder you work at promotions, the luckier you will be.

That’s it for this installment. My philosophy is to just keep writing, and hope that eventually quality will rise to the top. Or in my case, that I’ll get lucky.

And since no blog of mine would be complete without shameless self-promotion, here’s the cover for my new one, to be released by the end of the month. Sequel to King of Swords and Revenge of the Assassin – Return of the Assassin. If anyone wants the contact info for my cover artist, e-mail me through the site and I’ll be happy to provide his info.

Now go buy some of my books so I can afford my bar tab this month. Papa gets thirsty. Wink.

 

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