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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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13 Aug 2012, by

Writing Better

The other day I had a long discussion with an author friend, and we were bemoaning a book we’d both recently read (I couldn’t make it past the 20% mark) and discussing all the problems it had (aside from the lack of editing), and he suggested to me that it might be valuable to create a series on how to write a better book.

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WOW! A humorous blog with me, about me, focused on my wants and needs, and what I think and feel, with the lovely Patricia Carrigan.

NEWS: A guest blog with the always charming Wren Doloro. The Women of Russell Blake.

INTERVIEW: A brand new interview with author Mel Comley.

MORE NEWS: Another guest blog on how to promote your ebook!

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None of what I lay out is new. Nor is it controversial. But it is often ignored by writers at their peril.

What follows is part one of a series of blogs that offer tips on writing a better novel.

TIP # 1: Eliminate unnecessary words. If that seems familiar, it’s because it is the first commandment from Strunk & White. And it’s a good one. Too often we get all wrapped up in word count and novel length, and I think that creates pressure to be less critical of our word choices than we should be. Some writers tend to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, or a sentence where a word would be more effective. I’m not counseling that you cut your work down to the bare minimum (although that’s never a terrible idea), but rather that you eliminate any lazy words – words you insert that add nothing, or that you overuse – one good tip is if you suspect you’re overusing something, use the “Find” feature in MS Word and see how many times it appears in your doc. As to lazy words, I’m talking about words like “few” or “or so.” “A few soldiers ran…” “It was a mile or so…” Try to be specific. No sentences or thoughts are improved by the insertion of lazy words. If it was a mile away, say so. If there were three soldiers, or six, or a dozen, say so – do the work, think through how many there were, and give the reader that specific information. Sometimes it’s okay to have ambiguity in a thought (to me, especially with character descriptions, I find that less is more and that they work better with the reader filling in the blanks), but mostly it’s just the writer being lazy.

TIP #2: Don’t be lazy. If a reader is to be expected to invest hours into reading your work, you owe the reader your very best effort. A shoulder shrug and the thought, “That’s good enough,” cheats you both. If you are questioning whether it’s good enough, it probably isn’t and you know it. So stop being lazy and do it better. Only once you feel that you couldn’t have expressed an idea or thought better should you be done with it. And you should turn each sentence over with that idea in mind. “Can I do this better? How?” If you take this approach, you’ll find your writing improves considerably because you are demanding more out of  yourself.

TIP #3: Write fast, then rewrite. I don’t like to edit as I go. It breaks up the flow, and I wind up mewling like a bitch kitty in a corner, trying to polish each sentence rather than getting the story out on paper (or in this case, the screen). I’ve found that it works better to write at a decent clip and then do multiple drafts, rewriting only once the story is done. Basically, in my approach, the first draft is only 1/3 of the work. The second, which is where a lot of rewrite time is invested, fixes the more awkward language and grammatical gaffes, and then third is more for pacing, polishing and looking for echoes.

TIP # 4: Watch for echoes. Surely you can think of more than one word for anything. If you can’t, get a thesaurus. Nothing bores a reader faster than repetitive use of the same word. Go for variation, but be sensitive about trying too hard. Sometimes using a word like door twice is preferable to portico, and chair works better than chaise. Sometimes not, but usually you want to steer clear of the obscure. Because job number one is to tell the story in as gripping a manner possible, and showing off your scrabble skills might wind up coming off as pretentious or labored.

TIP #5: Use description as punctuation. You should establish a pace, a cadence to your flow, and balancing dialogue and exposition is one way to create a rhythm. Description can be mesmerizing or tedious, and when it’s done well, it can establish valuable pauses in the narrative.

TIP #6: Know the rules, but be okay breaking them if it creates an effect you are after. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell.” That comes from the more important idea of “Keep it entertaining and moving.” But sometimes for stylistic reasons you want or need to tell. I don’t get too hung up in this, as most of these rules are well-intentioned ideas, not mandates. When writers become dogmatic about rules (no adverbs, never end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) they are defeating themselves and confusing helpful rules of the road with narrowly-interpreted absolute laws. Mostly, I find that those who care about this stuff past a certain point got themselves a degree where they’re emotionally invested and there can only be one right or wrong. Again, I’m not saying be ignorant of the rules, but rather learn them well, and then follow them to the extent that doing so makes your writing better.

TIP # 7: It’s okay to love language. You should. You’re a writer. If your goal is to merely crank out ten word paragraphs at a second grade level, you may be a candidate for the James Patterson novel factory, but you won’t be writing evocative, interesting prose. Balance your use of language with what mood you want to create. You’re defining the atmosphere, the environment your reader will be inhabiting. Choose your style carefully so it achieves what you want. My advice is to not try to create a voice that you hope will be one readers are receptive to – rather, just write in your voice, whatever that is, and make your voice an extremely interesting and compelling one – work to develop it as such. Perhaps readers would love twenty thrillers by me, each with a different voice and style, but in truth, I believe that consistency is preferable. When I buy a Ludlum or Grisham novel, I want their distinctive, unique voice, not their attempt at a new one each book. In the end, the more you write, the more settled your voice will become, and the more confident you will be with it. That assurance is essential if readers are to have confidence in you as an author – and there’s no faking it. They’ll spot it a mile away.

TIP # 8: Read as much as you can. The more you expose yourself to, the more evolved your voice will become. I read voraciously – fiction, non, thrillers, economics, politics, you name it – anything but YA, romance or erotica (and poetry). Mainly because I’m a curmudgeon and don’t like it much. I can’t see how you could wind up being a good writer if you don’t read a lot. It’s like trying to be a good cook without eating or tasting a lot of different foods. Exposure to new ideas broadens your horizons, whether it is a device another author used to create an effect you like, or a stylistic trick you want to incorporate in your work, or a tangent the author goes off on that creates an unexpected sensation you’d like to make your own. If you don’t expose yourself to a lot of different work, you will have a limited vocabulary, which will translate into a hamstrung ability to tell an interesting story.

TIP # 9: Write as though your life depends on it. This speaks to quality. Write each book as though it was the only one of yours anyone will ever read. Because if it isn’t good, it will be. More importantly, nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to write. There are more than enough good, and bad, books out there. The world doesn’t need any more bad ones. So if you are going to foist your work off on readers, make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. If you find a passage or chapter your gut says shouldn’t be there, or could be better, your job is to act as the quality control department and either axe it or fix it. You should write with pride and sincerity, and strive to improve each day. Your work is your calling card, and it will build, or destroy, your reputation. If you don’t take what you are doing seriously and assign importance to it, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

TIP # 10: Tell the story as efficiently as possible. Another way of saying this would be don’t waste the reader’s time. Every chapter should be there for a reason, and each paragraph within it should as well. Same with each sentence. If it doesn’t move the story forward or create an effect you’re after or provide information that the reader needs, it shouldn’t be there. I’d rather read a gripping 70K words than a meandering 85K. Cut the fat. Lose the deadwood. Cut to the chase, and ask yourself with each page, “Is this interesting?” If the answer is anything but, “You bet your ass it is!” you should lose it.

TIO #11: Don’t be a douchebag with your vocabulary. You should have as large a vocabulary as possible (in order to best select how to convey your ideas, you need the largest palate of colors possible), but you don’t need to put defenestrated or axiomatic or antidisestablishmentarianism into your book just because you know what they mean. That’s kind of douchey, and it bugs me. It’s okay to use complicated language if that’s part of your style, but don’t write Nancy Drew and then drop in an antipodal or pantheistic for giggles. Keep it appropriate to your voice. Likewise, don’t write to moron level if you don’t naturally do so. Readers hate insincerity, and if you are trying to dumb your work down because you feel it is too smart for your target audience, my advice is to go after a different audience. Daniel Silva shoots for a different audience than John Locke. Neither of them would be good at writing what the other does. So keep it real and just write what you write.

TIP #12: Don’t write for an imaginary audience. Trying to second guess what some hypothetical demographic might like is silly. Write what you like, do it with sincerity, and make it as interesting as you can. In other words, write a book you would enjoy reading. If that means you take risks and push the envelope because you’d find it boring to read otherwise, then trust that instinct. If you try to make everyone happy you wind up writing a book by committee, and please nobody. Write what you would read – not what you would read if your mom was sitting reading with you, or what you’d want to tell your priest or rabbi you read, or what your critique group might be impressed with – if you would find what you are writing boring as a reader, go with that instinct and spice it up. Don’t pull punches, but don’t try to be outrageous for shock value alone, unless you enjoy books that have outrageous, shocking scenes or language for no other reason than the effect. Be true to what you like as a reader and you can’t go too wrong.

TIP # 13: Have fun. Creation can be painful, but at the end of the day, there should be an emotional payoff. There should be joy in it. Some might even say it should be fun. Given that the chances of any writer making real money from their work are miniscule, the work itself is likely to be the only reward one gets, so it should be rewarding. Love what you do, and love yourself as you do it. In the end, nobody gets out of this alive, and you will only have your experiences when you’re lying on your deathbed. So if you choose to occupy your time – the only time you have on the planet – writing, then make it count and do it for real, and enjoy it.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I will write more blogs on the topic as I feel inspired. A lot of this is good for me to state for myself – it’s easy to lose sight of some of these tips when you’re cranking out about a million words a year. So it’s a reminder to myself as well.

What do you think? Any tips you’ve found are helpful to your writing?

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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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I was walking to my favorite restaurant, minding my own business, when suddenly I heard this ungodly squawking from the sidewalk at the base of the building across the street.

Sounded like someone was killing a little bird.

Turned out that was close to the truth – it was a baby ostrich that had somehow fallen from its nest and made its way along the sidewalk, shrieking out of fear.

I, being the sucker I am, cancelled my dinner plans (my friend thinks I’m nuts, BTW) and we rescued the little guy (or gal – I’m not so good with bird physiology – barely have the human kind nailed, truth be told), which began my stint as indentured servant to a two ounce dictator.

I had no idea that baby birds need to be fed every hour. Nor did I have any idea what they should be fed. It turns out that warm canned puppy food mixed with a little water and milk does the trick – my vet recommended that, assuming I wasn’t ready to regurgitate worms and bugs for it. Given that I try to avoid regurgitation in general, a few cans of Pedigree seem a small price to pay.

That was 8 days ago. I have since fed the little monster at least 80 times. I’m getting pretty good at it, actually. Too bad it pays about as well as writing. I have also been informed that contrary to my initial impression, it is neither an emu or an ostrich. Apparently it’s more exotic for these parts of Mexico. A sparrow.

Anyway, my hope is that the bird will be able to fly within another few days, and then it will be off into the wild blue yonder with it. Hopefully. I have no idea how to teach it to fly. I draw the line at dressing up in a bird suit and flapping my wings while shouting encouragement. I hardly ever even bother doing that for first dates. Unless there’s a lot of drinking involved. Or she’s hot. Or both.

Although I confess I’ll miss it. Or maybe I won’t. I spoke with the vet today again, and she said that most birds that are saved like that die once they’re released, because the owls and cats and whatnot get them before they can figure out what an owl or cat even is. That the ones that make it this far are the survivors that figured it out between being born and this point, so all I’m doing is postponing the inevitable.

Now, given that all I’m doing with my own mortality is postponing the inevitable, I have mixed feelings about sending the tyke out into the world to watch it get eaten by the feral felines in the neighborhood. And so, this morning I bought a cage. Not a forever cage – an “until I figure out what to do with the little rat” cage. I will say it’s endearing the way it hops onto my finger after it is done screeching as though I’m going to kill it. Seems to like going for little rides, like from the modified puppy crate I was using to its new, sumptuous digs.

Everyone knows I write action/adventure novels featuring unlikely protagonists battling impossible odds. I’m not really set up for bird daycare. It might cramp my otherwise lavish lifestyle of dream yachts, super models and globetrotting. Hard to do all that carrying the world’s ugliest budgie around in a cage.

I looked up life expectancy for sparrows, BTW, and the oldest living bird clocked in at 17 or 16 years, depending upon which website you believe (I use Wikipedia because everyone knows 100% of the info there is accurate). That’s good news and bad news – if it was an ostrich I’d be adding a bedroom to the house, whereas for a sparrow, not so much. Be that as it may, it would seem that when I scooped up the bird, I was signing up for a commitment that will last roughly the time it takes to raise a child. That wasn’t really my plan. I’m hoping I can teach it to sell Chiclets or something so it can augment the Blake family income. I already have the dogs pulling a modified sled 10 hours a day for tourist rides. That helps with the bottom line – they seem to love it until they drop from heat stroke. Lazy buggers.

So what have we learned? First, no good deed shall go unpunished. Second, small decisions can have life altering consequences. Third, birds don’t like tequila as much as some humans. And fourth, that I now have to keep breathing another 15 years at least, or my karma will suck a bag of d#cks. Hrrmph.

Here are some blurry shots of the little beast. Don’t know if you can see its bloody fangs – I think the razor sharp mandibles hide them in resting position. And yes, I know my photography skills are right up there with my editing talents. Don’t be such a hater. You’ll get brain ebola and die cold and alone in a drainage ditch mocked by your gleeful enemies.

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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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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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12 Apr 2012, by

Rambling Man

I get a lot of e-mails from fellow indie authors, mostly cursing me or telling me I’m a dark stain on the profession, but some discussing trends in the business, such as it is.

While I try to avoid making predictions, primarily because I’m usually wrong (or the clowns use the information against me in their ongoing persecution), it’s hard to be in this business, if it can be called that, and not try to divine the future.

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NEWS: I was listed as one of the top 50 indie authors by IndieReaders.com for March. I wonder if I get a ribbon or something?

UPDATE: A great new book review of The Voynich Cypher.

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So here are a few random ramblings, in no particular order.

Free is the new .99 on Amazon. Last year, .99 was the attention-getting gimmick some author used to propel themselves to all-too-brief stardom. This year, if you want to get noticed, at least in the first 100 days of the year, you gotta go free. It’s a very odd formula, but one you either adapt to, or die.

The rub is that the giddy sales high from free days is getting weaker and weaker, and doesn’t last. Books that were in the top 40 following their free days are now right back where they were before the bump they experienced. So free can buy you fleeting increased sales and visibility, but it’s a false God. The downside for readers is now obvious to me – there is so much content out there I can download free it’s shameful, but at the same time, there isn’t enough time in the day to read even a third of what I’ve downloaded. I’m just now getting to things I got in DECEMBER. I suspect that 99% of all books downloaded for free go unread. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s my gut feeling, at least if I’m anyone to judge reading behavior by.

The market is getting more cluttered. Everyone, from third graders to octogenarians, are writing “books” and publishing them. That means there are now millions of books out there, with all the authors making noise to get noticed. Not surprisingly, few of them do. Why? Because your chances are better of being struck by lightning than of making a living as a writer. Really. But nobody wants to hear that. That’s a big party pooper, and doesn’t play into the whole “The Indie Road” mantra that seems more akin to a religion for some than a business decision.

The content glut doesn’t really bother me much, just as the millions of blogs out there don’t really impact my enjoyment of writing this one. I write it, whether hundreds of people read it a day, or just a couple. Just as I am writing my books, just as I was when I sold 30 in a month. Because, as I said in a blog long ago (maybe six months ago, maybe eight), I write first because of love of the craft and a compulsion to do so, as well as to tell stories, and yes, out of ego that gets stroked when I get a few miserable sentences right. But I don’t write to be a commercial success, because I have no idea what will be commercially successful. Nobody does. If they did, they’d be writing it, and we’d all be reading their books in awe and wonder, not going, “Why is this crap selling?” Likewise, if the trad pub apparatus did, companies wouldn’t do six figure deals for duds. Lots and lots of them. The truth is that even the pros have no idea what will sell, so the notion that they only sign “the best” books is flawed. Scott Nicholson, a great writer, says something to the effect that “if the 100 best books of all time hit NY today, only 10 would get signed, and the other 90 would get rejected, because the industry didn’t have a slot for them that day.”

Having said all this, I had an idea that seemed like a good one. Of course, I can’t do it, because I’m busy writing. But check out the concept. Are you ready? Sitting down?

Consumer Reports for Indie books, including the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Maybe you have to submit your work with the contact info for your editor, so it can be verified as having actually been edited, and the name of your cover artist, so it’s clear that a pro team was used. That doesn’t mean the book will be good, but it increases the chance that it will be decent, at least, as in relatively free of typos and incoherent gibbering.

Why would this be good? Because in spite of all the hyperbole, most authors don’t use pro editors, and most don’t use pro cover artists, so their offerings range from mediocre to beyond terrible. That turns readers off to entire price points for books – “Oh, not another $2.99 screed filled with lousy writing, grammar and typos.” How many times have  you read authors saying, after getting a host of terrible reviews on the editing or formatting, “Now I’m sending it off to a real editor, and it will be fixed within X period of time!” Really? Given that it’s near impossible to succeed, you wanted to wait until your readers, few as they might be, confirmed that un-edited work is, er, lacking, to say the least? That’s your plan? Let the readers tell you it’s sh#t, and then fix it? “This tastes like dung.” “Thank you for your patronage, sir. We will now be closing the restaurant while we hire a real chef to fix our recipe, which largely consists of dung at the moment. Bud don’t worry, in the meantime, we will still be offering our dung sandwiches for sale through the front dining room – we have a lot of them left. Please come back soon.”

Is it just me, or is that nuts?

I pay an editor – a Brit, who is a talented writer himself. I also pay a copy editor once he’s done, and then a proofreader. I do this because if I am going to charge for my work, whether it is one person reading, or 10,000 a month, they deserve the best I can do. Not the best I can do with no investment. Not the best I can do without taking the steps that are necessary to create a quality product. The best I can do. My reasoning when I started publishing was simple – if I am to be taken seriously, I need to pay to create quality. I want to be taken seriously. So whether I ever recoup my investment, I have to bite the bullet and do what it takes.

The point is that it would be nice if well-edited, professional books had a seal of approval that recognized that they had been put through at least cursory quality control. I would gladly pay to receive that seal. I don’t know, maybe $20 per book. Whatever. If it makes it easier for the readers to decide to try my work, it’s worth it. Then, it’s up to the writing. You can put all the lipstick on a pig you want, but in the end, it’s still an oinker with ruby red smackers.

I have a friend who has put out a bunch of books in the last year. I tried to get through two of them, and just couldn’t. The editing was non-existent, and it was obvious that he hadn’t even gone back to do a second draft or polish – he is just spitting out words and then uploading them as books. His philosophy is that once he makes money selling the books, he will have adequate funds to have them edited, and presumably, more desire to polish his work. That’s sort of like a business plan that says you’ll start a taxi company, and then buy gas for the cabs once you’ve done your first 100 trips, because then you’ll have that money. It ignores that cabs without fuel don’t get paid. Seems obvious to me, but that’s what he’s doing, and so far, guess what? Almost no sales. It is mind-boggling that someone would waste their time in this way. His stance is, “Hey, look at X, his work sucks, and he’s experienced success, so my work can suck too, and I can be successful.” That’s quite a model.

So that’s my thinking at present, and my rant. The world of indie publishing is rapidly changing, in terms of what promotions work, what social media has an effect, what pricing is optimal, etc. What doesn’t change is that badly edited and produced books don’t get a second chance. If you’re an author, look at yourself hard in the mirror, and ask yourself whether you made the investment, or figured you were somehow different and didn’t have to. I’d say most fall into that category. Which is partially why the odds are so long of being successful. At least, that’s my hunch.

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My last blog focused on the positives and negatives of the Amazon KDP Select scheme, particularly pertaining to the loan fees and how they compare to outright sales commissions on higher priced books.

This blog will focus more on the value of the actual promotions, and explore what, if any, benefit one can hope to garner by giving away thousands of books. I’ll do this by describing my own experiences with one of the titles I made free.

Last month, I dipped my toe in the water by making The Geronimo Breach free for three days. During that time, I saw about 12K downloads. Not too shabby. Then, when it went back to paid, a funny thing happened. After languishing for the first day, it shot like a rocket, finally hitting #165 in the paid kindle store.

All good. Or rather, all should have been good. One problem was that the book was .99 rather than $3.99, due to price matching with Barnes, which after three weeks still hadn’t taken the book down, even after numerous e-mails. And .99 was the wrong price anyway, but I digress. The point is that Amazon’s software matched it, so folks were downloading 500+ books a day at .99.

Sales peaked at day 3-4 of being paid, and then started dropping off, bottoming at week three or so.

At the time, I didn’t know what to make of the data. I was frantic on day 5 – what was going wrong? Why did God hate me? Were the clowns behind it? What gave?

Turns out that this is a very predictable and knowable cycle for those who have done free days. Reason is because the Amazon algorithms pick up on the ranking from when it was free, and begin featuring the book on their recommendations pages about, you guessed it, 24 hours after going back to paid, as well as in the “also bought” strip at the bottom of other books your shoppers picked up. Over the next two to three days, love is in the air, and sales roll in. But then the book, whatever it is, gets pushed off to the second tier to make room for the more recent titles that did well since then. And the buying from folks Amazon was presenting you to dries up, little by little, and you’re back to your old run rate. Sort of like being a Hollywood starlet who briefly dates a celebrity, you have to be satisfied with and enjoy your moment in the sun, because it won’t last.

But knowing this presents an opportunity. It suggests a way to play the game so you can win, if you’re an author. Specifically, you can understand the phenomenon and capitalize on it. How? By running another free promotion 4 to 5 weeks after the first one. Maybe at 6 weeks, maybe at 3 1/2. Depends on sales. But you can repeat the performance.

Let’s go back to The Geronimo Breach. Thursday, it went free for 24 hours. It saw 10K+ downloads, and hit #11 in the Amazon free store last night. Most of the day, it, and one of my other free titles, The Delphi Chronicle, were #2 and #5 in Kindle free Action/Adventure.

That’s the second promotion, and it was more successful than the first – 10K in one day versus 12K in three. And the best part? I didn’t tweet about it. I didn’t do anything. Because I’d forgotten I was going to run it, and only figured it out halfway through the day when I checked my rankings. So that was with no social media at all, other than a few tweets from some friends (thanks Claude!) and being listed as free on several websites that picked it up. One of the best I’ve found for thrillers being Epic Kindle Giveaway (I follow it on Twitter at @eBookSwag), as well as The Digital Inkspot, and Digital Book Today. Others that may or may not pick it up are Cheap Kindle Daily, Pixels of Ink, and a host of others. Google them for a complete listing. There seem to be new ones every week. Most are very good for what they are, and save a lot of time.

I am now at day one of The Geronimo Breach being back to paid. Before the promotion, I was #9K-#11K overall. Today, so far, I’m at #2300 or so. At $3.49 – a sale off my usual $3.99 price to encourage folks to buy over the weekend. I’m sure if I lowered the price to .99 it would sell a lot more books, but given that I would need to sell 8 times more books at .99 to see the same revenue as at $3.49, I question whether it’s a smart idea. I also don’t want to brand myself as a buck a book author. Lord knows that is played, and there are more than enough of them out there. We shall see how sales go as of late this evening and tomorrow, but I’d say the trend is positive at this point. Even if it only stays at 2300 for four days, hey, that’s an improvement over where it was, and there are 10K more people with it on their kindle now – probably the most important thing for an author like me, who has a slew of titles and is adding to them seemingly every month. Because I believe the primary value of free is familiarizing readers with the work.

To put that into perspective, I’ve had around 70K free downloads of my work since I started giving books away. That’s a lot of downloads. A lot of folks who can decide they love, hate, or are ambivalent about me.

What is the takeaway from all this? Do Select freebie promos every 4 to 6 weeks, don’t freak out when day one sucks or starts slow (remember the algorithm, my friend) and then promote the hell out of it days 1-5 of it being paid. Recognize that the decline in sales over the next two weeks isn’t a function of an angry and vengeful deity singling you out for persecution, or that word of mouth has spread and your book sucks (I mean, either are possible, but not a given, is my point), or anything else. It’s a function of the Amazon algorithms having moved to new, fresher, more exciting faces.

Think of that first 4 or 5 days as your time at the bar where everyone wants to buy you drinks. Day 6 on is where a new kid on the block captures everyone’s attention, until you are ultimately yesterday’s news. Unlike the dating world, though, you can repeat the performance over and over (well, I suppose that is a little like dating – wink) and hopefully see a higher trough each time you decline. Then again, I’ve also heard that the effectiveness of the free days diminishes for a title each time through the cycle, so there is probably a point where it won’t work any more. But cross that bridge when you come to it.

For now, if you’re in the program, make hay while the sun is shining.

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