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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Comments

  1. Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 10:06 am

    Great insights, and I enjoyed the linked post on TB as well, though I didn’t see anything ‘eye-brow raising’ about it. It just seemed like good, common-sense advice. (Which like most sound advice, will be roundly ignored by those most in need of it.)

    What I found most interesting about your post here was the admission you engage in a bit of ‘genre-jumping’ yourself, most recently with Silver Justice. So while I think the ‘beware genre hoping’ advice is sound, your own success in selling across the genre divide suggests the subject isn’t black and white, but a bit more nuanced.

    Perhaps a jump say from romance to an action thriller might be a bridge too far, but a shorter jump between say Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum type thrillers might work.

    Any observations there?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 10:20 am

      Well, yes. I think if you’ve got a large backlist of thrillers, you can get away with a genre hop that isn’t too big. My first novel was Fatal, which is a police procedural with international conspiracy elements and a serial killer. My second was Geronimo, which was more a Ludlum type conspiracy thriller. All the rest since then until I got to Voynich were Ludlum/Forsyth type.

      I think once readers trust you over a whole bunch of books they are willing to cautiously edge over a very short bridge with you to another genre – as long as it gives them all the elements they like about your usual genre. To me, police procedural, at least the way I write em, is fairly close to my action adventure, so while the genre may be a different one, the way I do it is pretty close, so even less readers shock factor.

      This blog is really directed more at the newbie author. One with only a single, or maybe a couple of books out. I understand the temptation to genre hop, and I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying it will kill your sales. So use a pen name.

      As an example, I’ve long thought about writing some hard boiled detective stuff. Chandler. End of his rope PI working the LA beat. But if I did, I’d do it under a pen name that I’d let everyone know about, Because some might want to check it out. But most might not, and that prevents them from buying my Blake brand and getting something they weren’t expecting.

      The other part of my message is that authors need to get clear on what genre they are writing to so they can then put on their publishing hats and market effectively to their target audience. Many authors aren’t clear on what genre they write in. They want to describe their work as several genres, even if it is just one book. That tells me they’re going to have a hell of a time communicating to their potential audience, because in truth they have no idea who that audience really is. Because they themselves don’t know. It’s hard to market if you as the marketer don’t know what you have in your hands.

      Make sense? I wrote two non-fiction tomes, but those don’t confuse people. They can see they’re different genres so ignore them. My pet fans largely don’t buy my thrillers. Some of my thriller fans do buy my pet book, but only because they are curious or ALSO like pet books. But if I didn’t differentiate it, imagine how a Silver Justice reader would feel buying Angel and finding a pet biography instead of a thriller. Not so good.

      Reply
      • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 10:45 am

        Makes perfect sense. I just released my second thriller, a sequel to the first. I used the same cover treatment, and I’m getting a good response, so I’m in total agreement with the ‘branding’ approach. And readers are creatures of habit. I had a large cast of characters in the first book (far too many, truth be told) but it seems some readers at least, connected with all of them. The only negative feedback I’ve received on the sequel so far is from folks upset that their favorite character didn’t have as large a part in the sequel.

        Anyway, thanks for the post. It was timely for me. I’ve got a couple of humorous stories I’m considering monetizing by putting them up as shorts, but they are totally different from either of my first books. I really don’t want to annoy my small but growing reader base, so I suppose the way to go is a pen name.

        I appreciate the insights.

        Reply
  2. Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 1:35 pm

    You know, I just went and looked at my reviews and noticed that I am getting a decent number of one sentence reviews that seem to be almost spammy, even though they are five star. I wonder if that’s some sort of a set-up to make my books look like I paid for a bunch of reviews? Maybe it’s just a flurry of adulation, but it smells funny. I guess we’ll see, but it just started a few days ago. Weird.

    Reply
    • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 4:01 pm

      I dunno, I looked around there a bit. I didn’t look at every book, but picked 4 or 5 at random. I saw a recent flurry of what you describe on Night of the Assassin, but IMHO it didn’t look spammy.

      And to what end? Someone would have to go to a lot of trouble for a really indirect and unpredictable result. Do you have enemies that would go to that much trouble? If so, consider yourself lucky that they’re really hard working but dumb.

      Actually, I think you’re getting a little paranoid here, bro. The reviews looked fine to me.

      Or was this all some cunning marketing ploy to get readers to look at your reviews? Ah, you’re a devious bastard, Blake. LOL

      Reply
  3. Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 4:44 pm

    the pen name idea is great. been doing that for about a year. However, under my own name I have sinned with the Genre Gods and crossed the line. Might need a third pen name….

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 08th Sep 2012 at 5:58 pm

      If I ever decide to write a different genre I’ll be taking my own medicine. I think my readership can handle the blurry line between quasi-police procedural and action/adventure thrillers, as all my books have the same element of conspiracy drivers to them. When you step back it’s not really that big a difference – action/adventure thriller, police procedural thriller – especially since I write using the same tone and voice across all my offerings. But if I was going to do, say, a Raymond Chandler-esque noir detective, a la Lawrence Block (who is an awesome author, BTW, a master at his craft), I would create a pen name and make it broadly know that I am using a pen name for that series of novels. I think some might follow me over and give the genre a whirl because they like my writing. But many wouldn’t, and that is okay. I’d develop an audience for that name (even perhaps going so far, once I am more popular, to say, “Russell Blake writing as Siddhartha Gupta” or whatever, so as to capitalize on any name recognition), but I think the key is to use the pen name as a clear mechanism for communicating the genre and virtues of the product to a different audience.

      And I think if you look at your writing dispassionately, as a product manager for a publisher might rather than as an author, it makes it easier to figure out what the hell you’ve written. Part of the problem I think I had for the first six months was I didn’t even think in terms of genre. I just wrote whatever, which is fine, but I couldn’t even articulate what it was I’d written because it defied description, which means basically that I was lazy and confused. A friend of mine read Fatal Exchange and told me she really loved my police procedural, and I was like, shit, I didn’t know I had written one. I though it was an international conspiracy/intrigue novel with a serial killer and a female protag. So I didn’t know how to describe my book so my audience could figure out whether it was something they might like. Fortunately most did and do, but through no particular fault of mine.

      I believe that if we think like readers when we start looking at marketing it makes it much easier to be clear. What reader would our book appeal to? What other books are like ours? Too often, the answer is, “No other book is really like mine.” Well guess what? That’s a facile, lazy answer. Until you know what your book is, how can you ever expect a reader to know?

      Reply
  4. Sun 09th Sep 2012 at 2:07 am

    Dean Wesley Smith also wrote about pen names recently. Made me decide that I will write my adventure sword and sorcery under another name than my usual genre bending absurd magic realsim crossed with comedic mystery and allegorical memoir.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 09th Sep 2012 at 10:08 am

      I don’t get time to read Smith’s blog. Wish I did. He’s been at it a long time and knows whereof he speaks. My hunch is his take will be much like mine. Either that or he’s wrong…

      Reply
      • Gerhi Feuren  –  Mon 10th Sep 2012 at 3:35 am

        Very much like yours. Read his most recent blog post on Pen Names. I suspect that you two might be colluding.

        Reply
        • Gerhi Feuren  –  Mon 10th Sep 2012 at 3:37 am

          In fact, the way Dean speaks of pen names you two might be one and the same person. Are you? Am I uncovering a conspiracy? I feel very Dan Brownish…

          Reply
  5. Sun 09th Sep 2012 at 9:26 pm

    You’ve made it very clear. Thanks.

    Reply
  6. yoon
    Mon 10th Sep 2012 at 12:18 am

    Well, this is one looooooong post. And without a picture or a diagram or an infographic. I liked Kill Bill and Bourne Trilogy. I have them on DVDs. You better not disappoint me.

    Reply
  7. Tue 11th Sep 2012 at 2:47 pm

    That’s absolutely true. I’ve followed authors – religiously, in some cases – and been a bit startled by the latest volume. It’s never been enough to turn me off the author, but there is a certain expectation, and even a fantastic book can be a disappointment if you were looking forward to something else.
    And besides, there’s a certain romance to the idea of a nom de plume. There is a whole other level of creativity involved in constructing an alias.

    Reply
  8. Robert jones
    Tue 11th Sep 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Hi Russell,

    As usual, I find myself agreeing with you. Yes, this is pretty common sense stuff for those who have published, or did their homework…yet, I still enjoy your take on things. You seem like a straight-forward, no BS kind of guy.

    I sometimes wish genre fiction didn’t fall into this crighteria, that like some authors of straight fiction, a genre writer could get away with writing markedly different types of stories and gain appreciation for their diversity of craft…but this seems to be wishful thinking. Though the best literary fiction ever written still has one very common thread to genre writing in my mind…they are all secretly mysteries at heart. If there is no interesting question that needs an answer, withheld from the reader, who has to climb aboard the characters quest for said answer, few (with the exception of writers and maybe some lovers of poetic wordsmithery) would climb aboard the train of succulent pros if some type of reveal wasn’t anticipated. Otherwise poetry would sell a whole lot better than it does.

    I have heard a few rumors that genre-hopping didn’t seem to matter as much to readers in the current ebook climate, so I appreciate your setting those rumors to rest here.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 11th Sep 2012 at 9:12 pm

      I’d love to hear examples of genre hopping that have worked, but I tend to think that as publishers, as opposed to authors, we need to target our prospective readership with laser-like precision. That means we need to know what it is that we are selling, and who we hope it will appeal to. That’s our job as publishers.

      As authors, our job is to write whatever we love. If we want to write a sci-fi romance with ninja beavers, super.

      But once it is written, we have to take our author hat off and put on the publishing one, and figure out who the audience is so we can communicate that we have a product they’d be interested in reading. Whether we decide it’s a love story in space, or an animal story with romance set in the future, or a sci-fi tome with adorable rodents with heart, we need to pitch it to our readers, and be very, very clear on what we are pitching. My take is that we need to not limit ourselves as authors, so much as we need to be pragmatic and honest as publishers. I would never dissuade someone from writing whatever their heart commands them to. Absolutely do so. But once you’re done, if you are going to make any money with it, better figure out what it is you wrote and who it will appeal to so you can let them know that you wrote it.

      Reply
  9. Andrew
    Wed 12th Sep 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Doesn’t need to be a radically different nom de plume. Iain Banks issues all of his science fiction books as authored by Iain M Banks to distinguish them from his ‘real world’ fiction, which seems to work just fine.

    I did feel “Lawrence Block (writing as Jill Emerson)” went a bit too far…

    Reply
  10. Wed 12th Sep 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Great post, and excellent insights. And yes, the pseudonym can be very close to an author’s real name – close enough that those of us willing to bite on multiple genres from the same author can find them – but it’s helpful to distinguish so we know that’s what we’re getting.

    I’ve also seen some successful authors who had multiple website pages – one for each genre he or she wrote in – clearly labeled as “mystery, written as Name X” and “thriller, written as Name Y” – it’s great for authors to write whatever floats the boat, but you’re definitely on point that unless care is taken, the reader can be very confused.

    Also, if an author isn’t sufficiently prolific in each genre, it can be hard to build a following in any of them. But then…you’ve aptly pointed that out also.

    Reply
  11. Thu 13th Sep 2012 at 11:02 am

    “And I think if you look at your writing dispassionately, as a product manager for a publisher might rather than as an author, it makes it easier to figure out what the hell you’ve written.”

    Great post and I think this is key! We all tend to fall in love with our works, but in the marketplace your book is a SKU# some are more successful SKU# than others. The inability to separate the business side of writing from art, in my opinion is holding many writers back.

    I also agree on having a pen name, when you work very hard to build a audience, the last thing you want to do is alienate them. Almost 70% of the people who bought my first book bought the rest. I have no intention of pissing them off because I want to go off on a tangent.

    There is much discussion about pen names, I have two and I did not tell my core readership about them. For my own edification I wanted to see if I could build a new audience with a new products, so far the response has been killer! In this new age of publishing the only limit is your imagination.

    Thanks for putting out these posts my dude. I am learning a lot from you.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 13th Sep 2012 at 1:06 pm

      I think that in the end what readers care most about is the quality of the work. If Deborah Lust writes romance, and Dirk Reacher writes hard boiled, and Cliff Stryker writes epic sci-fi, I don’t think anyone really cares whether it’s a pseudonym or not. I would probably let my fans know if the genre was fairly similar, like hard boiled detective to my current action/adventure thrillers, but mostly because if someone was interested in making the leap, they know how. I think by being very clear that your work under each name is different and might not appeal to your core audience, you’ve done your job of offering fair warning.

      I also obviously agree that many authors have no clear idea what they’ve written or who the audience is. My friend Steven Konkoly just posted a blog about his experience with The Jakarta Pandemic, and I think it’s a valuable one as it shows how different one’s own ideas might be versus the audience’s.

      Reply
  12. Thu 13th Sep 2012 at 1:51 pm

    True at the end of the day, a well written book is what will win the race. My first book was written to fulfill a void, I actually did not want to write it. Based on my research there was nothing out there in the marketplace that really answered those questions, so I wrote the non- fiction book first. I was fortunate that the book created a following based on those concepts. Which lead to more books and sales in that area. The other things I write I know that audience doesn’t care about, I ran tests all summer. But…..another audience does.

    It was one of my better decisions in life, to write books for an audience versus assuming what I wrote everyone would love. You could spend your life writing a book, pour your soul in it. That doesn’t mean it is going to sell if no one is interested in the subject matter except the author.

    In this economy having multiple fan bases can’t be a bad thing. Yet I am still quite new at this publishing business, just entered my fourth year and there is still much to learn. But I am having fun and making a living, so to that end I am very grateful. I will check out that blog post on the pen names, thanks for the recommending.

    Reply
  13. Napoleon
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 6:33 am

    When I read a ‘Russell Blake’ I expect, nay, demand demented word vomit & so far I haven’t been disappointed.

    You do get some quite bitter reviews on Amazon when authors have written in a different genre.
    I like the ones that say things like, a book was totally unrealistic because Zombies or aliens or whatever don’t really exist.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 9:58 am

      Please. I prefer the term projectile word vomit. Implies velocity, and everyone likes a racing read.

      You think Zombies don’t exist? Try spending a night with my ex. That’s all I’m going to say.

      Reply
  14. David LeRoy
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 9:03 am

    Thanks Blake, and very helpful. I am running into some of these problems with The Siren of Paris. It is a historical fiction novel, but most in that genre today are rather romantic character driven novels. My book is a plot driven action novel with a spiritual message. It is getting a mixed reception in historical fiction. Readers in this genre seem to like far less plot and action, and more exposition, description and character. So, this entire article is exactly what I have been thinking about lately.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 10:00 am

      I think one of the hardest things to do is figure out what a book’s true niche is and then market to that niche. It sounds like your action/adventure novel is set in the past. Understanding what you have and communicating it clearly will get you closer to an audience that appreciates what you’re selling.

      Reply
  15. Mark
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Awesome blog post!

    If I may ask, how many months was it till you experienced a decent income level for your books?

    What about writing novellas, novelettes and short stories…could a writer engage these and make just as much, writing a similar amount each day as he would novels?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 12:35 pm

      From June, 2011 to Dec, 2011 I made almost nothing. As in $20 here, $100 there. Dec I saw a massive increase to $1400.

      Jan that quadrupled. Feb made Jan look weak. March I saw enough to live on for a year in Mexico. It’s been pretty good since then, averaging 6000-9000 books a month, for which I’m grateful.

      I don’t think the market for short fiction is nearly as large as for novel-length fiction, certainly not as ebooks, so my gut says you’d be hard pressed to make a reasonable living, although I have heard of a sci fi author who puts out a new 10-15K installment in his series every 30 days and is doing OK, but I think that’s atypical. I plan to stick to novels.

      As an aside, even as I sold nothing, I wrote and marketed as though I had just gotten a six figure deal. I suppose I might be the hardest working indie writer alive, pulling non-stop 15 hour days for 15 months now. But the point is I always believed I would find a market for my books and develop a readership, and I did whatever it took to create one – one of the largest things being continually writing more books and honing my craft, which I still do to this day. I write every day, no matter what. If I’m not in a novel, I’ll write blogs and interviews an thousands of words of forum comments or tweets. But I am a writer, and what writers do is write. And they get better the more they do it.

      I’ve easily clocked my ten thousand writing hours a while ago. And I’m improving, so things have nowhere to go but up from here.

      Reply
      • Mark  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 2:43 pm

        Forgot to ask…do you attribute the massive sales boost to Christmas? I know that sounds rhetorical but was wondering if it was *just* the christmas season or did you up your marketing efforts.

        Also…I just downloaded your first book from amazon. I flipped through it and it seems interesting, though admittedly not my fav genre (not really into CSI). I will read it after I finish Clive Barker’s “Canyon” and tell you what I think. :)

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 5:19 pm

          It was directly attributable to using the Free promos on Amazon’s Select program. Back then, if you saw 15K downloads, you would see 2K paid sales after it came off free. Maybe more. On one book I saw 6K in 10 days following a promo. Then they changed the algorithm, and the glory days were over, but by then I’d gotten notorious enough so folks were buying the books.

          I think I would look more at King of Swords or The Geronimo Breach for what I do than my first one (Fatal Exchange), which is one of only two police procedural thrillers I’ve ever written. The rest are conspiracy thrillers with a strong action/adventure bent. King especially is typical of most of my work since last November. I’d encourage you to try that first if you want a real look at what I do.

          Reply
          • Mark  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 1:55 pm

            Thanks, I will check out King of Swords asap.

            Re the free promos…egads, I don’t know what to think now about the freebie thing. Since I just started in June, with about 20 books out (10-12k words each), all the drama on the amazon boards about free books hindering everyone’s sales leaves me really uncomfortable. I set five of my books for free a few weeks ago (erotica), gave away a few hundred, but since then have not noticed an increase in sales beyond what it has been since July (about 3-5 per day). I keep hearing this mantra of “10 promos equals 1 sale) as a general rule of thumb, but I just don’t see it. Maybe I should just ditch the free promos and move my stuff over to Smashwords and build a couple of sites for my three pen names? No idea. On that topic, Smashwords is completely new to me, and I hear sales are not nearly as good with them as they are with Amazon. So I’m unsure if moving my stuff over to them (out of select) is a good idea, since I also hear it is a pain in the ass to have them all removed if I decide to go back into Select…decisions, sigh.
            Anyway, when you mentioned that sales skyrocketed after Dec, I thought the same might happen to me. But then you mentioned the algorithm change, which pretty much killed that idea.

            At any rate, I’m at that critical point now where doubt and uncertainty sink in for new indie authors, and so I keep telling myself that I am not in this for the money (though that is certainly nice), but rather for the love of the craft.

            Maybe I should just stay out of forums completely until I have another twenty books for sale, heh. I mean what good does it do (not including awesome blogs like this of course)

          • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 3:15 pm

            I don’t participate in the forums hoping to sell anything. I do it because if I can help some who are struggling with the same issues I did, using only a few minutes of my time, then good show.

            Free used to be a guarantee of more sales. Now, unless you are in the top 40 overall on Amazon, forget about it. Put into perspective, if you don’t give away at least 2000+ books in the first 20 hours, you won’t see any pop. That’s since May 1. Another way of looking at it is that the promos have 10% the sales impact that they used to. Before, if you landed in the top 500 or so free, you might see a nice bump. Not anymore.

            I’m not so sure that if you have 20 books out, that the problem isn’t enough books. Might want to look at the covers and product descriptions to ensure they’re as good as possible, and think about stepping up the marketing – things like doing interviews, writing guest blogs, etc.

  16. Mark
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 1:57 pm

    “I write every day, no matter what”

    - Even if you’re hung over? I find that even on days when I feel under the weather, if I write…at least it is something I can edit later. Do you find your writing sucks if you write in such fashion?

    I honestly dont know if my writing is any worse when I write in a “this constant writing is getting on my nerves” state of mind. Maybe there isn’t any difference..

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 5:20 pm

      I try not to write hung over. I find a few shots of tequila fixes that problem.

      Reply
  17. Robert jones
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Russell,

    I’m really enjoying all the comments and Q&A in this thread. And I’m really admiring your work ethic. But what if you can’t put that many hours into writing each day?

    The one thing that worries me as far as ebooks is that most people seem to be saying you really have to keep cranking it out and getting as much as possible in front of people in order to catch on. Being a relative newcomer here and trying to figure out how I might best fit in with my own novel once it’s finished, I’m wondering if anyone is writing one or two good novels per year and managing to make any money by marketing them strongly?

    On the other hand, if marketing ends up taking away too much from time spent writing, that isnt going to spread up production either. Still, by the time I get to the launching pad ( at some point next year) I’ll probably be able to get two out of three parts of a trilogy out there, possibly one other novel that’s not connected to them, and maybe one or two shorter works I’m stockpiling for that time. After that initial burst, I’ll be lucky to finish two novels per year.

    Any suggestions, or does this sound workable as currently planned. I’m assuming that first year will be key, hence the stockpiling now to get as much into that timeframe as possible.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 8:33 pm

      My evil plan was to simply write like I was going to be dead within one year. Fortunately I’m not dead yet, but once I got bitten by the bug and built the muscles to do this at that pace, I continued – because my theory is that the more work you have out there, the greater the chance that one of the books gets discovered and takes off. I know there are some who put out couple novels a year are are doing well – Steven Konkoly paces himself about like that, as an example, and he ranks nicely much of the time. So does David Lender. So you don’t need to try for my insane pace to break. I’m just in that groove right now. While the muse is dancing, one continues to spin the discs.

      I am going to be slowing to 3 to 4 novels a year next year. I think that 2 per year is also more than reasonable, but 3 seems best, because then you can release one every 4 months and have plenty of time to market it. In the end, one War and Peace is probably worth 50 Patterson tomes, so I’d focus more on quality than quantity, if I was forced to only do one or the other.

      I wish you much success when you break the novel.

      Reply
  18. Robert jones
    Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Thank you. I’ll check out those authors you mentioned. At least I know there is hope . I was beginning to get worried.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 14th Sep 2012 at 11:08 pm

      But remember. 99% of those that put books out don’t make any money. There are 2 million books on Amazon. More, by now. Most won’t make it. That’s the harsh truth. It’s a lottery in some ways. As are all of the arts. That’s why I would never presume to put out a “how to make money doing this” book, except in jest. The truth is it would be a short book.

      “Write a lot. Write well. Market a lot. Market well. Then get lucky. Thank you for your $4.”

      Reply
      • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 10:04 am

        Russell/Robert,

        “Write a lot. Write well. Market a lot. Market well. Then get lucky.”

        Sound advice, all of it. However, I do question the oft-quoted and clearly anecdotal ’99% don’t make money’ meme. As a generality, it’s probably accurate, but what I’d really like to know is the unknowable — the success rate of self-publishers who actually invest time and money in professional editing (both developmental and copy editing ), proofreading, and covers. My gut tells me it’s a helluva lot higher than 1%.

        Secondly, though I think it’s obviously better to have more books out there than fewer, I don’t think it’s a given that you can’t make a decent living with fewer books. I write quite slowly, comparatively speaking. My GOAL is to increase to two books a year, so your output boggles my mind Russell (and kudos for that btw).

        I released my first book in June 2011, and my chronological path pretty much tracks yours, month by month, with the real breakthrough to a living wage occurring in December 2011, when I sold 3K books. Since then my single book has averaged 2.5K sales per month, and 2 weeks ago I launched the sequel (which took me about 8 months to write). I dropped the price of the first book to $2.99 and the sequel is selling well so far (knock on wood) at $4.95.

        I marketed the first book exhaustively, and probably gave out something like 1,000 freebies. And I had a great deal of luck. My point is, that if you can turn out quality stories at a prodigious rate like Russell (which is, I think, a pretty rare talent), by all means do so. But if you write at a snail’s pace (like myself), don’t despair and don’t assume you can’t earn a living until you have X number of books up. Who knows? Lady Luck may pay you visit.

        Just sayin’

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 11:32 am

          You are a rare exception. One of the ways to know that is simply to look at the rankings. Your first book is in the low #1000′s. That means that there are around 2 million books rated lower than yours. Mine included. So you are actually doing brilliantly. Hats off and may it continue. I suspect your book is a better read than most – just from the product description. At some point I’ll have to pick it up – I like those sorts of reads.

          There are two ways I can see to make a living at this until such time as you get your break, assuming that ever happens, and one of your books goes huge. The first is my way, which is to crank out a decent number of titles, doing nothing but writing 12 hours a day. The second is to market the hell out of one good book a year, find an audience (good choice on the Cussler genre, BTW), and try to reach it so it will buy a shitload of your books. 2500 books a month is a shitload. IF you are able to sustain that, your first title will sell upwards of, what, 25K? 10K would be a decent success by trad pub standards for a midlister. So you are one of the outliers. Congrats. That’s exceptionally rare.

          Can you make a good living off one to two books a year? Sure. Depends on the books, and the audience. If you want to sell 50K books a year, and make around $100K a year, that’s how you do it. The trick of course being selling the 50K books on a sustained basis, year after year. For that I would strongly suggest upping the hours or whatever to get to two books a year. If you build an audience on your second book and it does as well as your first, guess what? Of course you can have a nice living at that rate, as long as the books continue to appeal to your target audience.

          Reply
          • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 4:54 pm

            Don’t know how long the ride will last, but obviously I’ll ride the horse until he stops. And I am getting faster. The first book took 4 years, and 13 major re-writes to get it from almost 400K words to fighting weight at 100K words. I look at that first draft now and cringe.

            And the ‘marketing the hell out of a single book’ was a conscious business decision, based on the length of time it took me to write the first one. I figured there there was no way I could have a ‘body of work’ out in anything less than 4 or 5 years. With only one viable path to economic viability, it wasn’t a tough decision.

            However, given the relatively short time it took to write the sequel (for me anyway), I’m looking forward to increasing my offerings.

  19. Robert jones
    Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 11:38 am

    Russell/R.E.,

    I would frankly love to see a thread dedicated to what marketing an ebook consists of, how many sites (and where) your book are being sold, etc.

    I don’t pay a lot of attention to statistics. Yes, there is some basis for those figures. Yes, the arts can be tricky and fickle in terms of making a living for most. However, coming from a commercial arts background, I’ve heard all those statistics before.

    What it boils down to is largely that most people in the arts ( much like distinguishing sellers on eBay) have little or no business sense. Add to that the number of creative types who sit around waiting for inspiration, or believe that marketing their work commercially makes them some type of whore rather than a true artist, and further that by the artist’s need to please themselves vs. making their creative endeavors marketable/relatable to a mass audience and suddenly the starving artist begins to show his true colors.

    Luck is a very subjective term. I could relate hundreds of stories from artistic people who say they got their first job by being in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, you have to take all the trial and error, all the learning that went into the process before those fateful, or lucky moments ever occurred. The building of confidence and learning the lingo, becoming enough of a determined professional, in other words, that made someone feel like it was a reasonable gamble in taking a chance on that person.

    So I’m a firm believer that we make our own luck through persevering, and confidence in our ability to do it well. Then don’t become either an innocent, or an artsy snob…get out there and look at everything– or as much as you can take in–of successful books, movies, etc.. If you can’t figure a way to make your idea marketable to the masses, chances are you’re in the wrong line of work because writing (like many of the arts) is about human nature and emotional energy. If you’re not in tune with the song of life, I suppose you can hang your art on your own walls, read your stories to a few friends, or during open mic night at some dimly lit cafe…and if that pleases you it’s all fine as wine. But don’t complain you can’t break through because you’re stuck in the great 99 percentile that luck hasn’t chosen to shine upon.

    That’s my two cents worth concerning statists involving the arts.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Well, yes.

      Obviously, I believed I could buck the trend and make a living at writing. My solution was to take massive, sustained action on all fronts. And to some extent, it worked.

      Preparation is the precursor to being able to leverage luck into something more than 15 minutes of fame. We agree on everything, except the extent to which the fickle finger of Lady Luck determines the outcome, in the end. I know brilliant writers, like RS Guthrie (whose new one, Blood Land, is a standout example of why some indie authors are completely capable of sitting at the big table with the trad pub boys), whose work isn’t getting nearly the visibility it deserves. Mainly because he hasn’t had his lucky break yet. Hopefully he will, but there are no guarantees.

      Having said all this, I think that folks trying to be self-pubbed authors need to recognize that this is probably tougher than any other business I know. It really is. I work 15 hour days – 12 writing, then another 3 tweeting or blogging or doing interviews or responding to and posting comments. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Of course, it’s gratifying to see that some folks are reading the work and enjoying it enough to spread the word, but I am also struck by how much luck was involved.

      We also agree that we create our own luck to some extent. Harder I work, the luckier I get.

      We can rationalize the statistics however we like, but they are what they are. We all believe we are the different ones, just like all the other different people believe they are. I do believe that we can get an edge by a combination of massive effort, sustained commitment to improving our craft each day, and savvy business sense, but in the end, a Hocking or a 50 Shades comes down to something more. Nobody knows what the next fad will be, and hot authors are a fad. Like hush puppies or pet rocks. Does it help that you’ve done all the homework once your moment in the sun comes, presuming it ever does? Absolutely. Is that any guarantee that it will? Alas, no.

      Reply
      • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 5:03 pm

        I agree that preparation is the key, as is (IMO) doing only those things you enjoy (or at least, don’t really hate). If you really dislike doing something, you’re unlikely to do it well.

        For example, I’m not very good at social media. Almost all my effective promotion is word of mouth. I never had my book up for free unrestricted downloads, but always arranged things were folks requested a copy. I would then respond with the copy and a personalized email.

        I do a lot of one on one, private emails. It was/is time consuming, but my fans are really loyal fans and most have become friends. (And that’s not phony, I really like those guys). If you have a few hundred people that are willing to react with other people on your behalf and spread the word, it means a lot.

        That’s pretty much the sum total of my marketing wisdom.

        Reply
        • R.E. McDermott  –  Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 5:05 pm

          Make that:

          “… where folks requested a copy …” instead of “…were folks requested a copy …”

          Now you know why I pay a proofreader. :)

          Reply
  20. Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Russell,
    I found your thoughts very inspiring to fellow authors. I have nominated this blog post for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

    http://callsignwreckingcrew.blogspot.com/2012/09/very-inspiring-blogger-award.html

    Reply
  21. Robert jones
    Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Hi Russell,

    I won’t disagree with anything you’ve said. There’s no absolute garuntees, except the one you make to yourself to keep plugging along the path you’ve chosen, to follow your dreams and not get caught in the hooks of fear–which seem to be such a popular lifestyle choice these days. And yes, there’s always those talented souls who seem to keep running in place that should be getting a lot more attention and credit for their efforts.

    The music industry is always a great example of this. We can all remember hearing an album, or even a single, that was great, but never took off because it didn’t get any real attention. Meantime, crap is marketed every day and sells simply because it’s always being heard. It doesnt mean it’s good, it just means that repetition works.

    Getting back on point, I don’t know why RS Guthrie, or others like him, don’t take off running. I don’t know everything these people have tried, or might’ve tried, in terms of reaching that end–or even what their internal belief system is about their work, themselves, or their future. I believe in solutions, and that odds are, most situations can be turned around. Or it just may be that they need to just keep producing and not get caught up in past results.

    Some of my best teachers in the past told me that whatever I thought was hard work, I would work harder in the arts field. This is true whether your an independent or not.

    And here’s another point that people either don’t stress enough, or overlook completely, and that is if your internal beliefs, the voice inside your head, is giving you a lot of negative feedback, or placing a low ceiling over your head in terms of what you believe your potential is…all I can say is that life is usually a self fulfilling prophecy.

    How many times in a day do you feel your work is going to break through, feel excited, as opposed to thinking, “I’ll never really make the kind of money so-and-so makes, be as successful, my days are numbered, or my past successes were all just dumb luck.”

    What can you do to raise the ceiling on your expectations?

    What haven’t you tried, or tried before but didn’t expect it to really work? Or allowed too much air to leak out of the notion before it took flight?

    Consider that even large corporations pay people good money to show them how to expand their thought processes and conceive of doing more.

    Here’s my short $4 ebook: Don’t be afraid to dream big. Just remember to get out of your own way if you really want it to happen.

    Is that an all inclusive solution? Hardly. But I garuntee if most people were honest with themselves, they could find a personal barrier or three that was preventing them from moving forward, or expanding their craft, on some level. So I’m babbling about it for those who may need to hear it. Take it for whatever it’s worth.

    Reply
  22. Robert jones
    Sat 15th Sep 2012 at 5:44 pm

    R.E.,
    That was very kind of you. I think you’ve hit on something there I’m going to keep in mind. You’ve made your giveaways a sort of personal gesture of kindness. I think people are hungry for something like that. I’ll certainly find a way to add something of that nature to what I do in the future.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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