Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Writing Life?

I've long considered writing a post on this topic, but due to the delicate nature of the subject, I've always procrastinated. It's time for me to approach the topic of writing as it relates to a beginner, the origins of the writer, and the challenges he or she may face on a personal level.

I'm inspired by David Farland's latest post "Writing for Fun and Profit." Farland, a New York Times bestseller, is a masterful writer with a gift for articulating difficult subject matter far more eloquently than I ever could. The thing that caught my attention wasn't the subject of the post, though (I highly recommend all of David's writing, including his daily posts), but rather one small paragraph within. Hopefully, he won't mind me quoting:

"It's hard to be a writer because you have to be diligent and dedicated from the start. No one cheers you on in the beginning. Instead, you push yourself without fanfare. In fact, if you're like me, your parents will try to dissuade you, and many of your friends will tell you that you're deluding yourself into believing that you can make a career in writing. So it seems impossibly hard, often for years."

That, unfortunately, seems to be true for most of us. Occasionally a writer will come along saying something like: Ever since I was a child, my family was so supportive in my goals. My mother encouraged me every day, and when I finally self-published she went out and bought ninety copies of my book, landing me instantly on the Amazon bestseller list where I promptly turned into an overnight sensation...

Yeah, we should all be so lucky. Unfortunately, in my conversations with other writers and in following the blog posts and interviews of highly successful authors, I have come to the conclusion that almost all of us go into this with zero support. In my case, I was lucky enough to have a supportive spouse who believed (and still does) that I'm doing what I should be. My family? Friends? Not so much. 

When I was twelve, my mother went through my room and found my stash... of notebooks. She flipped through them and to her horror, discovered the collection of short stories I'd written about dragons, quests, and magic swords. She threw them all away, grounded me, and had me counseled by our church "elders" on the dangers of magic and fantasy. 

Years later, I finished the first draft of Shadow Born. It was my fifth or sixth novel, and it was the first time I ever finished a manuscript and thought to myself: This is it... this is the one that's good enough to be published. Boy did I have a lot to learn. I followed the formula for success, though. I let the book rest for a few weeks before going back to revise it numerous times. Then I approached ten close friends and family members whose opinions I trusted and valued, and asked them to be beta readers. They all enthusiastically agreed, so I printed out thousands of pages of paper, bound them into manuscripts, and passed them off with the promise that they would return them covered with red ink.

And I never saw them again. 

To their credit, I did get some feedback from two of those people, in the form of a couple brief conversations. I thanked them for their help, considered their suggestions, and ended up revising some of the things they'd pointed out. The other eight? Who knows. The feedback never came and they never mentioned the book again. Later, after I'd finished my revisions and spent several years trying to find an agent, I gave up and published Shadow Born on my own. At that point my father took an interest. He asked for a copy, which I happily provided. Two weeks later at a family dinner I asked his opinion. He matter-of-factly informed me that my book was demonic and he hadn't read most of it. He never adequately explained himself so I can only presume that in his opinion, since Shadowlords come from an alternate universe and perform magic, they must be demons . Or something like that. Or maybe, he just didn't like seeing my words in print. 

I have another good friend who loves my books. He's read them all and has a shelf devoted to them. He gets excited every time I mention that a new one will be released soon, and he begs for a copy. After reading it, he always tells me how much he enjoyed the book. Yet, in all these years, he's never actually purchased a book, or for that matter taken a few minutes of his time to write a review. Likewise, many of my friends and ex-coworkers will see me somewhere and ask about my writing. When they ask how sales are, I say something like, "Not bad, I sold 7,000 books last year." 

"Really?" they say, with their eyes boggling in shock as if I had just told them my wife had given birth to an alien. Then they go on with life. Generally, they don't ask where they can buy my books and they certainly don't offer to. Of all these dozens of people, I know of exactly one who has actually purchased one of my books. I suppose there's always the possibility that others have and didn't want to admit it because they thought the book stunk so bad.

Sadly, many people who approach writing seriously and try to make a career of it will face similar hurdles. These aren't the sort of things you can really prepare for. It's not an office rumor you can nip in the bud or a physical challenge you can overcome. It's a deep-down punch in the gut that takes the wind out of your sails, destroys your self-confidence, and makes you question your relationship with just about everyone you've ever known. In the end, if you make it, I suppose it also makes you strong. But it's sad that it so often has to be that way. 

There is one other dirty secret in the writing business, and that is the fact that a disproportionate number of writers seem to have had traumatic childhoods. This observation is completely unscientific, based only on the conversations, interviews, and writings of other authors. And I think it's the sort of thing many people tend to gloss over. The writers don't like to make a big deal out of it and journalists have no interest in tackling such a delicate subject. So you find comments here and there, and never hear anything else about it.

If it weren't for the fact that I had the same experiences as a child, I may never have made these observations myself. There's no doubt in my mind that my difficult childhood molded my young mind and personality, and helped forge me into a writer. I think in many cases this is true. Abuse, by its very nature, alters the way a person views the world. It's quite understandable that such a child looks deeper into the motivations and behaviors of his peers, and even the adults around him. So it follows that such children may disproportionately seek out careers that utilize these unique perceptions. And it also points toward an explanation as to why alcoholism seems to affect so many authors (another completely unscientific observation).

In the end, none of these things guarantee a person will become a writer of course, and these challenges may perfectly describe someone who's never even dreamed of writing a book. We are all unique and the experiences and insights we gain on our journey through life should be the ones we channel into our creative endeavors, whatever they may be. Perhaps there are authors out there who had a wonderful childhood in a warm, nurturing environment, and are horrified that anything bad could ever happen to a child. I hope so. I'd like to think the rest of us are actually in the minority. 

Ultimately, the important thing is that a writer must learn to face challenges, rather than hiding from them. If you've managed to complete a book, you've already proven yourself elite. The vast majority of wannabe writers will never get that far. They will succumb to fears, insecurities, and other negative thoughts and feelings. And if you've proven you can write a book, move on to the next, and then the next. Practice makes perfect. And If you really, really want to be a writer, you have to take yourself seriously, regardless of whether anyone else does.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kindle Select Giveaway results

After some consideration, I decided to try a book giveaway. It began last Thursday and lasted through Monday. I really wasn't sure what to expect, considering I've heard so many varying results and I haven't personally given a book away in almost a year. Admittedly, when I used this technique last, I received the famous "bump" in sales. But the option was new then, and free e-books were new to Amazon customers. Eventually, Amazon reconfigured their algorithms and the value of free diminished considerably.

In the meanwhile, many authors have heard the success stories and rushed to give their books away in the hopes of nabbing a better overall ranking that will propel sales after the giveaway ends. For some it works, for some it doesn't. Across the board, it seems to not work as well as before, and requires a great deal more effort to pull it off successfully. There are fewer sites where you can promote your giveaway and -believe it or not- some of them actually charge you to promote your free book. It ain't cheap, either.

I went into this giveaway armed with this knowledge but determined to do next to nothing. I wanted to see if free had any real value of its own anymore. I only contacted one site that advertises free e-books, and that was after the free run had already begun. I'm not sure if they ever posted it, but I doubt it. The ultimate result was that my short story The Last Heist was downloaded a whopping 100 times, or thereabouts.

I know, it makes me chuckle, too. The last time I gave a book away, about a year ago, it was downloaded 14,000 times. That was without any promotion or advertising. But even then, I doubted the long term practicality of this technique. I could already see diminishing returns. That was when I decided not to do it anymore. 

Okay, on to the results. 

I know what you're thinking: He only gave away 100 books. That couldn't possibly have helped. Maybe. However, my sales have actually risen ever so slightly. Granted, I haven't tripled or quadrupled sales like so many stories we've heard, but on average I've been selling a few more books each day. It's not a lot, but in the long run that number may be significant. A few books a day might be a hundred or more in a month, and represents an average of about $200 in income. Well worth the price of 100 copies of a short story, in my opinion. Especially if the new sales numbers persist.

Can I conclusively say my sales have increased because of this giveaway? Not at all. My sales have been steady since November. A slight increase over the last week may be part of a natural cycle or part of my growing audience... but having only given away 100 copies of a short story and seeing my numbers grow slightly is encouraging. It's possible that I gained a small amount of exposure, and have seen returns based on that. If nothing else, I think this experiment might be worth trying again.  

I'm still inclined to say that giving away thousands or tens of thousands of free books is foolish, and almost certainly damaging. Many readers have learned that free often does not equate with quality, and some even refuse to buy low-priced e-books at all now. This is a fine line we have to walk, because as unknown Indies, most of us can't go head-to-head with Stephen King or John Grisham. Our low prices attract new readers, but also label us as the equivalent of a "bargain-bin." So ultimately I'm happy that I didn't give away too many, and I'm thrilled to see that sales of other titles have risen, if only slightly. I can't necessarily correlate freebies to sales, but if nothing else I know I didn't really do any damage.

I will probably try this again with another short story. I don't expect to do this with a full novel. Not even the first in a series. If several hundred people are willing to buy my novels each month, why would I give them away? But if these results are consistent, I can definitely see a value in giving away shorter, less expensive works to lure buyers toward pricier titles. Your mileage may vary, but as for myself, I'm happy with what I've learned.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Free this weekend: The Last Heist

I mentioned in my last post that I was considering using the Kindle Select freebie program to give away one of my short stories. After some consideration, I've decided to take the plunge. From now through Monday, The Last Heist will be available as a free download at Amazon.

In the meanwhile, I'll try to document the results. I'll keep track of how many copies I give away, where I end up in the rankings, and whether I get a surge in sales after the giveaway. Sales on the rest of my titles have been fairly consistent, so if I see significant growth on any of them, I should be able to trace it back to this. Of course, that is based on the assumption that I don't receive some big boost from another source, like a popular blog review or media story (haha, fat chance!). 

Anyway, that's the deal. Enjoy the freebie!

(Oh, BTW, you did notice the paperback giveaway link above, right?)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Advantages of Kindle Select

For those unfamiliar with Select, it's part of Amazon's "Prime" program that -for a subscription fee- allows users numerous advantages, like free 2-day shipping, movie streaming, and access to the Kindle Library. New users can get a month of Prime free by signing up, and new Kindle owners also get a month free. The obvious value lies in how you use the service. Big internet shoppers and Kindle Fire owners will probably get a lot of use, especially since the Fire allows you to watch streaming video and listen to music. The flipside of the coin is what it does for authors. 

Select offers two big advantages for authors. The first is inclusion into the Kindle Library. I wasn't sure how this system would work at first, but after signing up I must say I've been surprised. My "borrows" (for which I am paid) have far exceeded the number of sales I had through other e-book outlets. That's the trick, though. To enroll in Select, a novel must be exclusive to Amazon. In my case, this has proven worthwhile for the reasons I already stated, but some view this exclusivity as an issue. I can certainly see their argument. I struggle with it from time to time myself, especially when I get emails from people asking why they can't buy my book at a competitor's store. 

For me, it came down to the bottom line. I've tried those competitors and they did nothing in terms of sales. At the end of the month, I'd go over the numbers usually find less than ten sales. I frequently have that many lends in a single day at Amazon. Part of this is due to the fact that Amazon promotes its authors equally. If you sell books, you get promotion in various forms. The competitors don't do this. In fact, some of them do a pretty good job of burying the books by Indie authors, so that you can't even find them if you search for the exact author or title. Not cool. (The worst of these is circling the drain as we speak, even though it has been a runner-up in the category of e-books for several years).

The other advantage I referred to is the opportunity to give titles away for free on Amazon. This is a double-edged sword. I've tried it a few times and I have found that it does give a boost in exposure and sales. I'm doubtful about the long term viability of doing this. Most people who've used this and done well with it report that, at the end of the year, they've given away 2-3 times as many books as they've sold. In many cases, we're talking tens of thousands. I'm left wondering how many of those freebies would have been sales at some point. I'm also wondering if the notorious drop-off that occurs after the bump makes sales worse than they would have been otherwise.

Some people use 'free' and do quite well with it, but others report no bump whatsoever. Those who use it most successfully seem to put a lot of energy into advertising the free days. They go to special websites that advertise the free days and they promote like crazy. I guess the payoff is that they do see improved sales, if only briefly. The downside is that it tends to water down an author's brand, and probably poaches future sales for the sake of today. And of course, it's somewhat gimmicky. Some buyers out there are asking how good these books can be if they're free: Why can't the author sell them?  

I do believe the massive flood of free e-books has hurt the market for everyone in terms of sales. Few people will pay for what they can have free.I've also noticed, during the few experiments I did, that freebies tend to draw bad reviews. I'm not sure if that was because people picked up a book they wouldn't normally have read, or if it was a 'competitive author' trying to damage sales. Either way, the bad reviews are certainly not helpful and I think they're one more reason to consider very carefully before going free. 

I face these questions every few months, as my titles expire in Select and I have to re-enroll. I have re-enrolled all my titles at this point, really because of those unique advantages that apply to me. I'm not sure what the rest of the Indie community is thinking about this right now. I'm sure some are loaning books like crazy, others are giving away and selling thousands of titles every month. Yet others will try these things and see no benefit whatsoever. The downside of this is that we've all got to try these tools and see what works for us. The upside is that we have the freedom to do just that. 

Personally, I'm not married to Select, but at the moment it seems to be a valuable tool. That's why I'm still enrolled. I do think free might have its uses, but I'm still experimenting. I may give away a short story in the near future and see what it does for the rest of the brand. I probably won't be giving away any novels, though. I've already tried that and didn't find much benefit.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Navigating the Headwinds - Going Indie

I've spent the last few posts looking at the challenges facing the publishing industry and book retailers, but now I'd like to look at writers. Let's face it, publishing may have changed a lot in the last few years, but today's writers are creatures that have never existed before

The writers of today (or tomorrow) can no longer submit their work to a publisher and expect a paycheck in exchange. Publishers have not only forced writers to work through middlemen, they've also taken away advances or reduced them to chump change. Most writers working with traditional publishers find themselves faced with dwindling royalties, a complete lack of marketing and support, and ever shrinking percentages of the sales that they do generate. Writing fiction has never been a full time job except for a very lucky few, and those few are finding themselves faced with some hard choices.

In order to supplement their lost income, many of these legacy writers have been self-publishing on the side. Due to contractual clauses, some of them can't; others do it anyway under assumed identities. In doing so, they put food on the table for now but face major legal challenges in the future if their secrets are discovered. More fortunate writers do this with the blessing of their publisher, allowing them to write under the same name and generate increased exposure. For many, this situation has proven ideal.

But even for a writer with an established platform and an open-minded publisher, these waters can still be tricky to navigate. A self-published author cannot simply write a book and upload it to Kindle. Not without taking a major risk, anyway. Most of us know that no book is written perfectly. We must edit and revise until our eyes bleed... or until it feels that way. Writers then face sending off their manuscripts to third parties like beta readers, writing groups, and hired professional editors. These are all necessary, but they consume a great deal of time, sometimes money, and in most cases, frustration. Honing a book to perfection can be hard, especially when you're working without a net.

Then there are other matters: Cover art. Marketing and Promotion. Book blurbs. Reviews.

These are things writers didn't have to worry too much about, once upon a time. In fact, most writers didn't even get a choice about these things. The publisher chose the art. They promoted the book as they saw fit, and the writer felt grateful for what he or she got. ARCs were sent out by the publisher, so that aspect was out of the writer's hands as well. The only thing a writer might do on top of all that was to hire his/her own marketing company (with the publisher's approval) using his/her own money, of course. So I guess that part at least, hasn't changed.

Obviously, much of what I've described here is what every Indie author faces today, but it's also quickly becoming reality for most traditionally published authors as well. The lines are blurring. We've reached a time where many people who sign up with traditional publishing houses may end up wishing they'd just self-published, which is 180 degrees from where we were pretty much since publishing began.

So what's a modern writer to do? Well, the advice is out there if you look. If you're new to this, or trying new things, a few quick and obvious guidelines may help:

  1. Seek outside help! Beta readers, editors, cover designers, book formatters. Until you master these skills, a few hundred dollars will probably be well worth it. 
  2. Learn! Yes, you can learn to format your own books, create covers, and maybe even be your own editor. But invest the time and practice necessary to master these skills. If you want to make your own covers for example, don't just download some stock art, slap it together, and call it a day. Make half a dozen covers for each book. Try different approaches. Experiment. Set them aside and come back a week later to see if you still like any of them. And come back again, months or years later, as your skills improve. If you're book isn't selling to your liking, start tweaking. Change the cover, the blurb, edit one more time. Keep going until you're satisfied. (Almost every other author in the history of the world has not had this option.... don't take it for granted!) But of course, keep writing. Don't let one project stall you forever.
  3. Read! I don't mean just to study the competition. Read the forums. Read blogs. Research. If you want to master any or all of the skills necessary to be a modern entrepreneur/writer, you're going to have to do your research. The internet is brimming with advice and experiences from which you can learn. Don't bypass the information that just might transform you from a wannabe into a Cinderella story. 
  4. Be realistic. Most people shouldn't publish their first book. Maybe not even their first five. I didn't. You should recognize the fact that the vast majority of writers don't make a living at it, and never have. Today, there are more writers and more books than ever. If you're making coffee money, or filling up your gas tank, be thankful for those readers who made that possible. If you're doing better than that, great! It's okay to hope for more, but don't be crushed if it doesn't happen right away. This business has always required persistence, and it's as fickle as ever. Don't take it personally. Just keep writing because you love it and you need to. In the process, you'll get better. Maybe you'll even get lucky.
Last -and this is an addendum to #4- Decide what the hell you're doing.

What could I possibly mean by that? Well, part of being realistic is acknowledging to yourself that if you're writing chick-lit romance, you're probably not going down in history as the next Dickens or Hemingway. Odds are, you're not even going to be the next E.L. James. You have to be realistic about where you fit into the paradigm before you try to carve out a place. If you're trying to be the next Jane Austen, don't get pissed because you're not selling like Stephen King. And if you want to be the next Dickens or Hemingway, why the hell are you writing chick-lit? It pays to know your genre and conform to its expectations.

With all of this emphasis on editing, formatting, and such, one might think these things are what separate the amateurs from the pros. Our common experience of browsing through the bestseller list tells us otherwise.
The truth is, the real money is in giving readers something familiar, like a warm blanket and a cup of tea on a rainy day.If you can do that, it doesn't matter what you write. You will do well.