Tag Archives: indie authors

When it feels right but is … wrong. #writing #indiebooks

This week: you have another opportunity to benefit from the vast store of wisdom I have earned by royally fucking things up so that you don’t have to.  

It started like this.

Wednesday; visit the parents day, and this week I arrived in extremely dire need of a wee. It is fairly usual that the pint of water and two cups of coffee I need to kick start my day turn into about five pints by the time I’ve driven fifty miles or thereabouts and I drive the next ninety in some agitation. This Wednesday was no exception.

At Mum and Dad’s the downstairs loo is just off the lobby before you go into the house proper and I usually use it before I announce my presence, otherwise the ten minutes of hellos can be a bit excruciating for my poor bladder. Into the loo I rushed, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as what felt like about a gallon of wee went into the pan. Except that each of the lavs at Mum and Dad’s has a riser for people with dodgy hips, and if you sit on the riser in the downstairs loo wrong, the wee runs down the inside of it and despite being positioned over the bowl, the gravitational wonders of surface tension bend the wee round and under the edge of the riser and it then falls over the side of the pan onto the floor. Well, it came from a skip, still in its wrapping, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But yes, you guessed it. A significant portion of my wee deluge had missed the pan entirely and puddled on the floor.

Joy.

The original dribbly-wee loo riser of doom (centre) among other skip scored offerings.

There I was. I’d done the right thing, sat on loo, weed into hole but somehow, despite following the instructions it had all gone somewhat awry. I spent the next five minutes wiping it up with loo roll and anti bacterial floor spray. It’s not just me, the foibles of this particular loo riser are a known problem and I soon had it all ship shape again with no harm done. The point was, sometimes, even when you do things the right way it all goes horribly wrong.

So how does this tale of substandard urinary aim have any connection with writing?

Well, it’s like this.

There’s a quote that appears on something I use – my Kobo Writing Life dashboard, I think – that goes like this:

‘If you want to read a book that has not been written yet, you must write it.’

Way back in 2008 when I finally finished my first decent novel that is, exactly what I had done. But to be honest, while this is great advice, it only works if you are in touch with the popular Zeitgeist on some level. I sell my books on the internet which, to all intents and purposes, is American. It is devilishly hard to reach non Americans but back then it was even harder (except on Amazon at that point).

Therefore, I shot myself in the foot instantly by writing a very British book set, mostly, in a fantasy world but when it came here, it came to London. Yes Dr Who is like that but it was put on by the BBC and when they first did it, they had a captive audience comprising all of Britain. I wrote British because I was bored of books and films where the main protagonists are American and the setting America. I wanted to see some shizz go down in my own country. What I failed to grasp was that there is a reason the vast majority of books are about Americans in America. It’s to connect with Americans; the biggest and most easily reachable group of readers in the market place.

Yes, I’d done kind of the right thing but … wrong.

The problem wasn’t even that I was writing a book that could well hold more appeal to British or Australasian readers. It was that I hadn’t researched my market – I thought I had but, no. That’s why I didn’t understand how hard to find they would be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would be unable to reach British readers without taking special measures. OK so that was 2008 but even now, in 2017, you have to work at finding international readers and even harder at finding readers who buy from sites other than Amazon.

Likewise, I’d read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy: the Narnia Books, The Five Children and It, The Incredible Mr Blenkinsop (I think that was its name) the Borrowers, the Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings. I’d seen films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, I’d read Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. In most of those books, the writer has invented a completely new world, or a new creature, or a new something. The point is, while they may have broad themes that are similar, good versus evil baddie, etc, each one takes place in its own fantasy world or hidden world within this one, often there are specific and new creatures created for purpose of the story. The notable exception is Terry Pratchett, who took the tropes other people used and poked gentle fun at them.

In the same way that I thought, at my parents, that rushing into the bog, sitting down on the ice cold, thigh freezing riser and letting it all out was enough, and discovered that oh it so wasn’t, I genuinely thought putting my book on sale and supporting my efforts with advertising on the big promo sites was all it would take to find readers. It wasn’t. I wrote weird books, that are funny and I had covers made expressly to say, ‘this book is like nothing you have ever read’ because when people saw my books, I wanted them to think, ‘Pratchett’. When I got reviews that said that, I quoted them. I wrote my book the old way. The E Nesbitt way. And I sold that as an asset … the wrong way.

When people talk about wanting ‘different’ I suspect that what they really mean is that they want the same old ware wolves and sparkly vampires but with … say … slightly different lighting.

That is where Sir Terry cleaned up. He kept to the standard tropes, and spun them differently. If you want to succeed financially, I think, possibly, the trick is to write something bang on genre that has a different angle; a standard, boilerplate, trope made interesting enough to you for you to be able to stand writing in it.

When it comes to making choices, I guess it’s wise to think through the ramifications, but with writing it’s hard to anticipate what they might be sometimes. If you like writing wacky but want to produce a well edited book with a professional cover, it’s worth looking at how much cash you have to throw at it and how long for. When I started this game, the estimate was that once you’d produced six books you’d reach tipping point; momentum would be easier to maintain and sales would rise.

‘Great!’  I thought, ‘I have budget for six novels.’

Now that I’m writing my sixth book, that magic tipping point number is more like twelve! Things change and move. How long can you sustain your business without making a profit? OK now double it. Hell, quadruple it to be safe.

Likewise, when you plan what you’re going to do to reach readers, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping as much of it under your control as you can. This is why so many writers ask readers to sign up to their mailing lists. I had an amazing three months back in 2014 when I optimised my book listings for UK readers and started getting a ton of downloads on Amazon and, even better, a really good read through rate – seriously it was massive, about 20% of the folks downloading the first book bought the others But then Amazon changed the algo – which they do around April or May each year, it seems. Overnight the downloads of the free book ceased. And that was that.

These days, however many author lists readers are signing up to, I still believe that if you can make your emails personal, fun and interesting enough they will stay with you. Just don’t make them too fun or your readers will sign up for the emails rather than your books or if they do, be prepared to monetise your blog posts, newsletter etc – either as non fiction books or paid content. The great thing about mailing lists is that if someone doesn’t get on with your books they can unsubscribe so you should end up with a list of folks who might, eventually, read your books! If you’re really lucky, some will part with cash for them.

Once you have some readers, it’s also worth listening to them. I always sold my books as fantasy and when asked to cite comparable writers I’d suggest Holt, Prachett, Rankin … When people started reviewing them, the bulk of them cited Douglas Adams. I now publish them in sci-fi. They don’t sell as well there as they did in the days when I could put them in fantasy and they’d be actually visible. But now that fantasy is kind of, ware wolves and shifters with a small corner for epic, my books definitely do better in sci-fi! Sci-fi seems a bit less rigid in the genre factors required, too, hence the next series, Space Dustmen, is going to be sci-fi with the odd planetary visit.

To sum up, what I am trying to say, I guess, is that now, more than ever, you need to think long and hard before you even start to write that book and you need to keep pretty nimble afterwards. So, if you’re thinking having a pop at writing or are working on your first book, maybe you should ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are you are writing for?
  2. Where you you find them?
  3. Can you find them easily and inexpensively?
  4. How often do the authors they read release new books?
  5. Can you keep up with book production rates for your genre? or to put it another way …
  6. How much time do you have? Even if you give up your job.
  7. What kind of writing career will fit with your life?
  8. How and where will you sell your books – it’s no good being wide if everyone in your genre whose books you like and who might like yours too and do mailing swaps or promos with you is in KU.
  9. How long before you need your books to start funding themselves to keep going?
  10. Are there other ways you can monetise your writing to support book production until such stage as your book business is self financing.
  11. How big is your social media following? Are you up to a kickstarter to fund book production?

The way I see it there are two broad choices about what you decide to write.

The first choice is to conform. You, write to market, so if it’s fantasy, you write about ware wolves or witches and yes you light them differently or whatever it takes and you write about six books (minimum) a year. And you thank your lucky stars you’re not in Romance where you have to write one a month!

Alternatively if you really can’t face the prospect of writing about creatures someone else has already invented or making your hero American, or 101 other must haves for the best selling book, accept that you are unlikely to earn diddly squat for a long, long time and just go for it writing the kind of stuff you love, that fulfils you as a reader and writer, stuff you want to read that hasn’t been written yet. But if you choose this route, you have to be extremely pragmatic about your chances of earning anything for many years and extremely lateral and original about what you do to earn from your books in other ways.

It’s quite good if you can avoid combining motherhood to a small child and trying to look after sick, elderly parents, at the same time as trying to have any sort of career, too.

This is where I am right now. But hey, my sixth book will be out next year and who knows, 2027 I may even have written twelve and if I market the hell out of them, well who knows, they might pay for the thirteenth book.

Mwahahahargh! I can dream.

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This week, I have been mostly thinking about #marketing #bookmarketing #indiereads

Oh yes I have.

Several things got me started, Tricia Drameh’s post:
https://authortriciadrammeh.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/become-a-millionaire-selling-books-on-amazon-or-not/,
Then something similar on Chuck Wendig’s blog about giving books time to ferment:
http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/05/30/dear-writers-a-book-needs-time-to-cook/
And following on from that, a post doing the round on kindleboards:
http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,252168.0.html about what makes a 6 figure author.

Chuck Wendig’s words about letting books cook particularly rang true with me since I temporarily abandoned a new series I was working on recently, in order to try writing simpler shorter stories that are easier to handle with all the other shit that’s going down. The second of these; Jump, is a story about The Pan of Hamgee and it’s with the smashing editor now. The first has turned into a novel; 40k and rising, so it’s unfinished as yet.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m saying but it adds colour and makes the Facebook post more interesting.

However, while I was working on all these other projects, the new series cooked away quietly in the background and has really begun to crystallise. My hero is now a one-legged, muscle-bound ex gigolo with scar down one side of his face. He was working on Terra, the capital planet of the system, serving a niche market: rich trophy wives who wanted to pretend they were being ravished by an orc, only in the safety of their own homes by an orc who is keen to ensure they enjoy the experience. Naturally, he is very careful about who his clients are and insists any ladies who are attached tell their other halves – this is a different planet remember so most of them regard it as a nice thing for the wife to do, a bit of recreation that saves them a job.

Unfortunately, despite his precautions, he is stitched up by an angry husband. It’s not relevant to the plot really, it’s just his background but it’s how he ends up in the Salvage Zone, trawling the asteroid belt for space garbage to pay off his debts, and living on stinky P-Deck next to the Sewage Processing Plant in the Orion Space Station. Meanwhile my heroine has been in stasis for four million years and is currently floating around deep space in a box but she’s heading for the asteroid belt and guess who’s going to find her. It’s all stuff that wasn’t there, and has only arrived since I’ve left the story stewing. And it made me think that maybe, for the most part, I’m not letting my books cook for long enough – don’t laugh I know they take 2 years each but sod it, I’m working faster these days, the first one took 13. And my point is, there are bits of the new series that I could write down straight away, and I can see the characters so clearly in my head. It wasn’t like that before I gave up on it temporarily.

To get back on topic, I suppose what I’m saying is that it takes a while to tease my stuff out from being random fragments of ideas to something coherent with a point – not to mention a plot. Unfortunately, the marketing strategy that appears to work best: high volume, low price – mass production if you will – is untenable for authors such as myself, whose books, for whatever reason, take time. But does that mean we will never succeed? Well, thinking about it, the ebook thing probably hasn’t been going on long enough to know with any certainty. However, through my own mistakes and total unsuitability to the author career thing I have learned some stuff the hard way which I will share with you now.

To write to market or not to write to market? That is the question.

I spent too much time trying to be this guy. Yep, there’s me wanting to make my own way home when I should have hailed a taxi like all the others.

Actually, it’s probably not. Somewhat naively, I set out to write the kind of book I always wanted to read that didn’t exist yet. The reasoning was simple, I believed that if I liked my books other people would. While this might make sound creative sense, I’m beginning to suspect it’s commercial anathema.

The thing is, by very din’t of being an author I’m probably already several bricks short of a hod, all authors are. Therefore, we have to accept that what floats our boat is likely to have about as much appeal to the rest of the reading public as taking a lava shower! So over my five books and eight year writing career, I’ve learned that there’s a very good reason why the books I always wanted to read don’t exist. And that reason is that nobody else actually wants to read them. It doesn’t matter if they’re good, or even if people like them once they’ve read them. The point is, they don’t appeal initially so it takes a long time (if at all) for anyone to pick them up and start reading.

Sure, I still want to believe I’m an outlier but I have to accept that it looks unlikely. So my advice is that anyone who wants to write for financial gain should avoid genre mashing and make at least a cursory nod to market tropes when they start writing. Because I’m beginning to think that what people actually want to read is lots of versions of the same book, but slightly different, again and again.

Maybe what an author should ask herself, starting out, is this: are you going to write what you want to write or to make money? Maybe the folks who succeed in this game are the ones who manage to combine the two.

Ebooks have an eternal shelf life.

What!!!!? You are shitting me!!!

Bollocks they do!

Why do so many of the writers who are more like robots, or able to stop time, or who’ve made a pact with the devil or have supersonic typing hands (or something) absolutely insist that for success you must spew out a book every three months, like a Canada Goose crapping every 90 seconds on the grass of a London park?* I’ll tell you why, ‘the 90 day cliff’. After 90 days, there are various lists and initiatives on book retailers that your book will be removed from, lists and initiatives that get a LOT of traffic. Ebook or not, your work has a 90 day shelf life the same as a book in the shops because that’s what the algorithms on the book sites give it. Yep, just like the old days.

However, where there is a difference is that once someone reads your new book, the others are all there for them to find via the other books by links if they want to read the rest of your back catalogue. So they won’t be going out of print.

Know yourself, and understand your product. If your books were cars what would yours be?

This is not a quality issue, it’s more a case of are your books abundant or are they … rare.

Are your books one of these?

So most of the really big indie authors have a big backlist, or they are releasing books at the rate of knots. I have no idea how they do this, c.f. Mr Wendig’s remarks about books cooking. I need more books in the pot, I suspect. However, the point is, what they’re doing is the same thing as a company like Ford. Good product, high volume of production, low price and low profit per item but the millions sold make up for that. The high volume, low profit model is the best and easiest way to make cash doing anything. However it usually requires a big outlay up front; you have to make a lot of product before you start to earn your profits or spend a lot on advertising. Basically, you’ll have to bankroll your overheads with something for the three or four months it takes for the profits to a) turn up and b) actually reach you. Most arenas of consumer goods selling are similar. Why do you think there are so many huge companies that own everything? Yep. That’s right.

THIS is what the Kickstarter campaign will be about for my eyebombing book. Buying enough copies up front to get a low, low unit price and paying for production and design costs.

Or maybe your books are more like one of these …

Or you can do it another way. Because if you write one 200k, meticulously researched historical novel every three years, it is very difficult for you to be Ford. Sure you can do some shorts but it’s still tricky, even those take time. So you have to pitch yourself as Aston Martin, a premium product, hand crafted and painstakingly produced over a period of years, by craftspeople. And you have to make your unit price higher because, theoretically, there’s more ‘work’ in each one and there are less units produced.

Low volume, high profit margin.

This is the way I should go and have not gone. This also means that on sites like Kobo, you will be more likely to be accepted for a promotion or sale since a reduction from £6.99 to £1.99 is much more attractive than a reduction of £3.99 down to £1.99. If you try this with me though, you want to make sure you don’t get into a DFS situation, where you have so many sales that anyone who buys your books for  standard price is a mug. It’s also tricky to make the switch if you’ve been selling your books for reasonably low volume prices. Especially if your books are neither bespoke niche nor mass produced but something more like this …

Yes … we all think it looks cool but does anyone actually want one?

If you’re a natural Aston or er hem, grass covered ute, can you turn yourself into a successful Ford?

Sighs … I wish I knew.

Over time I’ve been writing books, it’s become painfully clear to me that if a person enjoys – if that’s the right word – the levels of demand upon their time and emotional energy that I do, trying to write stuff at anything approaching a sensible rate of output for a high volume low profit production model is extremely difficult. The more I see of this, the more I realise it is about four things:

  1. You need to be a reasonably prolific author in the first place – I actually am, I write a lot in the time I have there just isn’t much time available.
  2. You must be time-rich, or exceptionally good at making time, sleep like Margaret Thatcher (4 hours a night) and be extremely emotionally stable and/or emotionally robust so the difficult times don’t throw you off your game.
  3. Another thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the folks doing well are extremely well organised; either with their marketing or their writing or both. So I think if you’re the kind of person who spends three quarters of each day looking for your keys, glasses, phone, trying to remember your own name etc, you’re probably stuffed, or at least, you’re going to have to work harder. So yeh, six figure authors appear to be ruthlessly efficient with their time.
  4. They are flexible. They seem to react swiftly to new developments in the market.

That, there, is not everyone’s personality or life. But then, not every car is mass produced. Aston Martin are successful, right?

Oh blimey! I only write one book every three years, what can I do? I’m stuffed!

Is your book a lemon?

Well, perhaps not. So don’t panic! Not yet, anyway.

Even though I know my life circumstances render a career pretty much dead in the water it seems that hope springs eternal. If you, like me, still keep trying and keep on writing because you have to, I sympathise. I’m an authorholic, completely addicted, and I really can’t stop so if that’s you, too (and I suspect there are plenty of you out there, c.f. my earlier statement that most authors are a bit nuts) welcome to authorholics anonymous.

Slow authors can up their rate of production a bit by writing shorter books, and folks like me, who’ve been selling at the wrong price point for years can then put the shorter books at a lower price point so at least people with less cash to flash still have something to read.

But I have stuffed the marketing up a bit. Quite a lot, actually. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing. I was a marketing manager with a household name here in the UK. But I’ve still managed to build a base of readers who are almost certainly expecting something very different to what I’m offering, and a stable of four books that, are a really hard sell and one that is a complete and utter dud. I’m not talking about whether people love them, they do, but getting them to read the darned things is properly difficult!

Yep.

Frankly, if I was still a marketing manager, I’d sack me.

What have I learned from my many mistakes?

Lots, so here are some of the many things that I’ve learned the hard way so that you don’t have to:

  1. Despite being as ancient as the hills the best and most reliable way to keep direct contact with your audience still appears to be a mailing list. You just have to make damned sure it’s worthwhile and interesting.
  2. After a certain point, mailing lists cost money. That means you need to make sure you know how many books you will have to sell each month to cover your costs. You should also aim to pick your mailing service provider very carefully and keep an eye on the market so you can jump ship if another cheaper provider pops up who provides as high a level of service for less. I started with Mailchimp because the deal breaker was automation. However, MailerLite do automation now so I’ve just bought a year with them for the price of two months with MailChimp. I will keep a free MailChimp account but I am moving pretty much everything.
  3. This is a crowded market so it’s worth factoring that in. Things may take longer to happen than you expect: So if you are giving away your books with a view to people signing up to your mailing list, reading your free books and buying the others it’s worth noting that lead times have extended. I am now allowing four years, from sign up, to them actually reading the book and buying another one. That is how crowded the market is. When I started my list, odds are that 10,000 readers would be enough to get a newly launched book doing well enough to get some traction on the book sites. I’d say it may be more like 20,000 now, unless I’m launching in a couple of years when more of my lovely peps will have had time to read the free books I gave them. But I may just be really bad at this. Phnark!
  4. Plan for the long haul. On the whole, I think the only part of the multi-million sellers stuff I do well is reacting to new developments. The trouble is, my time constraints being what they are, I will always be behind the curve by the time I implement anything, even if I am one of the first to start.
  5. Write. Keep writing. Because the deal breakers seem to be volume of books as well as speed of output. If you can’t do speed go for eventual volume. Even if you only write two words today, they’re two words that weren’t there yesterday. It all adds up.
  6. Mix things up! If you write long expensive books try writing some shorter, less expensive books. If you write books that you love which are a hard sell, maybe try writing some that adhere strictly to one genre. If you’re writing the book equivalent of an Aston Martin remember that just like the real thing, not everyone can afford one. Shorts are good here. I’m currently trying to lob some 1970s Fiat 500s into the M T McGuire literary mix.
  7. Be realistic about what you want. Sure I’d love to make it big, but my real ambition for my writing is simply to earn enough from the books I have on sale to be able to produce the next one. I haven’t. But it seems to me that the trick is to just keep on keeping on and quietly dropping books out there into the void.
  8. Accept that sometimes, your principles may hold you back. I loathe the current fashion for having thin attractive women on book covers and I’m not overly keen on ripped man torsos either. I believe it is damaging to people who are not stick thin or ripped. I have banged on about this before so I won’t do it again, but I suspect the fact I refuse to feature idealised humans on my covers or keep the colour scheme to black plus one other may well explain why my sales in fantasy – which used to be good – are now even more piss poor than my risible showing in sci-fi.

Do us folks who write a little bit slower than the speed of continental drift stand a chance?

You know what, I sincerely hope so. The nearest successful author to me I can find – or at least the nearest in outlook – writes 4 or 5 books a year. She has been a midlister for sometime but I’d say her career has really taken off this year. She’s practical and no-nonsense and her advice to those like us would be to get the mailing list going, a website, a blog (possibly) and write. Because she says, again and again, that her income rises with the number of books in her back catalogue. She says you don’t have to be writing best sellers all the time if you have enough decent books in your backlist because each person who reads one will read them all. As the number of books grows, your sales grow and your author ‘score’ on the retail sites grows. There may yet be a chance for us molluscs to creep into profitability through the back door.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Keep writing books and see. Because it takes as long as it takes; and that applies to both success, on whatever level I judge it, and writing the books.

Relax and enjoy the journey.

The most important thing is to relax and enjoy the journey.

All we slow writers can do is put the framework in place and hope that after ten or twenty years, when we have twelve plus books in the ether, the chance to earn a decent living from our work will still be there for us.

*Factoid Alert: I’m afraid this is actually true.

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