Collected Email Wisdom
Q: I'd like to write a book, but I just don't know what to do or how to get started. For instance, I'll start working on a story, and then I'll suddenly lose the motivation to get it done. Is there any advice that you can give me in that aspect, or even getting started as a writer in general?
Losing motivation mid-book and moving on to brighter, shinier new ideas is not unusual at all. It's the number one thing that keeps people from becoming authors, actually, by finishing a book. I suffered from it myself all the way until I was age thirty and finished my first book, and still suffer from it to this day, really. I've just gotten worlds better at overcoming it.
Here's the secret: finish the book.
I know, I know. That doesn't sound like an answer. It sounds like the danged problem, all spelled out again. But it's actually the secret. You have to finish a book, no matter what. Write garbage to get it done. Write the most nonsensical idiocy if you have to in order to wade through the middle and get to the end parts you want to write (hopefully) or just hold your nose and write crap all the way to the end if you have to. Force your way through to the end, however you have to do it, because in order to become a writer, you have to finish books. It's a requirement. It is not, however, a requirement for you to finish them well on the first try. Because you can rewrite them as many times as you need to in order to achieve a finished product you're proud of. Your first book, you may get to the end and say, "I don't think there's any way this can be fixed." And that's fine. Another secret: most authors don't publish their first book. It sits in a drawer somewhere, gathering dust, and we're all too ashamed of it to ever let anyone else see it.
The truth is that you have to start somewhere, and the rush of confidence that comes from finishing your first book, even if it's bad and you never want it to be published, is vital to your future success. Because when the next book gets to that mid-way slog point, you can look back and remember that - "Hey, I did this once before. I can do it again." And it's motivation like nothing else. The realization for me after finishing that first book was that if I could do it once, I could do it again and again. Two weeks ago I finished my 25th book. And that never would have happened if I hadn't blundered horribly through to FINALLY, after twenty years of starting to write books, finish my first one.
I can't promise you that it's easy to get to the end of that first one. It almost feels like you're thrashing blindly in the dark, wallowing in the mud toward a finish line you can't even see. No, I can't promise you it's easy, because it's some of the hardest mental work you'll do just getting to the end of the first one. But I can promise you it's worth it if you keep building that mental muscle.
Q: My writing sucks. How do I make it not suck?
Lots of practice and reading on craft. Writing can be one of the most satisfying and simultaneously nerve-wracking experiences you can have. The thing about professional writers is that we've all been there at the start, when we're looking at our writing and think, "Uh...this doesn't exactly look like Gillian Flynn (or whoever)." Just to make you feel better, most authors stick their first book in a shoebox and never let it out. Defender (my first book) in its current form is probably in its twelfth draft (maybe more) and I'd written a TON of short works in college in addition to journals, blogs and all manner of other stuff. It takes a while to start hitting the rhythm and feeling satisfied with your work (for most of us; if you've knocked it out of the park already, then you are a rare and masterful talent!) and even some of the writers I think are the best think their work is still crap. Writers are not really known for their confidence...
Q: I'm in the process of writing my own book (and have been for a couple of years) but am struggling to juggle it with work commitments.
How did you plan the Girl in the Box series?
How long did each book take you to write?
Have you planned them individually or was the series planned as a whole entity?
Here's the thing - every writer is going to have a different process. The Girl in the Box series was the second series I wrote, and by that time I'd somewhat refined my ideas and process for doing things. So I'm going to just tell you how I did things once I'd figured it out a little, and hopefully it'll help.
When I plan a series, I like to know what emotional high/low points to look forward to. For example (don't know how far you've gotten yet) but in the end of Girl in the Box #5, there's a massive emotional low point, one that was a gut punch that I looked forward to as I wrote towards it. I also knew vaguely how the series would end, who the big bad guy was, though it wasn't entirely clear before I started. Some people like to have all of this planned out. Some writers like to have none of it planned and just write. Which is the best way? The one that works for you.
With each book, I started with a theme that influenced the title - Alone, the protagonist starts out alone, isolated from others, not sure who to trust. With Untouched, she's trying to cope with the revelation at the end of book 1 that she can't touch people, so now she's gone from merely isolated by herself to completely unable to touch the world around her. A useful idea is to write out your idea for a book in a simple form like this: "When (protagonist) encounters (situation that has changed the status quo), he/she sets forth to (right the situation). But will he/she succeed when (antagonist) tries to stop him/her?" As Jim Butcher says in a wonderful talk from FaerieCon in 2013, if you're a new writer and can't boil your story down to this simplest form, you need to work with it until you can, because it's probably too complex to execute as a new writer.
As for time to complete the books...I'll be honest, this answer won't help you at all. I was a full-time professional writer before I started writing book 2 of this series, and was a stay at home dad for book 1, so the truth wouldn't be all that enlightening and might even be somewhat discouraging as I write very quickly - much, much more quickly than 99% of authors. Even when I was working 60-80 hours a week I managed to write 180,000 words of fiction in the course of about three months when the idea seized me. That's very unusual for most writers, especially those with full time jobs and family commitments. I would urge you to focus on trying to write 1,000 words per day, every day, and either getting up early or staying up late in order to do that. If you held to that schedule for three months, you'd have a reasonably long book done by the end of that 90 day timeframe.
While I did mostly plan out Girl in the Box before starting, down to the theme of each book in the series and a general idea of where the plot for each would go, I would caution you that trying to carry a whole series on your back as a new writer is the quickest path to madness. I don't want to discourage you if you have a vision for a ten book series, because that's certainly how I've always approached my fiction by nature, but a standalone volume would put a lot less pressure on you starting out.
My Appearance on the Marketing SFF Podcast
My appearance on Self Publishing Round Table
Note: These are my collected blog posts of advice to indie authors, originally published on the blog. Uh, back when I had a blog. 'Lo them thar many years ago.
How To Make A Living As An Indie Author
I'm not really an expert in any of those fields, so why spend my day off writing a blog post about it? (Why spend my day off writing a blog post at all, honestly? Fuck if I know. I should be on the couch partaking of the last day of the Titanfall beta or rewatching a few of the Harry Potter movies on Blu-ray. Instead, I'm doing this. I must be mental.) Anyway, I'm writing this because I want to speak to a certain segment of the writing population, and that's the person who wants to make a living as an indie author.
I've written advice posts before, and a lot of them were filled with caveats that were designed to protect people's feelings and avoid controversy, and also protect my ass from anyone who might get upset. Let me get those out of the way ahead of time: I'm assuming if you're going to read further you're:
a) Looking to make a living as an indie author, and are unwilling to accept any other means of making a living long-term.
b) Are smart enough to decide after reading my advice if the methods I describe are a fit for you.
c) Are willing to work for 100 hours per week for a sustained period of time if that's what it takes.
d) Are smart enough to know that I'm too busy to personally mentor anyone beyond this post. You're going to need to figure out the rest for yourself. Find some author friends, some like minded people you can talk to. It'll help a lot.
(As an aside, my harsh words here in this post are going to be the least of the slings and arrows you'll have to deal with if you go down this road, so maybe take it as a warning to look for surer footing elsewhere.)
Some quick background:
In March of 2011 I had been in financial services for seven years. It wasn't going terribly well, and I was spending all my free time working on a story idea that was absolutely haunting me. It kept me up at night writing, and I was having my friends read it and waiting anxiously for their feedback. I loved it - loved writing it, loved hearing what they had to say about it, loved every part of it enough that I was forgoing all my other hobbies just to write.
That was a unique experience for me. I'd gotten a degree in Creative Writing with the intent of becoming a novelist, but gave up on that dream by the time graduation had rolled around. I hated writing after getting my degree, my love of it all ground out of me by years of being forced to write about subjects I did not give two fucks and a shit about. I'd started half a hundred novels from the time I was in fourth grade until college; after college I didn't write anything for eight years.
I had started writing again in the summer of 2010. I kept writing for a few months during that summer, in spite of everything that was going on - work demands, a toddler running around the house, a pregnant wife, a house that we were doing a ton of work on to sell, selling said house, moving in with my in-laws, and a hell of a lot more.
I wrote in spite of all of this. I wrote DURING all of this. I kept coming up with ideas to advance my plot, ideas for interactions between my characters, ideas, ideas and more ideas. I'd sit at work and write ideas down during meetings - whole chunks of scenes and dialogue. I was a financial services salesperson and trainer; I was supposed to be paying attention.
It got bad. I didn't care about my financial services business anymore, all I cared about was writing. So I started trying to figure out how to become a full-time writer, and looked into traditional publishing (which was the only game I had heard of back then). It wasn't a happy answer I came back with. The short version: Good fucking luck, kid, and don't quit your day job.
A little depressed, I put aside my writing for a few months and redoubled my efforts in financial services in preparation for the upcoming baby. By the time January rolled around, I was twice as frustrated, and I was back on the writing again. I looked for answers to the question of, "How do I become a full-time author?" again, and this time I found something different.
Self-publishing. Amanda Hocking. Joe Konrath. They told tales of copious sales, of massive amounts of money, and of working hard, but being in charge of your own destiny. I found a few other names like David Dalglish and B.V. Larson, and I started studying up to figure out how I could do just a fraction of what they were doing. It took me about a month or so to figure it all out, but I came up with a plan, and on March 5, 2011, I told my wife I wanted to quit financial services and stay home with the baby so I could write in every available moment.
I'll spare you the argument and say that eventually she went for it. So I stayed home with our youngest and wrote obsessively during naps and after bedtime, defraying daycare expenditures for the first year and releasing two books with a third finished by the end of the year. After that, we put both kids in daycare all-day, every-day and I started writing full-time as of January 1st, 2012. I was making a living by the end of September, just after my sixth book came out.
And here's what it took to do it.
1. Be calculating
Whenever I talk about what I do/did as an indie author, I inevitably hear people in the background say, "Ehh, he just got lucky, that's all."
To them I say: I planned for both failure and success, understanding that as long as I did not yield, I could work until some level of success was inevitable. Luck may have vaulted me to way above what I'd planned for, but I didn't count on it and it wasn't required to be able to making a living, which is what I wanted - and what I planned for.
I worked my ever-loving ass off in ways that no one ever saw, spent most of my off-hours in analysis, took mighty risks, gambled a lot of money, time and basically my entire future on my own success, and then watched things work ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE I PLANNED FOR IT TO BEFORE I EVEN FINISHED MY FIRST NOVEL.
You need to constantly assess the landscape by reading about your industry. You need to know about what's going on in the world of publishing, the world of craft, everything about your industry that you can soak up. Even if it sounds stupid, even if you violently disagree with it, the time you spend learning these things can all weigh in the formulation of your game plan.
Watch the people who are doing it, and try to distill the common denominators of their success. I heard some motivational coach say, "Success leaves clues." No successful author is doing it exactly the same way, but a lot of them are doing similar things.
A lot of people speak of planning like it's something you do once and forget about.
Are you fucking kidding me? Planning is an ongoing process. Like Sun-Tzu said, your plan ain't gonna survive contact with the enemy (pretty much everything is your enemy, btw, this publishing environment is like Australia) so you have to revise it constantly. Throw out what isn't working, make new plans, revise old ones. My overarching plan (strategy) was this:
i) Write a shitload of books
ii) Get them in people's hands somehow
*(Step iii is actually, "Get them to pay for the next ones.")
It's the little plans (the tactics) - how to get those steps done - that needed changing. And you must assess where you are CONSTANTLY. And it cannot get in the way of your writing. (Starting to see why obsession - #5 - is important?)
I had this basic strategy/plan when I came to my wife on that day in March, and frankly, the strategy hasn't changed in the (nearly) three years since. What has changed are the tactics - the little ways I carried out said plan. Back then the way you carried out ii was through 99 cent pricing. That no longer works the way it once did, so now it's permafree or box sets (or the nuclear option, permafree box sets). (See points #2 and #7).
Caveats/Pitfalls for Point #1:
a) You will need to spend your off hours studying this business the way a horny teenage boy studies every line of the pretty girl in front of him's body while he's bored in math class. (See point #5, re:obsession.) You will need to read articles, journals, blogs, books and possible advice scrawled on rest area bathroom walls. (Jenny - 867-5309 and other assorted bathroom stall wisdom is probably not going to help you, but collect it anyway. Better to have it than not.)
b) If you have no experience running a business of any kind, things will be more difficult for you. I don't know how much. I spent eight years running a business in financial services before taking on this responsibility, and it was like an internship that prepared me for being an indie author. I learned to manage my time, I learned about marketing and sales, about loss leaders, and about picking up the shovel and doing unpleasant work I didn't want to do in the name of staving off working for someone else. I hate the thought of working for someone else. It's a powerful motivator for me. If you don't have motivation to drive yourself, this is going to be tough for you.
2. Write fast
Ingredient number one in the souffle of success is hard work. But simple hard work is not enough; results are key here.
In fact, this is probably the biggest caveat to the whole equation, because if you can't write fast (and a lot of people can't, no shame in that) it might not work for you like it worked for me. I wrote 140,000 words of fiction in my evenings over the course of a couple months while I was still running my financial services business because I was so obsessed with the story I had to tell.
Some things that *might* help you write faster - writing sprints of 15-60 minutes, reinforced by taking your laptop computer somewhere that has no internet/distractions or using an internet blocking program like Anti-Social or Freedom. Still, if you can't write fast enough to get out four books per year...again, this might not be the plan for you. I'm not dogging on you, I just know what it took for me to get to my present level of success, and I'm not sure what it will take below that level of output. Is it still possible? I'm sure it is. I just didn't plan that way so I can't really advise you.
Additional caveats/pitfalls of fast writing -
a) Make sure you have an error correction process in place. Spellcheck alone is not going to do it. Professional editing would be a great idea.You have to decide what your Quality Assurance process will be, but you need to have SOMETHING in place. Not every reader is turned off by tons of errors in a manuscript, but a lot of them are. These errors take away from your story. They're a distraction. You're fighting the wind instead of using it. Don't get me wrong, there's such a thing as TOO MUCH when it comes to time spent on error correction, but you need to find this balance for yourself.
b) You can write crap to get the words out, but you damned sure better edit/rewrite it until it's professional-grade. I can fix words on a page that suck, but I can't edit a blank page. Make sure your stories are good (See point #4), that they're engaging, that they keep the reader moving through. Get beta reader feedback to tell you where people are putting your books down and try to figure out WHY they're doing it. HINT: They may not know the reason why, exactly. Study craft to narrow it down.
3. Learn business
There's a lot of bullshit out there. Tons of it. Enough to fertilize the entire world. In your opinion, maybe this post is filled with it. It doesn't really bother me if that's what you think, because once I write this post, I'm done with it. I'm not an advice guru, I'm a full-time independent author who derives all his income from selling books, not writing advice posts. So if you don't like the material herein and think it's bullshit, you know what to do with it - fertilize something.
What does this have to do with business? Everything. If you're going to be a full-time independent author, you have to fill your time with things an indie author would do. You also have to develop a really exceptional bullshit filter. You need to seek WISDOM (publishing information) from a variety of sources and develop the DISCRETION (bullshit filter) to decide what to apply and what not to. Some of the things you decide not to apply may not be bullshit; they just may not be a fit for the direction you want to take your career.
For example, discounting. Lots of people run sales on books, run specials on books. I haven't done hardly any of this, with a couple recent exceptions. This particular strategy is NOT bullshit, it just doesn't fit for the direction I want to go with my career. It's a perfectly reasonable business plan that works, just not one I want to employ.
Another thing about business - if you're not able to understand basics of profit and loss, contracts and how they affect you, the concept and application of loss leaders, basics of time management - okay, this is going to be a problem. The indie authoring industry is a place of shifting sands, where things are changing rapidly and what worked yesterday isn't necessarily going to work tomorrow.
What else goes into the business end of things? Tracking sales, choosing vendors, figuring out your budget, figuring out how to grow top-line sales while improving the bottom line by controlling costs, and dealing with the ten thousand assorted land mines that could crop up on a daily basis. Other business activities could include trawling through the data on your bit.ly or smartURL links to determine where you sales are coming from, figuring out which the best venues are for adbuys (I have no comment on this) or networking with other writers and talking shop.
a) This is probably the least clearly delineated subject in this post. The reason why is because I don't really know how fast you can learn what you need to know. Maybe you've already got all the business experience you need to start with the basics. Maybe you have no business experience and are starting from scratch. I'm not even sure what all I've learned along the way from my previous career and how much it helped me, at least not in quantifiable terms. I just know it's helped a TON.
b) If you don't know anything about business, that doesn't mean it's GAME OVER, MAN. You can learn. I highly recommend constantly trying to assess your weaknesses and figuring out how to shore those up. A couple areas I think authors struggle with - Time Management/Procrastination and Self-Discipline. If you've got those areas down, good for you. A few books I think might help if you feel out of control or unsure are Kris Rusch's Freelancer's Survival Guide and Brian Tracy's Eat that Frog! (which is a time management/priority setting book). Actually, I've read a lot of books by Brian Tracy and they've all helped. The Freelancer's Guide is a good starting point, though, for general business basics.
4. Learn your craft
I'm not talking about grammar and spelling. Spellcheck can save you in one of these regards. You do need some basic knowledge of sentence structure, syntax, etc, but a good editor can help you if you're close on that. Grammar and spelling aren't really elements of craft.
Here I'm talking about descriptions, narrative voice, all the components that allow you to take the reader from beginning to end without losing them. There are a LOT of pieces to this particular puzzle, and you'll spend a lifetime working on this if you're serious about it because there's always something new to learn. Still, some fundamentals:
d) Character Voice and Setting
Dean Wesley Smith offers classes on all these topics (and more) and covers them in beautiful detail over a six-week course that involves evaluating your writing. I've taken his craft classes and learned metric tons about how to improve in these areas. Yes, I'm still taking them even now.
If you can't afford classes, let me suggest you at least read heavily in these and other areas of craft. There are tons of books on craft from experts out there. I'll try and compile a list to place at the bottom of this post in the comments, but I don't have time for it right now.
Be deliberate, as Joe Konrath would say, considering how best to improve and giving all due thought to how you can employ what you've learned in your next work to make your writing better.
All craft exercises boil down to one purpose and one alone: HOOK YOUR READER FROM THE FIRST WORD AND FOR THE LOVE OF WHEDON, DO NOT FUCKING LET THEM GO UNTIL YOU'RE DONE.
Everything you learn in craft, from characterization to plotting to whatever is essentially boiled down to the essential storytelling skill of keeping them interested in what you're saying. Find the obstacles in your writing that are knocking people out of your work and shave the rough edges off them as fast as your peppy little fingers can figure out which keys to punch to do so.
Some things that can help you build your audience - write in a series. Same characters when possible (not EXACTLY possible in romance to keep the same main characters book after book, but in mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, etc, you should do this). Can you build a career writing standalone novels? Yeah, but I don't know how to do it so go find someone who can instruct you in this manner. (see point #7 for more on the benefits of writing in a series.)
a) Your first million words is (probably) going to suck. I had an advantage here in that I've been writing books since grade school so I expelled a lot of these crappy words during my teens/early twenties the way White Castle hamburgers are expelled from your digestive tract - violently and messily, with much disgust from anyone who witnesses this spectacle.
b) Taken alongside the first caveat, realize that sometimes you're better off jumping series as your craft/ability to hold the reader improves. My first series did not take off the way my second series has (probably because the first book isn't as strongly written/well-crafted with hooks in the first as the second). It doesn't mean I abandoned my first series (in fact it's doing quite well now) but I did put it on the back-burner for the last couple years as I focused on the one that was paying my bills. The first book of my first series was...my first book. Ever. I was still learning to write a damned novel. My craft got stronger and my second series did much better.
5. Be obsessed
To quote Bree Bridges (half of the Kit Rocha writing duo of hilarity and awesomeness), "When I say it's possible to make money in publishing, I'm assuming you've tried the easier things like digging for pirate treasure."
This does not mean it's impossible. It does not mean you can't do it. It just means that if you're just looking to make a living, it's easier to get a job that works you 40 hours a week that allows you to shut off your brain afterward.
You CANNOT do that in self-publishing and expect to have it work. You will need to think about it all the time. Wanting to make your living telling stories has to be the thing you get up for in the morning and the thing you go to sleep at night thinking about.
I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories and getting paid for it. I wanted no boss, no schedule but that I set for myself, and I was willing to work 100 hours per week for myself so I didn't have to work 40 for someone else (thanks to L.T. Ryan for that quote).
Lots of people have different definitions for this. I have only one - help people who are looking for a book like yours to find your damned book. You can call it visibility, you can call it discoverability, you can call it the gorram hillbilly rock for all the fucks I give on the subject.
How did I market? One way, and one way only, pretty much. I wrote in a series that had an overarching story, and I set my first book in said series to free. Permanently. That's right, you can read the first book in my two series for absolutely nothing in e-reader formats. (More on this in point #7.)
But wait, you say! It's now 2017 and that doesn't work anymore. Amazon has come along and killed the permafrees to death using an algorithm attached to a death ray.
Fine. What's the lowest possible price you can get as many of your books to? Do that and see how many copies you can give away. No, I don't care if you've got a ten book series and you're selling 9 for 99 cents in order to collect full price for that last one. If that's what it takes to move some fucking books, you'll find me there doing it, too. I will race you to the damned bottom, and I feel confident that I can whip the ass off most of the other people there because I'm obsessed, I'm a fast writer, and I have no problem with discounting ridiculous amounts of my backlist in order to get people to TRY - JUST TRY - my writing. I dare you not to read on.
And really, this is all marketing is. I'm trying to expose the readers who will LOVE my books to...MY BOOKS. Some will merely like them, but keep reading. Some readers will get caught up along the way and only somewhat enjoy my books. Maybe they'll read more, maybe not. A certain percentage will dislike my books. A certain percentage (hopefully small, if I've done my craft job correctly) will absolutely DESPISE my books and want to flame them in perpetuity with bad reviews and bad word of mouth. This number is baked into the cake of success, so get used to it. I want AS MANY OF THOSE HATERS to read my book as possible, because if they're reading it, so are the people who will love it.
Marketing is just finding ways to get those people exposed to your books. I don't do interviews, blog tours, (or blog posts, really), Twitter spamming, etc. I did it my way - permafree and having enough reviews to get the big sites like Pixel of Ink, E-reader News Today, Bookbub, Indie Book Bargains in the UK - to give me some signal boost so my books could go up the freebie charts. Kobo has given me a helping hand before as well, getting visibility on their site. I didn't ask for it, they just gave (and I'm grateful for it). Ultimately, though, none of these things would help me if I hadn't set the damned books free and gotten enough positive exposure to push them up to where people could find them.
Exposure. That's the magic word. And I don't mean the kind that gets you sent to jail for indecency, so put your pants back on. (Until you're a full-time writer, then pants are optional.)
7. Don't be afraid to give your work away for free
Between 11 April 2012 when I released my book Alone: The Girl in the Box, Book 1 and when I set it free in September 2012 some five months later, I sold 42 copies of it through all channels. In August I released books 2 and 3 in that series, ended up making four figures that month for the first time, five figures in November, and I've never even come close to a four-figure month since.
Would that have happened if I hadn't set Alone to permanently free? I doubt it. Sales weren't even moving in the right direction on it before I set it free to boost its exposure. The month before it went free it sold 3 copies. Since then it's been downloaded some 320,000 times for free and generated some 100,000+ paid sales for the rest of the series (almost all at $4.99 or the foreign equivalent).
There are two ways to look at those numbers - the first is to say, MY GOD, YOU MISSED OUT ON 320,000 SALES, ARE YOU MAD?! The answer is no, not really, because I've probably only missed out on the 3 sales a month I'd have generated without the additional visibility brought on by Alone being free, and I traded it for a boatload of money in the form of subsequent sales. That's not even counting all the people who finish reading the Girl in the Box series and move on to the other books I've written, because there are those people, too. (And I love them. My truest fans.)
That's the second way to look at it. The thought that follows is, "if only I could give away MORE copies for free, I'd be able to push that paid number to 200k+ or 300k+." (Which I'm working on).
Let's talk about the emotion of this for a moment. It hurts to set your beloved book free. It's painful to drop it to a low price. But a recent survey of successful indie authors found that something like 85% of those making over $500k per year had at least one permafree. Look for commonalities, right?
Whatever promotion hurts you the most will be most appealing to your readers. (That's according to one of the most awesome gurus of the indie movement, Edward W. Robertson.) I agree with that statement wholeheartedly, which is why this morning I started the process of setting my two biggest sellers - Untouched and Soulless, books 2 and 3 in my Girl in the Box series - to FREE. Why would I do that? Because I'm thinking even if I go from 3:1 freebie to sale ratio, if I could give away a million of those free (because of the added appeal of 3 BOOKS FOR FREE OMG DEAL) and it drops to a 5:1, I've still sold 200,000 more books. Boom.
It hurt when I set my first two books free, but it gets easier every time. And yes, it even hurt when I was selling a couple books a month, because I put blood, sweat and tears into those books, making them as good as I possibly could. However, their true value is not in the price on their cover; it's in how much money they're making for the author. After all, I'm not in this to make $10 per book; I'm in this to make a living. Free is just another tool in the toolbox for making that happen.
a) Maybe your book isn't appealing to readers (NOTE: I DID NOT SAY YOUR BOOK SUCKS. Though it may. I don't rule that out, having not read your book. It may be sucking the balls of every donkey in the shire, for all I know. But maybe not.)
If this is the case, a few things will happen - once you get to about thirty reviews, you'll probably know it it's not appealing to readers because your review average will be low. What's low? If you're below 4.0 on 30 reviews on Amazon.com, it's not a good sign. (Caveat to the caveat: Whatever you do, don't read the reviews for your work on Goodreads. This will not be helpful to your career - or your mental health, in all probability. And definitely don't base any judgments about what to do in your career on Goodreads reviews. Goodreads reviews skew much lower than Amazon, and as far as I'm concerned, anything above 0.1 on Goodreads means I'm doing aight.)
Again, just to be plain, for bad reviews - does it mean your book SUCKS? No, not necessarily. It means that for whatever reason, it's not CONNECTING WITH READERS. Which is the name of the game to make a living. Creating pure and beautiful art is the province of people who don't have any outside concerns (and don't write genre fiction). Us lesser mortals (aka Genre writers) have to get by on the time, energy and money we have.
I would never tell you to base your career decisions on one or two reviews, but if you've got 30 reviews on Amazon and half of them are 1-stars...you're going to have a hell of time getting even a permafree enough exposure. It may be time to jump ship to another series, and possibly another pen name depending on how bad it looks.
Writers are terrible judges of their own work, and the authors who most need to be told their work sucks would still think it's awesome even if they're running a 1-star average on 5000 reviews while an author who writes amazing work tends to bash their own brains in because they got their first 1-star after 9 5-stars in a row. (Another point, which I'm going to say only once here - In the words of Troy McClure, "Get confident, stupid.")
b) Maybe you're in a genre that's not selling. Maybe it's awesome, but it's in a genre that Bookbub is ignoring. (Sorry, Bria!) That can happen. If you can, pick a popular genre. I'm not telling you to defile your art (or whatever), but I was fortunate in that the stories I wanted to tell more or less fit into a reasonably decent-selling genre (Fantasy). If you write second-person POV octopus mysteries, your mileage won't just vary - it will suck. Even if your book is awesome.
8. Never stop learning
Things change rapidly. If you're not constantly paying attention and reading industry blogs/keeping up with the goings on through some form of peer group with its ear to the ground, you will miss opportunities. You will miss landscape changes. These can be subtle (the slow death of Amazon Select - actually, know what what? That wasn't all that subtle) or obvious (I dunno. The caffeine is wearing off. Find an example on your own.) Either way, you'll lose out.
I had my plan, I had my basic strategy, and I started to make money in September 2012. I could have coasted, thinking I had my shit together. Instead, around October or November, I made an enormous change, one that felt like a pain in the ass to implement, but that has made enormous difference in my career.
I implemented a mailing list with links in the back of my books.
I didn't fully finish implementing this until February 2013 (and I kick myself for failing to do so) but HOLY CRAP does it make a different. If you're wondering what I'm talking about with a mailing list, go read THIS POST on Kboards by my friend SM Reine. I'll wait for you here until you get back. Make sure you read her follow-up posts as well, down the thread.
This single change is revolutionary. If you're waiting for your audience to come find you every time you release a book, you're basically throwing your baby into the waiting wolves of the Amazon algorithms. Want to make a bigger splash? Want to "game" the system? Get your damned fans to all buy your book at once. It'll make a bigger splash. If you have half a dozen cherry bombs and you light them one at a time, it's like launching a book with only social media to inform your audience. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop!
Get a mailing list together and send that puppy while you're informing your Facebook and Twitter, and it's like wrapping those cherry bombs into a stick of dynamite. It can help you push your new release up the genre list and garner you exposure for your entire series. "Oh, look, book #9 of this series looks interesting. I should go back and read book #1." Boom, you hooked a new reader. And best of all, once they sign up for your mailing list, they're added to the dynamite for future launches.
If you're going to go to the hard work of writing and releasing books for a living while you're trying to build an audience, don't be yutz by skipping the last steps to success. Find a way to make it easier for readers to hand you money. Make it simple for them to know you've got a new book out.
Don't get stuck in marketing like it's 2009 and you can just format a warm turd into a .mobi, price it at 99 cents and have an Amazon Bestseller. ( #1in the Fiction -> Fantasy -> Turds & Burglars category! Oops, sorry, they eliminated that category in the great 2013 category shuffle. Which you would know if you were paying attention.)
Never stop learning. Or you'll get your ass beaten by someone who's figured out something you haven't.
a) Honestly, no matter how much you're learning, you're going to get caught flatfooted by big changes every now and again. Try and limit how often this happens by keeping your fingers on the pulse of the indie author world (and off other places - you will go blind, dammit, STOP THAT).
b) You're probably going to get your ass beaten by people anyway, so you might as well be a good sport about it. Be honest: from where you're sitting right now, if you were suddenly selling a million books at $2.99 per month, would you be happy? What if you were selling that many but you were still #1,987 on your category's Author Ranking?
Put another way, who cares what your peers are doing if you're meeting your goals? Focus on you, because you can't control what others are doing, you can only learn from it and apply it to your own career if it fits.
9. Don't be afraid to fail BIG - and find a way to use it as a stepping stone for future success
My first year as an indie author (2011) I made $12.25. I actually earned more than that, but because of the limitations on how big your earnings need to be before they cut a check, that's all I made. I never cashed that check, and it's still sitting on my desk right now (which is how I knew the specific amount).
That's kind of a big failure, isn't it? Would you be happy earning that much for your year's labor? Whatever your answer (please say no), realize that I was expecting that, so I didn't get disappointed when it happened. The game I was playing was long term, and I was aiming more for growth than anything. I was excited when I went up to 25 sales in a month, and I didn't get all bummed out and pissed off and demotivated when I sagged the next month. New releases and promotions help push you up, but there's a natural sag given time.
Another "failure": I launched a book last month, a collection of short stories in my Sanctuary Series. Thus far it's sold 468 copies, and at a lower price than I usually price my work. Whoops. I wrote a short story collection in my lesser-selling series and it bombed. This isn't a huge surprise or anything, but it's a failure. I'm not going to go crying over it, but you can bet I'll think long and hard before I spend my time writing another short story collection.
Of course, here's the biggest one of all: Every month before I started making a living was a failure, really. It was a calculated failure, but it was a failure nonetheless. We were sinking money into daycare costs, losing time for me to go get a degree in something that would pay me (with an English degree and financial services experience, I don't have a great resume). I was willing to accept as many of those failures as it took to cross through to success. My wife, however, was not going to wait forever.
Every month (even now) I do an autopsy on my calendar. What did I do right this month? What did I do wrong? What can I improve? (I also track my wordcount, sales, and number of books presently for sale.) My entire career in finance ended up as a failure, but that doesn't mean I didn't take away a ton of salvage for use in this one.
Comb through your fuckups. Often times you'll learn more from those than your successes.
a) When you start to see some success, don't be a fucking idiot and stop working. Work twice as hard, because now you know your strategy is doable. I worked even more in 2013 than I did in 2012 because now I was 100% sure I was on the right track. I'm going to see if I can beat what I did in 2013 this year.
b) I think this probably goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway in case any of you are morons): don't go into something TRYING to fail. Unless it's low risk/low loss. Assess the amount of time/energy/money you're going to sink into something before you commit to it if it's got a high failure rate. Don't waste your time doing stuff you're almost certain is doomed unless it's like five seconds of your time. And don't get bummed when it goes to shit, expect that in advance and be pleasantly surprised if you get anything out of it.
10. Keep writing
I think I'm exhausted and the caffeine is wearing off, so I'm going to make this as quick as I can. If you're the type of person who's easily discouraged, this is going to be tough on you. If you're the type of person who flits from job to job always looking for the "better deal" or the "next thing"...you're probably not going to have much success here, either. If you're not okay with spending ten hours per day hammering at your writing career on various fronts for a while without much of a vacation or break...I don't think I can help you. If you're not bursting with excitement at the stories you have inside that SIMPLY MUST BE TOLD, I'm not sure this career thing is going to be the right fit.
But if you're dedicated beyond the capacities of most humans, if you're obsessed, and you're smart, and you're willing to learn and do whatever it takes (on this side of the legal and ethical bounds please, you Frank Underwood, you) to build a backlist and get your books in front of people, you can make a living as an indie author. Will it be huge? Maybe. Will it be minimal? Maybe. I don't know. There's some definite variance in mileage between writers, but I've seen enough of them MAKE A LIVING to know it's possible if you approach it correctly and you're willing to work hard enough to make a one-armed paperhanger look idle.
Once you've got all these other points down, it's really down to you to keep writing. Keep putting books on your bookshelf. Take the hits that will come and not stop tapping keys on that keyboard. I don't know how long it will take you to get there, I honestly don't. Personally, I didn't care how long it took. The eighteen months it took for me passed like nothing because I was having the time of my life.
This isn't the lottery; there's not just one winning ticket. There's really no luck involved either, just an obscene number of things that are outside your direct control. There are so many things you can do to influence these events, though, and I've outlined as many of them for you as I could here. I probably missed some; I'm kinda tired by now, and it's my day off.
The bottom line is that if you *really* want to be a full-time indie author, I think you can do it. Will it be easy? FUCK NO. If you're looking for easy, scroll back to that paragraph with Jenny's phone number. This will be a lot of "nose to the grindstone."
But will it be worth it?
In every year of my financial services career, I interviewed people looking to hire them. I'd listen to their stories, hear them talk about their work lives. Every day I did that, I put myself in their shoes and imagined what my life would be like if I had their career. Sometimes I'd shudder, sometimes I'd wonder what it'd be like if I'd made the choice to do what they did. Sometimes I'd wish I had. A lot of times I wished I had. Especially when things got bad.
Since the day I started to write full-time, I have never once imagined myself as anything other than a writer. I have never wanted anyone else's life or job for my own, and I have never wanted to be anyone but me. I've maybe wanted to have other authors sales numbers if they're doing better than me, but I've never wanted to swap anything else.
I don't want to do anything else but what I'm doing. I love this gig. It's the best job I've ever had. Last year I went to England for a week to research a novel and meet some fans. Had one of the best times of my life. In January, it got damned cold here so I picked up and took the kids to Florida for a week to hang out with my parents and go to Disney. Sure, they just went last October, but you only live once, right? (I also wrote something like 12,000 words on a book while I was on "vacation" so...)
For me, it was worth it. It was everything I'd ever wanted and when I got here, it was everything I'd dreamed of plus more. I guess what I'm saying is, if you're the kind of person who wants it that badly, who's willing to do what it takes to do it, I hope this helps you.
Keep writing. That's the last key. Through the bad times, and the good - hopefully it'll mostly be good, but you better plan for the other. If you want it bad enough that you're willing to put in effort in these areas, you can do it. If you're hating every day of it, though, then it's probably not for you, and there's no shame in that.
What being a full-time indie author basically boils down to is that you keep writing, because you love it so much you can't stop. No caveats. No pitfalls. Just a love of writing that won't ever let you quit.
(Editor's Note: There is no editor and I'm sure this post is riddled with errors. Fuck off and go write, okay? I'm going to go play Titanfall.)
Why is my book not selling? [An indie author help post]
You've got a snappy cover. You've paid for editing (you really should, you know). You've spent hours agonizing over a blurb to make it just perfect. You've tinkered with keywords, with categories, and spent way too much time thinking about whether your book fits in paranormal romance or urban fantasy. Does it have enough romance in it? (Mine don't.) Who knows.
In short, you've done everything you can possibly think of to move your book. Everything that you've read on Kboards, and on marketing blogs.
It just seems impossible. Maybe the window is closed, and it's just too hard to be a success as an indie author at this point.
I see these posts frequently, these sad, depressive posts. And I feel bad, I actually do.
Because I know that in most of these cases, they are totally missing what's causing them not to sell.
Tell me something, you who have been banging your head against the wall - have you checked your craft?
I know, I know, measuring "good" books is such a subjective thing. After all, I know good authors that don't sell a ton. (George Berger would be a great example of this. Fantastic writer, and you should check out his books immediately.) But there are some fundamentals that people apply, regardless of genre, that can help define a "good" book when it comes to craft.
Does your story begin with a character, in a setting, with a problem?
Most newbie writers hit one or two of these but miss hard on the third. Even some of the more experienced writers I've checked out miss big on this. You can have a compelling narrative voice, but it's not going to hold me in all day if you're not doing this. Let's take this in three parts.
a. No character, just a setting and a problem - Nooo. I read a book recently by a mega-bestseller (it was only their second book, and they did it for a *very* short interval) who did this, and I barely made it through the seven or so paragraphs he took to get his opening done. It was just...no. You need the character, because even if you're writing 3rd person, you should be filtering the setting and problem through to us via the character. That tells us a ton about who we're dealing with. It anchors us firmly in their head. Fail to anchor your reader, and they just drift off. If you asked them, they'd say something like, "It just didn't interest me."
b. A character and a problem without any setting - I read an opening by an author who's written A TON of books recently who had this problem. The net result here is that you've got a character doing stuff on a white background as they go about solving their problem. Again, the reader remains un-anchored and will float away if you don't use some details to draw them in. A more advanced problem here is that authors describe only the visual, maybe the auditory. No, no, no. Go deeper. Use your other three senses as well - the prickle of your flesh in the cold morning air (or afternoon air, as I write this. Brrr.), the screech of the fire alarm klaxon behind me, the taste of the hamburger I ate for lunch still lingering on my tongue (I didn't eat a burger for lunch. I would kill for a burger right now.), the smell of the cleaning solution wafting through the room, like disinfectant.
These are cheesy examples I came up with on the fly, so maybe they suck, but I hope the concept gets across. Want to make your writing more involving so your reader keeps reading? Pull them in! You can go too far with details, but if you're a new writer, odds are good you're not going far enough.
c. Character and setting, but no problem - Why do I care? If I meet Luke Skywalker when he's happy-go-lucky and bopping around the homestead on Tatooine without any talk of wanting to submit his application to the academy, I'd be bored. I know it's annoying he wants to go to Tosche station to pick up some power converters, but it's better than him having no tension between what he wants and what Uncle Owen wants. That shit is snoozeworthy, and it causes your reader to put your book down.
Give your characters problems. Give them lots of problems. Even if it's minor stuff to start that escalates as you go on. A dead aunt and uncle is a pretty big problem to deal with, and so is a planet-sized weapon that's about to dominate the galaxy, but we don't see that land on Luke from the outset.
Which is my way of saying you have to make things progressively worse on your characters as you go. But that's another point.
I know these three things are ultra-basic, and I won't belabor the point. There are tons of craft things you can work on, and this one is pretty fundamental.
I'm still taking classes on writing, even now, and I sold about 100,000 books last year. I want to sell more, though, and provide a better experience for my fans, which is why I continue to take classes. I was just in a pacing workshop that completely blew my mind and taught me things I'd never given a thought to before. I'm signed up for another next month (and have a bunch of books to write and release, and kids to raise). This should be a lifelong learning process, and it's just part of doing this business. Even if you can't do much of it because of life constraints, find some way - an audiobook program you can listen to on the way to work, or while you're fixing dinner. Anything.
Yeah, you can still sell books while making some errors/not getting things write. (See what I did there? Sigh. That was a genuine typo. Editing, people.) But if you're exposing your books to lots of people, you're writing in a series, have a few books out (enough to hit some critical mass) and you're still not selling...I'm sorry. It's probably your craft, to some greater or lesser degree. I don't care if you've written your first novel or your seventy-fifth, craft is a major issue that is afflicting a lot of indie writers. Because I've read the openings to their books. Genre matters less than how well you draw readers in, and that's a craft issue.
The good news is that it's something you can fix with future books. The question is, will you put the effort in to make it happen? Because I can't promise it's going to be easy. Nothing worth doing is. But I can promise you that it's worth it.