Why I Should Never Walk My Dog

First, I have a new release out if anyone is interested in learning Microsoft PowerPoint. Paperback available here and ebook available all over the place.

That meant that yesterday I sat down and asked myself what to write next. I had a total of fourteen non-fiction ideas, nine fantasy series or book ideas, five romance series or book ideas, and a thriller idea.

By the end of the day I’d settled on one of the romance novels and a non-fiction book to work on over the next two months.

And then I took my dog for a walk this morning.

By the end of the walk I had realized I could actually tweak a non-fiction title I’ve started and finished about ten times now and probably finalize and publish it in the next week. So I’m probably going to do that instead.

(This is how I have managed to work almost exclusively on non-fiction for an entire year now. Because non-fiction is so much easier for me to write.)

I really should know better by now…

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

In a post the other day I mentioned that there are different levels of writing ability.

I honestly haven’t worked this one out entirely myself and I suspect there are levels I can’t see right now. As a reader I just know I like a book or I don’t. But as a writer I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. So here goes my poorly-developed theory on different levels of writing ability.

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

The most basic level of writing ability is the ability to write well enough that someone else can understand you. Even though it’s the first level of writing ability it is also a tremendous area of knowledge that probably none of us will ever master.

At its core being a writer requires being able to convey your story (or for non-fiction, your knowledge) to another person, the reader.

That’s where things like punctuation come in. (Although it seems that punctuation and even capitalization can be optional, but let’s ignore those outliers, shall we?)

I’d put in this category sentence-level, paragraph-level, and even chapter-level skills.

I’d also argue that this is where most people focus their efforts when they think about learning how to write.

But I’d also argue that most really successful writers are not successful because of their skills in this area. Once you get to the level where others understand the story you’re trying to tell, you’re good enough in this area.

(Yes, I hear all those howls of outrage. I’m going to ignore them.)

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

The next level involves taking all those sentences and paragraphs that work on their own and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story.

This is a huge area as well. And one where I’d say most writers that are one to two years into this fall down. They learn how to put together “well-written” sentences, but those sentences when strung together don’t lead the reader anywhere.

This is the romance novel that doesn’t end with the love interests getting together. (Guilty.) Or the adventure novel that ends with a council meeting. (Also guilty.)

(I’ll note that I fixed those issues in both of those books before I hit publish on them, though.)

It’s also the novel that wanders too far from the central theme so that the reader gets lost and finds themselves asking what story the writer was trying to tell them.

And it’s the novel that leaves five plot threads dangling at the end.

I’d argue that most authors who are trade published and most self-published authors who have a dedicated audience have mastered these skills. They tell a good story that meets reader expectations. But that when you branch out in a new direction you can fall down in this area. So a romance writer who moves into non-romantic post-apocalyptic fiction, for example, can find themselves no longer writing a satisfying, cohesive story.

It’s the one I think is most likely to require constant monitoring.

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

This is where things get murky and I can’t articulate them well. I know this one when I see it. Or more the case, when I don’t see it.

When I read a book I am trusting the author to deliver a story that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally resonant for me. It doesn’t mean people have to all be good or that everything has to turn out perfectly, but it means that the story has to be emotionally true.

This one is hard to explain without calling out specific authors who have caused reader-me rage, but I’ll try to give a few anonymized examples.

The first was a book I picked up at the airport a year or so ago. It had all the elements I should have liked. Magic, coming of age, etc. But about 3/4 of the way through that book I had literally come to hate the author for subjecting me to that book. Because underlying the entire book was an oily view of the world. A pessimistic, nihilistic worldview. And I resented that this person had shared that view of the world with me and that I’d spent two hundred pages with them and their characters before I realized it.

The sentences worked. It was well-written. Things happened like they were supposed to for that type of book. But underlying it all was this nasty take on the world that I absolutely hated. (Someone who I spoke to about the book and who also did not like it suggested that maybe this was because the writer was a literary writer writing fantasy and that there was a sneer behind all of it because the writer felt above the genre.)

Whatever the reason, the book was not emotionally resonant for me. I actively fought against the view of the world that this writer had and will never read another book by them because of that.

The second book is still so raw for me I can barely talk about it without getting angry that I had to read it. It was the second book in a series so came at a time when I felt that I knew the characters. But the characters as I knew them would not have reacted to the story situation they reacted to in the way the author had them react.

The author had one character kill another. And did it off-page so you could spend a scene wondering if that was really what had happened or not. It was flat-out manipulation of the reader, which I did not appreciate. It also deprived the reader (and the character) of the emotionally-charged scene we needed to understand why that action had to occur.

The fact that the author handled that scene that way tells me that the author did not understand the emotional side of their story or their characters.

Once more, well-written. All the sentences worked. I could argue the author had failed in some respects with the story elements as well, but it was the emotional resonance aspect  that lost me.

I think this third level is where the long-term great authors are made. Both of the examples I just gave are currently very successful authors. But I suspect as time goes on and they continue to miss at that level that less and less readers will come back to them.

I still am not articulating this as well as I would like, but I know that the authors I buy more of and go back to over and over again are the ones that can deliver on all three levels.

This is why there can be millions of books available and yet readers can feel like there’s nothing for them to read. Because it’s about more than stringing well-written sentences together.

(And I suspect there’s another level that involves themes, but I haven’t worked that one out just yet…)

 

Release Fast, Stay Focused. Or Not.

It came up in an advice thread on a writing forum today and it came up at that conference this weekend, too, so I figured I’d also weigh in on this idea that you have to release quickly and in the same subgenre if you want to make money at self-publishing.

It’s just not true.

I want to try to unpack this from a few different angles.

First, the book is the core.  What you write and how much it connects with readers drives everything. The more you write a book that readers want to read the better you will do at any type of publishing. And if you hit that target well enough, frequency of release is not going to matter as much.

(In the trade publishing world just look at George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss.)

A book that readers love will get steady sales for years. Because those readers will tell other readers about that book. And if it’s an evergreen sort of title it’ll continue to appeal to new readers as they find it.

So if you have a choice between writing a mediocre title and a great title, write the great title. It’s much more likely to sell itself and to continue to sell for a longer period of time.

Second, yes, there are factors that skew in favor of frequent releases. The Amazon algorithm is one of the biggies. Amazon makes it much harder to sell a book that’s more than 90 days old. They like new and shiny and they don’t care what that does for an author’s income.

Not to mention that more books equals more organic visibility. And more bites at the apple. More chances to connect with a reader who will then go read your other books.

If you find a reader who loves you it’s hard to keep their attention. None of us (or at least almost none of us) write so fast that we can be the only source of books for a reader. But if you’re releasing frequently the reader will see your next book is out before they forget about you.

So there is absolutely a benefit to releasing faster.

Third, yes, keeping a narrow focus will help. If readers liked A from you, chances are they want more of it not B or C or D. China Mieville is about the only author I can think of who really gets away with writing across the board and keeping my attention. That’s because I read him for his ideas not the type of story he’s telling. But, for example, when Anne McCaffrey decided to stop writing about dragons and started writing about a unicorn girl in space she only kept my attention for two books and then I moved on. Same with other authors I liked who then moved on to writing a different kind of book.

Readers like what they like. They attach to a story world or a character and that’s all they want from you. Or a feeling. (I’m thinking Nora Roberts here who my mom has historically bought without hesitation who recently wrote a post-apocalyptic book my mom tried and hated and then a school shooting book my mom wouldn’t even buy.)

So, yes, writing fast and giving readers more of what they already liked are ideal as long as you can maintain quality.

But what a lot of this advice ignores is that writers are human. We’re not machines that can just crank out the same but different thing over and over again. I said in that comment thread today that if I had to do that I’d just go back to consulting. Take away my freedom to create and change direction and you’ve taken away a large part of the reason I do this.

And some writers who try to do the write a book a month thing can’t do it. Maybe for a year. Maybe two. But not forever. They burn out. They have to step back. And because (and no insults meant here) most of the rapid release model requires more simplistic plotting approaches most of those books are not evergreen books. They’re cotton candy not Lindt chocolates. (Most, not all.)

By that I mean people will buy your brand of cotton candy if it’s there and available but they won’t think twice about buying a different brand of cotton candy if yours isn’t there. Whereas people who like Lindt brand chocolate are going to go out of their way to find more of it. Which means that if you choose to follow the rapid release model when you stop producing you stop earning.

Now, the question is, can you make money if you don’t follow the release fast, stay focused model?

Most will answer no. They’ll argue that you just get buried and no one will ever find you.

My reply is “define make money.”

March of this year I grossed close to $4K and netted close to $2K. It’s about the equivalent of $12.50 an hour for a forty-hour-a-week job. A lot of people live on that much. Hell, people raise families on that much. So for many that would qualify as making money.

(It’s not where I want to be, but it’s not nothing.)

That was without having released any new title since December. And while one title was about half of that my top five titles for that period were two non-fiction titles, two romances, and a fantasy novel written under three different pen names, the most recent of which was six months old at that point and the oldest of which was released in 2014.

It’s not easy to take the path I have. And it’s probably not the path to making a million a year, but with enough time I could see earning six figures a year this way.

So for those of you like me who write a variety of things (or who write slowly) and know that writing the same thing and publishing a novel once a month would destroy you, take heart.

(And for those of you who are, rightly, pointing out that non-fiction is part of why I’m where I am right now, let me say that there are authors out there who have done well with slow releases of fiction, too. They hit a sweet spot and took off. It’s possible. And I’ll also add that I would’ve never gotten to where I am right now if I weren’t the type to write whatever pops into my head because my best-seller is not something I thought would sell.)

And one final thought: If you are going to follow the slow path, I recommend focusing on novels and/or non-fiction. And not doing long series unless your books take off. Trilogies are a nice compromise there. They’re meaty enough to draw readers in but not so long you spend years writing something readers don’t want to read. (Refer back to my first point that the book is the core.)

“When Do I Give Up and Self-Publish?”

I’m at a conference this weekend and there was a small session at the beginning where we went around the room and everyone had a chance to say what they wanted to learn. And two of the participants said some variation on the above question. They wanted to know at what point they should give up on the trade publishing path and self-publish instead.

My answer: You don’t.

(I wasn’t on the panel, hence this blog post.)

It’s a question I encounter somewhat frequently when I venture outside self-publishing forums or groups. There’s still this very prevalent idea that new writers have that they’ll try to find a trade publisher and if that fails that they’ll just self-publish.

And it’s quite possible I thought that way, too, at some point. I suspect if I went back to my M.H. Lee blog and read through my early posts when I was considering self-publishing that I was thinking or saying something similar. Like, hey, those short stories didn’t sell to the pro-paying markets why not self-pub them rather than pursue token markets? I’ll be building my own brand! And making more money!

Haha.

It happens.

But let me tell you why you don’t do that.

As a self-publisher I have to know not only how to tell an engaging story or write an informative easy-to-read non-fiction title, I also have to handle all other aspects of production and marketing. It doesn’t matter if I pay someone else to do it or do it myself, I still have to be able to identify a quality product.

Would you know if that person you just hired to edit your book is a good editor? (Many have found that the person they hired to edit their book was not and only figured that out when the bad reviews rolled in.)

What about your cover? What kind of cover will tell your readers that this is the book for them? A cover designer will design the cover, but most will look to you for direction. And you need to know when something isn’t working. The font on the first version of Rider’s Revenge was not OK. I had to tell my cover designer to redo it. Would you know if you ran into a situation like that? Would you be able to stand up to them and tell them to make the change?

What about the blurb? Can you write appealing back cover copy? Can you recognize appealing back cover copy if you pay someone else to write it? (One of my weak spots.)

What about categories? Where do you list your book? What have you written? Do you know the difference between non-fiction and fiction?

And then there’s advertising.

Let’s assume you wrote a book that people will enjoy, it has the right cover and a strong blurb. Now how do you find your readers? Where are they? How do you reach them? You’re not going to be in physical bookstores. So how do you rise above everyone else online to get that cover in front of your readers so they’ll see and buy your book?

You need to be able to do all of this. On top of writing a good book. There are reasons to self-publish. Timing, control, more potential profit. But it should not be the “I failed on a path that required A so let me try this path that requires A, B, C, D, and E” choice.

If you think of self-publishing as what you do when you give up, let me give you this advice:

Write another book.

Actually, write three more books instead. Novels.  Three novel-length works.

Do not rewrite the same book five times. Write new novels. Brand new ones. Pay attention to your market. Read a ton in the area where you want to publish to understand what readers want.

Write. Read. Write. Read. Write some more.

And then query those novels. To agents.

Chances are, you’ll sell one of them. And you’ll be on the path you wanted to be on.

Take all that time and energy you would’ve spent learning how to be a publisher and spend it on improving your writing. (There are multiple levels of writing skill. Chances are you’re competent at the first one but have yet to master the others. Or failed on one of the others with that particular novel.)

If by the time you’ve written those three novels you still want to self-publish (not as a fallback, but as a way to get your words out into the world in the way you want to get them out there), then self-publish. You’ll be better off for having waited because you’ll have that many books ready to go and you’ll be driven enough to make it work.

How Do I Keep This?

That was the question I asked myself the other day when I was lounging on my couch outside under the little pavilion I put up, on a perfect summer’s day, with a good book to read, and my dog sleeping at my feet.

It was one of those moments when you know you’re content with life and you think, “Ah, if every day could be like this, I’d be happy.”

But the answer to “How do I keep this?” is “You don’t.”

The weather changes, the next book isn’t as good, time passes and we lose those we love.

I had six weeks in 2010 that were almost perfect. I was living in New Zealand, learning how to skydive, in love, making incredibly good money on a challenging project that let me take the reins and run with it. But that passed. The man I was in love with didn’t feel the same, I hurt my knee and quit jumping, the work slowed down, the next project was a miserable slog, and eventually New Zealand said they didn’t want me there anymore.

Life happens.

All you can do is try to be in the moment enough to enjoy the good ones while they last and be prepared enough to adjust as needed when they pass.

(And remember when the dark times come that they too will pass.)

Thoughts on Video Courses

I promised that at some point after I’d finished my foray into video courses that I’d share some thoughts about it in case anyone else was considering that path. And since I just published the fifth of five video courses I’d resolved to publish this year (Creating a Paperback Cover Using GIMP) I figured now was a good time for that.

So without further ado…

I enjoyed the process of making the videos.

One, it turns out I’m someone who likes to learn new things and take on new challenges and creating video courses let me indulge that side of my personality while still feeling like I was doing something somewhat related to all my other publishing efforts.

Two, even though I was sitting in what was essentially a padded room (my walk-in closet full of sound-deadening materials), it was nice to feel like I was talking to people. I work from home, I live alone, I don’t go out much, so most of my conversations are with my mom or my dog.  Feeling like I was sharing something I knew with others was nice. And doing the videos felt more tangible that way than writing the books does.

(And it had the added perk that it wasn’t an actual conversation which can involve disagreement and pushback…What can I say? I have issues.)

Three, the subjects I covered in the courses, Excel and AMS, both lend themselves to a visual presentation. It’s not easy to use just words and pictures to convey something like Pivot Tables to people. But being able to say “Here. See?” and show that to someone is easier. One of the three main ways people learn is through observation. Through watching someone else do something. So video formats lend themselves to teaching.

So that was all good. And I’m proud of the products I put out there. I think they were well done if I may say so myself. Perfect? No. But good. Worth watching.

Where I hit a roadblock was on the marketing/advertising/payment side of things.

There are a number of online options for posting video classes like this.

Youtube is an obvious option. But if you don’t have at least 1,000 followers you can’t share in the ad revenue for your class so you’re just doing it for the love.

There are a number of other options out there like Teachable and Ruzuku where you can post your videos and then drive traffic to your page, but they cost somewhere around $75 per month to use so that’s a pretty significant capital commitment for potentially no return.

Udemy, the one I went with, is free and has a large pre-existing audience that goes there to find courses.

The problem I didn’t recognize with Udemy is that they always, always, always have a sale going. So I posted my first course, the AMS one, for $99.99 with an intention of offering it for half-off here on my blog and elsewhere. But because I’d signed up for their promos it was immediately put on sale for $14.99. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be offering it to people at a new release discount of $49.99 like I’d intended.

I pulled my classes from their promos, but that damage was already done.

For the AMS class and Excel for Self-Publishers not being in their promos is probably fine. Most people who find those classes are going to do so from my website or books and be willing to pay what the classes are worth.

But with Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel I think it may be an impossible sell. Those who are on Udemy are going to see thethe ultra mega everything you ever wanted to know about Excel class for $9.99 next to my Excel class for $99.99. Granted, mine has subtitles that actually make sense and aren’t auto-generated. And maybe I can teach the material better or without creepy mouth sounds in the background. But unless someone comes looking for me and my course in particular I don’t see myself selling those courses on that site because of the price difference. And even driving traffic there might not work because of that, because even with a half off coupon that’s still a pretty big gap in what someone would have to pay.

Now, I could just throw in the towel and say, fine, sign me up for your promos. But if I do that I will be earning less per class sold than I do on each book I sell. And I just can’t bring myself to be okay with that.

Not to mention the fact that Udemy makes you put all of the classes under an account into their promos. You can’t choose which ones go in. It’s all or nothing. And I don’t need to put the AMS class on their promos for it to sell.

(That’s why I now have two Udemy accounts, so I could sign the mini courses on Excel up for their promos while leaving my AMS course out of them. But I’d already published the two main Excel courses on the same account as the AMS class and don’t want to move 150+ videos to a new account at this point.)

So this all left me at a crossroads. I enjoyed making the courses. I have about five or six more I could do. But in order to really make it work I think I’d either have to move to a different platform and spend a lot of time learning new advertising options like Google AdWords or I’d have to bite the bullet and enroll in Udemy’s promos. I’m not sure I’m willing to do either one.

The courses are there. Discount codes are available here (and in the back of the related books–that’s the best discount code for each class, the ones for people who already read the material and now just want a visual version to help reinforce it). I am trying a few ways to advertise them, so I haven’t quit entirely. But I think it’s just too different a platform for me to leverage easily without a massive amount of additional effort I’m not interested in putting in at this point.

(Also, it kind of creeped me out that every time I published a class I either received a private message offering to sell me fake reviews on my course and/or a message from some stranger saying they really liked the look of my class and would I please send them a free link to take the course. Udemy seems to not have caught on to the damage that fake reviews can do.)

So there you have it. I won’t rule out doing something more with video courses in the future, but for now I’m turning back to books where I at least know the basics of advertising them and how the market works.

This I Know…

Right now I’m trying to decide what the next new project should be. Those three or four more Excel titles I could write? That new romance novel? That new fantasy series? Maybe a MG fantasy that I’d sub to trade publishers? A domestic suspense thriller? (Because you can never have too many names, right? Ha!)

Each has its pluses and minuses. Write more to market and maybe see much higher sales. Write something you know will sell but at a more modest level and you’ve added one more brick in the wall of steady long-term success.

Which do you choose? The guaranteed $10 payout or the 10% chance at a $100 payout?

I don’t know. Which is why I’m sitting here doing nothing. (Although I did just hit publish on a mini video course about an hour ago, so not nothing nothing. Just a little bit of nothing now that that’s pending approval.)

And what if it’s a choice between a $10 payout and a 50% chance at a $50 payout or a 50% chance at a $5,000 payout? Do I really know what the odds and payouts even are in all those different choices?

(No.)

This is what I know: If I do nothing, nothing will happen. Zero action means zero payout. So it’s better to pick a direction and go in it than to sit still and do nothing because I can’t decide.

So enough. Time to act. Maybe I’ll just break out the old D&D dice and roll the six-sided one. That’s always a healthy way to make life choices isn’t it?