Let’s Talk Backstory and Flashbacks

I read A LOT. Probably five times as much as I write. Every day I spend at least an hour hanging out with my dog while I read. And I read at bedtime, too. But I’m not a pure reader, I’m a writer who reads.

And what I mean by that is that when I read a book, I not only see the story the author chose to put on the page, I see the story they could’ve written.

With really good authors, this generally doesn’t happen. I think I’ve read 50 JD Robb novels at this point and there was only one that made me wish she’d chosen to tell the story in a different way. For the rest of those books, I’m just along for the ride.

For pure readers, it’s always like that. The story is locked in cement. It is what it is and can’t be changed or fixed or improved.

If a pure reader reads a book they don’t like, they say it was boring. It wasn’t interesting enough. They didn’t like the ending. They were never able to get into the story. It’s too bad X happened.

They don’t see any of that as authorial choice. It’s just the story.

But underlying any of those types of reader comments is generally some sort of craft issue that could actually be fixed.

So I’m going to talk about one today that I ran into with the book I just finished reading. (A trade pub title from 2006.) And that’s the issue of backstory, flashbacks, and where to begin the novel.

This book I just read was 600 pages long. At page 180 I actually stopped reading it and swore I wouldn’t go back, but the characters were just interesting enough that I finally did. (I will not be reading the other three books in the series, though.)

So what made me stop reading?

In that first 180 pages, the story started probably six different times.

We had two prologues, one that was a straight info-dump, one that was a storyteller info dump. Then we had Character A. Then we had completely unrelated Character B who never actually shows up again even though it seems like this could be partially his story. (It’s actually Characters C and D who are in the background of Character B’s scenes who are a large part of the rest of the novel.)

Then we jumped ahead twenty years and had Character A again. And Character C. And Character E who never really needed any scenes at all. And then we jumped some more years and had more random, unrelated scenes.

Then the first part of the novel ended and the second part started. Literally, Part 2. And there was some whole introduction following a bird who flies all kinds of places which again read like the beginning of a novel not Part 2 150 pages into the novel.

That was about where I quit. Because I had nothing to hold onto. There was no story thread that connected everything that had happened in the first 150 pages. They were vignettes.

It turns out the author did have a story they wanted to tell. And that story was contained in the other 450 pages of the novel, pages that actually did hang together fairly well.

As I read those 450 pages I realized that what that first 150 pages represented was the backstory of the characters.

The author needed this information to write their novel, but instead of knowing this information and then doling it out during the main story as little snippets or flashbacks, the author had instead provided the reader with everything in straight chronological order.

So instead of a scene with two lines added to it that references that this character met that character when he saved their life, we got a chapter that showed them meeting and then the next chapter was a different character five years later.

When an author takes that approach they have to be damned good. Because for every break they insert in the story flow they have to be so compelling a writer that readers are willing to keep going. Each of those little vignettes needed to read like its own compelling short story.

But they didn’t. (And I checked reviews, there were a lot of DNFs on this book.)

Now, you might be thinking, but that backstory matters. It needs to be there.

And I’d agree. Backstory is what adds depth and layer to the present story. My reaction to X event is driven by my past. Someone else could experience X event and have the complete opposite reaction because of the life they’ve lived. So backstory matters a great deal.

But it doesn’t have to be on the page before the moment it matters. If it’s important enough, you can include a whole flashback scene at that moment. But until it then it’s just “oh great, I get to hear about that time you did something cool or stupid in college, please, tell me more.”

And usually you don’t even need a full flashback scene. A deft writer can drop backstory in a sentence or two at a time so the current story keeps flowing smoothly.

For example, this book had a whole convoluted history involving multiple races that was provided as an info dump in the prologue. It could have easily been dribbled out as part of the story when each race was introduced. And then we’d care. “Oh, it matters that this person is not like these people because of X, Y, and Z history between these peoples. Interesting.”

So it’s not that you shouldn’t include those details in your novel. It’s that you have to wait to include them until the reader wants them. Your primary goal at the beginning of your novel has to be to draw the reader into your story and make it so they want to continue. Just one more page, just one more chapter, what’s next. And you have to keep doing that for the entire length of the novel.

(As an aside, I’ve mentioned her books before and they’re fresh on my mind because I just read all of them, but someone who I think handles multiple points of view across an epic tale very well is Michelle West. Start with The Hidden City if you’re going to start reading her now, but then look up a reading order because you need to hop to a different series after book 3 in that series if you want to stay chronological.)

More Amazon A+ Content Thoughts

I just went through the process of updating some of my A+ content on Amazon so thought I’d share a few additional thoughts.

One, someone pointed out that on mobile the A+ content shows up above the blurb. So if you think you have a really powerful blurb and that’s what sells your books, you may not want to use it. Or may only want to use it on your print titles which may be more likely to be purchased by desktop users.

Two, I found out the hard way that you have to list all versions of the book separate for the content to show up on the product page. So I’d listed my ebook ASINs when I set up my content and had to go back and edit the ads to include my print ASINs.

Three, you can only put the content on books published via Amazon. For example, I have a couple of print books that I only publish through IngramSpark because I want them to have spine text and for those ones I couldn’t add A+ content.

Four, Amazon will automatically copy your U.S. content to the UK, DE, IN, CA, and AU stores for you. All you then have to do is go to each of those stores and click the “show auto-created content” button to show those ads. They’ll be in draft format so you have to go through and submit them for approval, but at least you won’t have to recreate them.

Five, if you do edit a U.S. ad the foreign copies will revert back to draft. This includes adding new books to the listing. So when I added my print books to my A+ content in the U.S. that put all of my foreign ads back to draft. (Good times.)

But, yeah, overall I like it. I’m sure readers that scroll for rank and reviews aren’t as happy, but that’s a very small subset of most readers and probably mostly author-types that do that I’d think.

Random Self vs. Trade Publishing Thoughts

I think I mentioned that earlier this year I had discovered Michelle West’s epic fantasy books, which span three different series but are all one large interconnected story. I devoured them. Sixteen books, most around 800 pages or so. I finished the last one in July. They were meaty and complex and had characters I liked without having any main characters I hated.

(I find that sometimes authors make choices about characters to “keep it interesting” that push me right out of a series. These books aren’t light and fluffy by any means, but they somehow manage to include brutal parts of the world without being brutal themselves.)

Anyway. After finding and loving those books I was then surprised to see that she basically had to part ways with her publisher on the remaining books in the story (a new series, but the continuation of the whole big arc) because the books were just going to be too long. And perhaps too numerous.

Good epic fantasy (not just alternate world fantasy, but actual epic fantasy) is so hard to find that it was really sad news for me as a reader. So when she mentioned that she was starting up a Patreon to let her write that final series, I decided I’d support it. (You can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/mswest)

For me as a writer it’s been worth my money so far because she’s been posting really interesting discussions about her writing process. And it also gives me good mental fodder when thinking about trade vs. self-publishing.

I hope she won’t mind my quoting from today’s post, because I think this is an important thing to understand for anyone considering the trade publishing path.

“The Patreon has been enormously freeing. It’s been — I don’t think I can put into words just how much of a difference it’s made to the writing. I’m not terrified, at the moment, of writing these books. I’m not afraid of allowing the story to breathe and grow from the roots that have existed sinceĀ Broken Crown.”

From what I understand of what she’s discussed, she was finding herself constrained by the requirements of her trade publisher. They wanted the books to be under a certain word count. And they’d bought four books when the series was likely going to be six and if I had to guess may ultimately be eight to ten books.

And so the author was feeling like she couldn’t write the story she wanted. She couldn’t include certain characters or plot lines. She was trying to tell a full, living, breathing story with one hand tied behind her back because of publisher requirements and it was interfering with her process.

(To be fair to the publisher and her editor, it sounds like over the years they’ve really worked hard to let this series continue and be what it needed to be. But they just hit a point where that couldn’t happen anymore.)

I think this issue she raises is probably the biggest trade-off that authors need to recognize if they want to be trade published.

As a self-publisher I can faff around all I want and the only one I’m harming is myself. So I can write a book or not write a book, or write a book that’s three times longer than I planned or half the length I planned, and it doesn’t matter.

But if you go the trade publishing route, you need to meet the expectations of your publisher. That includes length of book, length of series, timing, etc. And if X does well, you better be prepared to provide more of X. If Y doesn’t do well, you better be prepared to start writing Z instead, assuming they give you another chance and don’t just show you the door.

Which can make self-publishing sound really appealing, right? Freedom! Creative control! Telling YOUR story!

But there’s the discoverability issue for new authors who self-publish. I know that if I hadn’t discovered this author’s works through her trade published series I wouldn’t be supporting her Patreon right now. (I also know if I hadn’t been able to read those books in a mass market paperback size that I would’ve never started the series either.)

The reality is that if some unknown writer said, “Hey I want to write an epic fantasy series, give me money to let me do that,” I’d laugh and say, “No.” I’d have no guarantee that they could write one nor that they could do so in any sort of timely manner. And I’d definitely have no reason to believe that it would be good if they did manage to write it.

Which means for a brand new author with no trade publishing track record to write a series like this one on the self-publishing side they basically have to self-fund and go all in and write the first story arc at least before they can expect any sort of traction. That’s a good million words probably.

Too many readers have been burned by unfinished series at this point for an epic fantasy book one to really take off, IMO. (I could be wrong on that, I mean I have started other epic fantasy series that were unfinished even though Melanie Rawn never finished what at the time I thought was the best epic fantasy series I’d ever read, but that was also long before some other unfinished or not-yet-finished series that have really put out readers.)

Writing a million words up front is a hard ask. And most self-publishers won’t hold back the books until the series arc is done. Which means they’ll put out Book 1 to crickets. Or friends and family sales.

And then…Do you keep writing 300K-word novels? Or do you write shorter novels that you can write faster? To get traction. To make money. To justify how you spend your free time to everyone who thinks you just publish a novel and start printing money.

Honestly, as someone who loves character-driven epic fantasy it worries me. Because if publishers AND self-publishers both focus too much on the short-term bottom-line profit, the trend is going to be toward more simple or constrained stories. Which means I as a reader am not going to get those great, sprawling, complex, intriguing fantasies I love so much.

Or I’m only going to get them from already-established authors. (Which I am grateful for and will read.)

I don’t know the answers on this one. I suspect if I myself were writing an epic fantasy series I’d try trade pub with it, even knowing how hard a sell it would be. But that’s also because I don’t think self-publishing print costs can compete with trade publishing print costs and I think print is still a strong part of that particular market.

Anyway. Just my random thoughts for the day.

Amazon A+ Content

Of course the day after I made my post that mentioned A+ Content and said I didn’t have any of my own to show, my content was approved. So thought I’d circle back here to show what I did. Obviously it’s not perfect, because it usually takes me a dozen tries to get advertising-type content where I want it, but just to give a few more ideas.

So for the non-fiction, here’s what I put together for my Excel Essentials series:

I love this. Because it lets me show on one page how the three series work together. So people can see that there’s a quiz book to support each of the main titles and also which of the main titles each of my Easy Excel titles are derived from.

Also, at least as of this moment, my product page shows the main product description, the series listing, an also-bought carousel, an also-read carousel, and then this. The first sponsored ads carousel is below the about the author section. Amazon is constantly changing things so no guarantee that will hold, but yay for owning more of my product page and with useful information for potential customers.

On the fiction side, with my fantasy series I changed out the cover last year for something more symbol-based than character-based but I’ve noticed that with FB ads the ones that perform the best are the ones with the original character in the background, so I figured I’d use A+ Content to get that on the Amazon product page.

I included the also read carousel just above so you can see an example of what the series covers now look like. Books 2 and 3 are the first two entries listed there (Rider’s Rescue and Rider’s Resolve).

For my cozies I went in a different direction.

Already I think that comparison chart there that shows the two collections generated a sale this morning since that comparison chart links right to the collection pages and usually I see sales of the books 4-6 collection but not the books 1-3 collection.

So there you have it. A few ways to use A+ Content. I’m very pleased with it, but will likely be fiddling and changing things around as I usually do. I may not get things right the first go round, but the key is to keep improving as you learn more, right? Right.

New Releases and Random Writing Thoughts

First, I had a few new releases recently. Between moving and unpacking (how many books can one person own??), I didn’t post about them here because they were compilations of the Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Access titles I released earlier this year.

But here you go: Excel Essentials 2019, Word Essentials 2019, PowerPoint Essentials 2019, and Access Essentials 2019. These are perfect choices for anyone who knows they want to go as far as I can take them with learning one of the above programs. Otherwise I recommend starting with the beginner title in each series because often that’s all someone needs to learn when they’re just getting started.


Now on to the writerly thoughts…

First, I had to work on these books a little earlier than I wanted to because of the lovely changes that IngramSpark (“IS”) has made recently. If you’re not aware of them, then settle in for a quick rant.

IS charges about $50 for every new title that’s uploaded to them and then they charge $25 to change a cover or change the interior. But there have always been promo codes floating around. Participate in NaNoWriMo, get a code for the next six months. Go to a conference, get a code for the next six months. Join a member organization like ALLI or IBPA get a code for however long it last until they decide to change it.

I joined IBPA and had a code from them that I happily used for all of my uploads and updates. But then suddenly this year IS decided that you could only use that code 50 times in a year. Which seems like a lot. 50 times. Who would need more than 50 uses?

Well, let’s look at my year-to-date. I published 22 titles so far. The four main Excel 2019 titles, three Word 2019 titles, three Access 2019 titles, three PowerPoint 2019 titles, and the Microsoft Office for Beginners 2019 title were all in paperback and hardcover. So that’s 28 uses of a code right there. Plus the other 8 titles that in this case were just paperback. So 36 uses for new titles.

Normally I might do something like update other titles I already had out to change the Also By page to reflect my new releases. If I did that for my cozies at this point I have 9 titles in paperback, paperback large print, and hard cover large print. That right there is 27 code uses and we’re not even touching on the new title which would be another three uses. So for one new release of my cozy mystery series I’d need 30 code uses.

Well, imagine how unhappy I was when IS decided that limiting codes to 50 uses per year wasn’t enough and instead decided that you could only use a code five times in a month. More uses per year (60), but it would take me six months to get all of my cozy titles updated for a new release under that scenario and wouldn’t be able to publish or update any other titles in the interim.

What makes it even worse is that they seem to have an automated process for interior updates once a book is published. So they’re literally charging $25 for a process that doesn’t involve a person. And they’re changing their rules to try and get that money out of authors who’ve been publishing with them for years who didn’t sign up for that kind of b.s.

(Their stated reason is because they want to support legitimate publishers only and not scammers, which…well. Way to throw the baby out with the bath water.)

So anyway. This latest release of four titles involved eight books, one paperback and one hard cover of each title. So to avoid paying $50 for books that might not make that money back (I do the hard covers for libraries but there’s no guarantee they’ll want the collections), I had to start the process in July and use my five codes in July and then finish it in August to do the last three titles.

Good times. Love me some self-publishing fuckery. (And there is always self-publishing fuckery.)

What else? If you haven’t yet heard about A+ Content on Amazon, it’s worth taking a look now that they’ve opened it up to all self-published authors. I’ve submitted some content for some of my titles, but it takes about a week to get approved from what I’ve heard so I don’t have examples of my own yet, but here is a link to what an author I know has done and I think it looks really good.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08NJLC6R1

Scroll down to the From the Publisher section to see what she did.

One of the advantages with adding this content is that it can push an entire carousel of Sponsored Product ads down below that section, allowing authors to own more of their product page. (Not always, but sometimes.) Also, it’s pretty if done well. I think each of the images she’s added to her page there make a reader more likely to buy the book. For example, it takes what was already a strong image from the cover and makes it much larger and more engaging.

To add A+ Content, click on Promote and Advertise for one of your books and then scroll down to the A+ Content section. Next, choose a marketplace and click on Manage A+ Content. That takes you to a separate dashboard where you can create your content.

You can add the same content across books by listing multiple ASINs. (If you have a lot of books you should really have a list of these as I discussed ages ago in Excel for Self-Publishers which is no longer widely available but still available on my Payhip store.)

Content has to be added for each country, but there’s a note that they’ll let you know which other countries would accept content in that language and let you carry it across. I won’t know how well that works until my content is approved and I can test it out, but basically if you’re adding new content, just do it for one country and wait for it to get approved before you try to do all of the countries.

Also, if you use the comparison chart option it’s not well-sized for cover images, but you can do a white background and have your cover only take up part of the allowed space and that seems to work.

What else? I’m sure there were some other writerly thoughts I’ve been having lately but I’m still in post-move malaise so don’t ask me what they were. If I remember, I’ll post again.

10 Years/3 Million Words

In early July I finished my 10th year of writing towards publication. Ten years ago I was in New Zealand with some downtime between consulting projects and an injured knee that led me to stop skydiving so I decided it was time to finally try to write a novel. And I did.

Took six weeks. It was awful. Glad I set it aside for another six weeks before I went back to read it so I could understand just how much work it needed. (I tend to under-write, so that novel which eventually was 90K words ended its first draft at 45K words.)

Fast forward to ten years later and I’ve now written 3 million words. Not all of that is fiction, though. About 1.2 million words of that is various non-fiction. And only 1.3 million of that is novels, the other 500K words is short stories.

I hadn’t initially planned on the self-publishing route. Even when I self-published my first non-fiction title, I still expected I’d go the trade pub route for novels.

And, who knows, I may still end up hybrid at some point. But I don’t know. I don’t have the patience it seems is required for the trade published route. The idea that it’s acceptable in the industry for you to submit a query to an agent and wait a year for them to respond just floors me.

And the idea of having someone that non-responsive handle my business interests goes against everything I ever learned in the corporate world. If I am paying them a fee to sell my product, you’d think I’d have more standing with them than it seems most authors do with their agents.

Plus, I’m a control freak. I was recently negotiating a potential publishing contract for non-fiction with a decent publisher I’d be willing to work with, but the clause where they get all my rights and then can enter into any contract on my behalf without any input from me just stops me cold each time. That’s my name and reputation, you’d think I could have a veto on a disastrous contract.

So I don’t know. We’ll see. There are definitely opportunities that I don’t have access to as myself that I would through a publisher, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to negotiate a contract that makes it work for both me and them.

Which leaves me with the self-publishing. I love the freedom to do what I want when I want. And the flexibility to write the stories I want how I want to write them. But those are probably also my biggest dangers with self-publishing, too. Because I don’t do what you need to do to succeed even when I know at least one of the formulas.

(Write in a series that appeals to readers, release on a consistent and regular schedule, brand well for the genre.)

I’ve been lucky. Despite my writing whatever whenever and self-editing and mostly doing my own covers I’m still closing in on a quarter million dollars in revenue and have made over six figures in profit at this point with just about 70,000 paid sales across all my titles.

It’s a lot more than many authors manage. But it’s also piddling compared to some of the others I know who “do it right” and I’m self-aware enough to realize that if I worked longer hours and with more focus that I could probably have done exponentially better. (Because publishing is one of those industries that is very much winner-takes-all. The top titles do very, very well while the majority of titles sell next to nothing.)

Across those ten years I only spent 3,100 hours writing and editing. (Compare that to when I was a full-time consultant and probably worked 60 hour weeks which with 50 weeks a year of work over ten years would’ve come out to 30,000 hours spent working. Obviously there was some administrative time in there for the consulting and the writing and editing is not all I do on the publishing side, but I definitely am nowhere close to working as hard as I did as a full-time consultant.)

So what to do now? Keep going? My profit has gone up every year so there’s indication that if I keep writing and publishing I can keep growing that profit.

Try to focus and do it “right” this time using everything I now know? Even though I’ve done better in non-fiction I’m still firmly convinced that fiction is where the true upside potential lies.

Or step back, let writing be what I do when I have downtime, and take the easier route and pursue consulting again? I’m not one of those people who must write or I’ll die. I’m certainly not one of those people who must publish. And for hour of effort put in the consulting is going to be more financially rewarding 99 times out of 100 for me.

I don’t know. It’s not a simple question. I’ve never been one of those people who wanted one thing in life. And the things I do want–time to read and spend with my dog, family, and friends–can’t be the number one priority or I’ll eventually lose them.

I could spend two years just hanging out reading and walking my dog, but then I’d be broke and two years further away from any skills that would let me not be broke, right? So it’s always a balancing act. And sometimes the repercussions of those choices can’t be seen for years. There are life paths that you step off of that are almost impossible to step back onto later.

But I digress. Anyway. Ten years in. Not bad, not great. No regrets for spending the last decade of my life the way I have, but not sure if I’ll spend the next ten years the same way.

(Actually, I know myself. There’s no chance the next ten years will be like the last ten even if I do keep my focus on the writing. I am simply not one of those people who settles in.)

Thoughts On Atlas Shrugged

Back when I was still in corporate America one of my co-workers recommended that I read Atlas Shrugged. She thought I’d like it. And I did. It resonated for me. It’s part of why I left the job I was in at the time.

But I hadn’t been a writer long before I learned that liking Atlas Shrugged was short-hand to some of my fellow writers for being a cruel, uncaring asshole who is completely self-centered and willing to watch the world burn as long as they get ahead.

Which is why I’ve never talked about why I liked that book and why it resonated with me even though it’s a large part of what led me to where I am today.

But I think there’s finally a real-world example of what I found in that book that I can point to for others to understand what that book said to me.

(And I think it’s important to stop here for a moment and explain that what readers find in a book is not always what authors put into that book. So people who know Ayn Rand and her philosophies may have seen very different things in that book than I did because they came to that book with a different background. I knew nothing about her before I read the book so I took from that book the parts of the story that resonated for me.)

This is how I would summarize that book (bearing in mind it’s been about ten years since I read it and this is what I took from the book): A woman is trying to hold a business together and giving everything she has to do so while the people around her are not. And even worse, some of those people who are not putting in the effort to hold things together are demanding more and more and more for themselves. As this trend progresses there are fewer and fewer people keeping things together until it finally becomes too much and things start to fall apart. Planes crash. Train tracks fail. Finally, at the end, that woman who was trying so hard to keep her part of things together, stops trying. She leaves. She retreats to somewhere where other people who went through what she did have created an enclave. And yes, she leaves the world to burn. Because she just can’t carry the burden for everyone else anymore.

The modern-day equivalent of this would be nursing in the United States right now.

I follow a number of nurses on Twitter to keep informed of the current state of COVID and they are incredibly burnt out. They keep showing up to work because they know if they walk away people will die, the system will collapse without them. But they are underpaid and understaffed and showing up to work now to care for people who call them names and tell them that the disease they’ve dealt with for the last fifteen months is a hoax. People who didn’t have to be there in that hospital room dying because there’s a fricking vaccine they could’ve taken for free.

These nurses are trying to make an unfair system work because they are the type of people who step up when the times are hard.

But at some point in time things get so out of balance that it just isn’t sustainable anymore. When that happens Atlas shrugs.

These nurses give and give and give and instead of someone saying “thank you” the hospital management says, “We need more” while collecting massive profits off of their backs. Or says, “Great, you can do that with X resources, now do it with 1/2X.”

And as each individual nurse finally collapses and leaves, the burden on the remaining nurses becomes that much worse and it takes out more and more nurses until there’s no one left standing.

The U.S. healthcare system is at very real risk of this happening in the next six to nine months. Because you cannot take and take and take from people forever.

Which brings us back to the lesson I took from Atlas Shrugged. That as long as I was willing to stand there and carry the burden and be the one that picked up the slack when others didn’t do their part that my management would continue to add to the burden I was carrying while enjoying the results of my efforts and paying everyone else the same (or better) than me.

Because why should everyone pull their weight and why should management make things fair if I was going to step in and make it work every time regardless?

I finally realized that my only choices were to live under that incredible crushing burden or to leave. Because when you’re the type of person who steps up you can’t just stay where you are and decide not to care anymore, that’s as painful as taking on all the burden yourself. So I shrugged, I walked away. Not because I didn’t care, but because I cared far too much and it was going to crush me if I stayed.

There Is No Right Path Or Wrong Path

I recently sold my house and was beating myself up for stupid decision-making because while it was a good time to sell (my market was a 99 out of 100 according to Redfin and my house still only got one offer the first weekend), it wasn’t a good time for me to buy. Which means depriving my elderly dog of her own yard because not many houses like to rent to 125-pound dogs.

That of course led to the “what have I done with the last decade of my life” death spiral. I could’ve made millions if I’d just stayed with that job I really didn’t like.

And I was especially beating myself up because I did like the work itself when I was on good projects (give me a ton of information to analyze and absorb and then let me tell people how to fix their shit and I’m in my happy place), it was more the lifestyle and who I was becoming in that job that I didn’t like.

Fortunately, I don’t stay in those death spirals for long. I seem to have this automatic defense mechanism that kicks in and points out all the reasons I shouldn’t be down, depressed, and upset.

Like how I was able to live in New Zealand for the better part of two years and learn how to skydive and get to have a dog in the first place. Not to mention the fact that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last seven years in a very emotionally peaceful place writing whatever I wanted to write which has included 14 novels and way too much non-fiction.

And realizing that even though I quit my job way too soon to start writing full-time that I am still somehow better off right now financially seven years later than when I first made that choice. (Not as good as I would’ve been on that other path, mind you…)

Even though that other path would’ve been the more financially successful path, it wasn’t the more emotionally successful path to take. And that’s the lesson I have to keep learning for myself over and over and over.

There are a million paths you can take through life. Some lead to more money, some lead to more adventure, some lead to more love, or more fame, or more “success”. But none of those paths is the “right” path. The one true path. There is no one true path.

Because we’re always balancing a series of competing priorities. I want to have enough money to live comfortably and buy what I need when I need it. And enough to splurge on things at times. I want to have time to spend with my dog and my friends and my family. I want to travel. I want to be healthy. I want to be safe. I want to be stable enough in my own life to have grace when dealing with others.

But sometimes to have A you sacrifice B. I love my dog and I know she likes having me around, so I don’t travel right now. Those trips to Ireland and Malta and Argentina and wherever else strikes my fancy have to wait.

And because I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know where I’ll be health-wise when she’s gone. I don’t know where the world will be. Maybe I will never get to see Argentina for one reason or another. I went to Guatemala years ago and loved it, but four years later there were consular advisories about people being robbed on their way from the airport to the main city which would’ve kept me from going. You just never know.

And you can think you’ve made all the right decisions and that you’re on the perfect path and then life can come along and upend everything. It’s a very rare person who gets through their entire life thinking they’ve made the perfect choices. (Or a very self unaware person.)

So if you think you’ve made mistakes and everything is shit and you’ve done it all wrong, take a deep breath. It’s okay. Change what you can. Keep moving forward and find that new path. Learn from what you did. Accept that sometimes you can’t have it all and value what you do have.

And if you’re not happy with where you are, try to bring more of what you wish you had into your life. It may not work, but it may take you someplace you never even thought was possible that’s even better. You never know.

Volume Matters

This is a post for the fiction writers, so if you’re not a fiction writer it may not be of interest.

I’m supposed to be starting on a new novel today. I have eleven days between now and my house inspection after which I’ll be (hopefully) desperately packing to move. But of course me and starting a new novel means me and doing anything but starting a new novel most times.

And today that meant looking at numbers. 2021 has been my best year profit-wise so far with my writing and I like to know where that’s coming from. Which lead to the title of this post: volume matters.

For 2021 as of the end of April I had sales across 101 different titles and seven pen names. That included 14 titles I released this year. (I just released four more in May but those haven’t hit my reports yet. It’s been a busy year.)

Obviously some of those 100+ titles sold far more than others. The 80/20 rule very much applies to this business.

And four titles actually lost me money when you take into account advertising. But three of those were first in series and the overall series was profitable. (The other lost me 35 cents because I can’t help but try every once in a while with a dead title to revive it.)

I believe that a large part of what has gotten me to the point I am with my writing income is the volume of titles I’ve published.

There’s the “try until you find something that works” aspect. There’s the increased visibility that more titles can give. There’s the little streams adding up to bigger streams idea. There’s the idea that the more writing you do the more you theoretically improve. It all ties in there.

But there’s also the base fact, at least in fiction, that more titles means more room to play with advertising. (Assuming you have sellthrough. If you don’t have sellthrough you have a genre expectation, reader engagement, or writing quality issue.)

My YA fantasy and cozy mystery series are a perfect example of how this can play out.

The YA fantasy series has three books in it which are currently priced at $3.99/$5.99/$5.99 but for most of the year were at $4.99 each. The cozy mystery series has seven books in it each priced at $3.99.

Both series have received similar promotions by me because I’m lazy so I tend to say something like, “Let me make all my first in series fiction titles free this month and then sign up for X, Y, and Z ads for all of them.”

Here’s where the volume thing comes into play:

Of these two series for 2021 the cozy mystery series has been more profitable. Even though the 2nd and 3rd titles in the fantasy series are individually more profitable than the 2nd and 3rd titles in the cozy mystery series.

Having the four additional books for readers to move to with the cozies has meant that even though they are priced lower and have worse sellthrough, I make more on that series than I do on the fantasy series. Which makes sense because if someone ends up liking the series they spend $28 on my books versus $15 for the fantasy series.

A few years back I dug into which authors were in the top 100 authors for the SFF genre on Amazon and my unscientific gut result was that it took about a dozen novels to get there. Sure, there were authors who were on there with one or two titles, but those were the exceptions.

It was the authors who had enough titles to benefit the most from advertising and to get enough visibility and were productive enough to stay visible who did well.

Now, just like the review myth, volume is obviously not enough. You also need writing that appeals to readers in that genre and enough readers that like your writing that it’s sustainable.

And it’s easier if you’re writing about subjects that interest those readers. Dragons will always do better in fantasy than shape-shifting millipedes. The more off-center you are from a genre the harder it is to get a toehold.

(Again, not saying it can’t happen, but just saying that being on the outside or fringes of your genre increases the difficulty.)

Also volume isn’t everything. If you write a bunch of useless crap to achieve volume that’s not gonna work. You still have to write what readers want.

But if you have a good book and you’re feeling frustrated about your sales the answer may very well be to write more. Don’t double-down and promote that book for five years at the expense of writing. Don’t give up and walk away. Write the next in the series.

Such a Tragedy…

Perhaps that’s not the best word to use in these here times when there are significant tragedies that people are facing, but that’s the phrase that came to mind.

I often find new authors to read via my own fantasy novel also-boughts. Most recently that led me to ordering the first couple of books in a series by author Michelle West. I liked those first couple of books enough to order two more and then one more and then five more and then six more.

Today I ordered ELEVEN books by that author. I’m hoping they are good. I suspect they will be. Due to the somewhat convoluted way the three series storylines intersect I’ve now read three in the author’s most recent series and one from what I think is the oldest of the three intertwined series.

Here’s where the tragedy comes into play. Seven of the books I ordered? Used copies. I loved this author and am happy to pay for their books, but because their publisher, for whatever stupid reason, seems to have decided to no longer publish some of their books in a mass market paperback size the author isn’t going to receive a penny for those seven books. And the publisher won’t know how much money they’re leaving on the table either.

Sure, there are ebook versions available. And even at a reasonable price. But I’m not an ebook reader. I download ebooks and they molder away on my computer sight unseen.

I am a physical book reader. And more importantly I am a mass market paperback reader for the most part. I might, might try a trade paperback size for an author I know I like, but if I have the choice I will always go for the mass market paperback. In this case I could pay (used) $25 for an entire six-book series in mass market paperback or I could pay $22 for the trade paperback version. I would’ve happily paid $60 for the books new in mass market paperback but I was not going to pay $120+ for them in trade paperback.

Which is the tragedy for that author. People are reading and loving their books but they’re not getting paid for it. All because their publisher won’t keep their books available in a mass market paperback size.

(And I should add that for the new books I bought they weren’t even available on B&N, I had to go to Amazon. Like how do you expect new readers to find and love a series when the full series isn’t even available to purchase easily? Come on.)