The Venture Capital Theory of Publishing

I mentioned the other day that this had come up during the DOJ trial related to the PRH/S&S merger. This idea that a publisher invests in 10 debut authors, maybe two do really well, two or three completely bomb, and the other five or six do alright but not amazing.

This is the approach VCs use to investing as well. (At least that’s what I was told during our MBA program by some VCs that came to talk to us.) They hope for the home run, but they know that only a small percentage of their investments are going to be home runs and that they’ll lose or be disappointed or meh about the others.

Well, it occurred to me this morning that this can also apply to self-publishing, too. And maybe this is more an example of the 80/20 rule in effect. (Where 80% of performance comes from 20% of the pool, in this case, of authors.)

Let me walk you through it.

About five years ago I joined a group of authors that occasionally touch base with one another and share information or commiserate or cheer one another on.

At the time we all wrote in a common genre or at least had written in that genre. And we all had a baseline level of sales. (It was a low baseline IMO but still I barely managed to qualify at the time.)

The idea behind the original group was that we had all done well enough with self-publishing that we took it seriously and had seen some traction with our writing and that we could benefit from sharing our experiences.

The group did not turn out to be what the founder wanted it to be, but a core group of about six of us hung in there. We now write in very different genres, but we’re still there to lend support and commiserate and just touch base.

And…

Our little core group that’s left sort of follows this same VC pattern.

Two of the members are killing it in KU in two completely different genres. One has had a history of success but is at a pivot point. One went through one of those phases where you can’t seem to write anything new but really wants to get back to it and is maybe starting to do so after a couple years of struggle. One got frustrated enough with the whole thing that they’ve focused in on their day job for now with maybe the occasional promo or work on a new book. And then there’s me who is doing okay enough to be full-time for now but not killing it.

I think our group is pretty typical for what you’d see if you took a cohort of say ten serious about it self-publishers and tracked them for five years. Some would start high or go up and stay there. Some would find their way up but not be able to sustain it. Some would putz along in the middle never going up but never dropping to nothing. Some would never quite get off the ground. And some would leave for other opportunities no matter where they were performance-wise.

And what’s really challenging is finding a way to keep going when you’re one of the 8 out of 10 that aren’t at the top.

We have this myth in self-pub that if you just work hard enough or smart enough that you can be that 2 out of 10. Anyone can do it, right? I had someone say that in another group I’m in just the other day. That anyone can be a six-figure author if they just write a well-targeted, well-branded six-book series.

Oh, right. Okay, let me just go knock that out. Be right back in…two years? When the market has shifted again and now it’s ten books I need in a series to be a six-figure author. And maybe my series is no longer well-targeted. Oh, and somewhere in there I need to either figure out what “well-branded” means or somehow find someone who knows that even though it’s hard to judge someone’s credibility when you don’t know something yourself.

Sure. Okay. Let me get right on that.

And, to be clear, that person probably wasn’t wrong. An author who can write a well-branded six-book series in six months and get it out there has a good shot at building an audience.

But most authors can’t do that.

Some absolutely can. One of the two members of my group who is killing it in KU puts out a well-written full-length novel every six weeks or so. It can be done and is done. Just not by most authors.

And not by most new authors. That friend of mine has published something like 80 novels at this point under various pen names.

So, knowing this, what do you do? If you’re one of those authors who isn’t at the top, what does knowing this do you? (Other than make you want to cry.)

It very much depends on you and what matters to you and what you want.

If you must be at the top, you must win, you either floor it and give it everything you’ve got or you go and find something that’s easier to win at. There are absolutely corporate careers where if you put your head down and do the work for a decade you will move up and be making a very good salary.

But what if you don’t have to be the winner, you just want to keep going?

For me, I have to repeatedly accept that I personally don’t want to give what it takes to be at the top (and might not even be able to if I tried) and that while some will see me as a failure because of that, that I’m getting what I need out of this and that’s what counts.

Every single time I look at a friend’s life and think, “Oh no, I would not want that life” I have to remind myself that the only person allowed to judge someone’s life is that person. They are the one who has to get up every morning and live their life and if they’re happy in that choice then it’s no business of mine that I wouldn’t want to live like them.

I also turn that around and I remind myself that I am the one that has to live my life for the next 24 hours, 7 days, 52 weeks, however many years. And it doesn’t matter what others think of the path I’ve taken, it matters how I feel about the path I’ve taken.

It’s not easy to shut out those outside voices and judgements. Society exists to make us conform to a set of standards that benefit the whole over the individual and we are wired to hear those messages.

But it’s essential to do that if you’re going to walk a path that isn’t the norm. Especially if you could walk a path that’s the norm and you’ve just chosen not to.

Anyway. Just some more random writing thoughts. I’m off to record more audio. I think I finally have things dialed in on the non-fiction side at least so will be getting two of those books out in audio soon. They’ll probably sell five copies, but you never know. And I get to learn something new while doing it, which is the part I enjoy the most. So…Onward.

What I Learned From Spending $100K on AMS Ads

I was refreshing a bunch of my AMS ads yesterday and noticed that I’d hit the $100K in ad spend milestone.

Now, a few things first. That sales number looks more impressive than it is because that’s retail price not what I receive. Also, though, that number doesn’t include all the KU page reads I had on my books before AMS started reporting KENP on the dashboard, so my direct results from AMS ads are better than this.

Also, while that number I’ve spent can seem big–and given to someone in one lump sum it would be–my total AMS ad spend is much lower than the big hitters spend. There are authors out there who probably spend $50K or more per month on AMS.

So, as with most of what I write on this blog, my target audience is those trying to get a foothold not those who already have one. So the folks spending $50K on AMS per month, I’ve got nothing for you. Same with the so amazingly wonderful writers whose books just sell without effort.

Back in the day when we still got a physical paper everyday there was a cartoon called Pluggers. That’s who this is for. The ones sort of trudging along making progress even though it seems like they’re stuck in the mud half the time.

So…Let’s see what we can learn from my experience with AMS ads. First some context.

I was lucky to run my first AMS ads back in May 2016 before they really caught on. There was a glorious period of time when all the heavy-hitters on Kboards who’d beta’ed the ads were talking about how horrible they were and I started running some ads and…they worked for me.

The beauty of not having a lot of competition. Clicks were cheap then! Ah, it was a beautiful time.

But then people started sharing their success stories. And a few really big ad courses came out on how to use AMS. And things started to shift.

At one point I had a book out on using AMS ads, that I updated once, but I pulled those books because it seemed like every time I published one of those books the good folks at Amazon would completely change the interface or the available options or remove an ad type or add an ad type and the book would become obsolete.

Since I pulled that second book they’ve added columns for orders and KENP and top of impression share and I think moved how you access half the options.

And, thank god, they also added the ability to see information for just a select time period. (To see some of the fun hoops I used to have to jump through to use AMS, you could always check out another title I pulled, Excel for Self-Publishers. Half of the items I covered in that book were workarounds for things AMS didn’t have at the time but now does, like a way to guesstimate your KENP you were getting from your ads.)

So things have changed. And that number you see in ad spend happened over a period of six years.

Which I think is the first lesson here.

DO NOT THROW A BUNCH OF MONEY AT THE WALL

I did not start out spending large amounts of money on AMS ads. In 2016 I spent a grand total of $1,143 on AMS ads.

I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s true for the titles you publish as well as advertising spend. Some just show more signs of life.

I still remember when I published my first billionaire romance short story. Copies sold before I even knew it was live. (Note, this was also back in the days of less competition when that could happen.)

I hadn’t had that happen before. That was a sign of life. It meant, lean into this. There’s promise here. (I didn’t but that’s another story. I seem to learn the hard way.)

So with AMS, every book I publish I try to run some AMS ads on. Some of those books, the ads just don’t work. I publish a weird variety of titles, some of which probably have an audience of one, me. But I give them a shot with an AMS ad just to see.

And then, if I’m seeing clicks and sales, I keep it going. I cut what didn’t work and boost what did and try to refine that ad into something that can run long-term.

So, for example, my books on Affinity Publisher, I tried targeting some self-publishing keywords, but they really didn’t work so I trimmed those out. But there were some others that did, so I kept those and have an ad or two running for a couple of the Affinity Publisher books that deliver low-level sales results.

Full disclosure here before I say this next book, I have not taken any of the other AMS ad classes or read any of the other AMS books. There was a little too much snake oil feel to things at one point so I avoid it all.

But occasionally someone will mention here or there the advice they’ve been given on AMS ads from one of those courses or books. And sometimes the advice is that you have to be willing to lose $500 bucks to master AMS. And maybe that works. But no way in hell I’m flushing $500 on ads that aren’t working. Which brings us to our next point.

AMS ADS WORK FOR SOME BOOKS BUT NOT OTHERS

I’m pretty sure I went into this in far more detail in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, but here’s the ten-second version.

AMS ads are not necessarily the best choice of ad for a book. The more in the center of a genre a book is the more I think the list-based ad options are a better choice. Things like Freebooksy or Bookbub.

But for a full-price, cold audience looking for X book on any given day, AMS ads can be great. That means someone who comes to Amazon looking for a book on X, with no intention to buy my particular book.

You want to learn Excel and not bog down in a bunch of bullshit about the history of the program and every little thing you’ll never use? I gotcha covered. Since 2017 I have been able to successfully run AMS ads on that book at full price because it meets that need of people who come to Amazon looking for an Excel book.

But some of my fiction? Not so much.

I don’t write to the center of genres. My romances are on the edge of being women’s fiction. My cozy mysteries are probably small town family sagas that happen to involve murder. My YA fantasy has a romance subplot that doesn’t appeal to fantasy romance readers. My fiction is a harder sell.

It’s part of the challenge of learning to be a writer to figure out how to hit the bullseye of a genre, and fourteen published novels in, I know it conceptually but can’t do it yet.

So it’s harder to advertise my fiction.

Early on when there wasn’t a lot of competition I could take 25 clicks to sell a book and still make a profit. Nowadays with bids where they are I need to be at 10 or even less, depending on the title and genre.

Also, in my experience, based on how I run AMS ads, the ads only run well on full-priced books. I have tried to run them on freebies or cheap books or while I was doing a promo and the ads just slowed to a crawl.

Other techniques for running the ads may have different results, but for me it has to be full-price and something that will appeal to a cold audience.

WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING MATTERS

When you run AMS ads (or FB ads or Bookbub click ads) you are in a blind auction against an unknown number of other participants employing unknown bidding strategies.

How they choose to set up their AMS ads is going to impact how yours perform.

What they bid, what keywords they use, how successful their books already are, how new their books are, and how new their ads are will all impact whether you win that ad slot or they do.

The more sophisticated the competition becomes about using AMS ads the more challenging they become to run profitably.

Back in the day an author mentioned how they’d bid $9 for some keywords during a launch period because that put them at the top of ad placement, but that they didn’t actually have to spend that because no one else was bidding that at the time.

Well, others thought that was a good idea and started doing the same. And when you have multiple authors using that strategy, suddenly everyone is paying really high click costs.

So in a certain sense AMS ads are not set it and forget it ads. You do have to tend them and keep an eye out for changes and then figure out how to adjust.

DON’T GET PULLED OUT OF POSITION

Which brings up another issue. It’s very easy to react to every little change. A keyword goes from performing well one day to having 20 clicks and no sales the next and it’s tempting to turn that keyword off.

But the problem is doing so can sometimes pull you out of position. In my little Excel niche this is often driven by fake clicks on the ads. And if I turn off that keyword that day whoever is behind that gets the real clicks on that keyword and those sales for as long as everyone else is away from that keyword. If it was a good one that can be a big part of your ad performance.

Same with when someone comes through with really high bids. If you try to match them and continue to dominate the space, they’ve pulled you out of a profitable little pocket.

Which is why I do monitor my ads but I try to not be too drastic about the things I do with them. Because I want to react to long-term changes in the ad landscape, but not be jerked around by every little hiccup.

(I should not here, though, that when you’ve established ads it’s much easier to hold that line than when you’re learning and trying to figure out what really does work and what really doesn’t.)

SLOW AND STEADY

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am fairly productive (not massively productive, but I get 300K words published a year or something like that), but I am also not driven to be at the top.

I write because I like to hang out with my dog and avoid office politics. As long as I think I can do that for another six months, I’m good.

So I do want to make a profit so I can keep going, but I don’t have to “win”.

Which means I do not spend a lot of time narrowing in and optimizing my ads. Nor do I adopt some of the strategies that probably are more successful but take more time and effort. That seems an exhausting way to live for me.

So I try to have ads that I set and forget. My biggest AMS ad at the moment is closing in on $30K in sales. My two second biggest have hit $25K in sales.

I know that there are others who run AMS ads who do the exact opposite. They wake up every day and they started a hundred new ads and burn through them like wildfire. Which works for them. And they probably make more from that strategy than I do from mine.

But I like my way because I get to set up one ad that runs for three years with some careful tending. So there is room with AMS ads to take the slow, steady, distracted approach and still make some profit. Not as big a profit probably as the optimizers, but enough of one.

ADVERTISING WORKS

Which I guess brings me to the second-to-last point. I would never have spent the amount of money I have on ads if they didn’t make me a profit. If they didn’t return more than I put out there immediately.

Self-publishing is a weird space because there are very vocal people in this industry who will make you feel like shit if you have to advertise your books to sell them.

They’ll either imply that your books aren’t good enough if you have to advertise (even though they write to a very hungry market segment and you don’t so the sales dynamics are completely different).

Or they’ll imply that you’re not a real writer or your some sort of impatient sellout if you aren’t willing to write nine books before you even think of advertising. (Actually I think I saw someone say 20 the other day and I laughed and laughed and laughed and then went and checked my AMS ads.)

That second one strikes me as the self-pub equivalent of “you should spend ten years querying agents if you want to get published” or “you shouldn’t write a novel until you have a dozen pro short story sales” that trade pub sometimes throws out there.

I would not be writing right now if I hadn’t started advertising my books, because they will not sell on their own. If I didn’t advertise the Excel books, people would happily buy Excel for Dummies and get on with their lives. If I didn’t advertise my fiction there are plenty of fiction titles out there that they would buy instead.

I am my publisher. And as a publisher I have an obligation to get my work in front of potential readers. Advertising is a very good way to do that on a daily basis. Sure, this website gives people links to my books, but they’re not just gonna stumble across it. Something has to pull people here.

Putting a book up and then thinking the world will find it is a good way to be disappointed. And being disappointed is a good way to quit something you might have actually been good at.

BUT ADVERTISING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK

I currently have a list of sixteen titles that I wrote down where I’d run AMS ads on them at some point this year, but the ads just weren’t doing well enough and I turned them off.

I have another ten that I wrote down where the ad was okay-ish, but I wanted to redo the ad because I thought it could be better and I didn’t think tweaking the existing ad was going to cut it.

(This in addition to the twenty ads I do have running right now that I think are doing alright.)

The reality is that sometimes advertising doesn’t work for a book. Maybe it’s the cover or the blurb or something else that can be redone to make it hit better. But sometimes…a book just isn’t going to appeal. Maybe forever, maybe just right now.

And that’s tough. It sucks.

But if you write enough books you will find that some do better than others and it’s not a matter of packaging or of getting the right description, it’s just that some books don’t appeal as much as others do.

Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of having enough books for those ads to work. On the fiction side I tend to lose money on book one, make it all up with sales of book two, and then have profit from book three onward.

Well, if all you have is book one…that’s not gonna work.

Or if people don’t read through to book two or three, that’s not gonna work.

So sometimes it is a matter of getting better at your craft. Or of writing enough books to make the ads profitable.

With AMS, even though I know that pattern exists for my fiction, I still tend to want an individual book to be profitable when I advertise it. I want that ACOS number to be under 55%. But sometimes that does not happen. And I have to let go, for now, of that book.

Look, people write for all kinds of reasons. For the love, for the exploration, etc.

But sometimes they write for the money. And if you’re writing for the money, you have to let go of the ones that don’t work. Learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next.

IT ALL CHANGES

One final thought.

I’ve been writing towards publication for a little over a decade and self-publishing for about nine years at this point.

What I can say with certainty is that things will be significantly different in another ten years. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain they will be. Maybe that change will happen at the industry level, maybe it will happen at the national level, maybe it will be international. But overall there will be significant change.

Over the last ten years self-pub has significantly evolved. What worked for people in 2013 when I was putzing around not doing anything I should have been is not what works for people who start today.

(Heck, KU didn’t exist when I got started and that was a game-changer. If Amazon opens KU up to all authors or splits out pop lists by KU versus other or does any of a number of other things they may be forced to do to not be considered anti-competitive, that’ll be significant for many authors.)

So knowing that, I will say that the single most important skill you need to develop as a self-published author is the ability to see that things have changed and to adjust.

I can sit down with someone today and walk through the mechanics of using AMS and tell them how I approach the ads. And that may benefit them for the next year.

But if that person can’t take the higher-level principles and let got of the details, they’re going to get stuck at some point trying to rely on what used to work.

So my best advice with AMS and self-pub is to stay flexible. Build up slowly and steadily. Don’t flush money away but do take some risks to see what’s possible. Accept failure. Follow-up on success. And adapt as needed.

(Oh, and if you want to see all the books I’ve written about writing and self-publishing they’re all on this page. I tend to write them for myself to cement my knowledge, but I do think they have some valuable discussion, too. And what kind of self-publisher would I be if I didn’t at least mention that they exist?)

Some Thoughts On Doing Your Own Audio

First, let me get this out there right away, I think that doing your own audio (even though I am going to) is a huge time suck and waste of effort for most authors. You’d be far better off writing the next book.

But, there is something I have learned about myself through this whole self-publishing journey and that’s that I like to learn new things. If I ever get this to the point where I’ve learned everything and it’s just a matter of rinse and repeat, that will probably be the day I walk away.

Because I can tell myself stories in my head. I do it all the time. I have like five partial novels that rotate in my head these days with little bits getting added to them all the time. I don’t have to write to create those stories.

So, for me, I do this because it’s a challenge and I get to learn new things. And this year the new thing I’ve decided to learn is audio.

Now, I’ve dabbled in audio before. Back in 2013 I asked about it on Kboards and got some advice and bought a Blue Yeti microphone and set up my walk-in closet and recorded part of a short story. (And then got distracted by a six-month consulting project and didn’t come back to it for a year.)

That first recording? Too fast. Way too fast. I listened to it again after I’d hired about five narrators to do various projects for me and, yeah, it was…bad. Just too fast.

After that I did some video courses for Excel. And then a couple years after that I did some video courses for Affinity. And then I did a couple of my really short short stories as an audiobook.

And…Let’s just say I was still learning. There were mistakes made.

I can listen to those files on my computer speakers and be like, “Oh, that’s fine. It works well enough.” But put on fancy headphones and…mmm, things could be improved.

(And likely will once I iron out all the details on processing audio files which I’m about 80% on at this point. I can reprocess the audio files with what I know now and regenerate and upload the files. Of course, with video files they take the same amount of time to reprocess as they are long. So that’s 20+ hours of just reprocessing time? Not including the editing part? And most people don’t have fancy headphones to notice the issues? So it will probably happen, but not immediately.)

Anyway. What have I learned that I can pass on to someone foolish like me? (Note, some of the links below are affiliate links to Amazon but you can find these elsewhere. For example, I was going to buy on Sweetwater but they were out of one of the microphones I wanted and I have no patience.)

1. Buy some good over-the-ear headphones so you can really hear things. I bought AKG Acoustics k240 studio headphones and wow, what a difference those made in what I could hear. And they weren’t too spendy either.

But if you are going to do that, watch out for sinus issues. For me those headphones hit right at the jaw joint on my left ear and after a couple days of heavy use I needed an extra hot shower and some decongestant because it messed my ear up.

2. Recording environment is king. You can do a lot after the fact, but getting a clean space to record in up front will help so much. My videos and those short stories were recorded in an untreated space and I can hear that echo with the good headphones.

3. How you prep and enunciate and speak is also very important. Again, I found some solutions that can handle “mouth noise” and “clicks”, but not making them in the first place is even better. I still need to work on tricks in that area, like eating slices of tart green apples or chewing gum or a dash of apple cider vinegar in some water. But, yeah, the cleaner you can record the less time it’ll take to have a good finished file.

4. There are eight million ways to process a file after the fact. I dove deep on how to handle sibilance over the weekend and found a good half-dozen options for how to handle it. And I think I know four different ways to handle background noise at this point. The exact combination to use is probably a very personal one based on what software, microphone, and type of voice and recording issues someone has.

5. It’s time-consuming. I recorded one short story (about 5K words) yesterday. It took 45 minutes to record. It was 30 minutes after I edited out repeats and pauses and things like that. With all of the processing, editing, listen-back it was 3 hours to create that half hour.

With better recording technique and more faith in the final product (so that I didn’t do a full listen-back at the beginning and the end) I could probably drop that down at least an hour, but I won’t be there anytime soon.

6. In terms of processing the file. My first time I listened through to a file I wanted to clip out every little noise I heard, but that is going to waste a lot of time. Go through the file, clip out any of the big stuff you don’t want in the final, like long pauses to yell at your dog (or is that just me) or repeated takes on a specific line. Don’t try to fix every little noise. Run your effects/processing on the file next. And then, if you still have some issues, fix them then. But that processing, especially like de-clicking the file, will really help with a lot of that.

7. Fiction is obviously harder than non-fiction because of the number of voices involved and the emotion required. My non-fiction does have some personality to it, but it’s a whole different level when you’re trying to have a three-way conversation and make each character sound unique enough to be distinguishable.

8. Each person who does audio or voice over is going to have a certain sweet spot where they do better. I am not an announcer voice. I also don’t have some deep, rich voice that charms and soothes. That is simply not me.

So sometimes even if you can narrate something yourself, you may not be the best choice for it.

Right now I’m working on this because I have a nine-book series where the voice is first-person and the main character is very much like me, so I can get away with narrating that.

And if I get everything dialed in it will cost me my time instead of the $10K plus it would cost to pay for a narrator on that series.

My hope is that I’ll get this to the point where I can do it for commercials or that sort of thing. But if I get there it won’t be “I can do all audio”. It will be “I can do your middle-aged neighbor who recommends that you try this product.”

9. Finally, not a tip so much as an observation: I know when I’m writing fiction that there is emotion on the page, but it amazes me how much of that emotion surfaces when I’m reading something I wrote as a narrator instead of in my head.

Narration adds a level of nuance to my stories that floors me every single time I read a new fiction piece I wrote. It takes those stories up a level and really fleshes things out. It’s almost worth it for just that experience alone. (Almost.)


So, yeah. I’m sure I’ll come up with more later. But that’s a start.

Right now as I write this I decided that using a Scarlett Solo interface and Audio-Technica AT875R microphone worked best for my set-up. I tried a Rode NT1 and I couldn’t get a low enough noise floor with my current arrangement which involves a folding table, a closet, some creative use of curtain rods, and heavy moving blankets. I also had a Heil boom arm to mount the microphone on.

I did consider a WhisperRoom but decided against it because it was too permanent a set-up for my current space. (And is far more costly, too. Not something to be done lightly.)

I may circle back to the Rode at some point and see if I can’t handle the noise issue with processing. It’s supposed to be a richer sound. But then I’ll have to deal more with plosives if I go that route, too.

Also, I started out in Audacity but right now I’m trialing Reaper and think I’ll go with it and some additional plug-ins, some of which are free, some of which aren’t. Not sure I need the plug-ins if I were better versed in Reaper (for example, I could use ReaFir for noise suppression), but for now I think the plug-ins work better for me.

We’ll see where I am on this in six months. Should be interesting for me if nothing else. (Although I so need to write the next fantasy novel! And some non-fiction that’s on deck! But hey, if I’m not enjoying my days, what’s the point, right? Sure, that’s the story…)

Lawsuits, Oh My

You don’t think about it when you decide to write a novel or produce some other creative work, but legal issues are actually a very important part of being a creative. Because it absolutely matters who owns that creative work when things take off.

And there is no way to put your work out into the world that doesn’t run into legal requirements. Whether that’s trade-publishing contracts, terms of service for listing an ebook on a distributor website like Amazon’s, or just basic copyright and trademark protections which apply to any work you put out there even if it’s something you generated on your home computer and sold on the street corner.

The law is a key part of producing creative work.

Now, you don’t have to be a lawyer to do this stuff, but you should at least understand the basics of what you’re working with. What rights are. How you license them. What trademark is and how that differs from copyright.

And I will tell you right now that relying on a daily observation of how things happen on the internet is a very bad way to do it. Because, oh my gosh, there is so much violation of copyright and trademark that happens every single day on the internet it’s not even funny. Every video shared that uses a popular song without a license to do so. Or uses the key images from some creative property without permission. Or uses the words of one creative work for another without permission.

It’s a mess out there. And it’s such a mess that most of it isn’t stopped in real-time or it’s stopped wholesale regardless of how minor the infraction. A song clip in the background of a video shared to five friends is probably not a big deal, but there are too many people out there who want to take a popular song, put it on top of their own background images, and post it on a site like Youtube so they can get paid advertising fees when people who want to hear that song go looking for it online.

(Which, by the way, is a shitty thing to do because it takes money away from the person who actually created that song. Which means we get less from creatives because they can’t make a living and so go become Uber drivers instead. And that shitty person who took someone else’s work to profit off of it? They can’t replace that because they’re not original creators. They’re just sitting around waiting to exploit the work of others.)

So. Learn copyright. Learn trademark. And respect them. Because if you don’t want people taking your stuff you shouldn’t take theirs.

Okay, so lawsuits. First up is the Bridgerton lawsuit. This is a great, but long, video discussing the whole thing.

Short version. Two women watched the Bridgerton TV show. Were inspired. Wrote songs based on what they saw and heard. Turned it into a musical. Won a Grammy for those songs. Had it performed at the Kennedy Center and came up with a bunch of merchandise to sell. And got sued for copyright and trademark infringement.

I am not a lawyer. I am not deep into this situation. But I will make a few comments.

It is possible to lose a trademark. (Fun fact: You do not have to register a trademark for it to be a trademark of your business. So just because someone is the first to file for a mark does not mean they get it if it was actually in use before that. And you can issue a cease and desist for a mark that isn’t registered, too.)

A trademark is something that distinguishes your product from that of others. It is unique to you. And the way to keep a trademark is to rigorously defend it. If you don’t do that it can become generic (like Kleenex for tissue) and no longer valid. You also have to keep using it.

So I think one misstep here by Netflix was that they probably were not adamant enough early on about the trademark part of this whole mess. Whatever they have trademarked–and I haven’t looked it up–they should have been all over in enforcing.

But that can kill a fandom if every time fans refer to X property improperly you send a nasty note about it. So there’s a balancing act there.

And even though Barlow and Bear appear to have had legal counsel involved, it seems to me the difference between trademark and copyright may be where they went wrong on this.

Because if this was just a trademark issue, then proceeding to use that mark without permission until the brand was so diluted it was no longer just Netflix’s and Julia Quinn’s brand may have gotten them off the hook. If they somehow transformed the Bridgerton brand into some more generic thing, that could, I think (and again, not a lawyer), kill the trademark.

But.

They seem to have missed how copyright works. Because, based on that summary and the lawsuit, they took verbatim wording from the TV show and used it in their songs.

Those words, that way of phrasing things, is copyright protected. I can quote something here and discuss it and that’s considered fair use. But taking those words and using them for commercial benefit, is not.

I think even those little quote books you can buy sometimes have to get permission for all the quotes they use or they need to make sure that the quotes used are so old they’re outside of copyright.

(Which currently is life of the creator + 70 years.)

Now, there is a fair use parody exception to copyright. See here and here for a discussion and the actual rule, but this doesn’t seem to fall under that.

Weird Al Yankovic made a living parodying songs but those songs are real parodies. They take the original lyrics of a song and change them to make a joke out of it.

This musical appears to instead be a derivative work from the little I’ve seen of it.

They probably would have been okay if they’d just done it on TikTok and not made money from it. But they commercialized it which is one of the four key considerations when looking at whether something is considered fair use or not. Also, they may have been okay if Netflix hadn’t also put out a live show that was going to be performed in the same city so a directly competing product.

You could argue that the musical boosted sales of the TV show but that would still be pretty dicey IMO and using the exact words was a really bad idea.

(As a side note I believe the computer books I write fall under fair use because they are educational, they are books or video courses on computer software so can’t be confused with the original product, and, if anything, they expand the market for that product by making it more accessible to users. However, if I had instead tried to consolidate or paraphrase one of the books that had already been written on those subjects, like the Dummies series books, then I would have been infringing that copyright because we’d both be selling books, I’d be taking market share from them with my sales, and if I used their words it would not be in an educational way but instead in an attempt to profit off of their work.)

So. Doesn’t look good for those girls. Especially since the original copyright owner tried to work with them and they said no.

(Before we move on I just want to also note that big companies can mess this up, too. The little IngramSpark pop-up that appears every time you try to publish a book through them gets all of this drastically confused. They ask questions that combine trademark, copyright, and libel/slander rules and then only link to guidance about copyright. They also make it sound like you have to have written permission for things when that’s not actually the legal requirement. Annoys the shit out of me that a company their size can have done something so half-assed. But I digress.)

Anyway.

The other exciting writing-related lawsuit this week has been the DOJ attempt to stop the merger of two of the largest publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Publishers Weekly has had staff on-site live-tweeting the trial all week. If you want to get caught up on it, here’s a link.

We currently live in a world where we pay the heavy cost of decreased competition in a number of industries.

Now, you can get economies of scale from larger companies. I mean, the folks at Masterclass put out better content for far less cost than most individuals can.

Right now I can pay $15/month and watch courses from top authors, creatives, and business leaders to my heart’s content. Compare that to the $300-$500 one person might charge when putting out their own material that they recorded in their home office.

So there are definite benefits to being larger. But it also constricts your options. When I can get all of that for $15 a month, I’m far less likely to pay $300 for one little course I may not like.

The DOJ has taken an interesting approach on this one and focused on the biggest authors, arguing that taking two of the biggest publishers and combining them into one will decrease the competitiveness of advances in that portion of the market.

Which we all absolutely know will happen, platitudes from senior execs at those companies that they happily allow their divisions to bid against one another aside.

What’s interesting to me is that this lawsuit may finally indicate a shift away from allowing a small number of companies to control various markets.

We have the rules in place, but what rules get enforced is very politically and philosophically driven. Right now, though, I think we’re seeing the harm of intense consolidation (baby formula anyone) and so maybe that particular pendulum is starting to swing back from the extreme we reached.

And, of course, once again I found myself watching reactions on Twitter and feeling differently from what I saw said there.

So a few comments.

One, it’s in the best interest of these senior executives to be vague and stupid about how things work. Because if they got up there and they really drilled in on all the fine points of how books get marketed and published, they’d lose their big merger.

But they can’t just outright perjure themselves either, so you get “well, it’s all random really” and “we’re not trying to be profitable, we’re just rich people trying to influence the moral course of the country”. (Not actual quotes by the way, but paraphrasing some paraphrasing.)

And to some extent what they’re saying is true. Just this week–and don’t ask me where because I can’t remember–I read an article about how there is a part of literary publishing whose interest is in publishing books that influence the cultural moment. These people have wealth already and don’t need more from their publishing efforts. What they want is to guide what people are talking about. In that situation, profitability is not the goal. Influence is the goal.

Also, I do believe that there is no exact formula for publishing a successful book. I think it was Courtney Milan maybe who talked about it being a weighted dice.

There may be no formula for making a bestseller, but there are certain subjects, ways of presenting a book, and ways of marketing a book that make it far more likely that it will sell in big numbers.

A book that everyone sees in every Barnes & Noble when they walk through the front doors of the store and that is advertised in newsletters and banner ads on all the major ebook retailer sites has a helluva lot better shot at selling than one that’s just listed on Amazon’s website as an ebook.

But there’s still no guarantee that people will click or pick it up. And no guarantee that when they do click or pick it up they’ll like what they see enough to buy it.

On this bestseller idea I will actually go further and say that if tomorrow someone said, “You can have a guaranteed bestseller if you write about X very specific idea”, that even if that were true when they said it, it would no longer be true a year later. Because ten people would have written about X and killed the excitement behind that idea that made it a “must have”. It would no longer be unique and interesting.

So you can prime the pump so to speak, but there is no guarantee.

Also, and I’ve talked about this before, I do believe that publishing works much like venture capital. As a publisher you buy ten books that seem to have a solid chance at success. Two knock it out of the park. Three are dismal failures. And the other five are okay, I guess. Solid, but not what you were hoping for.

(The numbers given in one of those comments were actually more dire than that.)

I see that with my own books. A small number generate the majority of the revenue, but going in there was no way for me to know which ones those were going to be. I might’ve suspected a bit because some are passion projects that I know won’t sell, but honestly, my number 5 book for the year in terms of profit? Completely unexpected.

There was also a lot of uproar about this comment:

I don’t know what the book was. But I suspect this was one of those situations where they paid for that book and then something changed.

Maybe it was a political book of some sort and that person fell out of favor between contract signing and book delivery. Maybe it was about a topic where the fundamentals changed by the time it released. Maybe the author somehow lost their credibility or audience. Or the book was worse than expected. Maybe a book just like that published a month or two earlier and killed the buzz potential.

There are any number of reasons a book can look like a good idea when you sign the contract and then not look like a good idea when it’s ready to publish.

And I think what he said about “I don’t think marketing money can create a success” is actually true. This is the part Twitter went nuts about. But folks…

I write some books that people don’t like. Or that only a handful of people will like.

I could win the lottery tomorrow, put the perfect cover on one of those books, get massive distribution for it, put it out in the best possible format that would let it succeed, and market it like there’s no tomorrow, and it would not suddenly become a bestseller.

Every book I release, I try to advertise. But some I stop advertising. Because it’s like slogging through mud. And, yeah, maybe a new cover would help. Or a better blurb. Or a different way to advertise.

But sometimes…What I chose to write about didn’t interest anyone else.

In self-pub, for me, short stories are wasted words unless they’re sexy. No amount of begging and pleading is going to make those short stories of mine interesting to a significantly larger audience.

So, I actually agree with that guy. You try to promote something and see if it has life, but don’t throw good money after bad if there’s nothing there. Instead, look to your titles that show a little spark and nurture that spark into a full-blown fire.

And for the record I am not saying that trade pub does this well. I just finished reading an interesting non-fiction title that discussed some of trade pub’s idiocy over the years, which has included setting a date in advance to stop publishing a book and to destroy all remaining copies of that book without even seeing if the book would sell. And doing that on an active series that still had books coming out.

What idiocy. If I see book four in the bookstore and it looks good to me? I want to buy book 1 and start reading that series through from the start. So doing that and not nurturing that series, loses readers like me and guarantees that the series will slowly sell less and less copies. Bad business.

So, yes, trade pub can do shit-stupid things when it comes to marketing. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t buy long-term sales of a book. Short bursts? Sure. Make a list? Yep. But sustained, long-term sales? That comes down to the product and whether it meets reader need or not.

Okay. Off to experiment more with audio which is currently kicking my butt but showing glimmers of hope.

Uneven Information Distribution

That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

I really need to stop reading Twitter, but when your daily conversations are your dog and your mother, well…You have to find some way to participate in humanity and that’s my current way.

So, as usual, the part of Twitter I read, or one of them at least, is blowing up right now with big-time drama.

What the drama du jour is doesn’t really matter. But it brings up an important point, which is that we don’t all possess the same information.

Two of the things that are part of today’s discourse come up often when this happens.

One, is pronoun use. The person at the center of this current drama uses a set of pronouns you’d have to have researched to know about. And they’ve now deleted their account so there’s no way to even see their bio and what pronouns they’ve listed.

I don’t know this person. I occasionally have seen tweets of theirs shared by people I do read.

On a quick glance their name and profile picture, which is all you see when that happens, present female. So if I were as a casual commenter going to mention something I saw them say in passing, I’d refer to them as “she” or “her” or, more likely for me, “they” or “them”. (I actually may have done so here in the past since a passing thread of theirs led me to comment on an issue a while back.)

Often when these things blow up on Twitter there’s a thread of comments about, “And they didn’t even use [person’s] proper pronouns! See how we can dismiss their opinion immediately.”

Except, that’s not really what happened?

What happened is someone saw a thread of a thread of a thread and by the time it was on their radar the actual person who was the source of the original situation wasn’t important enough to get a detailed biographical history before sharing an opinion about the little snippet that made its way into wider discourse.

In this case that was about an employer of this person. So people might weigh in on how someone was outed as working for X employer and refer to that person as “she” because they have no idea who that person actually is and don’t really care about who that person actually is so just go by their name.

It happens. It’s not a deliberate slight or an intentional misgendering. It’s just going by surface information.

The other big gotcha of the current scandal is that the employer information was leaked by some entity that is “known” to be BAD, and so therefore anybody reacting to that information negatively is clearly supporting this entity and its agenda.

Except, again, at least for me, my first note of the current scandal was probably ten steps down the line so all I saw were people who knew the original person reacting to them being called out and I then looked up that person’s name to see why and saw that they worked for X company.

I never saw the original source of the information. Most people probably never saw the original source of the information.

And, even if I had, not being a part of that community I’d have no frickin’ clue that Y entity is bad. Now I know about them. But the “Ooh, you’re supporting Y entity by talking about this, way to be a…” is not the gotcha you think.

According to my Google search, Twitter currently has 450 million users. That person in the midst of this drama I think had 50K followers. I’d bet you that only about 1K of those followers were dialed into the proper pronouns and who entity Y is.

When things like this break out they break out to a much wider audience than the 1K who know all the nitty gritty details.

Calling people out (and again, I don’t actually have a Twitter account and will never have one again so I’m not an active part of this conversation) for something they don’t actually know is the height of absurdity on the internet.

You live in a bubble. We all do. You cannot expect the world to know everything you know. And you cannot expect everyone to–in a casual, fast-moving conversation–dive down the rabbit hole to find every little nuance. Not gonna happen.

Of course, even if everyone in the world read this post and agreed, those sorts of callouts will never stop. Because there’s some psychological factor at work there that’s always existed. Even pre-internet you’d run into it. Like, “Ha! You didn’t factor in obscure fact number 236 in your comment, you’re wrong!”

But I like to scream into the void at times, so…

There you have it. Just because you know something doesn’t mean others do and half of internet fights seem to me to be about that exact imbalance of information and people reacting as if it doesn’t exist.

Final note. Still not approving any comments by new posters on this blog. (If you’ve posted here before, you’re fine.)

Also, full disclosure, I had a family member who worked most of their career for employer X. On space exploration, by the way. And I’m proud of the work they did there.

(And honestly this whole drama has been a good reminder for me personally that a lot of the people who are angry on the internet would never like me no matter what, so why bend over backwards trying to please them in my writing…Hm.)

Random Self-Pub Info 20220731

I was just poking around writing down some sales numbers and it occurred to me there were things to share about self-pub that maybe others don’t know but that could be useful to know. This is for those who are wide not Amazon-exclusive.

So in no particular order…

  • If you chose to list your books on D2D through libraries or stores other than the major ones, don’t trust the sales numbers for the month until you get those emails that finalize your numbers. Places like Scribd, Vivlio, Hoopla, etc. don’t report real-time. For me, since I only do Apple and the libraries and smaller stores through them that means my numbers are usually twice what I see on the sales dashboard throughout the month.
  • For Kobo you won’t know Kobo Plus sales until they publish their monthly reports. Usually that’s at the end of the next month and the only way to see the Kobo Plus numbers is by downloading the sales report. It won’t show on the sales dashboard. (At least not the one I currently have.) This is another one where you basically don’t know how much you’ve earned until the end of the next month.
  • Last I checked Google sales are delayed a few days in reporting. Sometimes not, but often, but I haven’t checked in a bit.
  • Nook sales, for the last two days you need to scroll down to the bottom of the reporting page to see those values. The monthly total does not include the last two days.
  • Apple if you download their sales reporting file for direct sales, use 7-Zip to unzip the file, open Excel, set it to look for text files, and then you can open the sales report through Excel and import as a delimited file and it will look like an Excel report by the time you import it.
  • IngramSpark you can look at the report of print sales on the screen for the month, but you have to do it using Classic reports, Print Sales, and then go by each operating unit/currency/type combo. So LS US/USD/Global Connect, LS US/USD/POD, LS UK/GBP/POD, and LS AU/AUD/POD.
  • I’ve never seen Euro sales on IngramSpark even though they list that as an option.
  • Also IngramSpark pays for USD sales on a different schedule than AUD and GBP, so if you’re selling in all three expect two sets of payments. Also expect that they take absolutely forever to pay out compared to everyone else. I think they say two months but it feels more like three.
  • Of course on Amazon you won’t know the page rate for KU page reads until the 15th of the next month. They don’t actually tell you the number but it’s easy enough to calculate.
  • Don’t forget currency conversion. Without looking I want to say that for Amazon, IngramSpark, and Apple reporting I have to convert the values from whatever currency they occurred into USD. (Apple’s the one I’m not 100% sure on, but I think that’s the other one. With Google you have to be careful which report you download, but if you download the correct report–which is not the default one–it will have the conversion in there for you.)
  • If you do a promo with Kobo and it includes a 10% fee on sales that will show up in the month-end report. You have a column that shows your revenue and then there’s an adjustment column and a final value column.

There are probably other things, but those are the ones I remembered today that sometimes trip me up or I have to be careful about. Basically for me revenues for the month aren’t final at month-end for Amazon, D2D, or Kobo and sometimes I need to be careful with Google for a couple days, too. Oh, and Authors Republic and ACX on the audio side don’t report until the end of the next month but audio is so small for me it’s not something I even pay attention to until the reports are out.

Hope that helps someone.

Random Numbers

I’m basically moved into my new place and unpacked enough that I should be writing. Which, of course, means I turned to doing analysis instead because I can’t quite decide which idea to write next.

So what I did today was finish building an Access report I’d started that breaks out my sales for each title by platform.

I thought I’d share some observations from that in case they’re of interest to anyone else. (And to make myself feel better about “wasting my time.”)

I built the report to flag any combination of title/platform that was at least $250. So if the amount I received for that title from that platform for a lifetime is over $250, the report highlights it in green.

Now that’s a pretty low threshold, but I set it there because on the wide platforms I really don’t sell near as much as on Amazon. If I’d flagged at $1K or $5K I’d basically just be looking at Amazon sales and a handful of IngramSpark sales.

So.

What were the results?

Total, I had 77 titles that have made me at least $250 when you add up sales across all platforms.

58 of those titles also made that amount on Amazon alone.

(Which means I have 19 titles that have made that amount either on some other platform but not Amazon, for example, one of my video titles, or that have made that amount total across all platforms but haven’t hit that level on just Amazon like some of my more recent titles.)

I have 6 titles that have hit that level on Apple. Almost exclusively fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.

I have 5 titles that have hit that level on Kobo. All fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.

I have 2 that have hit that level on Google. One non-fiction and one my YA fantasy series box set.

I have 1 that has hit that level on Nook. Again, my YA fantasy series box set.

I have one video title that hit that level. And 5 audio titles that have hit that level.

And I have 16 that have hit that level on IngramSpark.

None of my titles have hit that level through libraries or other smaller channels although each of those categories has crossed the $1000 mark with a small trickle of sales across a bunch of titles.

So what are the takeaways from this analysis that can be useful for something?

One, I really need to just write instead of do analysis, but we know that won’t happen anytime soon.

Two, Bookbubs help with wide sales. My YA fantasy series is the one that I’ve been able to consistently get BB promos on and it shows in the wide numbers.

Three, even Bookbubs don’t move the needle that much. Amazon is still 70% of my sales for that series.

Four, in my experience, wide promotion is a tough nut to crack. I think the Apple, Google, and IngramSpark non-fiction sales are partially due to some wide promotion I’ve done, but it’s not near where I’d want it to be given the amount spent.

Also, it’s key to understand that this is my experience only.

Until just now I’ve never tried permafree as a strategy. I’ve had fiction titles free for a brief period of time, but never kept a title there permanently. Which meant most of my wide promo for those titles was either a Bookbub or limited-time Facebook ads.

I won’t know for probably a year or so if doing list-based promo service promotions moves the needle for me in any sort of substantial way or if I can use FB ads long-term to move copies. That’s something I need to work on for the rest of the year now that I have a finished nine-book series to try it with.

Five, IngramSpark is a black hole in terms of knowing where those sales are occurring. I suspect that a lot of them still come from Amazon but can’t prove that because they don’t tell you where the sales actually occurred.

Six, just because you have revenue doesn’t mean you have profit.

One of those audio titles is my second-worst performing audio title. It still has not earned out after five years. (I had a Chirp deal on it recently so we’ll see what that does to those numbers, but it is more than possible in this business to have sales, even lots of sales, and lose money. In this case it’s from producing the audio in the first place. But if you spend more on ads than you earn back in sales, that’s not a good result either.)

Seven, for me, with the exception of two titles that do better in audio than ebook or print, Amazon still beats every other platform in terms of total sales per title. So the titles that were over $250 on Apple or Kobo, etc. were even higher on Amazon.

Now, looking at the above, it’s tempting to say, “Clearly Amazon is the biggest source of revenue, so go all in with Amazon and forget all those other platforms.”

Which is fair. I mean, despite my best efforts Amazon is still 86% of my total revenues after all this time.

But that’s also very much on me because AMS is what I do best with in terms of promo. Which feeds into Amazon’s dominance. 74% of my ad spend lifetime is on AMS ads so, yeah, it makes sense that my sales would reflect that. When you focus your efforts in a specific area that’s where you’re going to see results.

The problem is, AMS have changed over time and will continue to do so. I loved them when I first discovered them because I could finally get sales of my fiction titles. At a profit! At full price!

And I do still manage some fiction sales using AMS, but not the way I did when those ads were first ramping up.

The problem with focusing on the biggest sales platform is it’s also a brutal cage match because everyone is there and they’re all fighting for the same very limited amount of visibility.

Running AMS ads there these days often means paying $1+ per click in the U.S. market. Now, I have titles that are still profitable at that level, but not all of them. I’ve stopped running ads on some of my books there because I just can’t compete. I don’t have enough books to absorb the ad cost and I’m not squarely enough in the category to drive sales.

You can run ads without going that high. A couple months ago I backed off for a bit because I was just tired of paying Amazon that much for a bid when a lot of the cost was being driven by questionable competition. And I still got sales, but not as many.

Lower ad spend means accepting reduced sales. So you have to weigh having 2X sales at a lower profit margin versus X level of sales at a higher profit margin. You may feel better about yourself because you’re not paying as much per click, but if at the end of the day you’re no longer making enough to pay the mortgage…Well.

For me it often comes down to my current feelings about scammers and Amazon and how much I’m willing to support a flawed ecosystem. So I sort of cycle between getting in there and brawling it out and stepping back and letting everyone else beat each other up for a while.

So there’s that. My focus on AMS has driven my results.

Also, I’m not really sure that I’ve capitalized on the potential earnings on those other platforms.

With my fantasy titles, for example, I only have the one trilogy. I published it five years ago and it has slowly accumulated sales since then but until I publish a new title under that name I won’t see a big boost from that readership. They’ve already read all they can.

Which goes back to the idea of focusing your writing efforts on one name if you can do that so that you’re building one thing as opposed to me who it seems is building ten foundations at once. (But having fun doing so which is why I do it.)

I note, too, that sellthrough-wise the wider platforms look to be stronger than Amazon even if the total numbers are lower. So again, which is better, higher sellthrough at lower numbers or lower sellthrough at higher numbers?

The answer to that question comes down to the specific numbers you’re dealing with, because there’s an inflection point there where it switches over. And the inflection point is driven by the specific numbers for each platform and series of books. It’s completely individual.

Also, at the end of the day there are no clear answers on all of this. The most important thing to do is to keep going and producing more content.

I just looked at 2018 and by the end of that year I had 28 titles that had earned at least $250. So in the four years since then I’ve added almost 50 titles to that count.

Some probably existed in 2018 and just hadn’t sold enough yet, but the rest are new books I wrote since then, including 19 of the books I published last year.

It’s a slow build. Wide or not wide. Whatever you write. It’s a process of putting bricks in the wall and building step-by-step and not getting defeated when it just looks like a handful of bricks sitting in mud after all of your initial efforts. Or when you realize you built a crooked wall and now need to tear it down or repair it before you can move forward.

(And, yes, there are some people who experience this stratospheric rise with seemingly no effort involved, but they’re rare. Even the “oh it’s so easy” crew are now talking about six books in a series instead of three like when I was starting out in 2013. And that assumes you wrote a good series and packaged it properly, which I mean, what are the odds of your first six books being like that? Slim, my friends, slim.)

So you try, you fail, you adjust, you try again. And the numbers slowly go up, except for the years when they don’t. And when you come to that moment when you question all of your life choices you can look around at the world we live in, see where it’s headed, and realize that accumulating a bunch of wealth probably wasn’t going to work out well anyway and at least you had fun along the way. Haha.

Okay. Off to maybe actually write something now…

Reading As A Writer

There’s currently a kerfuffle on Twitter about someone who said that writers must read and questioned why on earth someone would want to write novels if they don’t read them. It’s not new advice, but who said it or how they said it led to accusations of them being ableist since not everyone can read novels.

(I think they may have called out ADHD in particular. I don’t know, I didn’t dig in deep enough to care and imprint it on my mind. If so, that person failed to understand that ADHD can present with something called hyperfocus in which case that person with ADHD will not only read that one novel but everything ever created by that author. In a week.)

Since I’m pretty sure I have said that writers should read more than once, I figured I’d wade in with some thoughts.

(Quick note that I’m still not approving first-time posters to this blog so if you have thoughts about my thoughts and haven’t posted here before, feel free to share them on your own blog or social media but they won’t end up posted here.)

So. The reason I am writing this post is because one of the people I’ve seen reacting to the initial statement did a long thread today or yesterday about reading and writing.

They spoke about how they currently do not read and used that fact as justification for refuting the writers should read statement.

But in that thread they talked about being an incredibly voracious reader at one point in their life.

And that is a very important difference.

Never having been a reader of novels and expecting to write them versus having at one point read a large number of novels and now wanting to write them even though you don’t read much anymore are two completely different things.

Because what reading novels does for you is it internalizes story structure.

I often see discussions about how long should a chapter be. Or whether or when to use scene breaks. Or how many chapters you should have. Or how long a novel should be.

For me as a writer who came to writing in my mid-30s but who was a lifetime reader, that was never something I had to think about.

Because by the time I sat down to write a novel I had easily read a couple thousand novels. So I had seen a wide variety of chapter lengths and uses of scene breaks. And I had a good intuitive feel for how long the types of novels I wanted to write were.

I was primarily a fantasy reader and my first novel was a multiple viewpoint fantasy novel like many of the ones I had read. The final product came out right there in the accepted range for that type of novel.

And that happened naturally because I had read so much in that genre that I had internalized those lessons about how much to include or not include in the story and what made a good break for the first book in a series.

(Was it perfect? No. But I firmly believe that I was able to write that first novel first draft in six weeks because of the amount of novels I’d been exposed to prior to that.)

Another thing that reading widely gives you is an understanding of what stories have been told in your genre.

Now, this one maybe doesn’t require reading, you can consume movies and TV shows, etc. to see what’s out there instead. But the type and depth of stories that are told in novels are different from, for example, the type and depth of stories told in TV shows. Or in movies for that matter, which often work best when based off of short stories not novels.

A wide exposure to other works lets you understand the difference between something that’s widely used in a genre (dragons) versus something that may have been more unique to a specific author (memory fire).

When that series we don’t name became so popular there were actually readers out there who criticized other series for stealing the idea of wizards going to a boarding school. But that’s been a part of the genre forever. “Reading” widely lets you know what’s out there already and helps spark unique material by giving you more components to recombine.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to read all the classics of the genre, which is another discussion that often results in strong feelings.

You should try, so you know what’s been written before, but if there’s nothing to connect with in that original work, move on. Life is short.

I personally have tried to read some of the best-known fantasy writers and been bored to death by them. Whatever story they were telling wasn’t one I was there for. Either I’d encountered later works by other authors that took the same story elements but emphasized the things that interested me more, or I just didn’t care about that type of story.

So I’m not saying you have to read everything in your genre. But reading widely does help. And if it’s something you can do, I’d suggest doing it.

Do you have to read to write? Well, no. Not technically. But it seems to me that’s like trying to be a ballerina without taking dance lessons.

(And to circle back to that person who read a lot when younger and now doesn’t but is a writer, that person is like someone who took dance lessons intensively for their entire childhood and now they just rehearse their own works and perform. That’s very different from someone who never took a dance lesson in their life and now wants to get on stage and perform at the age of 40.)

Writing and Flow

(Quick note I discussed briefly before: I’m currently not approving first-time posters to this blog. Sorry if you’re new here and wanted to say something.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been publishing a great series of blog posts recently called How Writers Fail. I almost linked to last week’s post, so check that one out, too, but today I wanted to link to Part 6 of that series, Words.

Go read it. It’s excellent. And written by someone with the experience and sales numbers to be able to stand behind what they’re saying.

I don’t personally talk about this often because even after as many books as I’ve written I feel like some sort of impostor who is just playing at being a novelist.

(I say this as someone who currently has fourteen novel-length works in print under three pen names and has two other novel-length works I chose to unpublish.)

After all this time and all those novels I “only” have 13,814 paid novel sales and 1.8 million page reads on Amazon. (I’m usually wide with my books so there are more sales than that if you bring in the other platforms, but it’s still not a huge number and the bulk of it is Amazon.)

My “low” numbers make me feel like I somehow can’t talk about my process because it’s “bad” and may be the reason I’m not selling more.

(For non-fiction in contrast I have 47,610 paid sales on Amazon so I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on there but my actual process is basically the same.)

In reality those numbers of novels written and of sales are much higher than many people ever reach. So I wanted to share KKR’s post and then throw my own experience out on top of that because at least I have found a way to write books and to sell some of them to people who usually give them decent reviews.

So.

Last month I wrapped up a nine-book cozy mystery series. (Book 1 is here and free.) It’s written in first-person which really helped me get over a particular block I had as a writer.

Which is that critical voice/editor/reviewer voice that sits in the back of many writers’ minds that says, “is that the right word”, “should you say it that way”, “is that the grammatically correct way to say that”, etc.

Writing it in first-person in a contemporary setting I was intimately familiar with and with a protagonist who is very much like me let me look at that critical voice and say, “Yep, that is the right way to say it, because that’s the way I would say it. That’s the way I did say it when I wrote it, thank you very much.”

For example, I learned in school and Word is happy to remind me that you don’t say that something is “more X”, you often say that it is “X-er”. So he’s not more funny, he’s funnier. Here’s a breakdown of that rule. Don’t ask me how correct it is, because I don’t always follow it.

But when I’m talking or writing, I will say that he was more funny than I’d expected. Even if that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

So there are rules. Many, many, rules. And then there’s “voice” and “character” or whatever you want to call it. There’s the reality of how a person actually communicates.

Having lived and traveled in multiple English-speaking states and countries I can assure you that actual spoken English varies widely. Not just in pronunciation but in sentence structure and word choice. And most of the “rules” that writers are theoretically supposed to follow are based on one very specific way of using English that does not correspond to how most people communicate in English.

Another example of the rules and how they can handicap a story is the insistence on using the appropriate word or phrase. KKR’s post has a good example about a fancy desk, but I also ran into this with the cozies.

I have always referred to the trees in the mountains of Colorado as evergreens. (And aspens, but we’re talking about the year-round green ones here.)

I would have told you until a year ago that was what they were really called. But they’re not. I walked through an arboretum and learned that they are technically a combination of things like spruce trees and pine trees.

But I’m not a tree expert, nor is my main character in that cozy series. So using the precise, technical words, even once I knew what they were, would have been bad characterization.

My character, who had not walked through that arboretum, would still call those trees evergreens.

(I still remember the fantasy novel where someone was on a boat for the first time ever and they used all the technical boat terms to describe things. Threw me right out of the story because that character would not know those terms.)

Those are just two little examples of where the “right” way to do things is actually not right for that particular story and character.

Now, that’s first person and a character who is like me, so it was very easy to dismiss those rules.

But if you write enough books you theoretically have to move away from writing characters just like yourself who live in a world just like yours. So what then?

Well…

Here’s where I came out on it.

My books are going to be flawed. They are going to get some things wrong. They will not appeal to all readers. Some may see me as Eurocentric. Some may see me as ableist or some other -ist. Some readers may have very specific technical knowledge that leads them to hate my book because my character wore a fabric that would not have been worn in that type of society with that level of technological innovation. (That’s one I actually heard a prominent editor scoff about at a conference once.)

Those people are not my readers. I will get criticized by those readers for my flaws, but they are not the people I am writing for. I am writing for the people who are so caught up in the story they just want to come along for the ride. And, yes, that means my readers are the ones that are blind to the history of fabric in the Middle Ages and to the current list of terms deemed inappropriate because they’re ableist and who probably never use whom.

And that’s okay.

Not all stories are for all readers. As a writer my job is to write the stories that only I can write and then as a publisher my job is to find the readers who will like them.

This is why I don’t have first readers. Or editors. I may have shared the first cozy with a few readers before I published it. But the later ones? No one saw those books except for me until they were published.

Because my books are me, flaws and all. I can create that over and over again. Whereas if my book is a collaborative effort formed with the help of first readers, editors, and who knows who else that’s a product that changes as my team changes.

Early on, with the first three novels or so, I did have first readers and I did go to critique groups with pages, because I needed to learn how my words landed with readers. And I did learn from that experience.

But after that? After I knew that most of the critiques I was receiving were “I wouldn’t tell this story” or “I wouldn’t tell this story this way” it was time to stop that.

I figured readers were either along for the ride I was offering them or they weren’t. All using first readers or editors was going to do at that point was bring multiple voices into that story.

There’s also another issue that can happen if the first reader/editor process isn’t done well. And that’s an uneven end product.

I can’t remember if I told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again if I have.

In high school I took a pottery class. One of our assignments was to create a chess set. I was going to have one that was jungle-cat-themed. So the lion was going to be the king and the tiger was going to be the rook, etc.

I made one of the pawns first. It was a dorky little cat-like piece. It had pointed ears and a noticeable face and a tail, but the rest of the piece was just a blob of clay. I could’ve made that little guy another dozen times, no problem.

My teacher came by and as she was trying to instruct me on how to better make an animal shape, she whipped up a gorgeous tiger. It was amazing. Beautiful.

It was also about three times the size of my pawn. And putting those two pieces side-by-side you could tell that they were not done by the same artist.

Size-wise the tiger also didn’t belong in the same chess set. If the tiger was that big, how big would the lion have to be? I would’ve ended up with a chess board that was two feet on a side just to accommodate that tiger.

But the tiger was so gorgeous I didn’t want to get rid of it.

Problem is, chess sets are mirrored sets of pieces. There was no way, even having watched her do it, that I could create a duplicate of that tiger.

So even though the tiger was much, much better than my other pieces, I couldn’t use it.

When I think sometimes of having someone who is really good at writing try to edit something I write, I immediately think of those two chess pieces and how they didn’t go together. How it was better to just use the less-perfect pieces I created rather than to try to merge in that beautiful tiger.

Now, I will say that not all editing experiences are like that and I was actually quite pleased with the edits of my short story I had in a collection last year. I did have to let go of a few personal preferences for how to punctuate my writing, but I figured that was part of sanding the edges off to get a unified product and that at that point my story was part of a bigger piece.

And there was definite benefit to being edited. I had confused mantel and mantle in that story, for example. But a simple light copy edit (assuming you find a good copy editor, which in self-pub spaces can be tricky) can easily handle that sort of thing. And that sort of edit should be for technical mistakes like mantle vs. mantel or eye color mix-ups, not rewrites.

Anyway. To wrap this up.

The way for me to be able to keep writing is to accept that I can only write what I can write and to hope that somewhere out there someone is looking for that type of story and will enjoy it. And to accept that some people won’t enjoy it and to remind myself that they are not my reader. And if at the end of the day no one likes what I wrote, well at least I know it was true to me and I didn’t compromise and bend and twist myself out of shape to then still have people not like it.

Random Thoughts 20220710

I’m supposed to be unpacking right now from a recent move, but I have too much crap so I’m taking a break.

So, thoughts for the day…

First, Amazon. Sigh. If they’d just let us set books to free they’d save so much headache and labor time. For those not in the know, every other platform lets you just say, “Hey, I’d like my book to be free” and they’re like, “Cool. Done.” But Amazon dangles their five free days per quarter out there as an incentive to join Kindle Unlimited, so the only way to get your book set to free with them if the book isn’t in KU is to have them price match.

So you have to reach out and say, “Hey, everyone else set the book to free, maybe you should too” and they’re like, “I don’t know, man. It’s up to us whether we do that.” And then two hours later it’s set to free, too.

Except sometimes it isn’t. Or sometimes it is in the US and India, but nowhere else. Or sometimes it is and then they change their minds. Which is why I always say to check other venues if a book is supposed to be free but isn’t on Amazon, because chances are it’s Amazon chicanery.

Which brings us to my second thought which is that I noticed the other day that someone had paid for an ebook version of Excel for Beginners which is currently supposed to be free. So I looked into it and it was in the UK. And then I checked a bunch of other countries and the book was not free there as well. So I emailed and now it should be free in all their stores.

But again, maybe not. I can guarantee you that Nook, Kobo, Apple, and Google have it free and you won’t have to worry about if Amazon felt magnanimous today and let it stay free. So anyway. If you clicked and missed out, that’s what’s going on there.

Which brings me to the third thought which is that there have been a lot of downloads of Excel for Beginners in the UK since it went free two days ago. I’m hoping it’s a newsletter that picked it up. The number don’t seem high enough for a bot, but they’re higher than I’d expect for organic downloads. As a comparison, the US is at 15 a day or something like that and the UK has been in the 300+ range since it went to free.

I know there are sites out there looking for newly-free titles to promote, so that can happen. Just usually not in non-fiction.

Fourth, I’m sort of feeling like with this monkeypox thing we’re at about how I felt in January 2020 watching COVID-19 and wondering if it was going to break out or be contained.

It seems mostly contained to the MSM community right now and mostly based on physical contact, but it does seem to also have the chance to be airborne, so, you know, practice safety if you’re in those circles or tangential to them.

And don’t be surprised if in November/December we’re dealing with a more widespread outbreak of that one.

Fifth, lots of folks I know who hadn’t had COVID before have had it in the last couple months. Part of it is the world just saying, “yeah, whatever” and removing restrictions and so more people are being caught out by that.

But also we’re on the sixth(?) major strain at this point. I mean, honestly, if these were tested and examined separately I’d think one or two would be classified as completely different but related illnesses. And the thing is that for a strain to become dominant that means it’s outperforming the prior versions in some way. So what worked in Round 1 doesn’t necessarily work in Round 6. Either because the virus has found a way around precautions or, and this is important, because it evolves enough that prior infection or vaccination don’t prevent infection.

It seems to me that this is a rapidly evolving scenario that most people are thinking is the same as it was in spring 2020. And that’s just not the case. I mean, we all have to weigh our choices and take our risks, but I will reiterate yet again that I had a dad I lost when he was 45 because of a disease that caused him harm when he was 6. And he was amazingly lucky to live that long. He fully expected to die in his early 20s.

You do not want a chronic illness. You really, really do not. He lived a full life, but it was not an easy life to live.

So what to do ? Be sure to be vaxxed and boosted. Wear a mask indoors. Wear one outdoors if things are really crowded. And if possible, have everyone test before getting together.

And not three days in advance, but an hour in advance. Being vaxxed and/or testing three days prior worked in 2021, it doesn’t now.

And the vaxxed/boosted folks I know who got sick recently were knocked on their butts for a good week. Sure, they didn’t die or end up in the hospital and hopefully they don’t develop long-term issues, but most people don’t have the work and social support to be completely down for a week. I know I certainly don’t.

Which is why prevention is best.

Finally, I’ve had a few weird first-time comments on the site recently so if someone submitted a legitimate first post and I didn’t approve or respond, sorry, you got lost in the noise. Also, I probably won’t be approving first-time posters for a little bit yet, just in case. Sorry.


Editing to tweak the language I used about the newer variants being more contagious and to add this great Twitter thread on what it means when one variant is overtaking another variant: https://twitter.com/TRyanGregory/status/1546230649664962560 and this excellent article by Ed Yong on BA.5 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/07/ba5-omicron-variant-covid-surge-immunity-reinfection/670485/.