Finding a Way Forward

One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.

Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”

And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?

Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.

I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)

The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.

But…

The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)

The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.

A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”

But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.

(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)

(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them.  I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)

I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?

And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.

There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…

 

IngramSpark Update

I thought I’d give a quick update on using IngramSpark. I haven’t been paid yet (and I don’t think I will be the first time until September which is kind of crazy), so until that happens I can’t declare myself fully satisfied, but so far I’m pleased.

One of the nice perks that came with using IngramSpark as opposed to KDP Print is that I had some additional format options.

IMG_4876 - Copy cropped

For example, I published the omnibus edition of Rider’s Revenge last year in ebook and was disappointed to find out at the time that I couldn’t do so in print because all three novels combined with the front and back matter adds up to about 1,122 pages.

Unfortunately, KDP Print maxes out at 828 pages for the size and paper I was using so a print version wasn’t an option. But IngramSpark will go up to 1,200 pages so I decided to go ahead and put out the trilogy in print as well.

It’s not as cheap as a trade publisher could do. That book you see in that photo is $29.95. But at least there’s now a print version for that series that’s more comparable to the print pricing for YA books published by traditional publishers.

It’s also fun to have on my shelf.

The other print format I’m pleased to have access to is hard cover. I’ve now put all of the Excel, Word, and PowerPoint Essentials titles out in a hard cover format in addition to their paperback format. (They’re slowly making their way to all the platforms. They look to have made it to Barnes & Noble at this point but not yet to Amazon.)

I have to say that I think I really prefer the hard cover versions for those particular books. They feel more substantial in hard cover than in paperback. It’s the exact same material, but there’s a definite perception difference between the two.

They aren’t flawless. There’s a little bending on the corners of some of the proof copies I received and I’m not 100% happy with the spine text placement with the skinnier ones. But overall, I’m pretty darned happy. And for a POD option, I have to say it’s not bad. Not bad at all.

I don’t expect to use hard cover for my other non-fiction that either are too skinny for it to make sense or that are in a size where I don’t think it works as well.

And I haven’t yet tried the non-case laminate hard cover option, which is what I’d want to use for fiction. (At this point I think doing so would just be a vanity project.)

But overall I’m excited by the additional formatting options and how they’ve turned out.

(I still don’t think the expense of going with IngramSpark is justified for someone just starting out unless they have access to free ISBNs through their country of residence, but it’s definitely something to consider when you have enough books to bring down the per-unit ISBN costs.)

More AMS Changes Coming

It never fails that I publish a book on AMS and then Amazon makes changes to how the ads work or, in this case, the navigation options. So for those of you who might have noticed a little note at the top of your AMS dashboard today that said changes were coming but that didn’t know how to find the Amazon Advertising blog, because who wants to provide a link for that sort of thing.

Here you go.

Short version: They appear to be moving all of the options at the top of the screen to the left-hand side of the screen.

Let’s Talk Luck

One of my coaching calls this last week was with an extremely successful author. Multiple six-figures and for multiple years. And during part of that conversation the author said, “I’m just lucky, that’s all.” Or something along those lines.

My response was very immediate and very adamant. “No. You were not lucky to be where you are. Sure, maybe the genre you chose and when you published factor into things and that can be about luck. But the ability to produce novels on a consistent basis that meet your readers’ needs has nothing to do with luck. That is all you and your hard work and talent.”

It was an interesting conversation because I’ve never been a fan of the other side of that argument where people who’ve done extremely well say that there was nothing lucky about their success. That it all comes down to how hard they work. I always think that’s a bunch of bullshit, to be honest.

To me it’s always a balance of the two with the hard work taking more than its share but serendipity playing a part as well.

Let me give an example that has nothing to do with writing.

My very first job out of college we were each assigned to a mentor who taught us how to conduct securities examinations. We worked side-by-side with our mentor for about a year. We also had to study for and take a series of tests in that first year, but the bulk of the learning occurred on the job.

I started within about a week of another individual in our office who was extremely intelligent. Fully capable.

But I was assigned to a first-class mentor. Probably the best examiner in our office. And that other person was assigned to one of the worst examiners in our office. It was luck that I was assigned to who I was and that they were assigned to who they were.

And as a result I was provided an environment in which I could flourish and they were not. Luck.

But the hard work I put in to then take advantage of that opportunity was all me. I was the one going after opportunities and eager to learn. I was the one asking questions and working hard to get up to speed.

As a result, I was quickly promoted and this other individual was not. It made a significant difference in our career paths.

And, sure, I can point to how much effort I put in to make that happen.But the fact of the matters is that all that hard work and drive would’ve been wasted if my mentor had been someone else.

So when I think about writing, I always look back on that situation. And I acknowledge that it’s about luck and effort.

Luck happens when the right reader sees your book and helps it go viral. Or you write something that it turns out is in demand with a large number of readers. Or you catch the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time in just the right way.

Effort happens the rest of the time. When you’re writing those books and getting them out there for readers to discover. When you’re learning from your early mistakes and adjusting your plan to account for what you’ve learned about readers or your writing or the market. When you acknowledge what you don’t know and take steps to learn it.

Yeah, maybe it takes luck to make half a million a year as a writer. But most of the authors I know who are very successful in this business (consistent six-figures) also work very hard and very smart. They consistently produce good books that their audience devours.

To do that year in and year out requires more than luck. It requires talent and dedication. So if you’re one of those people, don’t sell yourself short.

Possibilities vs. Probabilities

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about writing success and what counts and what doesn’t and what’s realistic and what isn’t. That’s what happens when I reach a big milestone. I’m kind of go, go, go and then I hit it and I stop and assess.

So Thursday I went to the monthly writers’ group dinner that I attend and I shared my little happy milestone about grossing six figures and one of the guys said that’s a really rare level to reach, like that was sort of an anomaly and be all, end all. Nowhere to go from there.

My response was that, sure it was hard to hit, but I compare myself to the people netting six figures a year and so all I think of is how far I still have to go.

That’s guy’s response was that it basically wasn’t possible to net six figures a year at this because only about 1 in 10,000 people manage to do it.

My response to that was, well, why can’t I be that one in 10,000?

(I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was like, who would think that highly of themselves that they’d even image they could be that person?)

But, see, that’s the thing.

Just because something isn’t probable doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Yeah, so most people fail at this. Seen and understood. Witnessed. How many people have I known over the years who wanted to write a novel and never wrote the first draft? How many wrote the first draft and never wanted to edit it? How many tried to get a trade publisher, didn’t manage it, and then quit? How many self-published and then quit when they didn’t have instant success? How many are still publishing and not seeing success?

It is unlikely to see a lot of money from publishing books. I will agree with that 100%. It is not probable that any given author who sets out to make a lot of money writing will ever reach that goal.

But it is absolutely, 100% possible to do so.

Can anyone do it? No. I don’t think so. I think some people are just not in a position mentally or life-wise to make that happen. I think some people are just never going to click with enough of an audience to make it happen.

But it’s possible.

I realized then that that guy reminded me of my grandma. In the sense that my grandma, every single time I talk to her and every single time she sends me a card (and she sends lots of cards, bless her), tells me to “be safe”.

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been getting that message from her for over forty years now. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe.

Why not say, “Get out there and take some risks.” “Be adventurous.” “See if you can fail today.” “Do something you’ve never done before.”

But no, it’s always “be safe”.

Because she, like the guy who said these things to me, lives in the world of probability.

It’s a comforting world. If you don’t exceed what’s likely to happen then it’s easy to say, “well, this is how it is for everyone, right? I didn’t make it because most people don’t make it.”

But the possibility mindset is very different. It says, “If one person could do it, why can’t I? What makes them so special that they can succeed where I can’t?”

The possibility mindset pushes through. It keeps driving for the goal when the probability mindset is ready to sit back and admit defeat.

Which one is smarter? Probably the probability one. It’s why I hope my friends with good jobs who’ve worked steadily at them for 20+ years have a guest room with a nice couch when I finally crash and burn. But it’s the possibility mindset that has the potential to achieve what no one thought was possible.

Two interesting ways to frame a problem if nothing else.

You Have to Do the Work

I wrote that on the board across from my desk just now to remind me of the fundamental truth of my life.

My brother and I had lunch on Tuesday and we were talking about work and life and what not and he made the comment that he sometimes wished there would be some rich relative we never knew existed who’d suddenly step out of the woodwork and give us millions of dollars.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Or winning the lotto. It’s fun to imagine buying some ticket on a whim one day and waking up to find that you’d won $300 million and can now be and do whatever you want to be and do.

My response to my brother was that I long ago resolved myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be saved by some rich relative, rich spouse, or lucky break. But that what I do have is a work ethic and drive that lets me keep going day after day, week after week, year after year. (He has it, too. We had a good dad.)

That’s something I can rely on. Steady forward progress brought about by my own efforts.

But working from home it’s easy to spend an entire day doing nothing. Check this forum, read that blog post, play that solitaire tournament, rinse, repeat.

Hence the note on my board.

YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK

I can’t hope for a five-figure release if I don’t actually write and release the book, right? The work comes first (the lead indicator), the riches come second (the lag indicator).