A Reality Check Moment

I recently had a conversation with an author privately that prompted me to write this post. Now, first I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to call out this author and if they read this post I hope they won’t feel that way. But what they were saying was out of sync enough with what I think the reality of publishing is that I wanted to post about it publicly.

Essentially we were talking about submitting a book to a trade publisher. And the comment this author made to me was that because any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing that they would not be willing to accept any advance that wasn’t seven figures.

Now part of my problem with discussing something like this with another author is that I am constantly scanning for information from a number of sources, but I don’t tend to bookmark or index those sources so that I can refer back to them and pass them along as needed. For me, knowledge is one big mulch pile and I take what I suck in and process it in ways that get me to conclusions that I probably can’t tick and tie for another to follow.

But I’m going to make some sort of attempt to do so here, because I want this post to be educational not just opinionated.

So let’s unpack that person’s belief starting with the belief that “any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing.”

Yeah, no.

But this belief is out there. And I think it exists for a couple of reasons.

First, I avoid these conversations myself because I know it’s just an invitation to be criticized. As soon as I say, well, no, that’s not really true someone will respond with “Oh, well you didn’t do it because your cover sucks, your writing sucks, you’re in a bad subgenre, you don’t know how to market, etc.”

No book is perfect. Every book has flaws. So when someone is trying to win this argument they will find those flaws and poke at them to prove their point. And I’d add here that a writing style that works perfectly fine for a majority of readers (cough, cough, Dan Brown) may not work for a picky group of writers debating quality.

So no one tends to push back on these statements that are made because they don’t want to be publicly called a loser.

And, two, generally only the people who do really well talk about how they’re doing to any great extent. I remember at one point posting about how thrilled I was to have 500 audiobook sales and having some very successful author come along in that thread and say, well I have 50,000. Gee, thanks, way to crush me. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but the message was sit down and shut up. Which many authors do.

I still talk about numbers here on occasion because I want people to see how the journey looks for someone who wasn’t an instant success but is making steady progress, but I almost never post numbers on that forum or discuss them there in any way for those reasons.

So over time authors get a really good glimpse of the lower end of the high range (because the really high end of the high range tend not to hang out and talk publicly about their numbers) and the lower end of the low range (where things are going so badly they’re begging for help). Everyone else in the range between those two groups tends towards silence, which can create a really skewed view of the realities of the situation and lead to someone believing the sort of thing I quoted above.

So let’s try to walk through this and see what we can actually determine.

In my opinion the Author Earnings Report was flawed in a number of ways and, of course, no longer exists. But it gets us some sort of ballpark to start with. The June 2016 report, which is discussed in this post (https://publishingperspectives.com/2016/06/author-earnings-more-data-profitable-authors/ ) estimated that there were 1,340 authors earning more than $100,000 from Amazon sales at that time.

That was trade published and self-published. All authors. 1,340 of them earning more than $100,000. Total.

Now understand that number is gross earnings. It doesn’t account for covers, editing, or advertising, all of which are costs on the self-publishing side. Also, some of those author names were the same individuals writing under more than one name, but that’s probably balanced by the authors who weren’t listed but could have hit that level across pen names. And it was just Amazon, not wide, but for most authors Amazon does still dominate their sales even when they’re wide so that probably offsets the costs that aren’t account for.

Compare that number, and this is a bit of apples to oranges comparison, to the current membership on Facebook of the 20BooksTo50K group which is at 36K. Or Self-Publishing Formula, Mark Dawson’s group, which is at 45K. Presumably these are people who want to make money from their self-publishing efforts.

Okay, so flawed as the number is, right there we have that only about 4% of “serious” self-publishers are hitting six figures.

(Now we pause while I question all of my life choices….)

(Okay. Done. Let’s resume.)

So getting to six figures at all is not a given. But let’s break down another part of that statement above, the notion that it can be done with one book.

Here is a survey that Written Word Media published earlier this year. It’s not a perfect article (is it really that hard to list right up front your sample size and the percent for each category), but it’s a start: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/author-income-how-to-make-a-living-from-your-writing/

And what I want to point out is that first graph that shows that the median number of books published by an author grossing six figures or more is 28.

These authors are in the six figure range based on sales of all of their titles. Not one title. ALL of them.

(Now here’s where I pull a number out of my ass.)

Let’s assume that the median net income for those over-six-figure authors is $280,000. I think that’s probably way too high but it’s nice math and no one is going to yell at me for being too stingy with the number.

Okay, then. So if the median net income is $280,000 and the median number of titles published is 28, that’s $10,000 per title on average in a year.

Sure, a new release might take up the bulk of that, but the few six-figure authors I’ve heard throw around actual numbers for new releases talk about earning $30,000 with each new release or having about 7,000 sales at release.

So, $30K to each new book. Three or four books per year released. That’s $120K if it’s four books. The other $160K for the remaining 24 books in the backlist.

And, honestly, that’s not even how it works. The 80/20 rule is alive and well with publishing. Most authors are going to see that only 20% of their titles really perform well and that those titles make up 80% of their income.

So in a given year an author with 28 titles earning $280K will have five of those titles that account for $225K of that income. Note: still not six figures for an individual title.

And it’s not like the $30K/7,000 sales on release are numbers that author saw with their first release. Most authors only get those kinds of numbers when they’ve built up a sufficient audience and backlist. (I looked at the top 100 authors in my genre on Amazon at one point in time and want to say that the ones who were on there long-term had at least a dozen novels out.)

There are exceptions, sure. I know an author who sold something like 5,000 copies on the first day their first novel published. But thinking that anyone can self-publish one book and make six figures on it is not accurate thinking. Especially depending on the price involved.

Assuming a title needs 20% spent on advertising to sell, how many copies would an author need to sell to make $100,000 net on that one title?

At 99 cents they’d need to sell a little over 360,000 copies.

At $2.99 they’d need to sell about 60,000 copies.

At $4.99 they’d need to sell almost 36,000 copies.

Those are not small numbers. Bookbub which is the god of mailing list promos, has an average of about 3,600 sales for its biggest category. So if Bookbub can get you 3,600 sales at 99 cents where do the other 357,000 sales come from to hit six figures?

Also, I doubt this number is true anymore because of so many authors selling at lower price points, but the number I used to hear thrown around was that the average published book could expect to sell 200 copies.

Compare that 200 (which I think was a trade-pub number) to 36,000 copies. That’s a lot of difference.

And if that 200 number was accurate and was derived from trade publishing that’s for a well-packaged product (in general) that was written to a standard that passed muster with multiple levels of professionals. That’s a product that is supposed to sell.

So. Summarizing point one: Yes, there are authors who make six-figures. And they may even do so on a single novel over the lifetime of that novel. But most authors at that level have many novels to their credit and are making money across their entire catalog as opposed to from one single title. Also, the number of those authors as a percent of all authors trying to self-publish is probably far smaller than most people want to believe it is.

On to our second point. The myth of the seven-figure advance. I don’t even know where to go for this information. I tried. And I found an article on one YA series that attracted a seven-figure offer. And another article on some literary novels that had done so as well. And one on an established fantasy author whose books have been made into movies who was given one on their latest series. So those offers do happen. And if I were willing to pay for a subscription to Publishers Weekly I’d probably find more.

But they don’t happen often.

I am pretty sure that some of the self-published authors who did really well with self-publishing have been offered that much, but it was after doing really well with self-publishing already. To the point where the offer probably seemed like less than they could do for themselves financially and they only considered it for exposure to a new audience or access to markets they couldn’t readily access themselves.

But for a new author going the trade publishing route to expect seven figures? Oh no. Last I checked average advances for new authors were somewhere in the $5,000 to $10,000 range and maybe heading lower. And that’s for the publishers that even pay that kind of advance. A friend of mine signed with a smaller publisher and I think their advance was under $1,000.

(Now that’s where you say, I’d be better off self-publishing, thanks.)

So, summarizing point two: A seven-figure advance is going to be very rare. It is not something to expect in any way, shape, or form. It is certainly not a reason for turning down a six-figure offer.

And a further note here. There are many paths to publication. Trade pub is one. Self-pub is another. There are definitely authors who have done well as hybrid authors. Ilona Andrews is one who comes to mind. But when starting out it is best to pick one and pursue it exclusively.

The two paths are different beasts that have different rules and different challenges. And in a sense different tastes and expectations. At least on the fiction side. I like to say, and maybe it’s not 100% true, that on the trade side they’re always looking for “same but different”. They’re asking, “How is this book different from the hundred others I’ve been shown this year? Why would someone get excited about this particular novel?”

On the self-pub side a lot of the readers want more of X. They don’t need an author to change things up or advance the genre in some way. They liked X, they want more of X. (Not always, yada yada, but there’s certainly a component of readers that self-publishers “feed” by giving them more of the same.)

Which means a book that could make an author good money on the self-publishing side at 99 cents and in KU quite possibly would attract no interest at all on the trade publishing side.

So wrapping this up. I think one of the biggest challenges to being a writer is to learn enough to have realistic expectations. I certainly failed at this early on and it’s probably why I’m still here. But the other challenge of being a writer is remaining confident despite knowing enough to have realistic expectations.

There’s no harm in hoping or aiming for that seven-figure advance. Or that title that just breaks out and sells more copies than you could’ve ever dreamed it would.

Just try not to let it ruin you if the reality is closer to the norm than you’d wanted.

Learning To Put Up A Wall

I just responded to a post on another blog that was asking for some how-to-write book recommendations and earlier today I had a Strengths coaching call (I’ve stepped back from coaching for WBF, but I still do private coaching), and I realized that one of the essential skills I’ve had to learn and am still learning as a writer is how to put up a wall against well-meaning advice that doesn’t fit me.

One of the key benefits for me of taking the initial Write Better-Faster class with Becca Syme was that it walked me through how I was a specific type of writer (an almost complete pantser) and how other writers were not.

That let me put up a wall against advice that would work for a plotter but not a pantser.

So, for example, the presentation I watched where an author pulled out their two-inch-thick, three-ring binder that they spend six months preparing before they ever write word one, was not a presentation for me. I was able to put up a mental wall and let that just flow right on by.

But for someone else, that could be an absolutely great approach.

Same with advertising advice.

I’m a huge advocate of using AMS ads. It fits my Strategic Strength and makes my anti-social Relator happy. But it’s become clear to me that there are some people who are not well-suited to using AMS ads. Just like I am not well-suited to throwing book birthday blog blasts or (shudder) live-posting a video in a Facebook group.

I’m convinced that part of the journey of finding your successful writer path is learning how to put up a wall against the bad advice that isn’t going to work for you.

The author I was coaching today can write a novel a month without breaking a sweat. And those novels are good enough to sell tens of thousands of copies upon release. So that author needs to put up the wall against the “you can’t write fast AND good” crowd.

But other authors I’ve coached need lots of time to ruminate on their plot and polish it until it’s a shiny jewel before they ever start writing, so they need to put up a wall against the “just sit down and write and the story will come” crowd.

There is no one true way to do this. And sure there can be room for improvement here or there, but honestly the biggest struggle I’ve seen in my coaching is the author who is working against themselves because they can’t put up that well against well-meaning but bad (for them) advice.

So find who you are and then build your walls and move forward doing what works for you. (Unless you’re high in Woo or Connectedness and the idea of building a wall to keep others out is horrifying. Then don’t. See how that works?)

 

 

A Talk Worth Listening To

KKR posted the footage of the talk she gave at 20BooksTo50K this year and I think it’s well worth listening to for every aspiring creative. The link below is to her website which has the YouTube link because I also think her business posts are worth following as well.

https://kriswrites.com/2019/11/30/my-talk-on-perfection-at-20books/

One of the two quotes I wrote down from the talk is worth mentioning:

“If everybody loved your story, it’s mediocre.”

I will admit I make the mistake of reading my reviews. Even though I have seen time and time again that they don’t drive my sales. They might convince someone on the fence one way or the other, but honestly I do not believe that most people buy or don’t buy my books because of the reviews.

And I think the myth that a certain number of reviews gets you Amazon promotion is wrong. That’s misunderstanding cause and effect. If you organically get enough sales to generate a certain number of reviews then sure that may catch Amazon’s attention. But the reviews without the sales? No.

Anyway. Because I make that mistake, one of the things I have to remind myself of is this:

My books are not for everyone. This is especially noticeable in fiction. Theme, voice, style, all of that plays into whether or not someone will like a book. (With non-fiction it’s more a question of whether the book met the person’s knowledge level although style still comes into play.)

And in the same way that not everyone likes me as a person (I’m a licorice personality, you either like me or you really don’t), not everyone will like my books.

Which means it’s dangerous to look at the negative reviews and act on them. Because those are not my readers. Those are the people who’d meet me in real life and want to change me. They’d tell me I’m too loud or too opinionated or too full of myself. Or that I shouldn’t follow my own path. Or that I should dress more “appropriately” according to whatever standard they live by.

In real life I’ve long ago dismissed those people. You don’t like me? Eh. Okay. Life is too short to try to twist myself into someone else’s ideal. I like who I am. I like my life. I’ll keep on it with it, thanks.

But with writing it’s harder to be dismissive because I’m trying to sell what I write to other people. And there is this temptation to write something that makes you likeable. That everyone can agree is “good.” Even though I know from my own reading that there are hugely successful authors I love and hugely successful authors I can’t stand.

I know the world allows for a vast range of writing (and people) to succeed. But the struggle to keep other people’s opinions away from my writing is very, very real.

I don’t do critique groups anymore for that reason and am very comfortable with that decision because most are the blind leading the blind, and I’ve seen talented writers rewrite a novel every single time someone else offers an opinion to the point that they never make it past that first novel, which is a tragedy.

But ignoring the reviews is one I still struggle with. Someday I’ll get there and stop reading them. In the meantime, the other quote I wrote down from that talk was, “My book. It’s good. Screw you.”

Haha. Easier said than lived, but a good reminder. The reason each of us has a chance to succeed at this is because no one else can write what we write in the way we write it. As long as we embrace our individuality, that is.

 

Time for NaNoWriMo

I have never in fact participated in NaNoWriMo because I’m not motivated by prizes, competing with others, joining groups, or by someone cheering me on. My motivation is simply to get shit done. (Which is why I have 105 perfect tournament crowns from Microsoft Solitaire tournaments so far this year. Someone send help. I need an intervention.)

This year, though, I’ll be doing what NaNo requires and in the month of November, which is writing the first draft of a short novel in the space of a month.

BTW, for a good general post on Nano and writing check out Chuck Wendig’s NaNo post for 2019.

In preparation for starting this next novel (otherwise known as the procrastination stage), I’ve been doing some thinking.

This will be my 12th novel. And the fifth in this particular series. And I gotta tell ya, I think I’m just now reaching the “you know that you don’t know it” level of writing. After eleven completed novels.

Stop and think about that for a second. How many hours of doing this thing have I put in so far and I’m just now starting to see glimmers of what all is required to make it work well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think my earlier novels are good and enjoyable reads and, for the most part, the reviews back me up on that. People don’t always like what I choose to write about but they generally read to the end before telling the world about it.

But the issue I’m finally becoming concerned with is this: the consistency of the reader experience. Not just writing one good novel or one good series, but writing novels and series that consistently meet the needs of a particular group of readers.

To be really good at this you have to hit enough of the right buttons each and every time so that your particular group of readers walks away satisfied and comes back for more the next time you publish. That is not easy.

It is in fact exponentially harder than writing a single novel. And if you don’t do it well, you end up building on a shaky foundation. A reader thinks, “Well, that book was alright, I guess, so maybe I’ll read another one by them.” That is not the type of readership you want.

Because that kind of reader is the type of reader you will eventually lose if you continue on the way you are. In a hot genre with readers desperate for new material this could take some time. You could probably have a successful series or even two, but it will eventually catch up to you.

So it isn’t about writing a good novel. At least not long-term. It’s about creating a good reader experience across all of your books. And that is much, much harder to do.

And with that cheerful thought, I guess I’m off to “win” my own little NaNo.

Essential Writing Skills

This post is for those authors who want to make money at their publishing someday whether that be via a traditional publisher or self-publishing. If your core interest is in getting your stories down on paper, then carry on.

But for those who want to make money at this somehow, there are some essential skills you’re going to need to have and it’s important to work on them alongside the writing.

First, you need to be resilient and adaptable. This industry, on both the self and trade publishing sides, changes constantly. Today there’s talk that maybe Amazon shifted how it treats borrows from KU for book ranking. (If so, it’s about frickin’ time IMO because someone borrowing a book for free is not and never has been the equivalent of them paying money for a book.)

Sometime earlier this week AMS randomly decided to add Ad Groups to ads which changed where you see your list of target keywords. That was after adding two new markets and then removing the links for those markets from one primary location and changing where billing and other items are found on the page.

A few weeks back a publisher with a decent reputation stepped in it when they took on an author who had been banned from publishing direct on Amazon. And just this week at least one big-name editor was abruptly let go, impacting every single one of their authors.

No matter what path you choose, things will constantly be shifting under your feet. You need to understand that and prepare for it and not be knocked out of commission when it happens.

Second, you need to understand business and numbers and contracts. In a group I’m in where some trade published authors post there was mention of how an author was screwed over by a basket accounting clause in their contract. If you’re going with a publisher and you don’t know what that is, you need to learn. That and all the rest of it.

A while back a publisher contacted me about potentially distributing some of my titles. Sounded great until they sent me a publishing contract that paid no advance and would’ve taken all my foreign language rights for free. If you as an author can’t see a situation like that for what it is and push back, you will get screwed.

And if you aren’t paying attention to profits and are only focused on number of units sold or nice reviews, you won’t last long-term.

I don’t expect authors to take things to the extent I do. (Yesterday I got bored and performed a multi-variate regression analysis to see which ad options I was using were actually driving sales and realized that two of them I was using and thought had been doing well for me weren’t.) But you do need to have some sort of a clue about how this industry works and what is happening with your own business.

Finally, you need perseverance. Sure, some authors hit it out of the park with their first book. And it’s all shiny happy times from that point forward. But not most authors. If you need an example, look at George RR Martin’s career. He left novel and short story writing for a while to work in television. He switched genres. This massive success he’s seeing now? Took decades to achieve. And required him to dust himself off more than once along the way.

I’m sure there are other traits authors need to succeed at writing that have nothing to do with the story or how it’s written (including a good bullshit detector), but these were the ones that were on my mind this morning. So there you have it. The writing is just what you need to play the game. You need far more than that to stay in and succeed.

 

Sadly, I Am No J.D. Robb

A lot of the reading I’ve been doing this year is of the In Death series by J.D. Robb (probably better known as Nora Roberts). I’m almost done. That’s close to fifty books.

And I find myself as an author in awe of her ability to stay true to the demands of her genre. Every single one of those books I’ve read so far is firmly structured as a mystery.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that the opening is about the murder. And the focus of the story is on solving that murder. Those books are definitely character-driven. They would not be the same books without Mavis, Peabody, Roarke, Feeney, McNab, and all the other relationships. And they’re not necessarily the types of murder mysteries where you’re given the clues to solve the murder yourself. You as a reader are along for the ride with characters you’ve come to like.

Despite the fact that they’re character-driven mysteries she still manages to keep the murder and the solving of that murder the frame of each and every single book. I have yet to see her stumble on that point after forty-plus books.

Now, there are some authors who would see that as problematic. They think it’s too predictable. But what those authors fail to see is that that’s how you meet the expectations of readers of a certain genre.

You show them on page 1 that this is the type of story they’re going to get. This is a murder mystery. Someone is dead. And now someone will solve that murder. And then, within that framework, you play with the characters and the story.

It seems easy to do that, right?

But I’ll tell you, I personally do not find it easy to do. I’ve now written four cozy mysteries and finding that balance between the mystery and the personal lives of the characters is the biggest challenge I have in writing those books.

And just today I published a short story set in that world that doesn’t even have a mystery! That’s how much I struggle with it.

Trust me. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to explain through your marketing that this book isn’t what readers have come to expect from you.

So I really, really admire J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts for her ability to consistently and continuously work within the frame of her genre and yet create unique and believable characters at the same time. She’s truly a master of her craft. Someday I hope to be half the writer she is.

 

We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.

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…

 

Timing Issues

I’m on book four of a NYT-best selling YA fantasy series. I’ve devoured the series. Each book is about six hundred pages long and I’ve probably read the last three in less than a week. But an issue I noticed during book one is making it really hard to finish book four, so I thought I’d write about it here for any authors looking for non-obvious ways to improve their writing.

This author is great at characterization. Look at the 25,000+ reviews that each book has and you’ll see that readers love how fleshed out the characters are and how real they are.

But the author has issues with timing.

In book one there were some obvious ones. For example, in one chapter we’re told it’s been two weeks since an event happened and two chapters later we’re told it’s only been two days. This happened twice that I can remember. They were little hiccups that were somewhat annoying but not enough to keep me from immediately ordering the rest of the books in the series.

Now I’m up to book four and the finale is upon us. There’s someone trapped in a dungeon, another character under siege in a castle, others have fled the invading army, etc. And now all of a sudden all of those timing issues are getting painful. Someone takes¬† a day to follow a trail one direction and an hour to go back down the same trail. Earlier in the book weeks passed, possibly months, for something that should have been incredibly urgent. And a council whose first meeting was supposed to be in a week or two somehow didn’t meet for perhaps months.

All the timeframes are muddied and conflict with each other. Character A goes off to do something and it takes five days. Character B does their thing and it takes two weeks. Then they intersect as if they both took the same amount of time.

I’ve already complained elsewhere about a series where two main characters became so out of synch in how their storylines were presented that they were months apart in alternating chapters. To the point that a minor character was in back to back chapters in completely different parts of the world.

This is worse than that because it’s clear the author didn’t have a good handle on how long anything in the book took to happen. And because they didn’t have that firmly established for themselves, the timing of events slips and slides around in the story that made it onto the page, too.

It’s worse with this book because of the multiple points of view. But this can still be a problem even with single POV novels.

You send someone off to do X, does it make sense that they would take as long as they did to do it?

Or, for example, with my cozies I have to account for the fact that the character actually has a job to show up for six days a week. She can’t just be off solving a crime for three days straight without there being a consequence for that. Right? Or take off for hours every day to investigate clues. At least not during work hours.

So watch for this one. With my multiple POV novel I actually had an Excel spreadsheet with a timeline for all of my main characters and where they were and when to make sure it matched up. But it can be as simple as reading through the novel once with an eye to timing if the focus of the novel is tight enough.

Anyway. Something to think about when you’re not worrying about plot, pacing, characterization, tense, point of view, or genre expectations.

 

 

Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.