Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,  you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

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

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

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Release Fast, Stay Focused. Or Not.

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

It’s just not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there is absolutely a benefit to releasing faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My reply is “define make money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When Do I Give Up and Self-Publish?”

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

My answer: You don’t.

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

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

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

Haha.

It happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s advertising.

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

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

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

Write another book.

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

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

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

And then query those novels. To agents.

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

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

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

This I Know…

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

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

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

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

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

(No.)

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

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

There Is Hope. Maybe.

So May numbers are in for me. Mostly. Authors Republic is a black hole until the very end of the next month and ACX is just a guesstimate and D2D is also prone to adjustments until they  pay. But I have the ballpark numbers at this point.

And I’m pretty happy.

Because June of last year was the first month I’d ever made $1000 in revenues. That was straight-up sales. I went from my best month being about $800 in sales to my best month being almost $1,700 in sales.

A huge jump but a step back in terms of profits. It was one of my rare months for losing money. (I’ve only had three of those so far and all less than $100 lost per month. That’s just ads versus revenue, though. No production costs included, mostly because mine are usually minimal.)

Anyway.

A year ago I couldn’t crack $1,000 in revenues. Last month I closed out my fifth month straight and sixth month overall of profit over $1,000.

(A few times there I even made more than a local McDonald’s employee can make in a month with a forty-hour workweek…)

(Let’s not talk benefits, though. Those folks are still doing better than me when you factor those in.)

For me that’s a huge jump in one year. So I’m pleased.

Are the numbers where I want them? No.

Do I still think I’m an idiot for not focusing on consulting work instead? Oh yeah. Good thing I have lots of friends with nice couches.

Ironically, the closer I get to where I want to be the less possible reaching that goal seems.

Sure I just made a huge jump, but can I really expect to make another equally sizable jump from here? Because that’s what it’s going to take.

I want to. I want to hope. But…Yikes. I don’t know.

The reason I’m sharing this (since someone recently called out all those horrible folks who share numbers), is to remind people that incomes are seldom linear.

Even when I was in salaried positions this was true.

I remember sitting down after I got my first professional job and calculating how much I would be earning in five years and in ten years based on what I knew about the promotional path at my company (first promotion at 9 months and then every 2 years after that for about three promotions) as well as average raise per promotion (10% or so) and annual cost of living raise (3% or so).

Well…I hit that ten-year amount within the first two years.

Because I couldn’t see the jumps that would happen in my career. I couldn’t see that early promotion or that new bonus program they introduced or that new job I took out of state that jumped me up two more levels.

When I sat down at the beginning and ran those numbers, all I could see was a slow, linear progression.

But that’s not how it works in the working world. (Not always, at least.) And it’s not how it works with publishing. (Definitely not how it works in publishing.)

One title can change your life.

One title did change my income this last year. At least it’s responsible for my current baseline performance. It’s not all of it by any measure, but it’s a significant part of it.

Did I predict that? Oh, hell no. I believe my FB post at the time was about my wasting time and effort on yet another book no one was going to want to buy.

I don’t write to market. I don’t write what I think will sell. The non-fiction I write is driven by what I feel people should know. (I wrote four books because I wanted authors to know how to use pivot tables.) And the fiction I write is driven by the big picture questions I need to work out for myself.

The only thing I’ve ever written with an eye to it possibly selling was my first billionaire short story. (Which did sell, but let’s not go there.)

So what does any of this mean for any of you? This is my result, but who cares? Not like anyone else could duplicate my path even if they wanted to. (And you don’t want to.)

First, don’t give up. You never know when that pop in performance is going to happen. Sure, it’s more likely to happen if you’re aiming at a large, hungry market, but that’s not the only market out there.

Second, do put out brand new material. A new cover or a new version can sometimes help (I’ve done that myself a few times), but usually if the first version didn’t show some signs of life, all the retooling in the world isn’t going to get you the pop that something new could get you. (Do finish a series before you write it off, though. But that’s new material, see?)

Third, there are so many different ways to level up. If one doesn’t work, try another. This last year I benefited from AMS, participating in a Storybundle, and getting two Bookbubs on my fantasy series.

Each little piece helped.

So you can’t get a Bookbub? Try AMS. AMS don’t work for you? Try cross promos. Cross promos don’t work for you? Try first-in-series free. That doesn’t work, try Bookbub CPC ads. Or FB ads. Or ENT. Or Freebooksy. Or work Twitter until your fingers bleed.

Or screw all that and write something new. Forget advertising. Write. Write an entire trilogy. Or at least the first three books in a series. Then go back and worry about sales and profits when that’s done and out there.

The point is, you never know when the change is going to come. Or where it’s going to come from.

But I can tell you when it won’t come. It won’t come if you don’t advertise at all. And if you don’t release anything new.

If you lay down and give up on all of it, yeah, sorry, you’re done. I don’t believe in that kind of miracle. I believe in the kind of miracle that happens when you actually buy the lottery ticket or build the ball field.

So keep trying. You can’t lose this game unless you quit. And if you keep playing (and learning and changing things up), you’ll get there. Eventually.