A few things that have crossed my timeline recently that I figured were worth mentioning.
For anyone looking towards trade pub and bookstore placement, I think this was a really good summary of the current state of affairs with Barnes & Noble.
I hadn’t realized they’d gotten rid of their co-op placement and that’s actually a really nice thing that means I may drop by my local B&N just to see what they have in there. I used to love walking through bookstores to browse the shelves and find something new to me, but recently the books that were getting a lot of attention in my genres were ones I didn’t want to read.
Which also reminds me that one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is sometimes you get to know other writers and then you can’t remove that impression of them from your judgement of their books.
There was a recent big release by someone who annoyed the hell out of me at a conference by talking through all of the presentations, being generally arrogant, and flipping their hair around way too much and it means I won’t check out their book even though it might’ve been something I would’ve enjoyed.
(On the flip side, you meet a ton of great writers you would’ve never known otherwise and get to check out books that may not have even been on your radar, so it cuts both ways.)
Getting back to that Barnes & Noble thread.
I think something that wasn’t strongly highlighted in that thread and maybe because trade does work differently since books will literally go out of print, is that since B&N focuses so much on backlist sales that means there’s a chance for a book to get shelf space later if it follows the slow build, steady sales over years path.
(And honestly I’d rather not be on their shelves for a year and then be there for ten than be there for a month and never be carried by them again. Of course, trade pub doesn’t actually reward that pattern, but still.)
Anyway. There are a ton of options out there that come along later and maybe aren’t immediately available at release.
Bookbub, for example, rarely if ever (at least last time I checked) takes new releases in its promo emails. They want to see a nice track record of reviews first.
My first BB deal I think the book had been out for two years at that point?
So that midlist title that isn’t stocked at Barnes & Noble, eh, who cares? I mean, yeah, you care because you want to walk into that store and see YOUR book on the shelf.
But if you can create buzz elsewhere those people will order from Amazon or through the Barnes & Noble website or through any of a number of other places.
You do miss a random discoverability sale (which for kids’ books may matter more, since my mom would take us to the bookstore to pick out a book once a week when I was eight), but if people want that book they can still get it.
And if you get those steady sales so that you stay in print and people are continuously asking for your books, eventually maybe you do become one of those backlist titles they stock.
That does come back though to the need for authors to promote themselves somehow. There are so many ways to do that, but most take a lot of time and effort.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have a Twitter account but I do go there and read tweets by about a dozen different authors most mornings.
And you know what? The people I read are people who tweet every single day. Multiple times a day.
They aren’t necessarily the people saying the most interesting things, or the people I would like the most if we met IRL, but they’re the people who are there and delivering content when I’m bored and want something new to see.
Tweeting multiple times a day though is a lot of time sunk into one website that you have no control over.
Because the people I follow don’t just schedule tweets and go about their day. These are people seeing things while they’re on there reading other people’s tweets and sharing and reacting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if each of the people I follow is on there at least an hour a day. Probably more.
That may be fine for them because it’s where they hang out with other writer friends so it’s like lunch break. But don’t think that isn’t time spent. And that it isn’t something you have to dedicate yourself to for weeks or months or years to even get to the point of being visible enough that others share you and help you build an audience.
And at the end of the day…I’m not sure how many new readers it brings in.
I have a friend who killed it with social media. And who gets paid a nice little sum for some of the things they do as a result of building that audience.
But…That didn’t guarantee success when their books came out.
I do think it helped them get a few of their trade publishing contracts. It definitely helped with their first. And may be a factor in being kept on with their current publisher because they’re also very good at promoting other authors.
But social media followers don’t necessarily become dedicated readers.
Eventually I buy at least one book from someone I follow on social media. But I’m trying to think of one of those authors who I then became a regular reader-fan of. And I can’t. I bought that one book. Maybe two. And…that was it.
Because social media is different from novels. And just because someone likes a tweet you sent doesn’t mean they’ll like how you told a 90,000-word story.
Ironically for me most of my favorite authors suck at social media. They either have a snarly out-dated Q&A about the books arriving when they’ll arrive or they have a blog that gets updated maybe five times a year with things I don’t care about or…Yeah, they’re not savvy media types.
So building up a social media following that’s not based on people who are fans of your books is likely not going to drive significant sales of those books.
It might raise the tide enough, though, to get to the people who really would be your readers…But those numbers need to be large enough for that to work.
One of the early self-pub success stories was someone who kept leaving out the part of their story where they released three books almost immediately and then had a Bookbub on the first title for free that moved 40,000 copies at a time when people actually read the freebies they downloaded.
I think if any of us had 25,000 people read one of our books and were a competent storyteller we’d find our way to that core audience of 1,000 that you need to build from. Especially if it happened in a very short period of time when Amazon’s algorithms could see and react as those people bought books 2 and 3.
But for most it’s a much slower grind so there is no algo-love.
I still think of the excellent presentation Courtney Milan gave years ago about being that little paper airplane and trying to get the lift to get it up that initial cliff of discoverability.
And sometimes it seems to me that social media followings are a side quest. You climb a mountain and it is an accomplishment, but it’s not necessarily one that will help you climb the cliff of steady book sales.
Anyway. With that bad analogy, I am done for the day. I have some audio to process and then some groceries to pick up so pup and I can go have lunch with family.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
(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.
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?
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.
It’s a good post. About putting in the work and how it can be hard sometimes when you have to get out there and perform when it’s hot and there’s no audience and no one who knows your music. (Or at least not many do.)
(I can’t imagine being a performing artist with a low turnout, at least as a writer I can sit in the comfort of my home and feel sad and question my life choices without having to be on for an audience or have anyone else see just how low those numbers can sometimes be.)
But the thread ends on an upbeat note. Because after the concert he had that one fan who he was able to connect with and be reminded that what he does touches someone. And that lifted him back up.
The tweet thread connected for me as a creator.
But I’m also always on the lookout for new-to-me music that I might like. So I went and checked them out on iTunes. And I liked them enough to buy one of their albums. If I listen to it and like it enough I’ll buy their other albums.
Which also makes this a great example of how being on social media and word of mouth work.
A lot had to happen for that one little sale that will probably earn them $2.
First, this guy had to be on Twitter. And active enough that people follow him. He’s been on there since 2015 and has 8K followers.
Second, he had to say something someone else found worth sharing. Because I don’t follow him, I follow a pediatric palliative care doctor who follows him.
(And I say follow but I don’t have a Twitter account. I just peek at certain accounts on a regular basis while avoiding the Twitter pop-ups that urge me to create an account.)
Third, I had to like what the person I follow shared enough to get curious, click through, and read the thread. The guy I follow called it powerful and beautiful. The tweet he shared started with “crappy night”. So that drew me in. What was powerful and beautiful about a crappy night?
(Why, yes, I am a writer who sucks up human experiences like a vampire.)
Fourth, I had to like what the drummer said enough to think, “these guys deserve some support” and go check out their music.
Fifth, I had to actually like the music.
A few times in the last year I’ve seen an artist make the news in some way where I thought, “I should support them, let me see what they have” but I bounced off the music.
One, for example, was a heavy metal band (?) who stopped a concert because the mosh pit was getting out of control and so the lead singer was like, “that’s not how we do this, guys”. This was shortly after there’d been some trampling deaths at another concert. And I thought, “Yeah, good for you.”
But their music was a little too heavy for me. I listen to a lot of things, but I stay towards the middle in most genres. I did find one song of theirs I liked and I did buy it, but I didn’t buy their album.
Another was someone standing up I think against Spotify maybe? And I checked out their music but it wasn’t for me.
So a lot of things have to fall into place to generate a word of mouth, social media sale. And most are not tweets or posts about “buy my book” (or “buy my song” in this case).
It’s about being present. Being interesting enough to have an audience. Saying something real or interesting that others want to share. And then when someone connects with that, having a product that appeals to that person.
It’s a lot that doesn’t directly result in a sale.
I would argue this is also why it’s good to be genuine across the board. In your social media, in your product descriptions, and in the product itself.
First, that takes less effort. I mean, I guess you could fake it all, but look at this example here, right. Who wants to fake who they are for seven years?
Second, when someone resonates with what you say in one setting you want them to also resonate with what you do in your other settings.
You don’t have to have it that way, you can pay someone to do your social media and pay someone else to do your blurbs and pay someone else to edit your work to the perceived popular style, but you lose oomph if everything doesn’t feed back on itself.
Which can be hard even when you’re doing it all yourself.
It’s why I’m not on Twitter. Because Twitter brought out my angry, snarky side and that’s not what I put in my books. Snark, yes. Commentary, oh yeah. But not the negative, angry, this world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going down thing that Twitter brought out for me.
Hell, even blogging sometimes is a danger zone for me in that respect.
I sometimes liken my personality to a 30-sided dice because I have that many facets to who I am.
For some authors, no matter what they write at the core they are who they are. So their blog posts and mysteries and sci fi and fantasy all have that same personality and appeal.
For others, like myself, it’s more like having six distinct personalities in the room who appeal to very varied groups of readers. It’s why I like pen names.
Anyway. I am now blathering on past the point. So social media. Word of mouth. Out of your control, but it happens. Usually by showing up, putting in the work forever and not worrying about doing anything to “sell” yourself other than be a genuine human being who says things people can connect to.
Yesterday I did the final editing pass on the last book in my cozy mystery series. It was book 9 in the series. And while there were individual mysteries to solve in each book, six with murders, three without, there were also overarching personal stories as well.
Which meant that I wasn’t just wrapping up the mystery in that particular book, I also had to give a satisfying ending to the entire series. (I’m pretty sure I also did this with book six which was supposed to be the original end to the series.)
And while it’s true that writing in series can be better than writing standalone novels in terms of reader retention, promotion, and sales, it’s also much harder to do well.
(If you have nine books in a series that all follow the same cast of characters, are in the same setting, and have the same general feel to them putting book 1 to free will get you much better results than putting one of nine unrelated novels with different characters and themes and settings to free.)
This novel required an extra editing pass for me because of that need to nail the landing not just for the current book but for the whole series.
And I should note here that there are certain types of series where the main character never really changes and so there is no evolution of the character that needs to be addressed in the final book.
It’s just Adventurer A has adventures and they have adventures for as many books as the author wants to write. It’s been forty years since I read them, but I’m pretty sure the Oz books were that way after the first one. Kid goes back to Oz, meets cool people, maybe runs into some old friends, and then goes back home.
I, unfortunately, am incapable of writing that sort of series. I’m a very character-driven writer which means my characters react and grow with every personal interaction they have. They aren’t the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They’re always learning. And, in my case, bringing new people into their w0rld.
And in a series where the character is learning and growing and evolving you have to leave them at a good spot that’s satisfying to the reader at the end of the series.
So each mystery can end with the mystery solved. That’s easy enough. That’s the novel-level denouement. For adventure fantasy you end that leg of the adventure. For romance you give that couple their HEA or HFN.
I should also note here that there are some fantasy series, like GRRM’s, that aren’t meant to be that way. He views his series as one big gigantic story that happens to sprawl across a number of books. The type of series I’m thinking of here for fantasy is more like David Eddings’ Belgariad where each stage of the adventure is covered in one book. (Been a while since I read those, too, but that’s how I seem to remember they worked.)
I’m talking here about series where each book has a predictable way to end it (mystery solved, special object found, couple gets their HEA) but where there’s more to the overall story.
And with a series like that, you have to answer in that last book, “Why did we go on this journey and why does it end here?”
Nora Roberts has fantasy romance trilogies that do this well. Each book ends with one part of the quest finished and one couple getting their HEA, but the whole series ends when the ultimate goal is reached.
I also think you have to give some impression to the reader of where those characters go from that moment and that where they’re headed has to be satisfying for the type of story told.
I personally don’t believe in the “ten years later” sort of ending that one very popular series used. (I saw it in the movies before I read it and was thinking, “Why did they add this crap at the end?”, only to find out later it was in the books.)
So for me personally it has to be an ending that wraps up the big arc of the series, maybe even brings things together in a new way that I couldn’t see until that ending, is satisfying in that moment, and hints at a future for those characters that leaves me satisfied.
Which is a lot.
And you have to weave it around the ending of that particular book. Because there’s also a thing with readers (at least me as a reader) where they only want to stay with you for so long after the big conflict is finished.
As a reader I reach a moment where I’m like, “Hey, we defeated the big baddie like five chapters ago, why are we still here?”
(Which just reminded me why I didn’t like the ending of a very famous fantasy series that I won’t mention because it’s fans will tell me it’s the best series ever written and how dare I criticize it. But that thing dragged at the end.)
Now, you might be wondering why does getting a solid ending to the series matter so much? Readers have bought the books and stuck through to the end, why is how it ends such a big deal?
First, there’s the peak-end rule where people judge the overall experience by the peak moment and the end. So your series will ultimately be judged based on the best or worst moment in the series and by how it felt at the end. End poorly and it won’t matter how well you wrote the rest of the series, readers will be unhappy.
Second, if you want future sales of other books you write, those sales are going to be driven by the experience a reader had with the last book they read by you.
And moving between series is the most likely time to lose a reader. A reader may stick with a so-so series just to see how it ends. But then they’re done.
If you’re offering a reader a new series with new characters and setting and premise, they have to have been satisfied enough with the experience of reading the first series to follow you to the new one.
(You’ll notice that a lot of long-term best-selling authors stick to at least the same world or general type of story. It makes that leap to a new series with new characters easier because at least readers know they already liked the world and the type of story. I’m not going to say that all of them do so deliberately, but I will say that it’s a successful strategy if you can do it deliberately.)
The fact that the end of a series is when you’re most likely to lose readers is why getting that series ending right matters so much.
So how do you make sure it lands well?
I’m not going to claim to be the expert on that. What I did is I wrote my last book in the series, cleaned it up so that it was mostly there as a standalone story, and then I went back and re-read the entire series before continuing on through my final draft of the final book. That let me tease out a final story arc that I hadn’t been quite aware of until that moment.
(Essentially the overall arc to that series is that my MC starts out all alone but is joining a community. Over the first six books she finds personal happiness. Over the next three she finds that she’s built a community and shifts her mindset from being self-focused to group-focused. But I had to see the whole journey in one piece to parse that last little bit out.)
Whether it worked for my series, time will tell. But it is something to keep in mind for anyone coming up on the end of a series.
I’m about to go through the final draft of the final cozy (book 9) and decided before I do that I should re-read the entire series. I want to end on the right emotional beats and that requires bringing everything together that’s happened over the last eight books and two short stories.
It’s also a good time to make sure that I don’t have any inconsistencies across the books. I re-read for book six as well, so hopefully that won’t be an issue, but you never know when you’re writing a series over a period of years what slipped in your mind during that time.
So I’m re-reading to ramp up to the final draft.
And I just finished book four of the series. (It made me cry, in a good way, because it’s a turning point in the larger character arc for the main character where she decides to stay in the small town she moved to and to actually open herself up to a relationship with the cute cop she’s flirted with for the last four books.)
So far so good.
But it cemented for me something I kind of already knew. Which is that this isn’t really a cozy mystery series.
It has a lot of the elements of a cozy series. For the first four books it was set in a barkery/cafe, there are cute dog characters and quirky side characters, it’s set in a small town, there isn’t graphic violence on the page or sex scenes or cussing. Oh, and there’s a mystery to solve in each book.
But I don’t think it’s as cute and quirky as cozies should be.
And while I do think of all mystery genres there’s the most room in cozy for non-mystery parts to the story, I think what I actually ended up writing is a small town family drama series with equal amounts mystery and romance and a strong cast of canine sidekicks.
What I will do with this knowledge, I don’t know. Unfortunately I’m pretty sure there isn’t an Amazon category for what I actually wrote.
This is where having a publisher would’ve helped. Because they would’ve forced me to better stay in the lane I’d started in.
Of course, the joy of self-publishing is that I can write the story I want to write how I want to write it, so if my cozy mystery series slowly becomes a small town family drama with far more emphasis on the characters and the character arc of the main sleuth, that’s what I get to write.
(It’s just whether the readers stay with you when you do something like that…)
Knowing this, I do think it’s important to ask whether the current category and branding are the best given what I actually wrote.
Would small town/rural be a better category? (maybe) Would romance be a better category? (Probably not, because it’s a very slow burn. If I’d had a couple get together each book, I could’ve done romance. Book 4 standalone is actually a romance structure. But the whole series is not.)
So, yet again, do as I say when writing not what I do.
I’m mentioning it here because I think it can be helpful after you’ve finished a series to give it a little time and then go back and re-read and see what you actually wrote so you can know whether you’ve branded it properly.
Let me give another example.
One of the series ideas I have would be a contemporary fantasy romance trilogy a la Nora Roberts. She’s written about four trilogies like this where six people come together to do something supernatural and over the course of the three books pair off.
One of the characters in the series I want to write would be a shifter character. When I mentioned this series idea to a friend who writes paranormal romance she immediately thought that because of the shifter, contemporary setting, and the romance it would be a paranormal romance series.
And it does have some of those elements.
But it would fail miserably in paranormal romance because it wouldn’t hit the tropes of that subgenre. My shifter is not an alpha, for example.
Where I suspect it belongs is actually romance->fantasy because I think the fantasy elements would be too hand-wavey for fantasy->romance. But I won’t know until I write it and there really isn’t a good box for it to fit in.
Honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t written that series is the lack of a good category for it.
The closer you can hit to the center of an existing, established category the easier it is to sell your books. If you say I have vanilla ice cream for you and then you give someone vanilla ice cream, they are very happy.
It’s trickier when people go looking for vanilla ice cream and what you have to offer is this vanilla ice cream creation that also has pastry dough, hot fudge, and sprinkles.
Could be delicious. They might love it. But it’s not the vanilla ice cream they were looking for.
So, yeah, anyway. Categories matter and sometimes we don’t see what we’ve actually written until we have some time and distance to come back to it and reassess.
(Better to consider these things up front and stick to your target, obviously, but I’d say 1 in 10 authors even know what the target is for a particular genre and only 1 in 100 of those authors can hit that target consistently each and every time they try. I am not one of them.)
I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Not just writing, everything. I literally have scrap notes lying around for different social media platform ideas and food business ideas and…everything.
One of those ideas I had recently was doing a podcast called “It’s Fucking Hard” which was basically going to be me talking to a wide variety of people, mostly creatives, but not all, about how hard it is to succeed at things.
Sure, there are a few people out there who have success after success after success and never seem to struggle.
Those tend to be the ones you see in the news and see interviewed everywhere. Because to get to the absolute top of an industry usually takes decades of building upon smaller successes and not failing in any other way that’s highly noticeable.
Especially in the more traditional corporate fields.
Which means that even if that isn’t the full story, when someone is on top there is an incredible incentive to present that sort of “always successful” narrative.
Society rewards success and expects successful people to be successful.
Someone who succeeded after failure is someone who could fail again, right? Oh my gosh, we don’t want that. We only want the people who were lucky enough to get it right the first time and keep getting it right because we pretend that’s about their inherent qualities.
(And don’t get me wrong. Every person I know who is at the top or near the top of their field works hard and is talented and skilled at what they do. And they’ve worked hard at it for years. That is a requirements to reach those levels. But we tend to leave out the fortuitous assignment to the right boss at the right time in someone’s career. Or the friend of a friend who made that key introduction. Or having the funds to push through the rough patch before the success. Or publishing the right kind of story at the right time.)
So I basically wanted to do this podcast with successful people where they opened up about the struggles they faced to get to where they were. Because I thought it was an important message to share with people.
First, that it isn’t always a smooth path to the top. That there are setbacks and struggles and dark moments. That you can go down, too, not just up. But that doesn’t mean you’re down forever.
(At some point early in my life, and I don’t know why I was this foolish and actually maybe it would’ve been true for me if I’d continued on my first corporate career path, I had this notion that you succeed once and that’s it. You’re always successful once you’ve succeeded. You are successful in your career and then you retire and enjoy the fruits of your success. Silly to think of that now as someone pursuing a creative career.)
Second I wanted to share that even at the top people have struggles. I know people successful in their careers who are full of stress and anxiety. Sometimes because they’re trying to stay at the top, but often because there are sacrifices being made in other areas of their life to be that successful.
When I was a consultant I traveled Monday through Friday (and, yes, Friday, because the place I worked for were that kind of people) probably 48 weeks of each year. Maybe more. That takes a toll on your personal relationships. And for many on their mental health.
I did some interviews during my MBA program where I talked to CEOs and other top-level executives and pretty much every person I talked to for that set of interviews had lost relationships or family connections to be where they were.
But I didn’t want it to be a depressing show. I wanted to focus on the fact that you have to decide if you really want it enough to push through the dark moments. To weather the lack of response. To keep going when no one seems to believe in you the way you believe in yourself.
Because if you can do that, you can succeed.
(Maybe. It’s not guaranteed. And it’s never going to be easy. Also, you reach Goal A and you’ll set Goal B and you’ll be right back in it.)
Anyway. I decided not to do that podcast because of the pearl-clutching that happens around the F word and the fact that my advertising options would be limited and I’d probably get taken down if I tried to launch a podcast with that title. But it was fun to think about during some early morning walks with my dog.
I decided to mention it today because I had a friend have one of those dark moments. I hope he works through it. But I figured it was a good time to remind everyone that no matter how successful someone is we all have those down moments and struggles. And when that happens you have to find something inside you that carries you through because the only chance at success is to keep trying.
I just saw a video clip of Ethan Hawke talking about movies, and the clip ended with a comment that really struck me. In reference to ratings and rankings, etc. he said, “when I was growing up those things didn’t exist and you could just absorb a movie for [what] it meant to you.”
It struck me how true that was and how damaging ratings and rankings and, quite frankly, knowing everyone’s opinion, is.
More than once there has been a book that I enjoyed that I somehow read in a vacuum. I just found the book, and I read the book, and I enjoyed it.
And then…I somehow encountered other people’s opinions about that book.
Sometimes they had read it. Sometimes I suspect they had not.
What was clear was that the book they read was not the book I read. What they saw in those pages was not what I saw in those pages. What the author actually intended, who knows.
But suddenly something I had experienced and enjoyed was tarnished.
And, I’m not even talking “oh that was really -ist” comments either. I’ve had this with movies I went to with friends where they wanted to talk about the movie afterward and it killed the moviegoing experience for me because I’d had two hours of “enjoyment” or “not enjoyment” and they wanted to break it down by cinematography and plot and dialogue and…
Ugh. (Don’t even get me started on The Matrix and what that was like walking out of the theater with one of those people…)
The movie was enjoyable. Leave it alone already.
And, yes, different perspectives on the same work can be instructive. It’s important to know that your viewpoint is not the only viewpoint. And to learn when something really is problematic, why.
But hearing different perspectives on something you simply enjoyed can be frickin’ exhausting. To not be allowed one little thing in this world that you can enjoy without qualification or analysis…
And here’s the thing. Rankings and ratings assume that all people’s opinions are equally valid. That what Person A has to say about this is equal to what Person B has to say.
But in real life we know that’s not true.
If I stick you in a room with twenty people for three months and let those people routinely voice their opinions in front of you, by the end of that three months there are people you will listen to every time they open their mouth and there are people you will ignore or hate every time they open their mouth.
Reviews and rankings don’t take that into account. Amazon will treat a two-star review that says, “the cover was bent” the same as it treats a four-star review of the actual content of the book.
And often people think, “oh, this person has a lot of reviews, they must really be the person to listen to”, but again, we all know that person who has to opine on everything and who you’d like to really shut up already, thank you very much.
But online? That person gets clout because they talk so much, not because they have anything valid to say.
And rankings are usually a reflection of two things.
One, mass popularity, which may not be what an individual consumer wants. Not everyone wants vanilla ice cream. It’s the most popular ice cream flavor-by far-but some of us like other flavors. I personally love peppermint, but it doesn’t even make the top ten. It’s not even in stores year-round.
Or, two, rankings are driven by good advertising. Money makes money even in the arts. And you often get to the point where things are popular because they’re popular.
A good ranking does not equal an enjoyable experience for the consumer. It just means a lot of people are consuming that product.
To live in a world where sales are so driven by rankings and ratings is sort of absurd really. I mean, who cares what anyone else thought if you got value or enjoyment out of that thing you watched or read or did?
I am so glad I grew up and had my formative years pre-internet. (I think it was junior year of college when I first dealt with the internet in any way and it was not a main thing for me even then. I didn’t even have home internet until my 30s.)
It was great, because I didn’t have to worry about others’ perceptions of me or my world or my interests. I could just be me and enjoy what I enjoyed and that was it.
I mean, yeah, there were real-world people with opinions, but not many, honestly. And when they did have opinions I knew them, so I knew who to listen to and who not to listen to. I could look at someone and say, “Do I care what that person thinks?” and know that the answer was “No.”
Which I guess is an argument really for spending less time with strangers’ opinions. In ratings and rankings and tweets and whatever else.
Good for them whatever they thought or felt. But I don’t need to know any of that to forge my own experiences.
Although this does remind me of a tweet I saw the other day about identity formation through exclusion and I think there’s an aspect of that that involves identity formation through inclusion.
Like, as long as you model all of your interests and appearance and everything else on what is the most popular and accepted thing that you’ll be safe somehow?
You don’t need your own opinions as long as you know what everyone else thinks and can adopt that instead?
For that personality I guess ratings and rankings are all there is then.
But, wow, is that person also really easy to manipulate…Which, hm. Yeah. Welcome to 2022.
I don’t know if it was always this way, maybe it was and I was just so focused on my life and my personal goals and struggles that I didn’t look up to see the world around me. Or maybe I didn’t have some readily available source of information to tell me what the flare-ups were as they happened so they had to reach a sort of critical mass before they hit my radar.
But it seems to me that there’s a lot more change and angst and turmoil in the world today than there was twenty years ago. And as writers we can unknowingly step right in the midst of that anger and draw it towards us like a lightning rod.
Let me give you two examples from my own writing.
I recently revised a book (Achieve Writing Success now known as Sell That Book) that I had unpublished a while back because it didn’t really sell and it seemed absurd to have a book about selling books out there that didn’t sell.
But I was having fun designing new covers so I decided I’d give it a quick readthrough, edit whatever was outdated, and put it back out there. The original of this book was maybe five years old, and the content actually was still solid. I didn’t have a lot of edits to make.
What I did have to do, though, was remove one of the examples I’d used. Because I referred to the Harry Potter series. The first book in that series would’ve come out when I was working at a bookstore, same with the first Game of Thrones book.
In my book I mentioned this fact because at the time neither one was a big deal at all. They weren’t even on our radar as something special to recommend. We were recommending Brian Jacques books for kids fantasy.
I mentioned the series in the context of how you have to keep writing, because it’s unlikely one book is going to lead to resounding success. You have to build to success with multiple books.
But I took the mentions of Harry Potter out because of JK Rowling’s reputation now, in the present day, of being actively anti-trans. There is a very vocal contingent of people who do not want her name or her books ever mentioned anywhere ever again and who will react very negatively to anyone who does so.
Would I have been aware of this fact if I were still consulting full-time? No. But I spend enough time on Twitter and follow enough writers there who are connected to that community or part of it to know this fact. And so knowing this, I chose to remove the example from my book.
But had I never unpublished that book and had someone bought it today and read it and had strong feelings about her, I could’ve stepped right in it with that reader and been accused of all sorts of things for mentioning her.
Because there are readers today who believe that a mention of her or her books requires a trigger warning. There are even reviews that will flag any mention of the Harry Potter books.
As a self-publisher if I know about these things, I can change my books to remove a problematic reference. But it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changing tides and dynamics and issues.
And it’s easy to forget a passing mention like that that was made five years ago when things weren’t emotionally fraught with respect to a certain topic. Until I re-read that book I didn’t remember that I’d used that example. I would’ve never known to go looking for it.
(This constant shift in attitudes towards who is safe and who is not is actually one of the reasons I left Twitter with my YA fantasy name. There was a period of about two weeks on Twitter a few years back where the SFF community decided to ostracize a large number of people behaving badly. It seemed to start with someone who had sexually assaulted someone IIRC but then it expanded to include a few guys who from what was said publicly were insensitive assholes who made crude comments. From there it spread to authors who were called out for things I never could really track down. Maybe dating someone and breaking up with them in a less than perfect way? By the time it was all done there were about a dozen people who you were supposed to unfollow unless you wanted to be guilty by association. At that point I was like, “I can’t spend all my time on here monitoring for who I’m not supposed to like, so I’m out. Buh-bye.”)
So that’s the first example. We learn more about people over time and suddenly a passing mention is loaded with meaning. My YA fantasy bio lists the fantasy worlds I loved growing up, but after I wrote that bio I learned that there are readers who’ve thrown out all of the books from one of those worlds due to accusations that were made about the author. SFF is littered with stories of inappropriate behavior by some of its biggest names and a certain contingent expects you to know all of this and react “appropriately”.
The second example is more about how events can catch up and pass us by and put a whole new level of weight on what we’re writing.
I’m currently working on my ninth and final cozy mystery. In the book the main character is seven months pregnant and on bed rest with twins. She was never someone who really wanted to be pregnant in the first place although she does want to have the kids. So she complains a lot about being pregnant. The swollen ankles, the kick to the kidney, the constant need to pee, the being the size of a whale, etc. She also worries a lot about being a shitty mom and how hard it is to be a parent. (Especially to twins!)
Two years ago there would have definitely been readers who weren’t pleased with her being less than positive about being pregnant and being a mom.
Cozy tends towards a conservative audience. Maybe my audience on book nine isn’t that way, but in general cozies are expected to not have things like profanity, using the Lord’s name in vain, on-the-page sex, or graphic violence. And they are often set in small towns which also attracts a more conservative readership.
But it would’ve been mild. I wouldn’t have expected anyone to reach out to me about it or to mention it in a review.
As I write this, however, the news just leaked that Roe is likely to be overturned. (For international readers, the gist of this is that in the United States after this happens individual states will be able to ban abortion, something they haven’t been allowed to do for 50 years. States have been able to restrict abortion to some degree or another, but not outright ban it.)
Other than that being an absolute bullshit decision that will cost lives and signals bad things for the direction this country is headed, for me as a writer it will also impact how this cozy is received by readers.
Because all discussion of pregnancy and being pregnant and any struggles around pregnancy are going to carry an added weight right now.
Even though my character chose to continue her pregnancy and is going to have the twins, there will still be readers who react more negatively to this book when it publishes in a month or two than they would have two years ago.
Their personal beliefs might not have changed in that time, but their sensitivity to the issue will be heightened.
Now, am I going to edit the book to remove those references? No.
My character is very well-established as being unimpressed by weddings, baby showers, motherhood, and any other traditional things that women are supposed to be impressed by. I’m not going to change her character in the 11th hour just because the world has shifted while I was writing her books.
But am I prepared to maybe get some pushback from a reader who will tell me they loved the series until this book? Yep. Absolutely.
That’s the risk of putting something you write out into the world. People are always going to layer their own knowledge and experience on top of whatever you write and come up with their own opinions of you and your material.
The challenge these days is that the world is moving so fast and in so many directions that you can think you know how something you wrote is going to be perceived and then something will change or something you never even knew about will come along and the reaction you get will blindside you.
Is there anything that can be done about that? I don’t think so. I guess maybe if you’re a person who puts what you think others want on the page, stop. Because if the world is going to slam you for what you wrote, at least make it be something you believe in.
Also, accept right now that someone somewhere is going to have an issue with what you write. You cannot put written work out into the public and expect it to be acceptable to everyone. Not gonna happen.
(Which also argues for knowing who you are writing for versus who you aren’t writing for, so you know when you’ve gone off course versus when you’ve just ended up in front of the wrong audience.)
It’s not easy writing in a chaotic world. But only you can write your stories, so keep at it.