You Don’t Have to Share Everything

I’m reading a mystery series right now that is both addictive and fails me as a reader. And it was put on hold after the fourth book in the series, so I’m pretty sure it failed other readers as well. And I’m pretty sure I know why:

Great idea, bad sub plot that then shares way too much information.

Some of you will recognize this series, but I’m not going to specifically call out the author here because that’s not the point of what I want to discuss.

So the novels are mysteries. The main character travels the country and investigates various disappearances. All good so far.

But she travels with her brother. (Well, as it turns out, not her actual blood-relative brother, but her stepbrother that she spent the last decade thinking of as her brother.) In book one there are enough overly-intimate moments between them that it’s pretty obvious they’re going to become a couple at some point in the books.

As a reader, not something I would seek out. (Although there was a very big erotic romance trend around stepbrother romances about five years ago, so obviously many readers would.) So not my cup of tea, but I was willing to let it happen in the background so I could read the mysteries because I liked the premise of the books.

And then I got to book three and they finally got together and that relationship took over the books. There were sex scenes in book one but they were either alluded to without giving details or taken care of in a paragraph or two.

This time…

The author included more than one very detailed sex scene of the two of them together, one of which included the main character comparing the shape and size of her “brother’s” privates to those of other men she’s been with.

Ew. (It did not help that the main character continues to think of her new lover as her brother on a regular basis.)

But really. Any shift like that, without the relationship between the two to complicate it further, would be off-putting to a number of readers. You thought you were reading a gritty mystery and now you’re reading erotica.

I think this series highlights an issue many writers face when writing first-person novels. Because there’s no doubt that in new relationships that are sexual that the level of thought someone gives to sex and the amount of sex that happens become pretty central to that person.

So if you were really living in someone’s head there would be a lot of mental space given to sex and thinking about sex.

But it doesn’t have to make it onto the page. A novel is not a detailed accounting of every single thought a character has or of every single thing they do in a given day. That would make it incredibly long, incredibly boring, and provide way too much information about the character’s life.

As a novelist you have to pick and choose what you show to tell the type of story you’re trying to tell.

(By the way, book four was even worse. I had to start skimming. One because there were still these I-did-not-need-to-know-that sex scenes but also because the novel made the reader sit through the reactions of three sets of family members to this new-found forbidden love. Completely irrelevant to the plot, whatever the plot of this one actually is. I’m halfway through and still not sure at this point.)

This is a trade-published book so you’d think they’d have caught this issue. But no. The editor failed the author in this case, IMO.

So, to turn this from rant to writing advice…For all the authors out there, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here? And does it need to be here in that level of detail? Am I keeping a focus on the story I’m actually supposed to be telling?”

(Especially when you take a left-turn from genre expectations like this one did.)

We Are Not All The Same

It seems I’m always blogging when I should be writing. But yesterday I figured out that the 13K words I’d written on the new cozy needed to be set aside because the book I was writing needed to be book three in the series, not the book two I was supposed to be writing. (Good news, it’ll take less time to write that third book.)

So this morning because I’m not in the flow yet on book 2 I was catching up with some old blogs. And I saw that an agent I used to respect had said something very disappointing. (After this comment and a post a few months back which caused me to stop reading their blog regularly because it was so full of vitriol towards self-publishing, I can’t say I do anymore. Which is sad to me. Because this person seems to be getting more and more narrow in their views. Or maybe it’s just showing more as time moves on.)

Anyway.

The comment was along the lines that anyone who writes three novels in two years must obviously be writing crap. It wasn’t quite that rude, but it was there. The post also included some comments about what a writer’s process is, like there can be only one writing process for all of us.

I have to say, as someone who has always worked faster than those around me, that I find that opinion very narrow-minded. My two hours of time is not someone else’s two hours of time. There are those who can work and create much faster than I can and those who need much more time. To say that the only thing that makes a good novel is the amount of hours spent with your butt in the chair is wrong.

We are not all the same.

And that comment forgets that different people have very different lives. That person this agent puts on a pedestal for taking five years to write a novel may have only spent a hundred hours on that novel over those five years because they had a family and a day job and other hobbies.

If someone has none of that, they could put in those same hundred hours in a few months. And that with downtime to think between drafts.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about how long something took to write. It should be about whether the story in question meets the needs of the audience it’s meant to sell to. And different audiences have different requirements. Some people want the language to be as much a part of the experience as the story. Some people (like me) want the words to get the hell out of the way so they can enjoy the adventure without being distracted by the author.

(I used to love China Mieville and still love his ideas, but I stopped reading him after a novel that involved some very very specific word related to giant squid. It wasn’t the only word like that in the novel and I thought to myself as a reader, “Do I care enough to go look this up in a dictionary?” The answer was no. I could figure it out from the context. But for me each time I ran across a word that was one I didn’t know–and I know a lot of words–it threw me out of the story and stopped me cold. I’m sure there were other readers who thrilled with excitement to see each of those words. For me it was a “not my author” moment just like for many authors you have to say “not my reader” when someone hates your book.)

So anyway. After seeing that agent’s commentI figured it was time for a periodic reminder to write however you want to write and take as long as you want to take. It’s the end product that matters not how the sausage is made. IMO, of course.

(I will add that ironically this same agent made another comment around the same time that authors should be able to write the second book in their series in six months. It seems you’re a hack if you write your first novel in eight months but you damned well better be able to write your second in six. Seriously.)

Thoughts for 2019 (Self-Publishing)

It’s almost 2019. For some of you that’ll hit today, for the rest of us that’ll hit tomorrow. And the “what do you foresee for 2019?” posts are popping up here or there on forums so I thought I’d see if I could weigh in here with some thoughts.

First, I think the market for self-publishing/indie publishing has substantially matured over the last year. So where someone might have been able to just throw a book up there, have it take off, make a fortune, and continue to do so consistently without advertising or some effort to capture those readers like a mailing list a year or two ago, I don’t think that’s realistically possible anymore.

Could it happen? Sure. Anything can happen. But it’s certainly not something I would bet a career on.

Which probably means a mind shift for a lot of the indies/self-publishers who came up pre-2015 or so and don’t have a strong audience. It also means some bad advice will continue to float around for newbies who listen to those who did come up in that period and established a strong audience, because they are going to probably, maybe, continue to do just fine without much advertising as long as they release often enough to keep their readers’ attention and continue to put out a product that meets their audience’s need.

If you want advice on establishing yourself now, you need to look to those who have done so recently. And in your genre.

I still think there are two possible paths to take to make money at this. One is what I call the wave approach, which is figuring out what’s hot right now and writing it as much and as fast as you can until it dies. And then moving on to the next trend and doing it all again. (Some folks do well hitting a trend but fail to move on when the readers do and then they crash and burn.)

The other is what I call the brick-by-brick approach, which requires steadily releasing books and building your readership with each new release.

The wave approach is fast and quick but it’s like riding a rollercoaster and there’s no guaranteeĀ  you’ll be able to keep up with it long-term. But it can be some incredible money short-term.

The brick-by-brick approach is slow and steady, but it’s not guaranteed either. If the overall audience for what you’re writing isn’t big enough to sustain you, you won’t ever hit a good level of income. And it also requires a quality product that keeps readers coming back for more. If you can do that, four or five years of steady new releases may get you there and keep you there.

But note the words steady and new in that last paragraph.

I discussed this in Achieve Writing Success. It’s something more indies/self-publishers need to embrace: If you want a career out of this it will not be made on one book. Probably not even on one series. You need to steadily produce more material to feed your existing audience and to give you more flexibility when it comes to things like promotion and visibility.

(Yes, there are exceptions, but never plan on being the exception. I am also admittedly bad at this on the fiction side of things but I will say that each new fiction release I’ve done has moved the base-level for that pen name upward.)

What else?

I think the recent changes in audio have been interesting, but that because so many people are locked in with ACX either because of royalty share agreements or that seven-year distribution term they throw in all their contracts that it’s not going to have a significant impact for now. I just hope those new players hold out long enough for people to be able to shift to them.

For me KU is useful when it’s useful and a market I don’t use when it’s not. I will say that I make a steady income on my romance novels in KU even though they are not written to a trend and the last one was published a year and a half ago, so maybe try things for yourself instead of letting the loudest voices decide for you.

I suspect we’ll have a pretty large shakeout next year and lose a lot of authors who just can’t keep up or adjust to the continuing changes, because even though we’re maturing as an industry there is a lot of change that happens all the time and most people aren’t good at handling that long-term. The key when you miss a shift is to not panic and waste time screaming about how the world has changed, but to adjust and find a new normal instead.

For me personally? 2018 was my best year by far and 2019 is looking like it’ll top that. But I did the “let me jump off a cliff and see if I can figure out how to fly before I hit bottom” approach that everyone warns against. (Being high Responsibility it was the only way I would put writing ahead of day-job to give it a fair shot.)

So I’m awful close to being able to fly, but I’m also awful close to hitting the bottom, too.

Which will happen first? That’s the question. I see enough promise right now to continue at least until my birthday in June and then I’ll reassess again. (I really want to have at least made six-figures gross from my writing before I leave, if I leave, and if things continue as they are I’ll have made that mark by then.)

Of course, if an interesting enough opportunity presents itself in the interim, I might take it. (Unfortunately for me all the interesting opportunities that have come my way in the last few years have involved being on-site in Europe or the UK and I won’t take those because of the pup. She’s priority one for me.)

Right now my book income could probably stay steady with just half an hour a day to tend my ads because most of my top-sellers are long-term sellers that have hit steady levels. But I suspect that would fade if I stopped paying attention to shifts on the business side of things. And competition being what it is, that could change at any moment.

Overall I like my life right now and I’m not eager to give it up. So, onward. I have an Excel book to finalize and publish, a good friend to visit next month, and then a cozy or two to write.

And a lot of outside voices to ignore…

Study Success Not Failure

In a recent post, Dean Wesley Smith made an excellent point that I wanted to highlight here as well. And that’s that if you want to improve your writing you don’t study someone else’s failures, you study what they did right.

I recently ran across this same concept with the reading I did around CliftonStrengths. In a book called First, Break All the Rules--which is an excellent book that’s well worth reading IMO–they explore this concept and give a few examples from Gallup’s research.

For example, in that book they talk about the difference between successful and unsuccessful nurses.

Unsuccessful nurses become too emotionally engaged with their patients and are overwhelmed by their emotions and can’t help their patients effectively.

What do you think the best nurses do?

If you studied just the nursing failures you’d probably assume that they keep an emotional distance from their patients to protect themselves. You’d be wrong. That’s what average nurses do.

Successful nurses become emotionally involved with their patients, too, but they use that to help make the patient’s experience the best it can possibly be.

Same with salespeople. Bad salespeople hate to cold-call. And if you just looked at your worst salespeople you might think that what you need are people who don’t have that reluctance to make cold calls. But you’d be wrong. Average salespeople will just go through the motions and not care. Good salespeople will dread making a call, but they’ll persevere and win over the customer despite that.

As the book says,

“[E]xcellence and failure are often surprisingly similar. Average is the anomaly.”

Now apply that back to writing. Think about the best stories you’ve ever read. Or watched. Were they safe? Were they vanilla-flavored? Or were they bold? And different? Did they take risks? Did they choose to be their own unique experience instead of one of a hundred just like it?

And what do you think most writing rules aim to do? They aim to curtail the bold failures. But what makes one book horrid, can make another awesome. It’s sometimes a matter of degree. Maybe a book was just not quite over the top enough to pull it off and the answer is not to dial it back but to ramp it up.

Which is why you can’t look at what made a book bad and try to avoid that. You’ll never get anywhere. You have to look at what made a book great and find a way to leverage that for your own writing.

I’ll tell you that I stopped listening to most writing rules after I read some Stephen King with my “these are the rules” hat on. Because that man? He’s fearless. He writes what he wants and in the way he wants to write it and to hell with anyone and their rules. (He may be one of the few highly successful writers I’ve seen using parenthesis in his fiction writing.)

When I saw that, I thought to myself, “If he can do that and be that successful, then anything is on the table.”

It’s not about how many adjectives or adverbs you use. Or how long your chapters are. Or how long your paragraphs are. Or even whether or not you use info dumps.

It’s about finding a way to tell an engaging story that pulls your reader through from start to finish and makes them want more.

If you want to learn how to do that, how to make the equivalent of book crack cocaine, don’t study the hundreds of people who’ve failed, study the few who’ve succeeded.

(You could also just sit down and try a couple hundred times until you come up with your own unique formulation, too, but that’s a lot of time wasted learning lessons others could teach you in a few minutes or hours.)

Anyway. Something to think about as we head into the new year…Enjoy!

Know Your Timeframe…

My senior year of college I interviewed for a couple of jobs where we ended up discussing various business ideas. This was 1999, so about twenty years ago.

In the first instance I ended up interviewing with the business development group for a television channel. And they were very excited about online content.

My reaction? No, not yet. Here I was, a senior in college, and I’d never even had a computer in my room until that year and the computer I did have was certainly not a fancy one. I was not alone in this. And the internet connectivity to support that kind of thing just wasn’t there yet.

To me that was probably a good decade away from being significant and I said so. (Didn’t get the job. No surprise there.)

Now, did it take people having that belief in 1999 to get to the point where things started to happen in 2005 and really started to pick up in 2008? Probably. But that man I spoke to in 1999 did not think he was nine years from launching his project.

On the other side of the coin I had another job interview that involved a written exercise where we were supposed to evaluate four different business ideas related to plane tickets. I had just flown from San Francisco to Washington DC using an emailed reservation. (Two years prior to that I’d gone to Europe and the only option was a paper ticket and you were screwed if you lost it.)

One of the options in that article was a kiosk that would be placed in large office buildings where business travelers could print off their ticket as they left for their flight. Great idea five years before when the world revolved around having a physical, paper ticket. Obsolete by the time I was traveling for work a year after the interview. Everything was digital by then.

Both were good business ideas for a specific period of time. Someone could’ve made bank with those kiosks if they’d done it five years earlier and managed a rapid rollout. And online streaming content is certainly a money-maker today.

But oftentimes the key to making money in an industry is knowing what’s going to happen when. And how quickly you can react to a situation. And what your personal timeframe is.

Let’s take KU for an example. I know of authors who’ve made millions by being in KU. There’s an author who posted on a certain forum who is all-in with KU who makes six figures a month. For that author and their timeframe, which is short-term, KU is a perfect choice.

Now, the flip side of that is how long KU will last. If you want to be an author making a living at writing in ten years or twenty, then being all in with KU might be a horrible decision. Because KU may not exist by then and when it goes away you will be staring from scratch on all the wide platforms along with every other KU author. You’ll have a backlist but you’ll potentially drown in a sea of new content.

(I should add that part of what prompted this post is a post that KKR just wrote implying that KDP will not exist long-term. In other words, no Amazon sales. Something that has crossed my mind as well once or twice because self-publishers routinely make themselves a complete PITA for Amazon.)

So someone who’s in this for the twenty year timeframe may be best off going wide and staying wide even if that means earning far less money in the short-term.

It’s interesting to look at these things, because I will often miss a good profitable short-term opportunity because I see that long-term it won’t be sustainable.

For example, last spring someone advised me to lean hard into my book on AMS ads. They saw real potential there for an alternative to the data-heavy model advocated by Meeks. (And it’s true that what I preach is far less analytical and labor-intensive than everything I’ve heard about his approach.)

But I said no. Because to me AMS is just one form of advertising that will eventually get glutted by self-publishers and then I’m suddenly a snake oil salesperson either telling people about a method that once worked but no longer does or trying to tell them about a new ad option that I don’t do as well with.

I did not want to build a career on that.

But there’s no denying that Mark Dawson and Brian Meeks have both made significant amounts of money off of their advertising courses. Short-term, telling people how to use Facebook ads or AMS ads is a good play.

Long-term? Let me just say that understanding how one ad platform works does not mean you understand how the next one does and that it can get a little shaky when you’re still looked to as an expert on something you actually no longer have expertise in…

So not something I wanted to do. Because my timeframe was five-plus years. If I’m going to devote time and energy to something I want it to have value five years from now.

Another example of this is writing to trend. You can make a killing writing the latest greatest thing that ravenous readers want. People have done so in LitRPG and reverse harem and step-brother romance. And if you’re timeframe is short, that’s great. Get in, get the money, get out.

The problem arises if you’re thinking that your short-term play has long-term potential. Because when that goes away, you are broken. The guy who raised funds to put kiosks in office buildings to print plane tickets? Sitting there five years later wondering what he does now because those kiosks are worth nothing.

For me, there’s no wrong or right about which timeframe to choose. The key is knowing your own timeframe and then making decisions according to that timeframe. Also, listening to those who share your timeframe and not the others.

I’d also say that you need to pick the timeframe that works for what you are capable of accomplishing. So if you want to be all-in KU and write to trend, you need to be able to write fast. If you want to take advantage of a short-term opportunity that could be worth nothing a year from now, you need to be able to develop and roll out a “good enough” product NOW rather than a perfect product eighteen months from now.

I also do think it’s possible to “ride the waves” and adjust when things change. So you go all in with KU now and write to X trend for however long it lasts, and when that dies you find the next wave and ride it. And when that dies you find the next one and ride it. You may miss a few. You may have down times. You may go from $20,000 a month to $500. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad choice.

It’s just a different choice than the slow and steady build. Both can have the same long-term financial result. Which you choose is very much about what you’d rather have: slow, steady progression upward or peaks and valleys.

The key, though, is knowing the decision you’re making. Know how those patterns play out based on your timeframe. Seek out the opportunities that match that and ignore the rest.

Know Your Audience

I was just on Facebook and saw an author mentioning that they’re writing six short stories to serve as an introduction to their main series of novels.

My immediate thought was, that might be a waste of time.

I as a reader am a novel reader. I don’t seek out short stories or novellas. I did recently find myself reading novellas by two authors I like (Kristen Britain and Ilona Andrews) because that’s what they’d released recently and I am constantly starved for more material from what I consider top-tier authors.

They were fine, but if that’s all they ever published again, I’d stop reading them because they wouldn’t be meeting my needs as a reader.

And for a new author? Someone I’ve never read before? I’m not going to buy that 99 cent short story or novella. I won’t even look at it because I’m not a short story or novella reader. Give me a free or 99 cent novel of yours and I might check it out. (Might. I’m weird so rarely buy books on those kinds of sales and still read mostly in print.)

And, yes, there are readers who cross over between stories of all lengths, so writing a short story or novella lead-in to your world might be an effective strategy to bring in a certain percentage of readers. And if you have an opportunity to be in a box set or themed anthology it might make some sense to participate to expand your exposure to new readers.

But, honestly, I would say that if you’re going to commit yourself to writing 50,000 to 100,000 words in a world that you stick to the same general story length and type you’ve already written so that you can pull the readers you attract to one of your titles through your entire series.

As always, YMMV, but something to think about. At the end of the day it all depends on your audience and knowing what they will/will not buy from you.

A Few Measures of “Success” for a Series

As a writer sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re on the right track. Sometimes it’s obvious. If you have a thousand five-star reviews on a book you can bet that book has found an audience. And if you win awards or see people talking all the time about how wonderful your book is, that’s another one. Obviously, people writing to you and telling you how much they loved your book is also a good sign.

But most books don’t have a thousand reviews, good or bad. And most books aren’t so amazing that they generate buzz. And most readers aren’t going to drop you a line even if they love your book.

So a couple things I look for when it comes to a series of books:

First, I want my top also-boughts to be the rest of the books in that series. The theory is that also-boughts are generated from the list of how many people who have bought Book A have also bought Book B. If your other books aren’t in the top of your also-boughts then that means more people who bought your first book bought someone else’s book rather than your next book in the series.

To me that says that the first book they bought had potential but that it didn’t meet that potential.

This is less true in non-fiction than in fiction, but I do still look for it with my non-fiction titles. Here, for example, are the current also-boughts for Excel for Beginners:

Excel for Beginners Also Boughts 20181029.png

You can see here that there are four other books of mine in the top 7 also-boughts and that the two Excel titles that are in the same series as Excel for Beginners are in the first and second positions.

Even after a big promo I still expect to see this, because I expect people to buy my second in series more then they bought other books promoted on the same day. Here are the also-boughts for Rider’s Revenge in the UK. It had an international Bookbub a couple weeks ago:

Riders Revenge Also Boughts 20181029 in UK.png

A promo might mix up the also-boughts beyond those first few positions, but my books should always hold the top spots.

Second, I want to see that my review average is increasing as the series continues. This is definitely more for fiction series that must be read in order. The theory here is that with book one you’re going to attract readers who are not your reader, especially if you run price promotions that let people sample your work for free or 99 cents.

Those readers might review that first book but then should drop off as the series continues, which means that the people who review the later books in the series are the ones who liked the first books in the series.

If your review average is going down as the series progresses, then you’re somehow not satisfying the readers who did like the first book in the series. Mayeb you gave them the literary equivalent of cotton candy in book one and then offered them mussels in book two. You don’t want to do that. You want to keep the readers you found satisfied.

So, for example, here are the Goodreads ratings for the Rider’s Revenge series.

Goodreads Review Average RR Series 20181029

You’ll see that there are fewer reviews as the series continues, but that the review average went up as the books continued (from 3.75 to 3.94 to 4.25). If instead book 3’s review average was a 3.25, I would known that I’d failed to end the trilogy in a way that satisfied the readers who had stuck with the series to the end.

Now, granted, it’s not a perfect way to measure if you’re doing well with a series. (I actually consider the Rider’s series to have been a bit of a commercial failure. It took until just now to breakeven.) But it is one way to judge a series performance.

And it can tell you other things about your writing.

So, for example, my contemporary romance pen name has two novels and a novella. If I look at the also-boughts for each of the novels the other novel is in that #1 slot, but the novella is not in the #2 slot. It’s in the top 5 of the also-boughts for each novel, so it’s up there, but not right at the top. That’s because not all novel readers are novella readers and so that difference in story type means lower sell-through to the novella.

It’s also not the same characters, which could be another part of it.

That tells me that for that name I’m better off writing another novel than a novella. And perhaps staying in the same story world.

So if you’re seeing that your other works aren’t in the top of your also-boughts, ask yourself why. If it’s a related series, then you’re not hooking readers into continuing somehow. If you’re writing standalone works then it could be a different length or different type of story issue. Figuring out the cause and fixing it can make a significant difference in how well you do going forward.

Just something to think about…

(And note that I chose examples where this was actually the case as opposed to the ones for my books where it isn’t. Trust me, I have ones where this isn’t the case.)