Good Writing Isn’t Enough

There’s a discussion on one of the writing forums right now about how many books are actually published on Amazon right now and how many authors those represent. And in that discussion someone mentioned that they knew an author who had published two brilliant novels and that those two novels hadn’t sold a single copy.

(My first reaction was, “You their friend who thought their book was brilliant didn’t even buy a copy? Or recommend it to anyone who bought a copy? Why not?” But I digress.)

That comment started me thinking, though, that oftentimes with a writing career, whether it’s on the trade publishing or self-publishing side, it’s very often not just about the writing. Yes, the writing needs to be there. You need to be able to write at a sufficient level to sell your book(s).

But oftentimes the difference between success and failure is in all the other choices you make. I had a friend who a few years back had two publisher offers for their debut novel. They were trying to decide which publisher to go with, but at that time there was really no visible difference between the two. The advances were the same, the royalty payouts were the same, and both were small presses.

Turns out one of the two didn’t do such a great job of paying their authors and that issue blew up right around when my friend’s book was being published. So choosing Publisher A meant a smooth first publication experience whereas choosing Publisher B meant having that book published while authors were vocally advocating for readers to boycott the publisher.

Some trade published authors were caught up in a Barnes & Noble dispute a few years back that meant their books never landed on the shelves of any B&N throughout the country. Others were caught up in the Amazon dispute that happened a few years back where entire publisher catalogs weren’t listed on Amazon.

Pick the wrong publisher, agent, or editor and your book publishing experience will be completely different from someone else’s. Happen to have your book published in the midst of drama and same thing.

On the self-publishing side it’s picking KU or not KU. It’s putting a book in audio or not putting it in audio. It’s publishing in print or not. It’s using that new distributor or not. It’s trying that new ad platform or not. It’s publishing one book now versus three at once two years from now. It’s pricing high versus pricing low. It’s trying permafree or not. It’s having a mailing list or not.

Any one of those choices can sink an author or make their career. And it’s not always clear which choice is the right one to make at any given point in time. You can take the exact same book, make very different choices, and have completely different outcomes.

Considering that author mentioned above who wrote two great books and sold no copies, think what advertising could have done for those books. (Assuming they had adequate covers.) Or think what asking friends and family to give it that initial boost could have done. (Yes, yes, I know that can screw up also-boughts so is not ideal, but if the alternative is no sales at all? Better to get a few sales IMO.) Maybe that was an author who should’ve continued to slog it out in the trade-publishing trenches.

It’s hard to say, but you have to think that there was another outcome for that author had they just tried something different.

We all makes our choices. Some of them the wrong ones. Some of them fatal ones–for that book or that pen name. (And some of them the exact right ones.)

A good enough book is just the beginning. (Which considering how hard that can be to master is a bit disconcerting, but there you have it.)

Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.

 

It’s Going to Happen With or Without You

I’m seeing less comments along these lines recently than I was a year or so ago, but I remember about a year ago when authors would make comments along the lines of “Well, I used to pay 10 cents for AMS clicks, so I’m not raising my bids.” Or, “I used to get sales without advertising, so I’m certainly not going to pay to advertise my books now.”

And I would always sort of shake my head when I saw those comments. Because they were missing a key point. And that’s that the business environment in which they were operating had shifted and that it didn’t matter what they’d been doing before, they needed to understand what to do now.

Of course, the world being what it is, I had to grapple with this one recently myself and I wasn’t very pleased to have to make that adjustment either. I’d been enjoying some very very nice profit margins in one of my publishing areas and someone decided to come in and take those away by being more aggressive than me.

This meant I was faced with a choice. I could either change what I was doing and give up some of my profit but maintain sales. Or I could keep doing the same thing and lose those sales. What I couldn’t do was keep doing the same thing and expect the same old result.

So I chose to adjust. It didn’t make me happy. I look back at six months ago and think, “Oh, why can’t I get that back? Why did that [“person”] have to ruin my little world?”

But looking back at what was doesn’t change what is.

I was reminded of this when I was reading a recent Knowledge@Wharton article, How Pattern-Based Thinking Gives Companies an Edge. Search for Mike and you’ll find the section that caught my attention.

I’m going to now butcher a paragraph from there to broaden what they were discussing. Words in brackets are my substitutions and are not necessarily accurate representations of what was there before the brackets.

The world is going to change either way; the status quo is going to vanish. The real question isn’t whether [we can keep doing what we’ve been doing]; that world is going to be gone. [This development has] changed the world forever. The real question is whether [doing this new thing] is better than not [doing it]. Getting the revenue is obviously better than not getting the revenue. But understanding that the world [has] changed, and that we need to ask different questions, is [the key].

Apply that to publishing.

KU is here to stay for the time being. You can’t wish it away. It exists and has a profound impact on all authors, self- or trade-published, wide or KU.

AMS is here to stay. You can’t wish it away. It too has a profound impact on all authors. Amazon is too much a piece of the pie these days for AMS not to be relevant.

Tomorrow something new will come along that shifts the game again. (If B&N gets their ad platform straightened out? That could be huge.) Whatever it is, that won’t be going away either.

Burying your head in the sand and pretending that change hasn’t happened doesn’t work. You have to look at the new reality, forget the old one, and make your decisions based on the now and where you think we’re headed in the future.

Holding on to what was can ruin you. (A nice cheerful thought to see you into the weekend…Haha.)

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 guarantee  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!