Conspiracy Theories

The indie self-publishing world needs to take some deep breaths. The blows have been coming fast and hard lately. Kindle Worlds is gone, people lost half their KU page reads for April, RT convention is gone, there was that whole trademark thing…

Everyone wants to understand. They want an explanation. They want it to make sense. And it doesn’t. At least not given what we know.

So then the conspiracy theories start…

Like the one that says that running AMS is why people lost page reads.

Or the one that says that somehow Amazon used Pronoun as some sort of data gathering effort and then turned on Pronoun and merged with Draft2Digital? (By the way, person who said that, that word does not mean what you think it does. A merger is a very different thing from a distribution agreement. VERY. Also, Amazon doesn’t need Pronoun’s data. I think you got that backwards.)

So let’s all take a deep, deep breath. In…..Out…..

Here’s the deal:

Self-publishing is chaotic. It’s one of the only areas in my life where I’ve ever felt the need for the serenity prayer. You know the one that basically says grant me the strength to do what I can and ignore the rest?

If you’re going to stick with self-publishing long-term, you need that. Put it on your wall. And every time one of these situations arises ask yourself: “Is this something I can do anything about?” and “Is this something I should do something about?”

If it’s yes, then act. If it’s no, then move on. Usually the answer to one or both of those questions will be no.

Also, if someone makes some sort of insane claim about what’s going on, step back. Think Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

It’s not some vast conspiracy. There is not some masterplan bent on your personal destruction. Usually what’s happening is the outcome of a lot of people or companies making decisions that are best for them without thinking about the impact on anyone else. It’s that simple.

Yes, there are cutthroat assholes out there. At the individual level and the corporate level. For them it’s rarely personal. They make decisions based on what will earn them the most money. So once you know that about them, act accordingly. Don’t feel betrayed that they acted within their nature. They are what they are.

One more point.

I was about to respond to the umpteenth post I’d seen recently about how everyone who had page reads stripped last month seems to have been running AMS. (Not necessarily true. Just like it wasn’t true that they were all running Bookbubs last year when page reads precipitously dropped for some people.)

I was going to make a comment about how it’s easy to look at a small number of people who had X happen to them, see that they all had Y in common, and conclude that Y was the cause, while failing to see that there are a hundred times as many people who also had Y but where nothing happened to them.

But then I asked myself whether I should be spending my time on the internet trying to convince strangers to calm down and stop seeing conspiracies around every corner.

No, I should not. I should be writing. I have a book I need to finish editing. So I can publish it. And advertise it. With AMS.

AMS and Writing

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend about AMS Ads for Authors and writing in general. And one of the points we discussed in that conversation is something I specifically call out in the AMS video course (now renamed Easy AMS Ads), but maybe not as strongly in the book, so I thought it was worth addressing here.

Which is that: as a self-published author looking to make money off of your writing (lots of assumptions in that sentence, but that’s who I’m talking to here), you need to keep producing new material.

Yes, you should market what you’ve already done. (And I am arguably not as good at that as I should be which is why I thank my lucky stars for AMS because I can run them full-time and with maybe fifteen minutes a day spent on them.)

But more importantly, you need to feed your readers. You need to give them new material. Otherwise you’re spending all this money to acquire customers (readers) and then you’re losing them because you have nothing more to offer them.

The most effective use of advertising is when you can bring people in the door and then keep them there and buying more from you. (See Amanda M. Lee for a good example.) Now, not everyone can write that fast, but if you’re spending all your time advertising what you’ve already written to the detriment of producing new material that is not a successful long-term strategy.

And what’s even more important about this is that AMS are an Amazon ad product. Meaning they favor new and shiny and already successful.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m running ads on books I published in 2013, 2014, 2015. But my most successful ad the last six months was on a book published September 2017. My second most successful, same thing. There’s a reason for that. Amazon is the reason.

So writing one or two books and then running AMS on them to the expense of everything else will perhaps do really well for you the first six months or year or maybe even two years you run the ads. But after that you need something new. You need new material to throw at the ads.

(And you need new material for your fans, too. Don’t forget them.)

Never ever lose sight of the fact that new material is what will keep the lights on. The JK Rowlings of the world who have a series selling well a decade after release without new material are the rarities. (And even she has had new stuff come out related to the original HP books. The movies. A play. A book of the play. The website that tells you your house and your patronus.)

Always be sure that whatever strategy you take to promoting your books doesn’t keep you from producing new material.

Speaking of. I have a book that’s waiting on final edits.

Why Let Someone Control Your Dreams?

I realize that I am wired differently than most of the world so I’m probably not seeing something about this, but it fascinates me the number of authors I see who are broken-hearted or angry that they can’t find an agent or publisher for their work.

Today’s example was someone who worked for seven years to craft a story they clearly cared a great deal about. They queried it over a hundred times, didn’t find an agent, and now are done with writing.

And they’re broken because of this. The pain they’re feeling is clear.

They’re not alone.

I’ve seen author after author talk about how they were worried that this book they’d written that mattered so much to them was never going to be published. Or how they’ve moved on to more commercial books but that book of their heart is still sitting in the drawer waiting for the day when someone agrees to buy it.

I don’t get it. Because if you loved that book that much. If you spent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours writing it. If it physically hurts you that no one else will have a chance to see this book, then why not publish it yourself? A decade ago maybe that wasn’t easy to do.

But today? If you’ve put seven years into writing that book of the heart, you can put three months into getting it out there. If you’re broke it takes more time because you’re going to have to do it yourself, but it can be done. Anything you need to do to self-publish a book you can learn.

So if you’re one of those people, stop letting a very small group of people keep you from sharing your book with the world.

Now, will it sell?

Perhaps not. And that’s not on you.

It could be amazing and wonderful and just get lost in the sea of other books. And that may hurt, too.

But if you cared that much about your book, is how many copies it sells what really matters? Won’t holding that book in your hands, knowing it’s a real, physical object that can sit on your shelf be better than having it be lost forever?

Put it in print. Order twenty copies. Give them to all your friends.

Give them to the woman who’s nice to you at the supermarket.

If this is about love and passion, then put it out in ebook, price it at free, and let it go. (But don’t think that just because you do that hundreds of thousands of people will buy it, that’s not how it works.)

All I’m saying is if this means this much to you don’t stop just because one path didn’t work.

Far too many people in this world spend far too much time and energy trying to be accepted by people who will never accept them no matter what they do. Stop being one of those people.

Take control back. If someone won’t publish your book for you, publish it yourself. You’ve come this far already, don’t stop now.

You Don’t Have to Love It

A lot of times you’ll hear someone say that you have to love what you do to be a writer. Or that if you can imagine doing anything else you should.

And I get where that advice is coming from. Because this is not an easy path to walk. It’s not straight uphill to fame and fortune. (Maybe it is for some, but not for most.)

So you need something that drives you to carry on when things aren’t going well. You need something internal that puts your butt in that chair and your hands on those keys. Something that keeps you writing after that first rejection and that first bad review. Something that pushes you through that moment when you think it’s all going to start working now and then it doesn’t.

But it doesn’t have to be love.

For me it’s sheer pig-headed stubborness because I don’t like to fail. I’m sitting here brooding instead of writing and casually thinking I could always go find some consulting work. And that maybe I should. (Even though I’ve been seeing steady signs of improvement and have already doubled last year’s income.)

That funk won’t last though.

Because in about five minutes my “you only fail if you quit” side will kick in. And it’ll force me to keep going, because I’m going to master this thing, damn it even if I end up living in my car to do it. (Okay, maybe I wouldn’t take it that far. Pretty sure pup would not appreciate the lack of six different beds to choose from.)

So I don’t do it out of love. I do it because it’s a challenge that I think I can master.

I’d even go so far as to say that if you love it, if this really is the only thing you can ever imagine yourself doing or the only thing you’ve ever wanted to be, that that’s the hardest path to take.

Because every setback will hurt that much more. And every critique and every delay won’t just feel like a challenge to be overcome but something personal. Something that strikes at the very core of who you are. It’s easy to become bitter if you love something and can’t have it. Especially if someone else doesn’t love it and does get it.

So you don’t have to love it. And maybe you’re even better off if you don’t.

But if you’re going to commit yourself to the writing path, you have to have something internal that keeps you moving forward. No one else is going to drive you through the years it takes to get there.

It has to be you.

Why Aren’t You Making More?

OnceĀ  a month I meet up for dinner with folks in my old critique group. I personally hate critique groups because I need to find the story I want to tell and to do it in the way I want to, but I like the people in the group. And once a month they have dinner before critique and I join them.

A lot of them are venturing into the self-publishing or small press publishing waters. And last night one of the members essentially asked me, “you have so many titles out, why aren’t you making more money?”

My first reaction was, “I know. Seriously, right?”

My second was “Oh just wait and see and you’ll start to understand.”

I never actually managed to answer the question because we got distracted, so let me answer it here.

According to my titles tracker, I have published 126 titles total. Some of those were republished under a different name. Some are now unpublished. Some are collections of shorter stuff. And two were free from the date they were published.

So if I just look at what I have published now, it’s 84 titles, 47 of which are short stories or collections of short stories.

There’s the first issue. Apart from erotica or erotic romance, shorts don’t seem to sell. At least not for me.

I have one short story series that has made me a couple thousand dollars, but most of my short stories don’t do much. The next most successful short story series has made me about $700.

That leaves me with 37 published novels or non-fiction titles.

Six are novels, the rest are non-fiction. Now, novels do sell and they’re eligible for more advertising options, which is key for getting visibility. And five of those novels are in my top ten in terms of gross revenue earned.

But they’re split across three pen names. Three novels are under romance pen names, the other three are YA fantasy. So basically it’s the equivalent of having an author with two novels out, an author with one novel out, and an author with three novels out.

Issue there is how frequently I publish a novel. My romance novels were three years apart. My fantasy novels were about a year apart. (And the next fantasy novel will be released more than a year after the last one.)

And the number of titles. I don’t write to market, so people aren’t seeking out my books on their own. Which means I need enough titles to catch in a reader’s mind and to give them chances to find me. I don’t have that with any of those names.

Which leaves us with the non-fiction titles.

Those are spread across three pen names and cover ten topics. Some can overlap. I have guides to Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, and if you look at the also-boughts you’ll see that people cross over there. But people reading my book about dealing with grief aren’t also reading my cookbook.

So again it’s like having an author with just a few titles out under their name. And with non-fiction there’s only so much you can write about a topic.

I think part of the reason I’m starting to see some traction with this author name (M.L. Humphrey) is because I finally have a decent number of titles out under this name and that they can potentially flow to one another.

I also, especially with non-fiction, tend to write what I feel like writing. I’ve lucked into a few where people actually wanted a book that covered that topic, but I have others that have made me $50 and that’s probably all they’ll ever make me.

Putting out all those titles has been good for me in terms of learning the mechanics of how you do things, which is why I felt comfortable writing the how-to books on ACX and CreateSpace. Put out twenty titles in audio and you learn a few things. Publish over forty paperbacks through CreateSpace and you see a wide range of what can go wrong and how it works.

But having a lot of titles out in the way I do is not the profit-maximizing approach.

If you want that, you focus on one name, in an area where people are going to come looking for your books, stay consistent in what you deliver, deliver on a steady schedule, and promote regularly.

If you can do that, you’ll probably do very well.

I…can’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure which.

Every year I sit myself down and say, “If you want to make good money at this, you need to crank out six books this year under one name in a hot market. Like dragons. Write dragons. Ready, set, go.”

And then I go write something completely different instead.

Despite my inability to do what I know will make me money, it’s slowly adding up. March of last year I grossed $440. Right now for March I’m at $3,500 and my profit for the month is over four times what I grossed last year.

I am incredibly proud of the progress I have made. At the same time I ask myself daily why I’m not making more money doing this. You know, what’s wrong with me that I’m not a six-figure author yet. (See above for the answer. And maybe have a reality check about how common that really is.)

And it’s hard to have knowledge to share that you know will help others but to not be some bright blazing example of success. But it is what it is. And I figure that my true target audience is those who are where I was two years ago. My third full year of self-publishing I grossed $2700. In this my fifth full year of self-publishing I’ve grossed more than that in this one month.

So when that question comes up, that’s what I focus on. Where I started, how far I’ve come, and the fact that my progress may be slow but it’s steady and improving.

 

What Makes A Story Well-Written?

Over on Twitter someone mentioned that they were starting to “read” (audio version), Nora Robert’s Year One and that reminded me that I’ve been trying to decipher for myself what makes a book well-written.

I normally try not to call out specific books, but that one represents for me exactly the conundrum that this question brings up.

My mother is a huge Nora Roberts fan. She’s currently re-reading all thirty-plus JD Robb books and routinely rereads her Nora Roberts romances. So she loves this woman and her writing in whatever form it takes.

But she was disappointed in Year One.

And I think the reasons why highlight something that I’ve been trying to sort through for myself as a writer.

I think there are two types of good writing. There’s writing that pulls you from page to page through a story. It’s something in that particular writer’s word choice and sentence structure and description and dialogue that keeps you reading. For my mother, Year One had that. She finished the book in two days even though she didn’t really like it.

I did, too.

There’s something about how Nora Roberts writes a story that is easy and enjoyable. Whatever this combination is (and I think it’s unique for each writer that has this skill), it makes reading a pleasurable experience.

But that kind of good writing isn’t guaranteed to make a book an enjoyable read that you want to recommend to others or read again. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have that satisfied feeling that the best books give.

SPOILER ALERT:In this case, part of the issue was that this book isn’t a romance but it also doesn’t do well as what it is. There’s a couple at the beginning of the book and by the end of the book one of those two is dead and the other person is with someone new. And the story is not about moving from that first relationship to a better one. So not a romance. Also, it starts as multiple viewpoint so you’re led to care about numerous people, but then the book skips over a significant part of their personal journeys and ends with us not knowing what happened to all but one character. And not in a cliff-hanger way. In a “the last 100 pages are about one person only and who cares what happened to all those others when they were all attacked” way.

So I keep asking myself what it was this book was missing. Because I read it. Cover to cover in two days. I didn’t set it aside.

It was well-written, but I think perhaps not well-told.

And I think that a truly great story is both. It has writing that engages the reader but it also has believable characters and good conflict and it keeps all the story lines gathered together and resolves all of them in a satisfying manner. There aren’t incongruent scenes. (A problem I had with book 2 by a different author recently.) And you see the key parts on the page. (I happened to think the last Brad Thor book was one of the better ones he’d written recently until the last twenty pages or so when it skipped ahead a couple weeks and summarized how things ended. Like, what? That takes all the satisfaction away, thanks.)

I don’t think there’s one formula here. I can think of a dozen authors I think write well and can carry any story and they’re all different in how they do that. And I can think of another handful who don’t write so well but tell a story so riveting that you just have to keep going.

As a reader my personal dread is the person who writes well but tells horrible stories because I’ll keep reading even as I hate them for making me do so. It’s terrible to want to throw a book away but be drawn forward by the writing. I’d far rather read a good story with messy writing than an awful story with good writing.

Anyway. It’s something I think about and try to learn from although I clearly haven’t puzzled it all out just yet.

Playing 3D Chess While Juggling Chainsaws

I was trying to think of a good analogy for what self-publishing feels like to me and that’s what I came up with. It’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess while simultaneously juggling chainsaws.

I suspect that’s not the case for every author. If you write under one pen name and in one series, it’s probably much more straight forward. But I currently have seven active pen names and multiple lines under some of those. For example, M.L. Humphrey has the Excel books, but also books on Word, self-publishing, writing in general, and personal finances.

Thanks to AMS ads, I can keep most of those moving at least a bit every day once a title is published.

But where to focus efforts and energy is where it gets interesting. Write another fantasy series because I’m pretty sure I’ll need twelve novels before I can really judge how that pen name will do long-term? Write another romance novel because just two romance novels under that one name have done well for me and another might cause another leap upward in terms of sales? Find a way to expand on the non-fiction titles? Master Google AdWords so I can find a steady way to promote my books on non-Amazon platforms?

There’s just me and just so many hours in the day. I have to pick one and do it.

And I’m not operating in a vacuum here. Every other self-publisher is making their own choices right now. Choices that will impact me. So are traditional publishers. And other entertainment providers. And the government. And social media platforms. And consumers for that matter.

All of it has an impact. For some of it there’s nothing to be done. Not yet. I either can’t see it or can’t do anything to change it or react to it.

And for the rest of it, even if there is something that can be done, the better answer is probably “produce more content regardless of what that content is.” Because without product to sell it really doesn’t matter what the market is doing or what the competition is doing.

Which is why I should stop writing this post and starting working on the next thing. (Whatever that’s going to be, which is the problem after all…)