Tuesday, April 26, 2016

New covers for Reunion and Scouts

I made a quick mention on Twitter the other day that I create new covers for Reunion and Scouts, the very light urban fantasy series that has been completely ignored by readers. I'm getting some ideas on how to try and fix that. Part of it includes actually finishing the series. Part of it includes trying some new ways of branding the series. I'm going to call them "a paranormal procedural" to try and give browsing readers something to identify with. Another part are these new covers, bringing them in line with the branding I'm creating for my entire catalogue. Catalogue. Sounds so serious. But here are the new covers, including one for the third part in the series. Would love to know what you think.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

5 self-publishing lessons from the first 5 years

The first cover for Chasing Filthy Lucre.
It was done with my minimal Photoshop skills.
I see all of the flaws in it, but, for some reason
I still like it. Nostalgia maybe. Its current cover
is below. There have been several
variations in between.The latest version
of the cover is below. 
A pretty significant anniversary passed in the middle of last month. As someone who's admitted to liking commemoration of significant dates, I just can't let it go by without mentioning it.

Chasing Filthy Lucre is five years old. I don't have the exact date that it was published, but it was mid March 2011. That I know for sure, because I put it up a day or two before Gina and I left for a trip over her Spring Break.

It went up on Smashwords first, and I remember the moment when I got notification of my first sale. I was in line at a cheesesteak place, picking up food for me and Gina on the way home from work. Got an email form Smashwords that said someone had purchased a copy. I don't know who it was, I'm sure a friend or relative. It didn't matter, though. I got that heavy feeling — not heavy in a bad way, but more "whoa" — that you get when you realize something significant has just happened. Someone had just put money in my pocket for my fiction.

I spent a good portion of our trip over the next week checking for updates to the Smashwords dashboard, and sales continued to trickle in. I think I'd hit a dozen by the time I got home, and the feeling never got old. Honestly, it still doesn't. Maybe that's because I've never broken through.
I can still measure good sales months on two hands. Correction, if it takes two hands that's a pretty great month. But seeing that someone has bought a book still can be a little overwhelming. It is definitely a spirit boost. A morning sale can set a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

The indie landscape is different now than it was then. Amanda Hocking hadn't happened, but she was close. There was no Hugh Howey and the Wool phenomenon. John Locke was about to explode onto the scene then explode almost as spectacularly off of it. People were still trying to figure out how to make this whole thing work. At least that was the perspective from my spot in Texas.

I was also different. I was still working in newspapers without any idea that a few months later that would change. I hadn't yet become at all familiar with the ideas of marketing, or retailing for that matter. Nothing about email campaigns or mailing lists. Nothing about product funnels. Nothing about loss leaders. Well, not enough about those things to use them properly.  I was just a guy who'd wanted to be a writer since elementary school who was now seeing a way, if things broke right, to actually make some real money doing that. At the time, that was enough to keep me going.

That's not necessarily the case anymore. Not that I plan on quitting this whole indie thing, but I am ready to see more consistent results. I'm writing on a couple of series right now that I hope can provide those. I have some marketing ideas that I want to try out. I have some best practices that others have learned over the last five years that I want to try for myself.

I still love New Eden, and I'll finish the series. But some strategies and ideas for marketing and sales can only be tried with series that don't have a five year history.

But this isn't about frustrations, this is about being excited for the anniversary of the first book's release and also documenting some lessons that I've learned since then. The indie community is nothing if not helpful. We all turn around and try to help the next person up. So, with that in mind, here are five things I've learned since releasing my first book that might be of use to someone just starting out.

Write the next book.

I have no real frame of reference, but I feel like the release of Chasing Filthy Lucre went well. I was able to sell a few dozen each of the first few months. I was earning a few reviews, all good. I had momentum. I had readers. I needed to get another book to them, and I choked. I started writing what would become Finding Faded Light and got a good way into the book when I realized that I wasn't telling the right story, so I went back to the drawing board. I love how Finding Faded Light tuned out, so I don't regret that part of the process. But not having a second book ready to go soon after meant I started from zero each time I released something new. All of my momentum was gone.

Recognize that this is a business and you will have to wear multiple hats.

One of the things that I didn't expect when I started down this self publishing path was how much attention I was going to have to pay to so many things. I think I was like a lot of others who start this. I just wanted to write books and not think about the publishing side, but this doesn't work like that. Or, it doesn't work well like that. You can always just publish books and hope they get discovered organically. They won't, but you can try it. You need to be spending at least part of your time doing the marketing work that's required to get your book noticed, because it won't happen without some work on your part. And, yes, that means getting comfortable with talking about yourself and selling others on you and your book. It does get easier, but if it's not something you're naturally predisposed to, it never gets easy.

Have a plan and stick to it.

This is the lesson that has been the hardest for me to learn, and I don't really know why. It seems like common sense, right? Plan your stories. Know how they fit together, if you're writing in a series (And you really should be writing in a series.) Know the release schedule. Stick to it. Know the plan; work the plan.

I had a loose plan when I started and then deviated from it pretty quickly. Chasing Filthy Lucre was first. There were four books that would follow it, all of them being released over about a year and a half. Then I wrote something for a writers group that I was part of. It was fun. It had potential. So I followed my muse and published Reunion and followed that up with Scouts. I love both of those stories, and am going to do something with that series. But I shouldn't have deviated. I should have focused on New Eden stories. Series readers want to see momentum and regularity. I didn't show them either.

Social media isn't as important as you think.

I covered this in a previous post when I talked about three things writers get wrong on Twitter. While the examples were specific to Twitter, the concepts apply to any social platform. Social media is great for networking. It's great for making friends. It's great for finding other creative people. Beyond that, it's not going to bring you many sales, not directly. Not like many assume it will. So don't spend all of your time on social media shilling for your book.  Instead, be friendly. Build relationships. Be social.

This is more fun than I thought it would be.

About halfway into this post, I realized it might come off as a bit negative. That's why this point is at the end. I had a bunch of false starts. I've wasted momentum. I took too long to try advertising or to start building a mailing list. But this has still been a lot of fun. I have always loved story. I've always dreamed of writing. I wrote stories as a kid, as a teen, as an adult. It's just part of who I am. And while writing stories for yourself is satisfying in its own way, there is something to seeing your work published and seeing strangers reactions to it that takes it to another level.

Then there's the business side to this that's also interesting. Frustrating for sure, but also interesting. It's a hat that I spent most of my journalism career not wearing. I didn't think about things like marketing and product funnels and keeping customers satisfied. I've learned a lot more about that after I left journalism, and I'm starting to see how I can apply it to what I do as a writer. If you look at the covers for my four books over two series you'll see that they look similar. Not the same, but similar enough that you can tell they are from me. It's branding, and I'm trying it. I'm also becoming much more strategic about pricing, thinking about how I can encourage readers to buy more books with discounts.

I know a lot of this is very inside baseball, and not necessarily interesting to those who aren't also self publishing. But, I said all that to say that this is a lot of fun and I don't regret any part of this journey. It's been a great first five years. If you're a reader, thanks for your support. If you're just a friend, thanks to you too. Doing this wouldn't be possible without either of you.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Indie authors: We need to take time to write better books

Indie authors: We need to take time to write better books
I've hesitated to write this post even though it's been rolling around in my head for a while now. The hesitation is for a couple of reasons.

First, it's critical. I don't like being critical. It's not my nature to be purely critical. I'm an editor at the day job and have no problem delivering criticism, but I try to be constructive. I want whoever is on the receiving end of it to feel like it's beneficial. I hope that this post will be seen as that, but that's really all in the reader's interpretation. So, that makes me hesitant.

Second, I am going to put a spotlight square on myself and my writing by the end of this. People are going to read what I have to say and then wonder "What makes him think his stuff is so great?" Well, as a preface, I don't think my stuff is so great. A lot of what I'm about to write is directed at me too.

So, with that, let's dive in. Ready?

Indie authors, we are too hung up on the checklist and too many of our books just aren't very good.

So, some clarifying statements then I'll dig into this a little bit deeper.

What's the checklist? It's the list of things that everyone who's serious about this seems to agree you need to have a in order for your indie career to be successful: professional genre-specific covers, great blurbs, books that hit enough genre tropes, a release schedule that keeps new books in front of readers at least every few months. I'm sure I left a few thing off of that, and debating what should be on the checklist could last for days.

Nothing is inherently wrong with that list. Each of those things has proven important, critical really, to success. What I've noticed, though, is that we seem to be putting more attention on those things and not as much on writing really good books. Where do I get this idea from? From reading a lot of indie stuff.

I've been spending a bit of time doing some market research. Trying to figure out what is it that makes a bestseller in my genres. What are the readers responding to? I've also been reading in a few other genres that I've had ideas in. Again, trying to become familiar with the tropes and the things that readers are looking for. Not something that's necessary to do, I don't suppose, but seems like a smart thing to do.

Here's the big thing that I've taken away from reading those books. The covers are great. The blurbs are good. They are priced in a way that is enticing to the reader. The actual writing, though, is just not very good. Indie authors, we need to work harder on the craft. Too many times I've seen characters who are paper thin. The dialogue they use is either unnatural or so melodramatic that it's unbelievable. Too often they have just the right skill needed to get them out of whatever situation they find themselves in. (He's trapped in an airplane hangar with his hands handcuffed behind his back and a running helicopter just outside? Good thing he flew sorties over in Iraq and also spent that summer touring as an escape artist. Granted, you hadn't mentioned any of that up to this point in the story.) The plots are either so far-fetched that they are unbelievable or so derivative that they are interchangeable with a dozen other books. Unique settings are non-existent or the writer has spent almost no time grounding the reader in the place where the action happens so the big action scene doesn't have the emotional impact that it needs to.

I could go on to list a dozen other things that are wrong with many of the indie books that I've read lately, but I think my point is made.

How do we make them better?

The solution, as I see it, actually has two parts. The first is on the authors. There are a few things that we need to be doing. We need to be spending more time thinking about our stories. I am a big reader of Kboards and the message board there where many indie authors congregate. A lot of invaluable information is shared there. But something else that I've been seeing there a lot more lately are threads on how fast someone is trying to write a novel. They are writing quickly so they can edit quickly and release quickly and move onto the next book quickly.

Speed and quality are not related. There's nothing at all wrong with writing quickly or releasing quickly.  Not if you've taken the time before actually writing to make sure you know your story inside and out and that your story is unique. During that planning time is when we need to be asking ourselves critical questions that aren't going to leave us with books that read like a dozen others also in the genre. It's that planning time that will let us build characters who feel real, who have unique voices both in what they say and how they say it. It will let us create worlds that are fully formed and allow setting to be a player in the stories just as much as our characters are.

I'd also argue that this planning time should take longer than you expect. Sometimes stories come to you fully formed. I've had it happen before. But more often than not they don't. You get them in bits and pieces. Take the time needed to knit those pieces into a great story. Recognize that some of those pieces may need to be changed to make them work together. And just like you should let a story sit before coming back to it, same thing holds true for an idea. Let it sit before you dive in and start writing.

I really feel like that's the biggest problem. It's not a lack of creativity on the part of most indie authors. I think most of us have that in spades. We just don't give that creativity enough time to come out.

The second part of this solution falls to anyone who is seeing these stories before they are published. That could be beta readers. That could be professional editors. It doesn't matter who. Both groups need to push authors harder for originality. Push harder for believable dialogue. Push for better everything. Whether or not you're being paid, if you're in a position to deliver critique, be critical. Flag those areas that feel derivative. Flag those areas that feel underdeveloped. Flag those areas that feel unbelievable.  A good writer will want that from you. Yes, it stings sometimes, but you have to be OK being the person who make the writer cringe a bit.

Like I said up top, a lot of this was written for my own benefit. I have plans for a new series that I'm working on. I've been thinking a lot about the checklist. I've already built some covers and the first book isn't even finished, for goodness sakes. Obviously, my cart is miles ahead of my horse. I need to do better about focusing on the most important part of an indie author career, the authoring. I decided to share this overly long post, though, because I didn't think I was the only one who needed to hear it. Hopefully, I delivered it in a way that wasn't offensive. And, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Twitter for authors: 3 things to remember

I told myself that one of the things I wouldn't do on this blog is become a purveyor of writing advice. I'm
more than happy to do a critique or offer thoughts on something, but I never saw myself as near enough of an expert to confidently tell people how they should or shouldn't write. Besides, I didn't create this blog to talk to other writers. That wasn't my goal.

Today, I'm breaking that rule. Sort of. Something that I keep seeing over and over the last few years is authors having no idea how to use Twitter. They will talk in Facebook groups or online forums about how they post links to their books but see no sales from it. That's because they are expecting something from Twitter that it will never deliver. Twitter is not a sales tool. No social media is. At the best, social media will create interest. So, if you are using social media to drive sales you're doing it wrong.

Delilah Dawson had a great post on social media and marketing recently. The takeaway was that expecting any of the channels to bring in reliable sales is foolish, because social media is about pushing content out to readers. What we should be concerned with as writers is pulling in readers and creating fans.

She's right, but I don't think that means writers can ignore social completely. There's still value there once you get past the idea that you will be able to connect sales to posts. So, here are some things to keep in mind from someone who can loosely say that I get paid to do this stuff. (The day job that pays the bills is in marketing. While I'm not on our agency's social media team, I sit very close to them. And I do know the principles.) With that, here you go.

Twitter is always moving.
Your feed on Twitter -- and, therefore, the feed of the people who follow you -- is like a river. It's constantly moving. For the people who follow you to see your tweet they have to be standing on the banks at the time it passes by. There will never be a time when all of them are there at the moment you send a message. That means even if you have 1500 followers on Twitter, 1500 people aren't seeing your tweets. I've seen some data from Twitter on my own account. I have roughly 1500 followers and the number of impressions from each Tweet was surprisingly low. Most of them never hit triple digits.

Don't take this to mean that you need to be sending out the same "buy my book" tweet more often. You don't, because that's not what twitter is about. Which leads us to ...

Be social.
This is the thing that might drive me the craziest when I see people write off Twitter wholesale. Granted, it may not be for you. That's fine. Not every social media platform is for everyone. But don't write off Twitter without actually using it to be social. Tweet at people. Respond to what they are saying. Offer your thoughts on topics of the day. Offer your thoughts on that book you just read. Offer your thoughts on anything. And when someone inevitably responds to those thoughts, engage with them.

Be judicious about who you follow. It can be tempting to follow back everyone who follows you. Most people are hoping you will, because they are collectors. They aren't interested in what you are saying. They aren't interested in asking about your book. They want followers who they can shout to. If they seem to be shouting something you're interested in then follow them. But you aren't obligated to follow everyone who follows you. I had this mentality when I first joined Twitter. Then I realized that the only people following me were other authors, and we were all shouting "HERE'S MY BOOK! HERE'S MY BOOK!" at each other.  That's when I started culling the people I followed. Not coincidentally, that's when I started to get more out of Twitter.

That's it for now. Three quick thoughts. And since we are talking Twitter, you can find me here @jarrettrush.

Friday, November 13, 2015

An update on the next release

If you follow me on Twitter you would might have seen a Tweet from me float through your stream in the early morning on Sunday.

"And that is a first draft, everyone. The third New Eden story is finished."

So that's the big update. I'm excited by this story. I like it a lot.  I think it has some of the best writing I've done. I finished the first editing pass tonight and there are some scenes and phrases that I really like. I'm excited to get this one out there. I need to make some corrections then send this off to some beta readers to get their feedback. But we are close to having third New Eden story in readers' hands.

This one is a little unique. If you've read Chasing Filthy Lucre and Finding Faded Light then you know that the two stories take place two years apart. This new story takes place in between those stories. So, if you were to number it then this story is New Eden//Rexall Cycle 1.2. Why 1.2? Because there are going to be three more after this one that fill in the gaps of what happened in the New Eden between CFL and FFL.

If you haven't read CFL or FFL yet, you might want to get your hands on them now because, for the moment, they are both 99 cents. That's going to change once the new story is released. CFL will be 99 cents still and probably won't change much. Need to make it as easy for people to enter into the series. A low-priced first book is one way to do that. The new story is on the shorter side, about 15,000 words. That's a novellette. It'll likely be 99 cents too. Maybe a bit more, but not more than $2. FFL, though, will go to $2.99. Pricing like that lets me create a tiered structure for pricing. All of that's probably way too inside baseball. The key takeaway from that paragraph is get the first two books now befoer the price goes up.

Think that's it. The story does have a title. It even has a cover. Well, tentatively it has a cover. Those will be revealed later. I have to save something for the push toward the release date.

Wait. Last thing. So, I mentioned beta readers. I have a few lined up, but I'd love more. If you have time in your schedule to read and provide feedback on a 15k word story, let me know in the comments. I'll send a copy your way.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

"We tell stories because they are interesting. 
We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: 
it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story 
is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. 
Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, 
endures the standard problems of the day, goes home, 
eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly 
until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting
Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending 
on if he does something unexpected with it.
 Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING."


Monday, August 17, 2015

What's coming after the current WIP? This. Or these.

I'm just going to leave these here for now. Much more to explain later, but these should be coming soon. Soon, being a relative term, mind you. There are four in the series so far. I've them all loosely outlined, and I'm really excited about getting started on writing them. They all take place in a shared universe. The stories will be related, but able to be read individually.

I've got to get back to writing the third New Eden book. Once I'm done with that, these are next.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

HBO's Sesame Street: "Give Him to the 'Gus"

Word came down today that the next five seasons of Sesame Street will be more than 30 episodes each and make their debut on HBO. They'll eventually make their way to PBS, the shows home for coming up on 50 years.

I'm not the first to make this observation, but this obviously opens the door for life on the Street to make a much darker turn. Here's 500 words dashed off at lunch time imagining what that might look like.

Give Him to the 'Gus

Gordon. He's strung out again. Vowed last time he'd stay clean. Tears-in-his-eyes promises to all the kids. But the Bird and the Grouch knew better. They knew he'd be back, and here he was.

"You don't look good," Oscar tells him. "You're thin."

"I'm fine." He stands up straighter. Pulls at the hem of his shirt, trying to tug it smooth. Runs a hand through his hair. "Is he in?"

Oscar looks around the corner and back into the alley. Bird is sitting in his nest. He gives Oscar a slight nod. "He is. But he's going to say the same thing."

"I'm fine," Gordon says again and walks into the alley. His hesitating shuffle steps betray the confident wide smile. He waves a dirty hand at Big Bird.

Bird puts on a smile and says, "You lose weight?"

"Just been watching what I eat," Gordon says.

"Haven't seen you in a while."

"I've been keeping busy." His eyes — heavy lids on top of dark circles — give away what's been occupying his time.

"Look at me," Bird says and waits for Gordon to meet his gaze. It happens slowly, but it happens. "Who have you been seeing because you clearly haven't kept clean. You look as strung out as ever, but this is the first time you've come to see me since you've been back on the Street."

Gordon looks away.

"Up here," Bird snaps. Gordon slowly lifts his eyes.

There's commotion out on the street. Oscar shouts something then drops into his can. The lid rattles as it settles into place.

Big Bird waits for whoever is coming to pass. "Hey, kids," he says and waves a wing at them. They smile and wave back.

"Who have you been going to?" Bird asks asks again when the kids have gone.

"No, one," Gordon says. "I swear."

Bird reaches out and slaps Gordon, his cheek left red. "Don't lie to me. You're bad at it."

Gordon hesitates then admits "I met a guy while I was away. He said he knew a guy a couple blocks over if I wanted to score somewhere away from the Street."

Bird nodded. "At last you were honest. Eventually." A pause. "His stuff any good?"

Gordon shakes his head. "Not like yours."

"Nobody has stuff like mine."

"No, Big Bird. They don't." Gordon pushes his hands into his pockets and rocks on his heels.

Big Bird nods. "How long've we known each other? Years? Decades?"

Gordon nods.

"Then you know me. You know I value friendship. You know I consider you a friend."

Gordon nods.

"But you know what I value more than friendship?" Gordon shakes his head.

"Loyalty." Big Bird pauses. "Now, as friends I can overlook your dalliance with someone else. But, as a business man, there's a penance that I'm going to have to ask you to pay to make good. Now, a guy like me I can't get my hands dirty with that kind of work." Then he flaps his wings and says, "Besides, I don't have hands!"

Bird enjoys his own joke. Gordon forces a smile and laugh. Both stop when they hear the shuffling coming from the shadows behind the nest. Gordon squints into the dark. His mouth drops open when he finally sees him, a thousand pounds of brown fur and a trunk.

"He's real," Gordon whispers to no one.

"Good," Bird says, "you've heard of my friend Gus."

Friday, August 7, 2015

Two short videos for your Friday

Hello, folks. Happy Friday. Two videos for you today. Both are short, but both are great. The first, a feisty Buzz Aldrin. Somehow this video has been views almost 1.5 million times but I'd never seen it.

This second is robot bloopers, and who doesn't like robot bloopers?

That's it from here. Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Question: Has an author ever lost you because of unexpected choices?

I'm reading a series of stories by a well-known author. It's good. The installments are cheap. At less than a dollar a piece, they are worth the half hour or hour of time it takes me to read them. So far I'm happy. There were a few moments, though, when I wasn't. I was angry because the story took a turn in the second installment that I didn't expect and wasn't, at all, happy with.

I won't go into a lot of detail on the stories or the author. This person is fairly popular, and it doesn't really matter who it is anyway. I stuck with the story and the turn wound up not being what I thought it was, and I was a happy reader at the end of this installment. But I was ready to give up this series of stories, keep my 99 cents in my pocket, and quietly move on.

All of  this did make me wonder this, though,: Has an author ever lost you as a reader because of unexpected choices? If so, what was it about that choice that put the brakes on your reading experience?

Please, share with the class.