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.