Being Indie

In 2014 I made the decision to become an independent writer/publisher, or indie for short. Two factors weighed heavily in my decision. One was the difficulty of going the traditional route. The other being freedom.

I don’t write much on the writing life, because I don’t have much, if anything, to add to the veritable mountain of information that’s out already. Nor is my personal journey all that unique. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I am slowly correcting them. I’ve also done a few things right.

Today, I’d like to put out into the aether a few thoughts about being an author/publisher. These are my own reflections. For the writers in my audience, I hope you find something of use or encouragement. For the non-writers, hopefully you’ll find applications to your own lives.

Traditional Publishing

Sometime in the middle 1960s I got my first copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Let me be frank here, nothing much has changed in the traditional publishing world during these past 50 years. The most noticeable differences between then and now are these:

  • There are fewer publishers
  • An agent is virtually mandatory
  • The wannabe author has to secure his/her own editorial services
  • There is the internet

Everything else is the same. The same advice on how to write. The same adulation of critics, pundits, and publishers. The same narrow gate whereby only the few may enter. And once within the hallowed walls of authordom, the same lousy contracts and all the same self-marketing if you want to sell books.

My late friend and author, John J. Koblas, used to have his van filled with boxes of his books to sell at every speaking engagement and signing event. And to whoever might happen by. He made an okay living—but had to hustle to do it.

In truth, very little has changed in 50 years. For all of the perceived change, so much has stayed the same.

Freedom

I value freedom. Robert E. Howard, in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, confessed the reason he wanted to be a writer was because of the freedom it gave a person. I couldn’t agree more.

A writer is a self-employed artist. A creator and a business person all rolled into one. Unfortunately, the business piece of the partnership usually gets forgotten. The writer leaves that to the agent; or, if self published, too often to magic. When Weird Tales had trouble paying Howard for his stories, Howard followed the money and moved on to the western and fight magazines. He was a businessman as well as an artist.

Any writer can tell you, if he or she is actually writing stories and books, the act of writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s work. It might be fun work, but it’s work nonetheless.

So why do so many writers—myself included—simply toss their books onto Amazon and then conduct tweet barrages to try to sell them? Or think blogging will get them noticed? Or hope that those 10,000 downloads of their free book will automatically turn into book buying fans? Because we want to believe in magic.

After being in indie author for over a year and a half, I’m here to tell you magic doesn’t work.

The freedom of being an independent author/publisher comes with a boatload of responsibility. The responsibility of being your own business person. Of being the one who directs your career, not some money-grubbing middleman (aka publisher) directing it for you.

The Black Hole

I read somewhere 3,000 books a day are published. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’d hazard a guess it’s at least close to the truth.

Recently I went through a free course on book marketing with Nick Stephenson. Several times he mentioned writing into the black hole. In other words if you’re unknown, just writing books won’t bring you fame. They’re going into the black hole. Because no one knows you exist.

Marketing on social media is kind of doing the same thing. So is offering your book for free. There are lots of people out there who will grab anything for free and that includes books. They may never read those free books. Which means downloads of free books don’t necessarily mean readers, much less fans.

Dumping into the black hole isn’t going to do much to get you noticed. Remember, 3,000 books a day are being published.

Becoming a name, a recognizable name, is the struggle every author has had since authors first stepped onto the career playing field. And we are talking millennia here, folks. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides weren’t always famous. How many more classical Greek playwrights never became famous? We don’t know. Their names are dust. Anthony Trollope got the attention of a few critics with his fourth novel. He made some money and got a name with his fifth. It was Hugh Howey’s eighth book, Wool, that gave readers cause to sit up and take notice. Very few authors ever hit the big time coming out of the gate.

When I look at Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Goodreads, I see writers grouping together primarily with other writers. And that is not all bad. But it won’t necessarily get you out of the black hole. Why? Because we writers want readers to buy our books. There are more readers out there than writers. Somewhere along the line I think we forget that. Although, I do keep hoping Marcia Muller or S J Rozan will discover and plug my Justinia Wright mystery series and I will rake in the dough on the Oprah Effect. I do keep hoping. Magic is alive and well.

The sad fact of the matter is most of us will be swallowed up by the black hole. Why? Because name recognition is much more difficult to obtain then writing a book—and writing a book is difficult enough.

Marketing

To climb out of the black hole, we need to be business people. We need to plan our work and work our plan. We need to become proficient at marketing and self-promotion. And because many of us are introverts and shy, we see self-promotion as something akin to torture. And who wants to willingly lie on the rack or step into the Iron Maiden?

Nevertheless, we need to learn how to sell our books and ourselves—if we want to make a career of writing.

For myself, I’m 63 and retired. I don’t need to replace the dreaded day job. But I would like to supplement my income and get that Rolls Royce I’ve always wanted.

So how does one learn marketing? There are lots of ways:

  • Business courses at college
  • Observation of successful indies
  • Getting personal advice from successful indies
  • Reading marketing blogs
  • Reading books on marketing
  • Taking courses offered by indie writers who are successful or marketers who cater to indie authors
  • Trial and error
  • Paying a marketing firm (making sure you observe what they do so you don’t have to hire them ongoing)

I’ve observed successful indies, read a few of the marketing blogs, read a few books on marketing, have tried and erred, and am now taking a course.

What I’ve Learned

What have I learned over the past 20 months of being an indie author that I can pass on to you? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Write. For indie authors, less is not more. More is more. Readers of indie authors expect a lot of product. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  2. Write in series. Readers of indie works expect a series or at the very least related books in a universe or series characters. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  3. Have at least 3 books written before you start seriously thinking of marketing.
  4. Write in an identifiable genre. This makes it easy for indie readers to identify you. The genre doesn’t have to be large. It could be, for example, romantic space opera. While small, that subgenre is identifiable. Once again, all of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  5. Write well/Edit well. This should go without saying. Unfortunately it can’t. Pay someone to help you if you have to. Investing in yourself is always worth the money.
  6. Use social media to make connections with your peers. Don’t use it to sell. It’s a poor sales channel—unless you are paying for ads on the channel.
  7. Learn marketing. If you’re going to be an author/publisher, then you’re going to have to know marketing if you want to sell books. I wish someone had told me this 2 or 3 years before I started. This is critical. Marketing sells books. Wishful thinking and magic do not.
  8. Live by Heinlein’s Five Rules. If you are a writer, then you write. You don’t do anything else. Unless you’re an author/publisher and then you are going to have to also do the business end of things, like marketing, as well. But first and foremost, you write. Robert J Sawyer sums up the Five Rules very well. Do read them. Do follow them.

I hope this has been of value. Comments are welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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MAKE A DIFFERENCE WITH THE ILLUSION OF POWER

I very much enjoy reading Jenny Burke’s blog posts. They are positive and inspirational. I asked her if she would be willing to be a guest on my blog and was very pleased when she accepted.

Her post is a practical illustration that shows we are not powerless. We can make a difference. We can be people who bring about change in our world.

So without further ado, I give you Jenny Burke.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE WITH THE ILLUSION OF POWER

I saw their plans for the future and I shuddered. The High School that bordered my neighborhood was planning extensive construction and a new road that would be incredibly close to the fence, with no buffer.  This road would practically connect with a dead end neighborhood road. I knew immediately that old neighborhood trees would die from cut roots and fences might fall from erosion. Far worse, neighborhood kids could be injured or killed by traffic cutting through from the new road.

Safety issues always get a knee-jerk reaction from me, so I checked with our neighborhood association. Unfortunately, this had dwindled to nothing. As the president quit and moved away, she left all the boxes of association “stuff” at my house. Just for safe-keeping. Our school board representative was not interested in my concerns. I spoke with the head of the planning commission and he mocked me, saying that schools were exempt from normal rules. I should just be grateful that they weren’t taking our homes. I hung onto my temper (Rule #5 below) and launched my own quiet plan to change their plans. It has been said that much can be accomplished if you don’t take credit.

Rules to Make Changes

To fix a small problem that involves the city, like dangerous playground equipment or a bad intersection, these steps almost always work.

RULES TO MAKE CHANGES:

  1. Outline the problem.
  2. Mention the negative consequences of ignoring the problem.
  3. Suggest a solution, preferably cheap and easy.
  4. Mention the positive consequences and savings.
  5. Always be polite.

Rules to Appear Powerful

For the road problem I needed more than my city rules; I also needed political pressure and the appearance of a powerful organization. Happily, that is quite doable!

RULES TO APPEAR POWERFUL:

Rule #1: Create the beginnings of an organization.

Rule #2: Get friends to send letters. People are busy, so you’ll probably need to write and type these letters for them. Send a new one every week, addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. This is awesomely convincing. Nobody sends real letters!

I re-started our neighborhood association of about 450 homes, organized a delivery system, and wrote a monthly newsletter that included two Meet Your Neighbors columns. People love feeling connected. Then I began my letter-writing campaign, typing a unique letter from each neighborhood resident that they signed and mailed. I even included a stamped, addressed envelope.

Now for Rule #3: Suggest a solution. I conducted my own land survey. I measured, recorded, and drew everything on graph paper. Then I proposed an alternate placement of the road that would be cheaper, easier, and would not hurt my neighborhood or its children. The school board noted the cost savings of my plan, also noting that people were often paid for such work. I laughed quietly to myself. People are seldom paid to make needed changes.

The Result

The new road was located where I wanted it. Several school board members mentioned the importance of staying on the good side of our neighborhood, since we had such a strong organization and concerned residents. “That neighborhood is very active, very strong.” Again I laughed inside. We did gradually become a strong association. But right then it was really just me, one small person with the carefully constructed illusion of power, and they never knew. All it cost me was some time, envelopes, and stamps.

You can make a difference!

Speak up when you see a problem! Volunteer, mentor, clean up a river, serve in a soup kitchen; these contributions bring local changes that are easy to see and appreciate. When the city is involved my “RULES” can help. Make sure a long-dead tree is cut down before it falls. Fix a dangerous intersection. Stop a road. This is important and satisfying work.

We can also make a difference as the writer of a book that entertains and educates. I wrote The Dragon Dreamer because it helped me to have my own world to escape into. I wanted to share my love of the oceans and friendships with really unique “people”. I want kids to appreciate our amazing world and help protect it from greedy corporations.

About J S Burke

J.S. Burke is the author of The Dragon Dreamer series, a young adult science fantasy with flying dragons, a detailed undersea world, and unexpected friendship. Learn more at her website: http://www.jennysburke.com The Dragon Dreamer is available in paperback and e-book:

Amazon US: The Dragon Dreamer

Amazon UK

NOOK

KOBO

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Introducing Gwen Poisson

One of the joys of writing is being able to create people you’d love to meet or who espouse causes near and dear to your heart. Such a character is Gwen Poisson.  She’s a minor character in Festival of Death, the first novel in the Justinia Wright, P.I. series.

Harry Wright, the narrator in Festival of Death, says of her:

Gwen is forty.  She stands five-four, with an average frame, and wears her dark chocolate hair in a pixie cut.  She worked ten years out in Silicon Valley, another three as a professional hacker, before becoming a PI.

He could have added, she is warm, friendly, and faithful, Tina Wright feels a special kinship with her, she’s a vegan, and her favorite drink is cucumber-infused water.

Gwen does wage a quiet and continual campaign to convince Tina and Harry of the efficacy of veganism.  She states the issue quite clearly in this comment to Tina  over a pizza supper.

“We have to stop eating our fellow creatures,” Gwen said. “We are wiping out wild stocks; we are engaging in massive pollution of groundwater due to animal waste from feed lots; and excreted hormones, drugs, and antibiotics are wreaking havoc on wild animals — both on land and in the sea.”

Harry is quite sympathetic to Gwen’s position.  In the forthcoming novella, “Love Out of Death”, we learn that Harry is cooking up quite a bit of a vegetarian storm because it’s best if one doesn’t eat something that has the 3 Bs:  breath, blood, and brains.  Tina, as with most of us, isn’t convinced.

While I must confess I’m still an ovo-lacto-carno vegetarian, Gwen espouses a dietary and lifestyle choice I admire and would like to make my own.  I’ll admit meat can be pretty tasty.  But vegetables and grains, fruits and nuts are pretty doggone tasty, as well.

But there is more to the issue than taste.  There are the issues of pollution, extinction, cruelty, and negative energy.

As in the quote above from Gwen, the production of meat is the cause of mass pollution.  Waste (i.e., excrement) pollutes our land and our water.  Corporate farms and massive feedlots generate more waste than a farmer can use.  It is pumped into holding tanks and often enough, the tanks leak.  Not good for us or the environment.

Over fishing is destroying sea creatures in such alarming numbers it is quite possible our seas may be mostly barren in a few short years.  Just as hunting wiped out the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and nearly wiped out the bison, over fishing is wiping out wild stocks of the ocean’s inhabitants.  Fish farming is a possible solution, but it has it’s own issues and negative effects on wild inhabitants of the sea.

Living in a feedlot can’t be a pleasant experience.  I’d hate to try it for even an hour.  Yet we force animals against their nature to spend their lives in such caustic environments.

And this leads to my last issue, which is negative energy.  When treated harshly, the animal holds within itself negative energy.  Animals are not “dumb beasts”.  They are surprisingly intelligent creatures.  Pigs are smarter than dogs.  Cows have a language of vocal sounds and body movements.  Animals feel pain.  They can get angry.  They know who likes them and who doesn’t.  They also know fear.  Especially the fear of death, they smell at the slaughter house.  Honestly, do you or I want to eat the hormones generated from the fear and anger of mistreated animals?  Do I want that negative energy inside me?

Please don’t take this as a diatribe against farmers.  Because that is not what I intend.  Having lived amongst farmers, I know they struggle to make ends meet.  They struggle to make a living.  Often having to hold down another job in order to make the farm profitable.  So, no, I’m not criticizing farmers. If anything, I’m blaming an economic system which doesn’t give the farmer a fair shake.

I think people are ultimately to blame.  As Gwen points out in “Love out of Death”, there are simply too many people.  Too many people on the planet means we can no longer humanely raise animals for meat to feed the burgeoning population.  Our only alternative to effective feed the planet is to go vegetarian or vegan.

In addition, we in the West live in luxury.  Even our poor are better off than most of the other inhabitants on this planet.  I think the day has come where we need to start viewing meat as a luxury we can no longer afford.

Through Gwen Poisson, I have the opportunity to quietly present a position I think is beneficial to all humanity.  We all want to eat.  The amount of grain given to cows to fatten them up will feed a whole lot more people than that cow will.

Vegetarianism takes a bit to get used to simply because it is different, but it’s not impossible to do so.  Hindus don’t eat meat and Indian cuisine is quite delectable.  So it can be done.  And done in style.

One of these days, I’m going to drop that carno.  Stop eating things with the 3 Bs.

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