Happy Anniversary!

Three years ago this month I self-published my first four novels. The Morning Star, Festival of Death, The Moscow Affair, and Do One Thing For Me. I was excited and filled with anticipation of good things to come. Now, three years later? Well, let’s just say reality is sobering. Not that I regret the past three years. They’ve been a grand learning experience.

The Good

I’ve self-published 20 books so far. And am looking at launching a new series in the beginning of 2018 and perhaps a second series later next year. I’m doing what I always wanted to do — write books and see them in print.

Today’s digital and print-on-demand technology makes self-publishing easy. It also gives me complete control over my work. There is no corporate bottom line that must be met. The only person who affects my success or lack thereof is me.

I firmly believe in the free market. I don’t believe in any gatekeepers other than the reader. For far too long editors at the big corporate publishers made or broke the careers of writers. The annals of publishing are replete with horror stories of the damage the big corporations did to writers. Now we are free. We no longer need them. And that is a very good thing.

Writers, for the first time in history, have all the tools at their disposal to produce work that rivals or surpasses anything the publishing industry corporations can put out. And writers, for the first time in history, can make far more money than ever before by publishing on their own.

This is a great day for writers and I’m very glad to be alive to see it. For myself, I’m not making great money at self-publishing. But I am making a little bit. And my books will be available until Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble go away. Which probably won’t be for a very long time. Most likely longer than the 20 or so years the actuarial tables give me. And they will be under my or my heirs’s control.

The Bad – or What I Learned the Hard Way

Unfortunately, self-publishing is a bed of roses — complete with loads of thorny stems. That is, there are both positives and negatives to it.

If I could do it over again, I’d spend two years learning the business end of self-publishing — before publishing anything. Because self-publishing is publishing your own books. And to make money, significant money, at self-publishing — one needs to know business.

The writer needs to know his or her audience and then develop a strategy to reach that audience. If he or she doesn’t, then failure will result. That is, few or no sales.

I’m not saying the writer must write to market. Although that’s what most writers have done for the past couple of centuries if they wanted to make money. But even if you are writing a literary novel or a mixed genre novel, you still need to know who might want to read the book. Dean Koontz writes multi-genre blockbuster-type novels. Nevertheless, even though they contain a bit of romance and a bit of the thriller and a bit of sci-fi and a bit of horror, there is one genre that sticks out more than the others. In Lightning, I think it’s the science fiction. In Midnight, it’s techno-horror. As an indie author, if you write that sort of novel, knowing your primary genre will aid in your marketing.

Of course for every rule there’s someone out there who didn’t follow it and went on to make lots of money. But generally speaking, most of us need to understand business and follow good business practices.

Right now I’m playing catch-up and learning the business end of the writing business.

The Ugly – or Hazards and Pitfalls

Wherever money is to be made, the piranhas, and sharks, and bloodsuckers begin closing in. They operate on the supposed saying of P T Barnum that a sucker is born every minute.

Sometimes age is an advantage. I’m 65 and for over 50 years I’ve been reading books and magazine articles on writing and publishing. I’ve taken creative writing classes and courses. I went the traditional publishing route with my poetry. I can honestly say I’ve observed a few things in my time. And the most important is that there is nothing new under the sun.

Today, I see new and wannabe authors being taken in by the middlemen. Everything from expensive covers to expensive formatting to expensive marketing or writing courses to the latest and greatest software. The vultures are circling and trying to take your money.

Now some folk have the money to spend on all this stuff. Still, I don’t think they should. Most everything a writer needs to know or get can be gotten for free or for a very minimal fee.

There are so-called experts who want to teach you how to write a bestseller. Yet they don’t earn their living by writing fiction. If what they have to teach is so wonderful, why aren’t they writing bestsellers themselves? I’m amazed that writers who take these courses don’t ask themselves this question.

Or what about the successful fiction writer who no longer writes fiction. He, instead, makes his money selling his course on marketing fiction. Why? Because it’s easier to teach than to write. For that person writing is not his passion. Making money is.

Or what about the folks who say you have to have a professional editor go over your manuscript? Or a professional cover artist produce your cover? Hundreds of writers spend tens of thousands of dollars every month on these extravagances when they have no idea if their book will even earn them one dime.

You don’t need a professional editor. If you know how to write, know how to tell a good story, all you need is to proofread your manuscript. But you don’t know if you can write a good story? Then find someone you trust who will be honest with you and have him or her read it.

People say don’t use your family. I say use them if you have a family member who cares enough about you to tell you the book stinks if it in fact does. Kazuo Ishiguro threw away an entire book when his wife told him it stunk. I’m lucky. I have my daughter and my sister. Both can be and are brutally honest. I trust them to tell me if something isn’t working.

Don’t get sucked in by the money grubbing middleman. Edit your own book until you know you can make money. Then hire it out only because it gives you more time to write.

If you can’t design and produce your own cover, then find the least expensive pre-made you can find and use it. This is an area I fell down in. I didn’t understand cover design. Now I have a much better grasp of it. One book worth your while is Derek Murphy’s Cover Design Secrets.

The best resources are actually free. Kboards is indispensable. Loads of valuable advice in the Writers Cafe. There are many closed groups on Facebook for writers. Two good groups are The Author Helper and 20Booksto50K. But as with everything, weigh and evaluate all the advice. Not everything works for everybody.

I’m lucky. I’ve spent very little money procuring bad advice or worthless software. Part of that is due to my age. I’ve pretty much read and seen it all. Sure, the scammers give things new names. But it’s still the same old stuff. Don’t pay for it. Get it for free.

Summary

Three years ago I started self-publishing. I thought I’d done my research. In truth, I didn’t do enough. The indie world was changing just as I got on board. What I learned was old info that didn’t really help me much, because it no longer applied to the new reality. Now I’m taking a much more cautious and deliberate approach.

I am still convinced the indie way is the best way for writers. Why? Because you control your rights and you have the potential to make way more money than your corporately published counterparts.

I have no regrets going the self-publishing route. I’m learning from my mistakes on the business end. Hopefully in the next three years I’ll be making some significant (for me, that is) money from my writing. Being retired I don’t need much. Just enough to cover my expenses and maybe give me a thousand a month to supplement Social Security and my pension. If I can do that, I’ll be a happy camper. A very happy camper.

Comments are always welcome and, until next time, happy reading (and writing)!

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Anthony Trollope: The Writer’s Writer, Part 2

Last week I wrote that the Victorian writer Anthony Trollope is my writing mentor. He is the one who keeps my feet on the ground when it comes to writing and advice and writing fads.

This week I would like to continue exploring what today’s indie authors can learn from Anthony Trollope. Let’s look at a few more areas where he can teach us valuable lessons.

Gadgets

Lots of writers spend lots of money on all manner of gadgets and software to help them write. I think it is an age thing. Those who grew up with computers are more likely to be attracted to gadgets to help them write.

But gadgets do not make the writer.

Trollope wrote with a steel dip pen, ink, and paper. That’s it. No Scrivener. No Dragon. No Hemingway Editor. No classes to learn how to use Scrivener. And certainly no computer.

We don’t need gadgets to write well. We might think we do because we live in an age filled with gadgets. What we really need to write well, is to know how to tell a story. And sad to say, gadgets can’t help us with that.

There is plenty of evidence that shows writing by hand will produce a superior product. And Trollope has shown us that we can produce 10 books a year simply by using pen and paper.

We don’t need gadgets and we don’t need to spend the money to buy the gadgets or learn how to use them. Writers write.

Beats, Structure, and Formulae

Many of my fellow writers obsess over how to tell the story. They get all wrapped up in making sure they have all of the story beats that somebody told them they needed. Or they struggle to fit their story into three-act structure or five-act structure. Or they slavishly follow Lester Dent’s formula or Freitag’s Pyramid.

To my mind this is all crazy. It’s a waste of time. Most of it anyway. We all know conflict drives a story. The conflict can be external or internal. The conflict can be subtle or violent. We know we have to batter our protagonist until he or she reaches down deep to draw on that inner strength that enables him or her to triumph.

So do it. Just tell the doggone story.

Once again, Trollope shows us how to do it. In his Autobiography, Chapter 5, he wrote:

“[The Warden] has a merit of its own,—a merit by my own perception of which I was enabled to see wherein lay whatever strength I did possess. The characters of the bishop, of the archdeacon, of the archdeacon’s wife, and especially of the warden, are all well and clearly drawn. I had realised to myself a series of portraits, and had been able so to put them on the canvas that my readers should see that which I meant them to see. There is no gift which an author can have more useful to him than this.”

Characters. Well drawn and believable characters. That’s what it’s all about. They’re the secret to telling your story. Not beats or formulae. Ray Bradbury put it this way: create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story.

We can spend all the time we want making sure X happens at the one fifth mark of the book and that Y happens at the one third mark of the book. That the mirror point happens precisely at the 50% mark. Etc. etc.

None of that makes for a good story unless one has good characters. As Trollope noted in the seventh chapter of his Autobiography:

“A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos. To make that picture worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known. To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show.”

Sure there has to be a story, and Trollope admits this, but the story, the plot, is secondary to the characters. Plot exists in order to bring out the characters of the story. Characters that come across as real. Characters that make us laugh and tug at our heartstrings.

Therefore, create good characters, throw problems at them, and let them do their thing. Letting a story unfold organically will always lead to a better story then one forced into some kind of mold.

Reviews

Writers today obsess about reviews. If they get one bad review, their world seems to fall apart.

Let’s face facts. There are going to be people who don’t like what we write. There are going to be people who love what we write. And there are going to be people who think our writing is okay but no great shakes.

That’s the name of the game. And to top it off, the public is a very fickle creature. What’s hot today will be cold tomorrow.

Trollope had his share of adverse publisher and reader reactions. His first three books sold nothing. As in zero copies. At least that Trollope was aware of. In fact, he didn’t even get paid for the first two because apparently the publisher didn’t make any money. For his third book he received a £20 advance. And that was all the money he ever saw for it. Again, because the publisher didn’t make any money on it.

After those debacles, Trollope didn’t doubt that he should try to be a writer. He accepted the public’s opinion that they didn’t like those books and decided to try his hand at a play. When his friends told him to go back to novel writing he accepted that too. But he never doubted that he could be a writer. And that’s important. He had self-confidence. He just had to identify what the problem was that other people were signifying that he had.

And the problem for Trollope turned out to be subject matter. Apparently the English public wasn’t ready for Irish novels, or historical novels (at least how Trollope wrote them).

So Trollope turned to writing a contemporary novel set in a fictional English cathedral city. With The Warden, his fourth novel, Anthony Trollope finally made some money. In two years, he made a little over £20 from royalties. Or about $2700 in today’s money. Two years later, Barchester Towers was published, for which he received an advance of £100.

Trollope had finally achieved success. He hit on a subject the English reading public liked. His strength was in writing contemporary novels about the people in his own class. And he did it well. Mostly because his characters are so delightful.

The lesson for us is if we wish to make money writing, then we need to write what we know and write what resonates with the market.

Many writers eschew writing to market. They somehow think that sullies their reputation or the literary quality of what they write. But stop and think about this for a moment. Shakespeare wrote to market. Dickens wrote to market. Longfellow, about the only poet who ever made a living from poetry, wrote to market. There is nothing wrong with writing to market, unless one does a very bad job of it. And unfortunately there are writers who do.

Writing to market simply means you’re writing books or short stories that people want to read. Trollope’s Irish novels are very good, but no one in the 1840s wanted to read them. Trollope loved Ireland and could have written lots more Irish novels, but he wanted to make a living from writing and knew that if he persisted in writing Irish novels he would not be able to accomplish his goal. So he eventually turned to writing about the other thing he knew — his own class, and the reading public devoured his books.

Regardless of what he wrote, Trollope’s goal was to write the best book that he could. Shouldn’t that be our goal? And does the genre or subject matter truly matter that much?

If you like science fiction, and military science fiction is all the rage, then write the best military science fiction novel that you can. Trollope didn’t especially love English cathedral cities. But he knew the setting would enable him to write about the people he knew and from that produce good books. If we want to be successful, doesn’t Trollope’s attitude and approach make sense?

When we get bad reviews, we should look at what the people are really saying. Maybe they’re telling us something, and maybe we need to take heed of what they’re telling us. Trollope did, and went on to become a very successful author.

Anthony Trollope is a person who can show us how to triumph in adversity, set a dream for ourselves, and through perseverance and astute observation achieve that dream.

You can get Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography for free at Project Gutenberg. It’s a marvelous handbook for success.

As always comments are welcome, and until next time happy reading and writing!

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The Writer’s Magic Marketing Machine

We writers are constantly looking for the magic formula for success. We want to quit our day jobs and live off of the bucks flowing from our pens or keyboards. The success of J K Rowling, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, and others, fuels our imagination and dreams.

But what is the key to success? What is that magic formula? Is it social media? Or Facebook ads? Or maybe Amazon ads? Perhaps it’s paid reviews, such as Kirkus.

Or maybe indie success story Hugh Howey is right: there is no magic formula and success is just dumb luck. Keep writing and hopefully you’ll sell something.

I jumped into the self-publishing pond in 2014. Mostly because I’d read too many horror stories of writers getting screwed by publishers and agents. But also because being 64 I don’t have time to wait around for someone else to decide if I’m good enough or not. Let the public decide.

So in November 2014 I published 4 books and 2 more in December and waited for the money to roll in. It didn’t. It dribbled in and the dribble gradually turned into the occasional drip.

I looked for the magic formula to jumpstart sales. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered magic doesn’t exist.

However, amongst all the noise pretending to be magic, the successful indie authors continued to be of one accord. To have any hope for success, writers need to:

  • write well
  • write lots, preferably in series
  • publish often

What wasn’t said was how to put those things into a coherent plan and they didn’t mention anything about a mailing list. In the early days, I don’t think a mailing list was necessary. Today it is. The independent author/publisher is basically no different than a mail order company. And they succeed or fail on their mailing list. I spent $700 to learn that tidbit. Now I just saved you some money.

Nevertheless, how to do what the successful writers did remained a mystery.

About a month ago, I discovered author Patty Jansen’s key to success. It is the best formula I’ve found in the couple of years I’ve spent looking for the magic marketing machine. Her post — The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing — is a must read for any writer who wants to make a living from writing.

There is no magic wand, my writer friends. There is only hard work and maybe, possibly, hopefully success. What I found encouraging — supremely encouraging — in Patty’s post was she has never had a bestseller. Yet, she makes 3K-5K/month (2016) and noted that her income has doubled every year. I have lived comfortably on 60K/year.

I don’t want to rehash her post here because it’s best if you read if for yourself and contemplate on it. However, I do want to emphasize a few points. Patty wrote that in order to succeed writers need to

  • write well
  • write lots
  • write in series
  • publish often
  • build a mailing list

It goes without saying writers need to write well, and the only way to learn how to write is by writing. Not rewriting, not editing, but writing. Edgar Rice Burroughs (the guy who created Tarzan) supposedly said if you write one story you have an almost 100% chance of failure and if you write 100 stories you have an almost 100% chance of having at least one success.

An indie writer needs to write lots. We are the 21st century’s version of the pulp fiction writers of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Those writers had to write lots if they wanted to pay the rent and put food on their table. They didn’t have time for oodles of rewrites and edits. Robert Heinlein noted that one should never edit unless the editor makes you. Writers write.

Indie authors need to write in series. Doing so generates traction and keeps one’s name in front of the reader. As does publishing often.

And we need to build a mailing list. After all, what would we do if Amazon suddenly changed the rules and was no longer indie friendly? Most of us would be in a world of hurt. But not so much if we had a mailing list of devoted fans.

Patty’s post gives more detail and you, my writer friends, need to read it and embrace it.

In fact, her post completely revolutionized my thinking. Suddenly I had a workable game plan to follow. Where I had been wandering in the wilderness, I now had a GPS with destination keyed in. Hopefully, by 2020 I’ll be making some bucks from my writing.

I’m lucky. Being retired I have a lot of time in which to write and work on marketing. Being retired also means I have an income coming in that I don’t have to work to get. Which means I can get by very nicely with 20K or 30K from my writing. It would make a super supplement. I won’t turn down more by any means. After all, my dream car is a Rolls Royce.

Read Patty’s post and follow it. Save yourself some time and a pile of money. It’s a super simple solution to the question ‘What do I need to do to make a living from my writing.’

As always, comments are welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Spice In The Writer’s Life

Today, the Big 5 Publishers want writers to write one thing. If I write private detective murder mysteries, that’s all the Big 5 want me to write. Why? Because they want a known commodity in their stable. Especially if my mysteries sell.

For a very long time now, writers have gotten around that particular publisher restriction by using pen names. Or by going to a different publisher. Although as publishing houses merge, that option is vanishing.

Of course, the independent author/publisher has no such constraints and can publish whatever he or she wants. Although “conventional” wisdom argues that it’s easier to create a “brand” if one publishes only in one genre. I think branding is hogwash, but that’s a subject for another post.

The question is are there multi-genre authors? And the answer is a resounding — YES! In fact, there have pretty much always been multi-genre authors.

Who are some of these writers? Let’s name a few:

H.G. Wells, Georgette Heyer, Iain [M] Banks, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome, Isaac Asimov, Dan Simmons, Anthony Trollope, Doris Lessing, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, John Updike, Walter Tevis, Jerome Charyn, Ardath Mayhar, Lucius Annaeus Seneca

And the list goes on.

So why do writers write in more than one genre? I can only answer for myself. The reason I write in more than one genre is so that I don’t get bored.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It shakes things up, it broadens our horizons, gives us a larger perspective on life.

I have a wide range of interests. My reading reflects that range and I talked about that last week. And so does my writing. Because I basically write what I like to read.

Currently, I write private detective mysteries, post-apocalyptic fiction, dieselpunk alternative history action/adventure, and horror (both psychological and supernatural). In the future, I have plans for writing space opera, historical science fiction novels, cozy mysteries, fantasy, and non-fiction, as well as more of the above.

Of course the rub comes when we talk about marketing, because not all readers are the same. Some just devour romances, or mysteries, or mainstream novels. Others do read more than one genre. So with readers having their expectations and writers wanting to do their thing, what’s the answer?

For myself, I have to write what I’m interested in and what I like to read. I also have to take into consideration that I rapidly lose interest if I have to do the same thing over and over again. I love Tina and Harry in the Justinia Wright mystery series, but if I only wrote about them I’d soon get bored.

And then there is the idea machine. It never stops and is constantly stimulated by everything going on around me. Just the other day, while preparing lunch, I got an idea for a post-apocalyptic novel and a forbidden love novel. That happens all the time. Do I throw those ideas away? No. I save them and often sketch out the idea so I don’t forget it. Because even though at present I have four projects I’m working on, I won’t always have those four projects and I’ll want to start a new one.

Hopefully my readers will like all that I write because they like my style and relate to my worldview. Hopefully. However, I realize a good many will not. And that’s okay.

Another reason writers might write in more than one genre is to capture a larger share of readers. If I write mysteries and horror and science fiction, I have three large reader audiences, as well as those who might cross over. More readers, potentially means more money. And most writers write because they want to tell stories for a living.

Please take a look at my novels page and see the range of what I write. Hopefully, if you haven’t already, you’ll find something to pique your interest. And hopefully in the next year or two some of the other ideas that are in the cooker will be ready to serve up for readers’s enjoyment.

Lawrence Block writes mysteries and thrillers. But over the years he’s begun and ended many series. He says all he can through a character and moves on to a new one. Frustrating as it is for me the reader, it’s what Block has to do to stay fresh in his chosen genre. Which really isn’t any different than a writer who writes in two or more genres or simply switches genres.

Let me know if you read more than one genre and know of authors who write in more than one. Your comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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