I don’t know about you guys, but I was glad to see the backside of 2017. In some ways, it was one of the most difficult years of my life. There was a lot of personal loss, and I finished out the year sick with a respiratory bug that has knocked me flat.
It made me snort out loud. Yeah, that’s how I feel, 2017. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Yesterday was the first day I woke up without a fever and feeling remotely human in almost a week. Thank goodness I was off for the holidays! I began reflecting, as one does, over the past year. What I’d learned. What I would have done differently. How I intended to move forward into 2018.
I wasn’t yet coherent enough to put together a blog post. I just hammered out some thoughts on Twitter. Later, I thought it would be nice to turn them into a blog post, but I believe storify isn’t an option for Twitter threads any longer, so I decided to screencap them here instead.
I hope you find it useful. Here’s to a better 2018 for us all.
I’ve worked with publishers and I’ve published on my own. One of the biggest differences between the two is how much work the publisher does on your behalf: cover art, editing, sending your book out to review sites and so on. There’s also the advantage of the built-in audience your publisher already has, the value of a larger group newsletter, as well as networking opportunities with other authors in the same publishing house. Sure, when you go indie, you retain more control over every little detail of your work. You get to set your production schedule, get to choose your cover artist, have the last word on editing, and receive a bigger share of the royalties. But there’s a reason publishers take the lion’s share of sales earned.
You have to wear a lot of hats to be an indie author.
There are some people who love this. They relish having all the control. But there are others who are overwhelmed with spinning all the plates at once: finding a good cover artist and editor. Scouring the review sites to find ones that will accept your story. Lining up beta readers and ARC readers. Designing eye-catching graphics and running Facebook groups. Scheduling posts across the board to all your social media sites. Holding giveaways and writing guest blog posts. All the while working on the next release because we all know the next story is your best advertisement.
Where does anyone find the time to do all of this? Especially if you haven’t a freaking clue how to set up a newsletter or your attempts at website design or graphics look as though a second grader created them?
The good news is you don’t have to wear all the hats. (Do you like my image above? It was from a Peggy Carter cosplay photo session I did last month 🙂 ) You are allowed to delegate.
The bad news is you might have to pay for that delegation.
Here’s my take on where you can and cannot skimp.
Pay for an outstanding cover. No, seriously, you can’t let your BFF with Photoshop make your book cover unless he or she is a graphic artist and is looking to expand their portfolio. For one thing, you can get in a lot of trouble if your cover artist isn’t using royalty-free images (or images they purchased) that have been licensed for cover art. But even more importantly, if your cover art looks like it’s been done by an amateur, if it doesn’t match genre expectations, then readers will give your story a hard pass. People DO judge a book by its cover. And a crappy cover will sink even the most amazing story. You have a nano-second to catch a reader’s eye and make them take a second look with your story. Don’t blow it with a crappy cover.
Pay for quality editing. Yes, good editing is expensive. There’s a reason for that. An editor doesn’t just correct your grammar and punctuation, though that is important. A good editor tells you when you use repetitive phrases or actions. When your story has continuity errors or plot holes you could drive a truck through. When you are writing outside genre expectations. A good editor meets deadlines and does more than give your story a cursory read. It may take time to find an editor that’s a good match for you, but when you find him or her, cling to them for all they are worth because they are worth their weight in gold. Readers will notice crappy editing and comment on it in their reviews.
Formatting: if you can’t figure it out, pay someone to do it. There are lots of people out there who offer formatting for all the major outlets for reasonable fees. Nothing pisses a reader off more than weird formatting on their e-readers. Yes, there’s software out there like Calibre that will put your book in the different formats, but if you want elegant formatting–pretty chapter headers or reliable reading across the different file formats–pay someone. If you have to cut costs (and believe me, I’ve been there) teach yourself how to do it.
Graphics: Social Media Posts and Teasers. This is a tough one for me because there are some great options out there for creating your own, like Canva. However, I simply don’t have the time right now to learn how to make sophisticated graphics. I can make a serviceable image, but an elegant one? Not so much. If I have to chose between spending 3 hours messing around with Canva to produce an image that looks cheesy or write 3 K on the WIP, I’m going to choose the WIP every time. Eventually, my skills will improve. But in the meantime, I’ll pay someone to give me this:It doesn’t have to be expensive. Talk to your friends. You probably have friends who would love to make something like this for you without charging you an arm and a leg. Or again, find that graphic artist looking to expand their portfolio.
Marketing: You have to do it. You can’t simply launch your book like Noah releasing a dove from the deck of the Ark, hoping it will eventually return with evidence of dry land. I wasn’t able to nail down exact numbers but read that in 2014, Amazon reported at least 5 K new releases each day. You might think that’s insane, but what’s really crazy is expecting your book to get singled out among the pack for notice if you make no effort to call it to anyone’s attention. I highly recommend Bad Red Head Media’s 30 Day Book Marketing Challenge. Get it. Read it. Do it. If you want to pay someone to promote your book you can, but this is one area if you’re willing to do the legwork yourself, it will pay off.
Create a Book Bub account for yourself. If someone follows you, boom. They get notified every time you have a new release. Post that link on your website so people can find and follow it. Easy. Free.
If you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, consider hiring someone to teach you the ropes at first. Yeah, you hear me say ‘hire someone’ a lot, and believe me, I know what it’s like not to have the funds to do that. But you only have a couple of options: Teach yourself or pay someone to do it for you or pay someone to teachyou to do it yourself. I’m a big believer in hiring the right help to teach you how to do it for yourself.
Don’t have the discretionary funds to pay for the right help? I get that. Then join groups/lists/sites where you can learn what you need to know for free. Consider offering your services to another newbie needing to learn the ropes. I like the ‘watch one, do one, teach one’ philosophy because I think (aside from being a cool thing to do) sharing what you’ve learned helps you retain those lessons. Face it, if you only ever set up a newsletter once every few years, you’re going to forget how to do it.
Decide what’s really important to you and what works best. Don’t waste your time on things that frustrate or annoy you. If participating in every Facebook group or wasting hours on Tumblr is not your thing, don’t do it. You only have so much time and most of it should be spent working on the next story. Because even though it isn’t sexy or cool to say it, THE NEXT STORY IS YOUR BEST ADVERTISEMENT. Sure, there are lots of people out there willing to teach you how to make your next book a bestseller but if you aren’t writing and releasing on a regular basis, it’s all for naught. Readers are like stray cats: feed them and they will come. Stop feeding them, and they will drift off in search of food elsewhere.
Check out the time-saving options for scheduling posts across various sites. Crosspost whenever you can. This post will automatically appear on my Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr pages. When I use Hootsuite to schedule a post, I can set it to post to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously. Simplify your life whenever you can. But pick a schedule and post regularly. Your audience, like stray cats, will expect you at certain times once you establish your schedule. Don’t disappoint them.
One other thing I would add: be authentic. I confess, I struggle sometimes to balance the author side of me with the part that is enraged about world events or just wants to post pictures of my pets. Don’t work so hard at presenting your brand that you show your readers someone who doesn’t actually exist. Yeah, there’s a risk in revealing your real self. You might lose readers. But truthfully, your real self is revealed in every word you write. So what do you really have to lose?
Bottom line: if you have the time, energy, and skills to teach yourself what you need to know to be a successful indie author, go for it. But in those areas where you have doubts, where your skills are subpar, hire the right help until you can master those skills. There are some things I believe should always be left to the experts–cover art and editing being the biggies–but be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’ve been skimping on services because you can’t afford them, consider saving up to give your story the best launch possible before releasing it into the world. After all, you want that dove to bring back an olive branch.
A friend of mine recently got a stinging review–the kind of gif-laden nasty review that is a deliberate slam to the author with little purpose except to wound. I went looking for a post I’d read several years ago about the best way to handle ugly reviews to share with her, but I couldn’t find it. Rather than spend several hours searching the internet for similar posts (and reading them all to make sure they were worth sharing), I decided to write my own. Because we’ve all been there. We’ve all gotten reviews that made us wince, cry, or seriously consider chucking the whole writing gig altogether.
Many of us strengthened our writing skills in fandom, writing reams of fanfic because we loved a set of characters so much we wanted to spend more time in their universe. One of the gratifying things about fanfic is within minutes of posting it, you can see the counter change, indicating the number of people who’ve clicked on the link. Within 24 hours, kudos and comments start rolling in. And because you are writing about specific characters and pairings, you have a built-in audience which is predisposed to be kind because they also love those characters and are desperate for more stories about them.
At least, that used to be the case. I’m seeing a greater sense of entitlement creep into feedback on fanfic. Perhaps it’s because nearly every website on the planet encourages you, the consumer, to leave a review, that things are changing. Amazon, and in conjunction with Goodreads, has given an enormous amount of power to the reviewer–the ability to raise or lower a story’s visibility, and therefore, sales. Reviews on original fiction are few and far between compared to fanfic, and are definitely blunter. I see some of this bluntness–and in some circumstances, downright rudeness–seeping into fanfic feedback these days. But I digress.
Not only are there far fewer reviews (on average) for original fiction versus fanfic, but there is a much longer delay between writing and publishing an original story and when those reviews begin to trickle in. Instead of the nearly instantaneous feedback you might receive on posting to one of the big fanfic archives, your original story goes through a lengthy editing and publishing process. In some cases, it may be months before a finished story is released. If you’re like me, after you hit ‘publish’, you keep refreshing your sales page to see if anyone has left a review. I don’t think most of us can help it. We’ve groomed our child, prepped it for school, and placed it on the school bus. We can’t help but wonder how the first day of class went.
But if you only have twenty-five or so reviews, it’s going to make the one or two bad ones stand out even more. Funny how one nasty review has the power to negate fifty or more stellar ones, right? But it can and does.
So let’s break this down.
First, with fanfic, comments are the currency of fandom. People aren’t buying your story, they are ‘paying’ with feedback. It’s one of the reasons I find the ‘kudos’ system on Archive of Our Own a little disappointing. It effectively made every story 99 cents, if you know what I mean. I appreciate getting kudos, but I miss the detailed and loving feedback fellow fans used to give.
When you are publishing original fiction, your audience is paying with actual money. So if your sales are fantastic but few people are leaving reviews, I wouldn’t sweat it. People are leaving reviews–with their money.
The longer I’ve been at this, however, the more I’ve learned to take reviews with a grain of salt–especially the bad ones. Here are some of my ‘rules’.
1) Stop looking for reviews. No, seriously. I do a search on occasion (and my reason will be listed below) but for the most part, I avoid places like Goodreads. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t solicit reviews from review sites. That’s one of the ways of bringing your story to the attention of the reading public. But don’t set up Google Alerts to notify you of every mention, and stop constantly checking your sales page for stats.
2) Keep a file of your outstanding reviews. Not only will you want pull quotes for future promo, but it’s helpful to have a folder of lovely things people said about your stories to read when a particularly spiteful piece of feedback lands in your lap. Yes, I know this is contradictory advice to the point above, but often the people who write nice things about your stories send you that information directly. Use it.
3) Read the reviews of your all-time favorite authors/stories. You’ll be amazed. Books that you think are outstanding, authors so good you would sell your soul to the devil to be able to write even a fraction as well–they all get horrible reviews. If someone can slam a book that you think is phenomenal, then face it, not everyone out there is going to like great writing. Not everyone out there is going to like your writing, or if they do, not necessarily all of your stories. That’s a good thing, actually. It means there is room out there for all kinds of storytelling. One person’s cup of tea might be another person’s poison, but the tea drinkers out there will appreciate your work.
4) A mean review isn’t the end of the world. It seems to frequently be the case that one person loathes the thing 98% of readers love. Often the thing that the reviewer detests is the thing that makes me dash out and buy the book in question. Which leads me to number five…
5) Don’t rant about a nasty review in public. Don’t post links on Facebook or Twitter with a furious rundown of the reviewer. That is tantamount to asking your fans to go after the reviewer, and that’s a big NO. No. No. No. Don’t encourage your fans to attack someone on your behalf. That review is someone’s opinion, something they are entitled to. If you find out your fans are vehemently defending you, ask them to stop. By not doing so, you wind up looking like the bad guy, even if you never said a word to your fans in the first place. The ONLY exception to this is if you can post about a negative review with a sense of humor, not outrage. NEVER give specifics. Someone on my Twitter feed recently posted about a negative review she received, citing the reviewer’s objection to her ‘liberal political beliefs’ intruding into the story. She said as far as she knew, the only liberal beliefs were that everyone in town recycled. OH THE SHAME. It was both funny and made me one-click purchase the story.
6) The nasty, gif-laden review. Let’s take a moment to address that. It’s my belief this form of feedback became popular after this particular review of 50 Shades of Gray. I could be wrong, but after this review, I seemed to see a lot more in a similar vein. I’ll be the first to admit, I thought this review hysterical. I also don’t feel too badly for E.L. James, as she is probably laughing all the way to the bank. But I do regret the number of people who’ve chosen to leave feedback in this manner as a result of the popularity of this particular review. This kind of copycat review has only two purposes: either to wound the author and/or to appease an audience.
I call it the ‘Simon Cowell Review.’ Face it, some people tune into America’s Got Talent to watch Simon roast some poor delusional participant. People who deliberately choose to review in this fashion either intend to destroy an author’s self-confidence or like the attention they get from people following their reviews, or both. In all honesty, this is the type of review that’s the EASIEST for me to ignore. There’s another agenda at play here. Either the reviewer hopes to crush me, in which case he/she is a Dream Vampire stomping on my hopes and ambitions because someone stomped on theirs, or they are there to entertain their groupies. I have no time for that.
7) If, however, you’ve ignored my advice about reading your reviews and you’re faced with a lot of negative reviews that say the same thing, you have to face up to an unpleasant fact: either you didn’t get the point of your story across as clearly as you’d hoped or there is a major problem with your story as told. If many people are saying the same thing, the sad truth is they are probably right and you screwed up. Still, this is not an end-of-the-world experience. Listen. If necessary, be ruthless. Pull the story, fix it. Chalk it up to experience and vow you won’t release a book before its time ever again. Take writing courses, find a critique group, pay for quality editing. Don’t bristle up defensively and double down on your position. Admit you made a mistake and fix it if possible. If you can’t fix it this time, make sure it doesn’t happen again.
8) Never, ever respond to negative reviews. Heck, I’m not sure you should respond to positive reviews–the opinion seems divided on that. But everyone agrees you should NEVER respond to a negative review, particularly on Goodreads. Why? Because authors who attempt to address negative reviews, even if it is only to correct a reviewer on something they stated that was wrong, are always the villains here. Always. Goodreads in particular is considered a ‘reader’s’ site. in that, outside of an author-run group, Goodreads is for readers. Readers want to be able to post their honest opinions without feeling as though the author in question is watching over their shoulder. The truth of the matter is most of us are watching. But at the very least, we should have the sense to keep our mouths shut. Especially since dog-piling and blackballing can get very ugly on Goodreads. It is simply not worth it to engage with a disgruntled reader. Not on any level.
9) Don’t let a negative review derail your writing plans. I did that once. I let a lukewarm review shatter my confidence on a planned story arc, and as a result, I sat on subsequent installments of a series until fans had given up all hope of seeing a sequel. The series lost momentum as a result, and never took off as it had the potential to do. All because one review made me doubt what I had in mind. One out of hundreds which indicated the reader couldn’t wait for more. I could kick myself now.
10) Accept the fact that reviews have the power to make your book more or less visible with the algorithms that make up sales. But you have to decide right now whether or not reviews have the power to make you stop writing. If the answer is yes, they do, then know sooner or later, you’ll receive one that’s a mortal blow to your desire to write. If the answer is no, bad reviews will not stop you from writing, then congratulations, you’re an author. Now be the best author you can be. Once you decide that nothing will stop you from writing, the negative review loses a lot of its power. That’s not to say they don’t still have the power to wound or infuriate you. But if they can’t stop you from writing, they are nothing more than annoying gnats.
No one likes getting negative reviews. There can be lessons learned in them, but don’t let them destroy you. I love this particular scene from the movie Labyrinth, when the main character, Sarah, realizes she holds the cards over the Goblin King.
I have to admit, whenever I read someone speak of their Muse’, I cringe inside. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with having an outside source of inspiration for a creative project. Most of us have been there. We imagine a specific actor playing the role of our hero, or we see a photograph that lights up our imagination. I have no problem with that. My problem lies with those who speak of their muse as a somewhat capricious being who abandons them willy-nilly, or leads them on wild goose chases, or shows up in the middle of the night like a bad house guest who parties for three days straight only to disappear for months on end.
No. Just no.
Let’s look at the Merriam Webster definition of a Muse. If capitalized, as most people do when referring to their Muse, then it comes from Greek mythology and is attributed to any one of the nine Goddesses that preside over songs and poetry. It can also mean, as we’ve already discussed, a source of inspiration, a guiding genius.
More interesting to me is the definition of muse when it is not capitalized, which is ‘a state of deep thought or dreamy abstraction.’ I think that is a better representation of the writing process, don’t you?
Because here’s my problem with ascribing your writing to a Muse: you are giving all the power of your creativity to something outside yourself. You are absolving yourself of responsibility for an inability to sit down and tell your story, but you are also robbing yourself of the right to claim achievement over your successes, too.
I’m often amazed at the great lengths people go to describing their Muses—giving them names and detailed descriptions and character traits. I would suggest to you if you’ve done that to take a hard look at your creation and ask yourself why you’ve given your Muse these attributes. I think you’ll see that a lot of what you feel about your writing process is tied up in this artificial construct.
I also think this fabricated being is holding you back.
So I say to you: kill her. Kill your Muse.
Or if you can’t be that brutal, show her the door. Tell her that she no longer has any power over you. She is not the one that decides when you are going to write, you are. You don’t need her to come hold your hand, or whisper in your ear, or show you what’s in your heart. You know this to be true. You know that all you really have to do is start writing the words, and more words will come. They may not be the best words, but you know what? That’s what editing is for. Whatever you do, stop giving her all the credit and responsibility for your writing.
Sure, it may be easier to say, “My Muse has abandoned me,” rather than admit that you’ve been playing Minesweeper or wasting time on Facebook again. It might make you feel better to think, ‘if only my Muse would come back, I could write that bestseller I know is in me.’
One of my favorite quotations is from Calvin Coolidge: Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
If you’ll notice, there’s not one word about a Muse in there. So free yourself of the tyranny of your so-called Muse and start writing again. You’re better off without her. You don’t need her.
I’ve been doing some cleaning up around the house and I recently came across some old journals. I’d gone to a sci-fi convention back in 2007 or so, and had attended all the writer’s panels they held. I scribbled down every bit of advice, every shared experience, every tale of woe shared by the authors on the panel. Believe me, it wasn’t a cheerful or encouraging discussion.
Let’s place this in perspective though: at the time of the convention in question, smartphones had yet to exist. Amazon had just launched its first Kindle (with a $400 price tag) and readers swore up and down it would never catch on. Instead, Amazon sold out of them before the day was out and they were on back-order for months afterward. Google Maps wasn’t yet a thing–and I don’t know about you but I can’t go anywhere without it today! There was also no such thing as ‘the cloud’, if you wanted to save important material, it went on an external hard drive. Heck, I used to back up all my stories to a thumb drive before there was such a thing as dropbox or Google drive!
Youtube was just becoming a thing. No one had heard of a Roomba, much less videotaped their cat riding it to upload it to Youtube. The guy that used the 3D printer to create an arm for his son? Yeah, didn’t happen yet. Virtual reality devices and space travel remained concepts for science fiction. Now my husband has a VR device and space travel is looking more and more possible.
Ten years ago, the main way for someone to get published was through the Big Six (or Big Five now, since the Penguin-Random House merger). Self-publishing back then meant ‘vanity publishing’, and was the mark of someone who couldn’t get published any other way. It’s taken a decade to diminish that stigma, and there are still people out there who refuse to read any self-published work.
One of the YA authors on the writer’s panel spoke of the difficulty in getting published, and why so many authors accepted terrible deals as a result. They wanted so badly to be published that any offer seemed like manna from heaven and was accepted without question. This author explained that she’d submitted a story and had been told by the publisher they loved it so much they wanted it spun out into a ten book series. What unpublished author wouldn’t jump at that kind of offer? But she didn’t really examine the contract details or what the press would require of her. Without fully comprehending what it would entail, she signed a contract agreeing to produce 70 K words every six weeks–and that later books in the series could be written by other people. She was responsible for creating a ‘Bible’ that could be used by other authors to follow the story arc. She told us that she had to write a minimum of 5 K words a day and never had a chance to look over what she’d written–she just submitted it and hoped the editors would catch anything wrong.
This young woman looked exhausted. And you could see in her eyes that the joy of writing had become a drudgery of pounding out words that she scarcely cared about any longer. Her take-home message was about reading contracts and standing up for what you believe in, but when asked if she would do it again, she said yes because she was published. Wow.
The guest of honor had even harsher words for the industry. He spoke of how publishing houses used to be run by people who loved books, and for every mega-seller like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and one moderate best-seller, the firm would carry eight mid-listers. In his opinion, that was all changing. When he began writing, the expectation was that once you had one hit seller, sales from that first book would help produce others in the series. Now, every book had to sell in the stratosphere, and each book you wrote had to outperform the one before. Publishers were getting greedy, and demanding greater production with no care as to the content. Authors could no longer get by on writing one book every year or so. The guest speaker, by the way, was George R. R. Martin.
Another writer agreed with him, saying that she’d known many authors unable to live up to the ‘outsell your last book’ production model who’d been dropped by their publishers and had re-invented themselves under a new pen name with a new press–which meant dividing their original audience even more and having to build from scratch again. And with the number of Big Publishing Houses getting fewer and more interconnected, finding a new publisher wasn’t as easy as it sounded.
I basically came away from the panel thinking I’d never be a published author.
And yet I am.
In 2013, I was one of the authors at a sci-fi convention on a writer’s panel, giving advice to eager wanna-bees in the audience.
Remember that list of tech I mentioned? Yeah, the one that has had the biggest impact on publishing is the Kindle–or e-reader in any form–but face it, Amazon has been the largest driving factor here. Amazon put e-readers into the hands of thousands, and then has nearly singlehandedly created the self-publishing industry by making it so darn easy to do. Advances in tech have also made it possible for people to make cover art, format stories, promote newsletters and so on–and if you can’t do these things yourself, the Internet has made it possible for you to find the skilled services you need. (Another reason why we need Net Neutrality, damn it!).
Now I’m not saying Amazon is the Great Hero here. The rise of e-readers has made it possible for me to become published because the rise of small digital presses meant someone would take a chance on a no-name like me. But that same juggernaut has slowly crushed a number of these small presses over the years because many of them can’t compete with the behemoth that is Amazon. I’m just saying that as a company, it revolutionized the way we read–making books more accessible, making self-publishing an option many didn’t have before, and also freeing the industry from standards set by a select few as to ‘what will sell.’ But I also believe that Amazon will grind us all to dust if we let it. That’s why though I use Amazon and KU, I don’t rely on them alone for sales. I distribute to other outlets when that KU wave crests. I support my local B&N (sadly, B&N’s website TANKS compared to Amazon’s–ordering an e-book from them is a huge PIA in comparison) and independent bookstores too. Once Amazon has ALL the publishing market, we’ll discover Amazon isn’t really a publishing company. They sell e-readers. Authors aren’t their priority.
But they have made it possible for me to be a published author. Something that never even seemed remotely possible in 2007.