I’m in the process of making up a bunch of promotional posts in advance for a fest I’m doing in July, and one of the prompts was “Sweet and Steamy or Hot and Heavy?”
Which got me to thinking about the kinds of things I like in my romances.
I live for the slow burn romance. I want to watch the characters get to know each other, overcome obstacles (personal or otherwise) to be together, work for the reward–which is usually a sex scene but not always. Sex can take place at any point in the story, but I tend to prefer the slow burn where the characters lead up to it over time. I also enjoy it when sex doesn’t prove to be the magic solution to their relationship issues–that it frequently complicates things before the characters get it sorted out. As both a reader and a writer, it’s part of the payoff for being invested in the relationship.
But I was a bit bothered by the terms here: sweet vs hot. Or sometimes it’s ‘clean vs spicy’. These are terms the romance industry uses to help readers determine how much sex is in their stories, and most of the time, that subtle warning system works for me. Kind of like how I know what to expect when I go see a Star Trek movie in terms of violence and sex (which is why I’m a HARD PASS on a Tarantino-directed R rated Star Trek Movie. No Just. Ugh. No.)
“Clean” to denote a romance where the sex takes place behind closed doors/off-stage makes me stabby. I resent the implication sex is somehow dirty if depicted on page. “Spicy” makes me stabby too. It’s feels like a euphemism because we’re not grown up enough to say the ‘naughty’ words. Mind you, I understand why authors feel compelled to use these terms–it’s because even if the audience doesn’t explicitly know what they mean with reference to the story, the meaning is implied well enough that they can guess.
“Sweet” is marginally better. It’s clear where the industry is going with this–a one-word term to instantly identify the heat level of a story to a reader–especially since heat levels mean different things to different people. Sweet doesn’t mean there can’t be any sex at all during the story (though sometimes that’s the case). It’s just when it does occur, it takes place off-screen. There are times when that’s exactly the kind of story I’m looking for, and it’s nice to know nice to know in advance what you’re getting. Likewise when I read a blurb for a Regency romance that states the heroine is a widow, it’s pretty much a given there will be sex between the main characters. As long as there isn’t a bunch of teasing with long, complicated reasons as to why the characters never have sex at all, I’m okay with the fade-to-black scenes. If the characters are demonstrably showing passion for one another but that passion never takes place–either on screen or implied–then I tend to get a little cranky. Unfortunately, “sweet” as a term to describe stories with no on screen sex makes me think of a vapid, usually blonde heroine who hasn’t a clue–or else a story so full of saccharine it makes my teeth ache to contemplate reading it.
But recently I’ve read some wonderful stories that could have technically described as sweet, but the lead-up to the closed door was so romantic, so passionate, so sensual that I didn’t miss the actual sex at all. And yet “sweet” is hardly the term I’d use to describe these stories. The scenes were as hot as any graphic sex scene I’ve ever read–right up to the point where the door was closed and we return the following morning.
Are there better terms out there? I wonder because my own feelings toward the sex scenes I’m writing is evolving. Paranormal romance is a genre that tends to demand a lot of sex scenes, in some cases, the more raw and “hot” the better. Being a slow burn kind of gal, I include much less sex than some readers expect. I lean more toward the sensual than “hot”. But I suspect those lines blur for many readers, as do writers, too. Sometimes sensual becomes hot and vice versa. If a story is described as “sensual”, will readers know what to expect?
Which is why writers tend to fall back on industry descriptors. But if you’re wondering, I go for sensual every time.
More than any other group of people, writers should get the power of words.
Words move people to stand behind a leader. To willingly go into battle, knowing death is likely. To fight to protect the weak and innocent.
Words make us laugh, bring us to tears, and the best, the most powerful words, are engraved on our hearts. We quote them when we need strength, or to show love, or evoke sympathy.
So why do we as writers so often neglect the power of words when it comes to our own work, our own self–esteem?
It’s not just writers. I’d hazard to say it’s a widespread problem–perhaps a little more so among women than men. It’s not that men don’t internally belittle themselves, but I believe many more women are raised to verbally–and publicly–abuse themselves than not. Call it what you like. An appealing ‘humility’ or whatever. The truth of the matter is many of us constantly run ourselves down and we are scarcely aware that we’re doing it.
Lately, I’ve been running into all kinds of conversations, blog posts, and Twitter threads about the power of words and why in particular, we as writers shouldn’t denigrate our work and abilities, lest the repetition of our negative words becomes the truth. I understand this concept, but like knowing I should eat vegetables and choosing pizza instead, positive affirmations are difficult for me.
I grew up in a religious household. Many religions drum into you your lack of worthiness as part of your need to be redeemed. Most religions are patriarchal in nature, which adds an additional layer of unworthiness if you happen to be female. My family was also full of over-achievers. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, pastors… if you weren’t giving back to society in some way, you weren’t worthy. Standards were often impossibly out of reach. If I brought home less than straight A’s from school, I was under-performing to the family standard. If I got straight A’s, well, anyone could get straight A’s at a public school.
So reading books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was encouraged. But even as I read it, a burning resentment smoldered inside. Thinking positively wouldn’t get you out of a bad situation. It wasn’t going to cure chronic illness, or make you smarter, prettier, more talented. I read the book and rejected the message.
Same with the body positivity movement. No, I’m not saying the movement is wrong. I think it’s high time we rejected the fashion industry’s standard of beauty (artfully enhanced by Photoshop, which means not even their own standard-bearers live up to the hype). We should all embrace the notion that women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and physical ability–and not erase the less-than-impossibly perfect because they somehow don’t measure up.
But that concept of equality that I will grant to everyone else comes harder to me. Why? Because I don’t believe it. Not as it applies to me.
I’ve been hearing negative commentary about my looks, my intelligence, and my abilities my entire life. It’s still ongoing today: from my family, my co-workers, the man on the street, society as a whole. I have a book of ‘positive affirmations’ that is practically empty because I can’t think of anything to put in it that won’t make me roll my eyes and snort.
I get up in the morning and note the dark circles under my eyes and how my hair is thinning. I curl a lip at the roll of fat around my waist. I point out how unattractive I am, and how I should do something about it when I’m not so flat-out exhausted. I frequently say things like “I’m too old for this crap”, meaning “I’m at a point in my life where I should be treated better than this” but all my brain hears is I’m too old.
So I join a body positivity group, but drop out because I can’t complete the exercises. I routinely say things to myself I’d never say to a friend–not even a stranger, for that matter. I know better. But like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I’ve perfected the art of running myself down so well, I take the wind out of anyone else’s ability to do so.
When Katie Masters (are you following Katie? If not, you should) posted on Twitter about not belittling your own work because doing so would make it true, I tried very hard to internalize her advice. I’m really struggling with that right now–on top of the never-ending loop of negativity that tells me I’m too old, too fat, unattractive, not sexy enough, not smart enough–I also bemoan the fact my writing is Not Good Enough. It’s not terrible. But it’s no where near where I’d like it to be. When I read stories by people who are hitting it out of the park, even as I clutch them to my chest because of the magic they evoke, I’m crushed because I’m not in the same league. Hell, I’m not even in the same country.
See, I’m doing it again.
And likewise, Neil Gaiman has said some wonderful things about writing, impostor syndrome, and comparing yourself to others. But when I went looking for a specific quote to share here, I fell down a rabbit hole of impossibly excellent quotes, which might just turn out to be a blog post all of its own. But suffice to say, enough people out there that I like and respect have been telling me to stop undermining my work. There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-denigration and I think too many of us choose the latter thinking it’s the former.
Ironically, what finally made me see what I was doing was harmful was the far right. Um, yes. You heard me correctly.
See, they get the power of words. Make them illegal aliens, not people seeking asylum through legitimate channels. Call them rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, animals. Make them less than human, something you don’t want in your neighborhood, and you will turn a blind eye when they are rounded up and placed in concentration camps.
It works because on some level, the people who believe these things want to believe them. It fits their internal narrative.
But one thing I’ve learned as a writer is we have the power to change our own stories.
So here are some things I’m going to stop telling myself. I hope you’ll stop saying them to yourself as well.
I’m Not Good Enough. Here’s the thing, everyone has someone they look up to as better than them. Better parents, better writer, better friend, lover, person. There are people who are prettier, smarter, and more talented. All you can do is be the best you there is. That’s all that’s required of you. And it is a heckuva lot easier to do that if you stop beating yourself up at the same time. You may not be as good as “them”, but everyone is at a different point on the same path and no one else walked it the same way you’ve done. Cut yourself some slack–and keep walking.
I’m not productive enough. What the hell does that even mean? Productive enough for what? To build a following? To make a killing on KU? Are you a writer? Do you put words down in the format of your choice? Then you’re productive enough.
I’m not successful enough. Frankly, this is garbage thinking. If you go into writing because you want to be rich and famous, honey, there are easier ways of doing that. What are your criteria for success? A bestseller ribbon? Winning awards? Being featured in Oprah’s book club? Making a gazillion dollars? Your definition of success should be dependent on the stage where you are right now. Sometimes that means simply putting words–any words–to paper. Sometimes that means self-publishing a story that got rejected. Sometimes it means putting the rejected story in a drawer and coming back to it in a year or so to see what it needs to fix it. Sure, you’re going to keep moving the bar higher. Just don’t place it at unrealistic heights that discourage you from even trying.
My writing sucks. Does it really? No, seriously, is it the worst thing you’ve ever read or are you just being hard on yourself? Have you eaten today? Taken a shower? Walked the dog? STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a break and do something else. Because you know this isn’t really true. You may not be as good as you’d like to be, but there are people out there who like your work, who (oddly enough) think you’re a good writer and they wish they could write like you do. I know, there’s no accounting for taste, but if you truly sucked, no one would like your stories. So just don’t even go there.
I’ll never _____________. It doesn’t matter what you put here. Top the bestseller list? Win a prestigious award? Make enough money writing to quit the Evil Day Job? It’s both easy and true to say, “Not with that attitude you won’t” but the question you should be asking yourself is “Does it matter if I don’t?” If you have none of those things now, how will your life materially change if you never achieve those goals? Spoiler alert: it won’t. So are you going to let that stop you from writing?
That one bad review is somehow more accurate than the fifty glowing ones I received. Ouch. Bad reviews hurt. But if the comments in a snarky review are outliers, then let it go. If you’re hearing the same things over and over again from beta readers, critique groups, editors (all of which should have assessed your work before you publish it), and readers, then that should be a heads up that you’ve done something wrong and you need to change it. But when you get that nasty gif-laden review that seems to come out of nowhere, keep this in mind: there are only two reasons why someone leaves that kind of review. Either they have a following because they are the Simon Cowell of reviewers–and therefore their fans hang on every gif with glee to see someone else be destroyed–or they want to make you feel so bad you quit writing. Are you going to let some soul-sucking vampire make you give up on your dream of telling stories? No? Then ignore this kind of review. Don’t read it. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t let it have any power over you.
My stories will never change the world. Oh cupcake, you don’t know that. Sure, on the whole, I would hazard to say most stories don’t change the world–at least, not in ways that we can see. Maybe there will never be theme-parks where kids of all ages dress up as characters from your stories and buy story-themed items, but I wouldn’t let that get you down. The vast majority of stories written won’t be read thirty, forty, fifty years or more down the line either. But your story can change the life of the one person reading it today. Maybe you gave them hope or laughter on a day they needed it most. Maybe you snuck in a little enlightenment and made them see things in a different manner than they had before. Maybe you represented ‘self’ to the reader who’d never before recognized themselves in a story. Don’t discount that. Most world changing events–for good or bad–happen in incremental steps over time.
Everyone on social media seems to be doing so much better than me. Ugh. If you’re going to sit around comparing yourself to others on SM, just turn it off for a while. Keep in mind, SM is where people either tend to post about the best, the worst, or the most mundane in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I seldom feel envy at seeing pictures of what someone had for dinner–so let’s cross those out. That leaves the I won the lottery-went to the Bahamas-became a bestseller-lost thirty pounds without trying crowd vs the my life is SO bad you’ll never be able to top it crowd. Remember, those people going through stuff both good and bad are merely at different points on the path as you. You’re seeing a snapshot into their lives that doesn’t reflect anything else that might be going on. And the person with the new cover art/new release/award-winning story might be YOU next week, month, or year. Celebrate wins with your friends. Comfort if there are losses. But if you can’t stop comparing yourself, then walk away from SM for a while–put that time into writing the next story.
My stories don’t matter. This is another version of ‘won’t change the world’ but on a smaller level. So I ask you, is it necessary for them to matter? There is nothing wrong with telling a story for the sheer entertainment value of telling a story. Don’t sell that short. It’s worth more than you think it is.
I’ll never be as good as so-and-so. This may well be true. On the other hand, I bet that author has someone they feel the same way about as well. Recently someone listed one of my couples among their top favorite pairing–along with my ALL TIME FAVORITE pairing in the same genre. No joke. I’d never been as flattered in my entire life. Never in a million years would I have put my characters on the same page–but someone else did. So maybe we aren’t the best judge of our work.
What it boils down to is this: words matter. The words we tell ourselves on a regular basis matter a lot. If we’ve spent a lifetime running ourselves down, we’re not going to change that soundtrack easily–the grooves have worn deep. But in order to change we MUST stop playing the old soundtrack. We must challenge lies whenever we hear them–be it from ourselves, our families, or people in positions of power over us. We must stop accepting negative feedback as being the only right message simply because it’s the message we believe.
I really struggle even saying things like, “that’s not so bad.” Believe me, I know how hard it is to reprogram your thinking. But I’m going to give myself a month of NOT running myself down. Of stopping the negative feedback loop whenever I hear it playing and countering the conditioning by telling myself positive things about myself that I believe every day. I think if I start with things that won’t make me snort coffee out of my nose, then I can progress to things I want to believe.
I challenge everyone reading this to do the same–and come back here in a month and let me know what changes you are seeing in your life. Let’s do this together.
This is going to be hard for me to say, but I think we should stop seeing each other.
I know that the time-honored tradition is to say it’s not you, it’s me, but I can’t. The truth is, it is you.
See, I think you’re an abuser.
You come in with great promises. I confess, they sounded fantastic. And others sang your praises. It seemed like such a loving relationship between a distributor and an author. Writers were making money, enough to quit their day jobs and concentrate on writing full-time, and in this profession that’s the Holy Grail of promises. Who wouldn’t leap at that?
Sure, the clause about exclusivity niggled a bit. Since we’re being frank here, it bugged me a lot. But my fellow authors told me that if a book wasn’t in KU, it had little hope of reaching bestseller status within a genre, and a quick glance at sales rankings seemed to support this. I worried I was giving you too much power in this relationship, but there weren’t a lot of good options out there. Besides, the risk that you’d abuse that power was all theoretical, all down the road. Some day. Not today.
But the thing I didn’t count on was the need to feed you more and more stories in order to make your magic work for me. That’s my fault, not yours. I’m incapable of cranking out a story every couple of weeks, and the idea of collaborating on a large scale with other authors under one pen name just wasn’t a good fit for me for that reason as well. So I shouldn’t have been disappointed that my stories haven’t done well in KU. There’s a lot of competition. I’ve waffled back and forth on whether I should stay in or not. I’ve put books in and taken them out. Either way, it seemed to make little difference. The reported success stories of other authors and their exclusive relationship with you would seem to suggest that it’s more me than you.
Or that could be you, gaslighting me.
Either way, I’m done waffling. I’m saying goodbye.
The scammers are collecting the lion’s share of your pot, and it’s obvious the system is frequently manipulated. I fully believe #cockygate wouldn’t have existed without the favorable environment created by your system. The author in question is a KU All Star. I think protecting that status is what drove the author to TM the word “cocky” and prevent any books with “cocky” in the title from being sold. Not because Amazon doesn’t have a generous return policy for those people who accidentally get a book by mistake, but because people reading other books with ‘cocky’ in the title aren’t reading hers.
Because it’s all about that page count.
You know, the page count that’s been affected by glitches that you refuse to fix. The one where you can’t tell us exactly how you determine page counts, but that’s the criteria for which we get paid–fractions of a penny for every page read, by the way. Slivers.You know, the system that benefits us until you release your bots in an attempt to get ahead of the scammers, and then lops off heads at will with little room for recourse.
Now, I’m hearing fellow authors saying they’ve been shut out of their accounts because you have accused them of manipulating the system when they only thing they’ve done is run a promotion through your own service. Not just one or two, but widespread. I know, I know, you’re trying to get the scammers, but you keep netting the innocent instead. (Any author who would like to appeal can reach out to email@example.com if they have additional questions. The Indie Author Support Network is also seeking documentation. A quote from them:
We are continuing to compile information and ask that anyone who has had their account suspended and/or books removed from sale on the Kindle platform, to please provide any documentation you have to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking for cases of ACTUAL suspension and content removal at this time. We understand the loss of page reads is also a major concern, but the account suspension matter has our top priority.)
Here’s the thing. It’s not worth it to me. Even without KU, 80% of my sales are through Amazon. The reason is clear–the Kindle is amazing and the website is superior. I get most of my own books (and nearly everything else) through Amazon. One of the factors in Barnes and Noble’s failure to compete is that their website is horrible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to redeem a coupon or credit and have been unable to do so. Or I follow the link to B&N to check out a special deal, only I have to log in at least three times before I can get to the page I want. I give up. Every time. I shop Amazon because it’s so easy.
So why not give Amazon the whole 100%?
Because we as authors can’t afford to have you shut down our accounts over some KU nonsense. Boom, the decree comes down and we are out of business. It’s hard enough to be an indie author without risking the ire of an impersonal god whose army of bot minions do all the dirty work. Like hiding works from buyers because they fell into an algorithm black hole. Or deciding to decrease the visibility of erotica and then mislabeling many romances as erotica. Your decisions are arbitrary enough without the exclusivity clause. I can’t afford to give you that much power over me.
We should all be thinking about what will happen to the publishing industry once Amazon owns it all. We’re already at a state where books have been devalued to the point of slivers of a penny.
Which is why I circled back to my original impression of you, KU. You’re bad for me. You’ve created a mindset where readers demand stories faster than I can produce them for ‘free’, a price I can’t afford. And while I’m not the world’s best writer–not hardly–I love stories too much to burn them as fodder for your KU fire.
When my run ends on my current promotion, we’re done, KU. We’re done.
This post could also be titled: Why Amazon Needs Competition from Other Publishing Markets.
Because it does.
Last week, I posted a question to one of my indie publishing support groups, asking for a show of hands for those who used KU or went wide with their distribution. The vast majority of people went with KU. Certain genres do quite well there, and most authors did have their books enrolled in KU. Many said they would release wide the first week before pulling their books from other platforms and going with KDP select from then on. The vast majority of authors said they just didn’t make enough money on the other platforms to justify not doing KU, and they did make money on KU. Not much, admittedly, but since it was the only game in town…
The other day, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, pleased at how many companies had pulled their support from the NRA, and seeing the calls for boycotts of companies that hadn’t done so. And then I saw that Amazon not only supported the NRA, but they advertised with Brietbart.
Because a) Amazon is big enough not to give a rat’s ass about public opinion, even when the tide is turning on the matter of sensible gun control here in the US and b) virtually every author I know would be crippled by an Amazon ban. Myself included.
Just this morning, I was chatting with my critique group about the state of publishing in general and signs that Barnes and Noble is going under. B&N, who gobbled up Borders, and now is falling victim to Amazon. The chain bookstores crushed all the smaller competition, and are now getting killed themselves. When I first moved here, we had a Waldenbooks, a Books A Million, B&N, and a fantastic used bookstore. They are all gone, with the exception of B&N. And now it looks like B&N will be folding soon.
Hopefully it will get bought out by someone else, but that seems less and less likely in today’s market. I like my local B&N store. I don’t go there as often as I used to because I buy mostly digital books now. My first e-reader was a NOOK, but it was heavy and had a pitiful battery life. But the real reason I bought a Kindle and began getting all my ebooks from Amazon was that B&N’s website sucks. OMG. It is so terrible. I get a coupon or a book link, log in, attempt to buy the book, and the site kicks me out multiple times, requesting I log in again or redirecting me off the page where I am trying to redeem my coupon. My experience was so consistently bad, I actually thought ebooks would never catch on. Hah.
The ease of being able to get a book on my cell phone’s Kindle app converted me. The superior functionality of my Kindle Paperwhite gives me so much more than the NOOK that I don’t miss the fact my book covers aren’t in color. B&N is falling victim of its inability to keep up.
Recently I heard Wal-Mart is getting into the e-book game, and along with Kobo, Apple, and Google, are pursuing the ebook market. What this means for indie authors, I don’t know, but I suspect they will not do any publishing. They are more likely to serve as a distribution center. Are they willing to take a loss on book sales the way Amazon is? Amazon is not a publisher. It sells products, including e-readers. If selling books brings people to the website, they are more likely to buy other things too. At the moment, Amazon is content to lose money on book sales. So maybe that’s what Wal-Mart is ultimately hoping for–books driving people to their site (which I didn’t even know existed until now).
Competing distribution sites is all well and good, but I think we need someone else in the field who will allow self-publishing on the scale Amazon has done. I think we as authors need to think carefully about letting Amazon be our sole distributor as well. Because relying solely on KU feels a little bit like sacrificing a virgin to keep the dragon happy for a year–and what’s going to happen when the town runs out of virgins?
Amazon will call all the shots then. And authors, who have never been a priority for them, will be eaten up along with the town.
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.