How Not To Write Best Sellers

thNobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.

The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.

How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.

Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.

How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.

So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.

Does Paying For Praise Pay?

a17b2-hip-replacement-recall-briberyAs the self-publishing industry grows ever more competitive and crowded, it’s getting increasingly difficult for authors to receive the attention and validation they need in order to struggle on. This seems to be increasingly true even if you’re willing to swallow your pride a little and try to buy some love. The practice of paying for reviews has always been controversial. Some authors insist it’s a form of bribery, and declare they’ll never do it. While I admire their integrity, I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you can’t get more than a handful of reviews the “right” way. Several sites that reviewed my previous books for free have not responded to my latest requests. They’re more inundated than ever before, they say. Even giving away loads of e-book versions of Handmaidens of Rock hasn’t generated much attention.

Nor does paying for praise guarantee positive publicity as readily as it once did. It seems that with so many authors clamoring to be noticed, some paid review sites have new license to be almost as mean and dismissive as everyone else. That’s not always true, by any means. Many paid sites find a way to combine encouragement with constructive criticism, to avoid inflated or false praise, and to provide some exposure. But there are others that use their new-found power somewhat arrogantly.

I won’t call out anyone by name. But I was somewhat mortified that I paid to have my book listed on a site which presents a monthly list of reviewed titles, on which some were labeled “recommended” and the rest, including mine, were not. For my money, they might as well have tagged it “not recommended.” This was accompanied by a polite review that seemed to have been written with gritted teeth, and made a show of discussing what I “attempted” to do in the book, insinuating that I didn’t quite do it. I laughed when I received an offer to keep this listing up for another month if I paid again. Maybe I should’ve paid to have it taken down.

Then there are the paid contests that send out alerts to all their entrants the day before announcing the winners, with a big “good luck.” It almost looks like a taunt. They send you the list of winners, expecting everyone, even the losers, to celebrate the wonderfulness of indie books! All I can say is, are you kidding? I sincerely wish my fellow authors all the good fortune in the world, but I’m not a saint. I don’t have the time or energy to peruse, much less celebrate, a list of winners that doesn’t include my book.

I know the main objective is to get our stories right in our own eyes, and to get them read, whether the reviewers are sympathetic or not. So I’m posing the question: how do other authors feel about paid reviews these days? Has their degree of respectability changed over the years?

How Long Does It Take To Write It Right?

pile_of_booksI’ve been at this self-publishing game since 2003, when I published a novel I’d been working on for at least a decade. It’s been fun and rewarding, but not what I’d call lucrative. Luckily, I never expected money or fame. In fact, I didn’t think it was in the cards for anyone who chose self-publishing. Maybe it wasn’t, back then. But now there are enough success stories popping up every day to get any writer salivating.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success; quite the opposite. I just wonder how they do it. Some are hitting the jackpot by writing a lot of books, preferably in a series, and doing it fairly fast so as not to keep the fans waiting. I have yet to figure out how to write fast. To get it right takes me endless drafting and rewriting, followed by critiquing and editing, followed by more rewriting. And that doesn’t even include the final touches of line editing and formatting, which are best done by professionals who don’t come cheap.

In order to make anything close to a decent living in digital self-publishing (defined as the magic figure that might tempt an author to quit his day job), it seems necessary to publish a new book no less frequently than once every six months. A shorter interval between books would be even better, especially if it appears advisable to offer one or more for free in order to market the others.

So how do these hot-shot authors get so prolific? It can’t be just because they have more time than I do. I couldn’t pull off the same feat even if I wrote every day, all day. Could it have something to do with genre? Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy lend themselves more easily to rapid writing than the complicated plots and character development that my chicklit-style novels require. There’s undoubtedly a knack to keeping plots simple and improvising on proven formulas. That is not to cast doubt on the quality of such rapid-fire books. As long as they’re attracting readers, their authors are doing something right.

Adventures In Troll-Land

forest_trollsI’ve been noticing a lot of complaints lately in various indie publishing forums about a proliferation of one-star reviews that seem more hateful than helpful. We probably give these screeds too much credit by calling them reviews at all, since they don’t pretend to be thoughtful assessments of the books in question. The “reviewers” are more accurately called “trolls” because of their bad intentions. Their obvious goal is not to educate the public about the quality of a book, but to destroy the average star rating attached to that book so that no one will take a chance on it.

Who knows why they do it? Anonymous forums bring out the worst in some people. It’s the same sort of vitriol that fills so many online political discussions these days. Right-wing ranters in particular seem full of resentment for anyone more accomplished or educated than they are. I suspect many of the one-star trolls are the same sort. They’re dismayed to see authors managing to do something that they’re too afraid or untalented to do. Or if they’ve managed to put out a book themselves, they’re afraid of competition, so instead of playing fair, they set out to destroy others. Either way, they lack the guts, decency, and patience needed to be successful at the self-publishing game.

Amazon is no help in dealing with this menace. For its own obscure reasons, the company devotes major effort to killing as many five-star reviews as possible while letting the one-star industry thrive. So my advice to authors and readers alike is to ignore the rating system. Pay attention instead to reviews and blurbs that seem to reflect a thoughtful reading of the book. As for the trolls, pity them. Cherish your dumbest one-star reviews. I have a nice collection now, including the one who declared my book a “waist” of time, and the poor dear who skipped over large portions of it because it gave him/her a headache. Deny them the power they think they have over us.

What Are Free Books Worth?

1231021950I’ve been giving my three novels away. They are free in digital form, and as cheap as I can make them in print form. And when I say free, I mean totally and sincerely and forever, not just temporarily free as part of a promotion.

Why do I give away my work? After all, it is hard work, even if it’s fun. I do it because writing is a hobby, a passion, a diversion from real life. I never planned to make spare change from it, much less a living.

It’s not because I don’t believe in these stories, in spite of what certain one-star trolls posing as “reviewers” have suggested. My only purpose is to increase readership (and I do have a few thousand downloads). Believe me, I worked just as hard on these books as if I’d planned on charging $10.

That’s not to say a little money and recognition wouldn’t be nice. It’d be great if my hobby turned into a semi-hobby some day, but it’s not essential. I do have a day job that pays the bills, although retirement looms in the not too distant future, and there are numerous threats to Federal employment and pensions looming on the horizon.

How do other authors feel about charging or not charging for their writing? Are you okay with getting little out of your work other than the joy to be found in the process itself, and the satisfaction of perhaps having entertained a few readers along the way?

The Case for Slower Reading

Now that I’ve managed to download my three novels to Kindle, I’ve been reading the e-versions straight through, trying to judge them as if somebody else wrote them. The print versions came out in 2003 (Secretarial Wars), 2007 (The Rock Star’s Homecoming), and 2010 (Let’s Play Ball). It’s been quite a while since the final pre-publication read-throughs. While I can’t say such distance allows total objectivity, it’s a different perspective than the eye-glazing, last-minute proofreading I did when my main goal was to get rid of them and move on to something else.

Even after all that proofreading, including professional editing, they are not as error-free as they should be. A few formatting mistakes are to be expected in this new digital age. Grammatical slip-ups, while few in number, are grating. But on the whole, the digital revisits gave me the gratified feeling that for the most part, I realized the vision I had for each novel.

I wrote the kinds of books I like to read, but I suspect I’m not a typical modern reader. My idea of literary heaven is not an action-packed adventure story, but a leisurely tale with many characters. For example, Gail Godwin’s rich, complex tales about Southern families have incidents, but they serve mainly to delineate the characters. The characters are people you might meet on the street: not vampires, werewolves or zombies. One review of Let’s Play Ball accused me of losing control of the plot. I guess I’m guilty of losing this reader, but I maintain that the plot was sustained in the interactions between the characters from beginning to end. The reader lost patience. It takes time for these stories to unfold, and this is an impatient age.

The best part of self-publishing for me is that I can indulge my preference for character development over action. I advocate more careful reading for everyone, but it seems to be out of style. Slowness of plot would surely doom anyone trying to break into traditional publishing these days. But now a certain impatience has overtaken the self-publishing world as well. People are downloading hundreds of books at a time. Does that really allow enough time to absorb each story and to let it unfold?