The Hell of Writing Isn’t Writing

There’s a perfect irony about self-publishing. Work hard, pay for professional editing and cover design, and then like the dog that chased a car until it stopped, what now?

Does it really matter how good you are if no one ever reads what you write? Oh, sure, you can pay for promotions and reviews, but in the real world of publishing, that simply doesn’t count.

The rule is that if you aren’t published by a “real” publisher, you can’t get “real” reviews. Without such, you might as well be waiting for hell to freeze over.

Traditional publishing has all the power. There’s a process. First you must convince an agent to read your work. Or you can write by the formula fitting your genre and submit directly to a select few publishing houses.

If you find an agent who likes your work, you then embark on a lengthy process of editing your work to fit the agent’s criteria. Then the agent submits your work to a variety of publishers which the agent believes will be interested in what you have to offer. Or make that, what you and the agent have to offer.

Assuming the publishing house thinks your work has merit, there’s more editing. The final product is not your work any longer, but rather the product of your ideas and hard work plus the agent’s tweaks and the publisher’s tweaks which fit their idea of what you were trying to say.

That’s when you find out that your publisher expects you to market the book yourself. You’ll be at their beck and call to appear (at your own expense) at book signings and conventions. You’ll be expected to maintain a website, Facebook page, and other social media platforms where you will work tirelessly to promote your book. At your own expense.

The only good thing to come out of this insider game is the “real” reviews your book can get now that you have jumped through the industry hoops. In exchange for this generous bestowal of a gold star in the middle of your forehead, you can expect to yield up to 90% of your book’s proceeds to the publisher and agent. For a book that retails for ten dollars, you’ll get one.

Been there, done that. Believe me, it hurts to see all that hard work and creative energy fly through your fingers into someone else’s pockets.

No wonder that so many authors choose to self-publish. No wonder hundreds of review blogs and Facebook groups have sprung up to assist Indie authors in getting the word out. Problem is that the vast majority of those blogs and groups are frequented mostly by other authors.

For example, I’ve “joined” over sixty promotional Facebook groups whose stated goal is to promote books. After five years of watching this ebb and flow, I’ve realized this is all preaching to the choir. Virtually everyone else visiting those groups is also an author.

I’ve participated in Goodreads groups to learn more and participate in various “communities” of certain genre writers all of which is intended to help authors reach more readers but ultimately consists mostly of writers or, in other cases, mostly of readers who’d rather not hear from writers unless they’re giving books away.

At no small expense, I’ve given away paperback copies of novels, packaged and mailed, to recipients of Goodreads and other group giveaways as promotions. For the most part, the recipients don’t even bother to post a review as promised.

There’s reason here for me to point out that among the reviews of my works which have been posted, they’re mostly four and five star reviews. So it’s not like I’m peddling trash. And I write romance, so it’s not an obscure market.

There are 1.2 million hits on a Google search for “Indie author promotions.” Among the top sites appearing in such a search, Published to Death offers a cautionary list of how best to spend your promotional budget. Oh – don’t have a promotional budget with three or four figures? Well then, aren’t you precious.

Here’s a cheery note from another website on this topic: “Marketing is dead. You can’t go out there and promote your book to everybody you know. Sales and promotions won’t really work.”

Yep, I believe him.

Other blog posts and websites tell cautionary tales about how to spend a lot of money on marketing without getting a decent return. Or any return. The most successful method of promoting a book is to write a book about how to promote a book.

One of my personal pet peeves is advice to get to know your fans. It’s as if by making friends with your readers, you can get them to talk excitedly about you with their friends. This might work a little while, but there are multiple downsides to this, not the least of which is the coercion factor that you pretend to be friends and your only real purpose is to sell books. I mean, how many real friends can you have? What happens when you forget their birthday or don’t appropriately comment on their life event? I mean, you are writing, aren’t you? Or do you give up writing entirely just to maintain a stable of “friends”?

And when was the last time you heard from your friend, the author of your favorite book?

No doubt reviews are key to book sales. Any other kind of promotion is likely to flounder if there aren’t good reviews, and more than a handful. As noted by A Marketing Expert, along with lots of other good up-to-date suggestions:

Include a letter in the back of the book inviting your readers to review the book and link to the book page on Amazon. Make the letter friendly, thank them for taking time to read your book and ask them, good or bad, if they might also make the time for a review. You might be surprised how many of your readers will do this, simply because you asked. This back of the book letter is a must for indie authors.

So yeah, for writers struggling to work out character development and plot lines and settings, marketing is the last thing you want to do with your time. But face it—even if you snap up a hot agent and mainstream publishing loves your book, it’s up to you to do the bulk of the marketing. Best to write because you have no choice, do what you can to get the word out, and give up that dream of making it big.

You  might, but odds are against it.

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Selling Indie

Cartoon Technology 0115The biggest upside to Indie publishing is getting your work out there without trying to squeeze through the bottleneck of agents and publishers. The downside is that no one may ever read your work. Hordes of writers have become Indies, a gaggle of writhing hopefuls who fell away from the bottleneck, all wildly optimistic that this one story will be the one that lights a readership fire. They’re tired of waiting, infuriated by the industry profit margin, and disillusioned by the insider game. Most would prefer not to become rich and famous posthumously.

The primary benefit that derives from gaining a publisher—aside from the obvious ego boost—is the possibility of a few ‘mainstream’ reviews. That’s the stamp of ‘legitimacy’ that many readers want. It’s the advantage that Indies can’t get.

Unless they pay for it. One industry staple, Romance Times, dispenses reviews at a cost of $450. Per review. Kirkus Reviews, a longtime respected reviewer, charges $425—if you can wait 7-9 weeks. An expedited review costs more.

Not only are there significant ethical issues in paying for reviews, most authors don’t have that kind of money. To be competitive, ebooks are priced between 2.99 and 3.99. The profit margin is at most $2 per book. The book would have to sell 225 copies just to earn back one review fee.

By necessity, then, authors ‘buy’ reviews in other ways:

  • Book giveaways wherein months (even years) of work are handed out like candy at a Christmas parade in the hope that recipients will post a favorable review. Which many don’t.
  • Contests, a more costly and time-consuming method of giving away books in hope of gaining attention and reviews.
  • Blog tours, a service authors usually pay a promoter to handle and which, in theory, presents the book, excerpts, an author bio, and often the blogger’s review to all the fans and followers of the blogs participating in the tour. Unfortunately, blogs aren’t faithfully attended by their fans and followers so there’s no guarantee that the days a particular book is featured are days that more than a handful of potential readers see it. Worse, popular blogs quickly develop a backlog of review and tour requests. Worse yet is feedback from authors who say they’ve found no measurable increase in sales from blog tours.
  • Review tours, similar to blog tours. Either pay a promotions person to handle this or spend countless hours submitting review requests and getting back two responses (if you’re lucky). There is at least the hope of gaining legitimate reviews.
  • Goodreads is an important place to set up an author page. But don’t get your hopes up. The site is primarily for readers to discuss and review books. Various discussion groups cater to specific genres/subgenres, but most have a specific thread where authors are allowed to pitch new works, and most readers seem to ignore this thread like the plague. Seeking reviews is mostly a cry in the wilderness.
  • Authors must have a marketing platform whether they’re Indie or not. Books and articles abound with advice about how to set up such a platform. The primary objective with a platform is to develop an audience who will purchase and, secondarily, review books. Venues considered critical include Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Goodreads page, Amazon author page, website… In truth, if a writer tended to all these venues as conscientiously as advisers recommend, he/she would have no time left to write.
  • Posts to an author’s Facebook page could, in theory, generate an appreciative following willing to read and review a new release. Authors are advised to build a fan base by posting personal bits and fun stuff along with book excerpts and clever visuals alternately called ‘memes’ or ‘teasers’. Authors are advised to post often so that the Facebook algorithms keep you in a high volume category.
    • Building a social network smacks of ‘buying’ fans and reviews. When was the last time George R. R. Martin posted to your Facebook page? Or any serious author? It’s potentially counterproductive to ooh and ahh over someone’s cute baby post or rave over her recipes and then hit her up to buy your book.
    • Accounts versus pages, a little Facebook 101. A person’s Facebook account allows that person to invite friends and establish a variety of Facebook connections. The account person can join groups and connect to authorish places like Goodreads, which will happily post your most recent book reviews and other Goodreads activities to your account page. If an account person wishes to separate his/her account (with all its friends, relatives, and personal information) from his/her author information and promotions, he/she can set up a separate author page. The author page cannot invite friends, but you as the account person can invite your friends to ‘like’ your author page. Absurdly, the author page cannot connect with Goodreads or join groups. So unless the author sets up a false identity account with Facebook, he/she will be limited to what can be accomplished through an author page. Or suffer through the mingling of personal and author friends, groups, and posts on the main personal account.
    • Contrary to logic, Facebook does not share your posts with all your friends, or if you have an author ‘page,’ with all those who ‘liked’ your page. If you fall into a low volume category, as few as five people might see any given post. Even posting multiple times per day to keep your volume high will not assure that everyone on your friend or like list will see your post. Facebook does not fully distribute your posts.
    • No one watches Facebook all day. A person’s newsfeed on Facebook scrolls along either in real time (“Most Recent”) or as ‘Top Stories.” Facebook’s default sequencing for the news feed is “Top Stories,” meaning that a post that gains the most comments/traffic gains top placement on the feed. Whether a viewer sets his/her newsfeed to Most Recent or Top Stories, the more Facebook friends and likes that viewer has, the greater the number of items showing up on the newsfeed and the less chance he/she will ever see a particular post.
    • Of particular concern to romance authors, Facebook restricts its ‘boost’ options by disallowing ‘adult’ content. A ‘boost’ changes your post into an advertisement. You pay a certain amount and specify how long the ad will run. If you are advertising a spicy romance novel or using any exposed skin in your image, you run the risk of receiving a refusal to your ‘boost,’ as in: “Your ad content violates Facebook Ad Guidelines. Ads are not allowed to promote the sale or use of adult products or services, including toys, videos, publications, live shows or sexual enhancement products.” [You might, however, post a Facebook link to a blog post like this one and thereby put your name out there without violating these Puritanical policies.]
    • Facebook groups theoretically offer authors multiple marketing opportunities. Many such groups, such as All About Books, Great Reads, or Book Heaven, enjoy well over 10,000 members. Authors quickly find, however, that posting to such groups yields pretty much nothing. It seems that all 10,000 members are other authors. Some groups might have more potential in connecting potential readers with the author’s works, but these are specialty groups focusing on one particular sub-genre (e.g., Domination Romance, Band of Dystopian Authors & Fans). Often such groups do not allow book promotion posts unless the author is a regular participant in group discussions, if at all. Which again brings up the thorny issue of exactly how many hours there are in a day. Still other groups which potentially attract readers are the discount groups (99¢ Kindle Reads, Free Books or Us) where the author opens a vein in order to gain one purchase.
    • For authors of non-romance, forgetaboutit. There are no Facebook groups for promoting biographies, memoirs, history, and other categories. Such works can be advertised on some of the general Facebook groups such as All About Books, but again, posts zoom by fast, about one every three minutes. And it’s preaching to the choir.

While Amazon offers promotional opportunities to authors, like Facebook it refuses ads to authors who write sexual content. [No such restrictions exist for authors of gore, horror, and other bloody narratives. It’s sex that sets their hair on fire.]

Gaining readers and reviewers has always been the challenge for writers, whether aided by a publisher or not. With all the free or 99 cent books out there, it’s a miracle that anything sells for more. At least as frustrated as the authors, however, are the readers who want a good book and can’t find it amid the rabble. Various review scams, paid or not, mean lousy books may gain high reviews and good books never hit the radar.

At the least, authors need to advertise their credentials—so many years studying literature and English, so many years writing, so many publications under their belt, and average review ratings for those publications. For a reader seeking quality, this information along with the book content preview offered on Amazon sale pages may be the most consistent metric by which to judge Indie books.

Author Brand

corp brandAccording to many knowledgeable sources, an author’s brand is essential to success. If readers enjoy one book, they’ll come back for more. When an author produces works that don’t fit that brand, readers walk away. That’s the message about brand.

And that’s a problem. I’m not a one-genre writer. In fact, my problem is even bigger than that. I’m not a product. I don’t fit in a box with a logo. I’m a creative force channeling whispers from the universe.

Or something like that.

Under my real name, I write non-fiction: whimsical essays about life and the world around me, local history, biographies. For my real name books, I have an author page as an offshoot from my personal Facebook page. I have a website and blog. I’m on Goodreads and maintain an Amazon author page.

Under my pen name, I first wrote and will continue to write erotic romance. I have a Facebook presence as well as an author page. I have a website where I blog. I have a Goodreads page and an Amazon author page. (Aside from that, I maintain two Facebook pages for my commercial rental properties.)

I feel like the Red Queen: It takes all the running I can do to keep in the same place.  I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be writing.

In November, I published Salvation, a dystopian novel, under my pen name. According to the knowledgeable sources, this was a big mistake. My pen name readers expect erotic romance.

I’m sympathetic. However, other knowledgeable sources say one pen name is enough. I agree. There are only so many hours in the day.

emo resp copyIn reading about author branding, I was struck by one cogent comment to the effect that if the emotional payoff for a reader is the same no matter what genre an author writes, then sticking with one genre isn’t necessarily critical. There’s no clear cut answer here.

When readers of my erotic romances pick up Salvation, my dystopian novel, they won’t find the main character in a happily ever after. He’s an anti-hero at best. In Denial, Book II of this House of Rae series, the main character grows more toward his potential, no longer an anti-hero. Still, there’s no HEA. Maybe by the end of the series—at least two more books down the road—there’ll be a happy ending. For readers who start reading in hopes of romance, they’d have to last a long time to get to that payoff.

But then, the hellish other horn of my brand dilemma is that most dystopia readers don’t expect what I include in these books.

A word of explanation seems in order here. Set in the mid-21st century, the House of Rae series involve legal, upscale houses of prostitution that serve women. (Yes, there are houses that serve men as well.) The sex energy produced there, along with pleasure energy created at dance centers and meditation rooms, is channeled by psions to a grid that redistributes the energy over populated areas. The energy serves a vital purpose—it heals a mysterious illness that leads to brown death.

(An entirely other issue revolves around whether ‘dystopian’ is the appropriate description of this series. Other useful terms might include slipstream, utopian, ecotopian, and soft science fiction, but none of those are options in official book categories.)

There’s much more to the storyline than that, but there is sex, some of it explicit. So these dystopian stories of mine bust through the general wisdom about genre margins which says, more or less, that you don’t mix explicit sex with science fiction. Sci fi readers, especially the men, don’t like to read explicit sex because it slows down the action. I refuse to believe that men or women readers are this narrow.

What is my brand if romance readers pick up Salvation and don’t get their HEA? What happens if a Salvation reader picks up the uber-explicit BDSM story of Jarrod Bancroft: The Novel and walks away shuddering? What happens when I start releasing books in my Chroma series, which is way-out-there sci fi with no sex at all?

By any metric, I seem to have successfully mixed up genre elements enough to alienate any and all readers. Yet the reviews coming in are four and five stars on all my books.

I refuse to be crammed into a box where I write only one genre. I refuse to dilute my time even further by creating another pen name. My compromise is to make it clear in the blurb that this book is erotic romance. Or dystopia with sexy bits. Or what the hell ever.

I’ve decided my ‘brand’ is to be known as a writer of realistic characters, dynamic immersive plots, and innovative ideas. My scenes will be rich in descriptive detail. Readers will linger over particular phrases and thoughts. I respect my prospective readers enough to believe that what they want is to be entertained and to grow through the experience of reading. I can deliver that.

What do you think?

Product? cattle

 

 

 

Or

 

be orig

 

Artist?