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.

Advertisements

Stealing Your Words

the-writer-650

Periodically, my Facebook news feed erupts with the latest update on works ‘stolen’ from authors and re-published by someone else. In the early days, I hurried to track down such lists. Mostly I found links to links and then no access unless I signed up for something.

But there is a thriving industry of thieves who make a few changes in what a self-published author wrote then release it under a new title. This was extensively discussed in an excellent article in June 2016.

It seems romance writers are the primary target of such scoundrels for two reasons: many romance authors are self-published and romance sells. As noted in an Atlantic Monthly article, “In 2013, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) estimated that sales of romantic novels amounted to $1.08 billion, and accounted for 13% of adult fiction consumed that year, outselling science-fiction, mystery and literary novels.”

Self-publishing is like walking home alone at night. There’s no big–or even small–publisher to back you up. Yes, Amazon has software that supposedly scans new manuscripts for duplication in an effort to prevent such horrors, but a cunning thief can substitute a few words and character names in your text and easily fool that software.

Even worse are the occasional outright thefts of authors’ work by small e-book presses and/or agencies which promise to format, publish, promote, and/or sell your work. This kind of wraparound service appeals to new authors, many of whom jump into writing with the specific idea of self-publishing a romance story. Most recently, romance writers are outraged to hear about the theft of fourth quarter proceeds (among other things) by All-Romance Ebooks, LLC.

So between thievery by outsiders and by insiders, what’s a hopeful writer to do? Is the answer only to wait until you can get a toe in the door with an agent who, if you’re wildly lucky and a damn good writer, can get you in with a mainstream publisher, both of whom will shave off a healthy 80-85% of your book’s proceeds? The reality of that world is pretty dim, as discussed in a recent article about book sales in that arena.

Fact is, romance is still looked down on in the elevated sphere of mainstream publishing. Never mind its sales numbers. Never mind that romance stories deal with important fundamentals of human existence like courtship, love, sex, and–sometimes–having babies. That’s just beneath the thin air world of Literary Fiction.

Besides, most of the readers of romance are women, an easily dismissed demographic in the still-patriarchal world of mainstream publishing.

Put it all together and romance gets no respect.

If that’s not enough to depress you, how’s this? Even if you find an agent who thinks your work is great and you get a contract for that agent to shop your manuscript around town, there’s no guarantee that your work won’t get stolen. This has happen to me, actually. Twice.

First time the problem arose from me submitting to a publisher directly. This was a non-fiction project, but the lesson applies across the board. I sent my outline of chapter summaries and overall concept to all the big publishers like Random House. Each query letter solicited a form letter response. No.

Before I embarked on that quest, I had checked the most recent list of ‘books in print’ as well as ‘forthcoming books’ where publishers list everything they’ve got in the works. Nothing in the realm of my project was listed.

Despite all the rejections, I started contacting agents. Three said yes, we’re interested. I contracted with one of them and after making edits he suggested, I sat back and waited for the good news.

Four months later, the agent notified me that Random House was coming out with a book very similar to mine. Very Similar. Topics grouped in each chapter almost identical to my proposal–check. Overall concept exactly like mine–check.

The difference between this book and mine? The author. She had previously been published by Random House, already in their stable, plus she held professional credentials in the subject of this book which I did not.

Time frame: My proposal had been sent to Random House in March. The ‘new’ book would be released in the following January.

No reason this wouldn’t have been listed in forthcoming books at the time I searched if indeed they already had the project underway.

The agent questioned whether such a work could be completed in such a short time frame…until he learned the author also taught at the college level and could have easily accessed a small army of graduate students to do the research.

I consulted an intellectual rights attorney and provided him with the materials I had sent to Random House and the fresh-off-the-press copy of the other author’s book. He agreed the similarities were too striking to ignore. Then he told me the truth about copyright infringement.

First, until I could discover what profits had been earned, I had no grounds to sue. That’s because lost profits were my ‘damages’ and lawsuits were about damages. Second, Random House was in New York City and in order to sue them, I would have to retain an attorney who was licensed to practice law in New York City.

There were other reasons I walked out of his office in the depths of despair but mostly it was the fact that I had no money for a NYC attorney. I had lost my idea and all my hard work.

There’s a nasty sequel to this story. With the agent’s encouragement, I rewrote the proposal. Jazzed it up, made it more about fun than scholarly. Added cute quotations at the beginning of each chapter. Etc. He started making the rounds with the new version. A year later as the manuscript sat in so many publishing houses’ ‘maybe’ piles, a new book came out.

Yes, you guessed it. Same concept down to the exact same quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Two young women ‘authored’ the book. Not coincidentally, they both worked in the NYC publishing industry giving them easy and quick access to proposals they thought might be successful, evidently.

I have a file drawer full of all my research, proposals, agent contract and other random bits of worthless paper that grew from that bitter lesson. Including both the books that were stolen from me.

The point is–nothing is safe. But as the agent remarked at the conclusion of this relationship, fiction is harder to steal. Non-fiction is usually subject matter that anyone can research but fictional stories are yours alone.

Unfortunately there are many ways to steal fiction as the unfortunate authors tangled up with the All-Romance Ebook LLC scandal are finding out, not to mention the countless authors whose works have been pirated. It’s an ugly world.

My advice to myself–and to anyone reading this post–is to write because you can’t avoid it. Write because the story keeps you awake at night with words flowing through your head like water through a river in flood. Write because you love to write, because you have something important to say.

Even if very few people ever read the work and especially if you never get rich from it, writing is what some of us have to do no matter what.

That doesn’t mean you have to be stupid about it. I still self pub, fiction and non-fiction. If I ever decided to engage a third party to help me market or publish my work, I would research them thoroughly–how long they’ve been in business being a primary concern. And if you’re going to seek advice on writing or publishing, try to not fall into the quicksand of buying such advice. Plenty of good input is available at no cost, not the least of which is your local author group (if you can find one you like).

For example, check out this excellent blog post about self-publishing and e-book sales.

Yes, acceptance into the lofty world of mainstream publishing provides stunning validation and what author doesn’t want that? But if that’s what you want and need, contemplate a long period of learning to write well and then write something beside romance.

Write on!

 

 

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.

On Genre

College 0013I’m a writer. I’ve written nonfiction and fiction. In 2012 I was thrilled to find an agent who liked my latest manuscript, a fiction story set in 2059. We spent six months on edits and another six months on pitching it to the big houses. Finally even the few smaller publishers we queried said ‘no.’

Why? All agreed it was well written. But there’s Explicit Sex. Sex is a key element in the storyline, not because of romance but because it serves a critical role in the main character’s development. According to the agent who first handled the story and all the publishing houses who rejected it because it was Mixed Genre, the majority of those who read sci-fi do not like explicit sex. And the majority of those who enjoy explicit sex expect a romance story.

While I’ve written a story with a bit of romance as a sideline, this book is not a romance. Can there never be explicit sex in a book that isn’t romance?

So I’m self-publishing because I refuse to edit out the sex or make it a romance. I’d call it science fiction, but there are no spacecraft or laser guns. No otherworldly creatures taking over the planet. No travels to distant galaxies. My options for sub-genre under sci-fi are: general, action & adventure, alien contact, apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic, collections and anthologies, cyberpunk, genetic engineering, hard science fiction, military, space opera, steampunk, or time travel. None of those fit.

Dystopian? Yes, it’s a future society, but the government isn’t oppressing the characters. Utopian? Kind of, only people are dying from a mysterious illness and terrorists lurk in the shadows. Ecotopian? Well, yes, there’s a strong environmental twist in the story, but that hardly categorizes the book.

Not apocalyptic—the world continues. Post apocalyptic? Not really.

I could go to the extreme of calling it Visionary & Metaphysical but it’s really not, and besides, calling my work ‘visionary’ makes me gag.

I’ll agree it’s speculative fiction. Everyone nods to that. But spec fiction isn’t a genre.

I’ve been searching for more information on genre. I’ve concluded that I could spend the next ten years reading all the suggested works by authors from Lois Lowrey to Cormac McCarthy to Kelly Link and thereby reach my own conclusion as to how my work fits in. I could delve into the differences between New Wave Fabulists, the New Weird, Interstitial Fiction, or the Romantic Underground as discussed by Pawel Frelik’s 2009 article on the Science Fiction Research Association website. I could further examine Parallel Universe v. Multiverse v. Metafiction, or Speculative Fiction v. Magical Realism v. Slipstream as critiqued in a recent Book Riot post (February 16, 2015) which undertakes an analysis of “literary fiction” works with a sci-fi/fantasy slant.

Arghhhhh! Help me Rhonda, help help me Rhonda. Can’t I please just write?

Categories available to indie authors through Amazon’s ebook and paperback publishing branches include Magical Realism. Psions are part of my story, including directed energy and telepathy. But is that the best way to describe this work?

I could call it Literary Fiction and step back and watch as the book gathers dust on store shelves. That classification conveys little meaningful information. Oddly, while I’ve been through countless classes in writing and literature and trudged through writing workshops at both the undergrad and graduate levels, I’ve ended up with a jaded opinion of ‘literary’ anything. Who decides what is literary? Is the work adequately focused on ‘big’ themes and presented through appropriately evocative language? What if it is both plot driven and a manifesto on social issues?

Yes, a writer can deem his/her book ‘literary fiction.’ But so what? Nothing is confirmed until the label emerges in a review from the shadowy world of literary criticism.

Who are those critic guys, anyway? Writers tired of writing? Professors? Readers who appoint themselves this task? Is there a degree in literary criticism?

Yes, Virginia, there are degrees conferred in the field of literary criticism. God help us.

Is there really so much time in a critic’s life that he/she can read all the literature, produce scathing or complimentary reviews of said literature, and still have time to pontificate about whether the latest release is New Wave Fabulism or Slipstream? What do they do for fun?

Bigger question: why do I care? Self-published authors aren’t deemed worthy of mainstream criticism. We’re left to flounder in a sea of self-appointed ‘reviewers’ whose blogs clog the Internet. Largely comprised of females eager to receive free books in exchange for what often amounts to a book review, the majority of review blogs focus on romance genre. A few review blogs address the wider range of literature including science fiction in all its forms. All of the review blogs have become crushed under the onslaught of self-pub works, some of which might actually be worthy of reading.

There seems to be no adequate winnowing process by which the better works filter up to informed reviewers. If somehow an indie writer might stumble into a legitimate reviewer’s welcoming arms, he/she might gain a favorable review to encourage the buying reader to try this one. Otherwise the marketplace is an abyss lined with books.

Thus the importance of genre.

I’m a writer. I want to write. I have stories to tell, stories I think readers will enjoy. My stories don’t fit neatly into genres. I don’t want them to. I don’t want to write by formula. I want to create characters who tell me stories that I convey the best I can.

What I don’t want to do is spend hours trying to figure out a label for my work. Or for that matter, prostitute myself at conventions and signings or cultivate online relationships with people who might be coaxed to read my work–but that’s another rant.

For now, I’ve determined that every so often I’ll change the genre designation for this book and see if it matters.