Quick Math

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of writing, and after my father recently sent me a great article on having a system for success by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, I thought I would post my thoughts.

The length of novels varies, but on average you can expect something in the range of 70k-120k words. The first Harry Potter book was ~77k words; Lord of the Flies: ~60k; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: ~110k. (Source)

The quick math is that if you write 1k words a day, every day, you can have 365k words in a year. That’s three long books or about five shorter books. I know authors who can do 1k words in twenty minutes. It takes me about an hour for quality work, less if I am rushing and don’t care about errors. The point is that you can write 3-5 novels a year working at only a thousand words a day. It takes work to get into the habit of writing every day, but if you can hack out an hour instead of watching TV or exercising (just kidding), you can have an impressive catalog in a short couple of years. And from two years of trying to make it as a self-published author, I can tell you with certainty that having a dense backlist of books is key for prolonged success.

If you choose high output as one of your goals, I am of the opinion you can maximize your success by adhering to a couple of simple rules (besides getting an editor to keep your grammar and spelling in line). In fact, this may be the best way to ensure you get your career off the ground. Please note that this is a classic case of the author not following his own advice. It took me almost two years to come to these conclusions and I am just now swinging my career in the direction I have always wanted it to go.

1) Stick to one genre. Every successful independent author I know (who brings in more than $20k a month…yes, a month) writes in one or more series with a very specific, clearly-defined genre. What this means is that they don’t do what I have done: write a horror novel, then a sci-fi novel, then an urban fantasy young adult novel. These authors crank out book after book of what their readers love, and it has brought them success and financial stability. The biggest thing they have done is use a system, personal to their own goals and dreams, to make it happen. They chose a path and stuck to it. Success did not find them after one book. It found them after they proved they could consistently deliver a product that fit the needs of a group of passionate readers.

Which leads me to…

2) Series. This is it. You want more readers? You want rabid fans breaking down your email doors begging for more content? Series is the key. Build a world the readers don’t want to leave and you have yourself a long-lasting product with the possibility to provide continual income for as long as you can conjure up new adventures for your beloved characters. There’s a reason the film business has switched from a majority of original movies to an overwhelming tidal wave of sequels and remakes: viewers (and readers) love familiarity, nostalgia, and characters they can follow on more than one adventure. They invest something into the fictional realm which I believe is an extension of our childhood imaginations; an adult way of dealing with our more mature, less obvious desire to immerse ourselves in a world of pure make-believe.

Anyway, this feeds into something I tend to bring up a lot in conversation, mostly because others tend to hang so much value on one specific word that should be ignored completely when dealing with the direction you want your career to take: “Should”.

This word is responsible for more frustration than I could recall if my life depended on it. You “should” be able to write in as many genres as you want. You “should” be able to write a book and then write another which is completely unrelated instead of a direct sequel, and readers “should” pick it up anyway and give you the benefit of the doubt that it’s just as incredible as your first book.

And you’re right. Things “should” be like that. But they aren’t. There “should” be no crime and heartbreak in the world, but guess what happens anyway? The best thing you can do to guarantee success is to understand what you’ve been dealt and play the cards that have the best chance of winning. You can labor your whole life in the artistic pursuit of the next great American novel and never see a dime. Or you can write five action novels in a year and live off the proceeds for five years while you work on that masterpiece. Different people have different goals, naturally, and some people believe the pursuit of that great novel is its own reward. I’m not one to argue with them, because I am that person on some level. But I am also the person that doesn’t want my wife to have to work until she’s 65 in a mostly thankless job for very little recognition.

So I devised a system, just like anyone else can do. I write for a certain amount of time, every single day, and at the end of the year I’ll have a series of books that will hopefully connect with a percentage of the world’s readers. Your books are products, as much as they “should” be respected and viewed as individual pieces of art. If you don’t care about selling any copies, then that’s your prerogative. If you do care, then you are no different than any other inventor peddling their wares to the masses. You need to have something they want if you are to move any product, and the best way to do that is to throw away “should” and align your goals with that which will put food on your table.

It isn’t an artistic compromise to work on something that has more popular value than what you know from research and market data won’t sell more than half a dozen copies to your most loyal fans. I would think that almost every author has a love for some genre that has a potential for selling really well. Lend your specific talents to that genre and apply your passion to making a commercial novel as personal and endearing as possible without sacrificing your authorial honor. Make it as good as you possibly can, and you will be surprised at how good it feels as an accomplishment in its own right. Then you can relax and write the next Gatsby. I know this kind of success is possible because I talk to authors every day who have turned their love of a popular genre into $20k+ a month. It takes hard work and persistence, but in the end it’s a surprisingly simple formula for achieving your goals.

ASHES Hits #1 With 99¢ Ereader News Today Promotion

Ereader News Today started a new bargain-priced promotion for authors whose books are on sale for 99¢. The submission details are on this page, but the short of it is that you set your book to 99¢, inform ENT, and if you’re lucky enough to make the cut, they post your book along with three others on their site (which gets a heavy, heavy amount of traffic). They only do four books a day—a restriction that helps authors more than it hurts them (less reader fatigue; more visibility), even though it makes getting onto the site a bit more difficult.

So what do they charge in exchange for this opportunity?

Two days after your promotion, ENT sends you a Paypal bill for 25% of the sales made through clicks on their site. You’re selling at 99¢, which means you get 35¢ a sale. 100 sales is $35—25% of that is $8.75.

$8.75 for every 100 sales.

Sales to readers who have never read your work and who probably don’t know a thing about you. Sales to readers who are more likely to write reviews than if you had given away the book for free. Sales to readers who could become fans.

What this type of promotion does is wipe away the risk in paying for advertising. The term “break even” doesn’t apply here. Even with one sale, you make a profit. It’s a win-win for everybody, and good on Ereader News Today for hatching this scheme.

I submitted my first novel ASHES on the 25th or 26th, and it was posted to their site on the 31st. I’m not sure if this is an average delay, or fast, or whatever—I can only imagine the number of submissions they’re receiving. You can see the posting here (third one down). They list how much the reader is saving with the sale in red, which I think is a nice touch. Something I didn’t notice when I submitted is that if you tell them you are setting your price to 99¢ just for that particular promo, ENT will alert you when your book will be posted to give you enough time to drop your price on Amazon. Otherwise you drop the price on your own time and cross your fingers, hoping that you make the cut. I set a hard date of August 3rd to raise the price of my book back to normal, and if it wasn’t posted on ENT by then I would have assumed it was a no-go.

ASHES is currently #1 in the Horror/Dark Fantasy category on Amazon:

ENT Promo

So it’s a legitimate #1 bestseller on Amazon. It took about 100 sales in one day to get there (faster sales in a shorter time probably means a higher ranking than steadier sales over a longer period, but I’m not positive), and I’m sure it would take a lot more than that in a really populated category. That’s not the result of free copies boosting the ranking, then said ranking holding over when the book switches back to paid. It reached the top spot through actual sales, which is something I had not previously achieved. Does that mean I can slap “#1 Bestseller!” on the cover of the book? In the back of my mind it’s still a small category—one in which I deliberately placed ASHES with the hopes of gaining more visibility through lesser competition.

#23 in Contemporary Fantasy ain’t bad either, considering that list is chronically plagued with vampire romances and witch stories (read: impenetrable genres that will likely dominate the top spots on lists for years to come).

I’m not sure how long the book will stay up there before it starts to slip. It jumped tens of thousands of spots in Amazon’s ranking, so hopefully that has an effect on its visibility for the next couple of weeks. I don’t purport to be an expert on ranking algorithms and I don’t know any secret techniques to get your book in the back door beyond things like this that I stumble across. I’m trying all of this stuff out for the first time myself and posting about it along the way so that other writers can (hopefully) make use of it.

Will the same thing happen to your book if ENT lists it on their site? Who knows? It depends on your genre, category, and the amount of sales, as well as whatever kooky device Amazon uses to sort its lists of eBooks. The bottom line is that with a promotion like this, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Give it a shot.

Kobo Writing Life

Kobo just launched their self-publishing platform, and I would like to take a moment to put in a good word about my experience.

(Amazon is the big name here in the States, but for those of you who are unfamiliar with Kobo, here are two reasons why it will pay off to publish with them in the near future: Canadian market share (read: English-speaking nation) and triple-digit growth.)

I uploaded three of my short stories a few minutes ago, and the process was so smooth and easy that it put every other company’s process to shame. There were helpful tips and reminders along the way, so that at no point did I have to stop and Google for outside help about formatting, etc.

Oh, and their royalty rates are 45% for low-priced eBooks, compared to Amazon’s 30%. As an added bonus, you can also set your eBooks to free right out of the gate. That’s what I have been waiting for, since I want to use my short stories to act as advertisements for longer works. The minimum price on Amazon is 99¢, and their price-match system historically takes forever to catch up to other online storefronts. Self-published authors need instant updates if they hope to stay competitive in the market, and “keeping your fingers crossed” for months at a time in the hopes that Amazon might flip a switch just doesn’t cut it as an effective strategy.

My Kobo bookshelf looks like this at the moment:

Kobo Bookshelf

In about a month, the first episode of ALPHASHOCK will be ready for publication on Kobo. I plan to set it to free as a sample for the series, and it’s of great comfort to know I won’t have to wait an extra few months for that to happen.

Kobo just made the future of self-publishing a little bit brighter.

Amazon Authors: Check Your eBook Categories!

This is an FYI/warning post for any author that has an eBook published through Amazon. I published my most recent book this week and noticed something interesting while filling out the book’s categories on the publishing page.

Since Amazon only lets you choose two categories for your book, the best ones for me were:

Science Fiction > High Tech

Science Fiction > Military

Both of these exist on the publishing screen, so I had no problem choosing them and finishing the whole process. However—and this is the kicker—there is no “Military” section to select while browsing for books on Amazon’s site:

Category Listing

What this means is that my book was only being listed in one place instead of two. Losing 50% of your visibility is not a good thing, especially when you’re just starting out.

You can see if this is happening to you by checking out the “Look For Similar Items By Category” section above the “Feedback” area near the bottom of your book’s Amazon page:

Similar Items

Regular book listing will be first, then eBook listing. If you see only one eBook listing, compare your chosen categories on your Amazon dashboard with actual, searchable categories on Amazon’s site and make the appropriate changes.

Dashboard category selection:

Category Listing

If for some reason you can’t choose a searchable category on your eBook’s dashboard page, then you have to clear all categories, select “NON-CLASSIFIABLE” at the bottom of the category list, and email Amazon’s KDP Support with your desired categories (even for non-KDP titles, contact kdp-support (at) amazon (dot) com). I had to do this for my most recent book since it needed to go into the “Science Fiction > Series” category, which was not available on the dashboard publishing screen.

NOTE: You MUST have all categories removed and have then added NON-CLASSIFIABLE as your book’s category before you can contact Amazon:

Non-Classifiable Category

WAIT until the changes go through and you receive an email stating that your book has been re-published BEFORE contacting Support. I made this mistake and spent a week emailing back and forth with them before it was all sorted out. They will simply tell you they can’t do anything until all processes are complete on your end. If you do everything in the proper order, it should take them 2-3 days to get back to you with confirmation that your new categories have been added.

ALSO: There is a chance that your book’s categories on your dashboard will always say NON-CLASSIFIABLE after this process (as mine do), and will never list your new choices. I can assure you that the process works regardless of this little bug, and that the two books I have “fixed” this way are listed correctly on Amazon’s site. You can verify that the changes have been made by checking the “Look For Similar Items By Category” near the bottom of your eBook’s Amazon page.

Good luck!

Amazon KDP Promotions Results – Yes, They Still Work

This is just a quick post to follow up on my first attempt at a free Amazon KDP promotion. I had some decent success with that one considering I was trying to achieve a specific goal: distributing as many copies of my work as possible. This time, though, the results blew me out of the water.

This was actually my third Amazon KDP promotion. The second one (which I didn’t report) fell short since it only ran for one day. Paradoxically, I gave away more copies of my novel ASHES with that promotion than with the first, but since it was only free for one day instead of two, Amazon did not grab hold of the free rankings and the book never jumped high enough on the charts to get noticed (long story short: run your promotions for more than one day—the downloads drop off significantly on day two, but it seems like your book still needs to hang out in the top free rankings for a while before it makes a difference to Amazon’s ranking system).

I had an ulterior motive for my third promotion, which was to plug my Kickstarter campaign for cover art for my upcoming sci-fi series of novelettes. I dropped in a blurb about the project at the end of my short sci-fi story A DREAM OF WAKING and made the ebook available for free on a Saturday and Sunday (historically big download days). If the goal had been a specific attempt at more sales, I would have run the promo on Thursday-Friday (like I’m doing this week for ASHES—reports on that later).

At any rate, fewer people downloaded A DREAM OF WAKING this time than they did during the first promo (~1600 vs. ~2300…can you say single-product market saturation?). Yet this time, the book climbed all the way to #1 in the Sci-fi High Tech ebook category by the end of the first night and stayed there throughout the entire second day. I have no idea why. Maybe I was the only one running a promo, or the only one advertising it well. As soon as the promo ended, the ranking plummeted (as is common post-free promo), but by the end of the first day after switching back to paid, the book shot up the charts to hold at #2. It’s been there for almost 2 days now:

A Dream of Waking Chart

What I’m getting out of this is that there is still a good deal of luck no matter how many people download your book during a promotion (by luck I mean factors beyond your control, like fewer promos being run by other authors, etc.). DREAM was downloaded over 700 fewer times during the second free promotion, yet it climbed higher in the rankings on Amazon and is staying there much longer. It will slip soon, I’m sure (just look at its company; I don’t know if you know who Hugh Howey is, but his bestselling WOOL series is extremely popular—ain’t no way I’m topping that), but this experiment proves that signing your books up for KDP with Amazon can be a great thing if it falls in line with your writing goals.

Kickstarter and The Indie Author

Independent writing can often be viewed as a community effort. Social networking is recommended to build a fan base and good word-of-mouth plays a crucial role in getting your work noticed.

To that end, Kickstarter can be a very powerful tool for the independent author.

We’re not talking about running a Kickstarter campaign so that you can pay your bills—we wouldn’t be artists if we didn’t struggle just a little bit, right? Besides, the people that run the show over there don’t allow that kind of project. However, if you plan to distribute your writing in a professional manner, there are a multitude of expenses that go along with producing high-quality work.

Lindsay Buroker ran a successful campaign for the free audio books of her Emperor’s Edge series. I am hoping to find similar success with my campaign for cover art for my new project. There are many other examples on the Kickstarter website in the publishing category—some with modest goals, others with…well, slightly more than modest goals. If you take a few minutes and browse through the various projects, you can get an idea of how it can be a valuable resource for an author.

If you are lucky enough to run a successful campaign, Kickstarter acts as a unique form of advertising. It is an added way to build interest in your project without spending a dime.

Here are some things to remember before starting your own project:

-Plan ahead: What type of campaign do you want to run? Will it be of direct benefit to your writing? Also, when setting your target goal, be sure to remember that Kickstarter will take 5% of your contributions, and Amazon (through which all payments are run) will take another 3-5% in credit card fees. On that note, make sure you start setting up your project AT LEAST A WEEK before you want it to go live. If your bank does not offer instant verification then you will have to wait up to 7 days for the slow process to complete. You don’t get any of the pledged money until the end of your established project deadline. If you don’t reach your goal, no money changes hands (i.e., getting $999 out of $1000 still equals zero).

-Rewards: Get creative. Popular rewards for publishing projects include using a contributor’s name in the story. Whatever you promise, make sure you can follow through. If you offer something that needs to be shipped, such as a hard copy of your book once it’s ready, be sure to factor that cost into your campaign.

-The video: Kickstarter pushes this aspect pretty hard, and for good reason. It is often the make-or-break factor for a project. Potential contributors want to connect with an interesting project on a deeper level than on-screen text alone can offer. Be charismatic. Be funny. Make your points clearly and quickly, and don’t veer too far off track. Consider that the viewers might be seriously thinking about giving you some of their hard-earned money, so treat them as you would want to be treated in that situation.

Now for some fun Kickstarter stats:

-Project Success Rate in 2011: 46% (up from 43% in 2010)

-A total of 5.1 million dollars were contributed to 774 successful publishing projects, coming from over 70,000 backers.

-Kickstarter projects that reach 30% funded have a 90% chance of reaching their goal.

-The largest number of successful Kickstarter campaigns run for only 30 days.

-The most common pledge is $25.

-The average project goal is $4500.

Overall, the process is easy and straightforward thanks to Kickstarter’s user-friendly interface. Everything is spelled out for you every step of the way. I suggest taking a good look at other similar projects before starting your own. Check out failed projects to see how yours can be better. Also, remember that this is not a “set it and forget it” type of campaign. Stay active throughout the entire run. Blog about it and tweet your heart out. Ask your friends and loved ones to spread the word.

From professional editing costs to cover art, from audio books to advertising, Kickstarter offers independent authors a way to make it happen with the help of a strong community that believes in supporting creativity. Just remember to give a little something back if you find a project worth supporting. You never know how far that person or project will go.

Write Better Dialogue

A big complaint I’m seeing in the reviews for a lot of self-published books is that the dialogue seems unrealistic (for any number of reasons) and therefore takes away from the pleasure of reading the story. If it is a reader’s only complaint and they go on and on about how great it could have been, then we have a problem, Houston.

Listening to the way people talk to each other in real life is a good way to learn the cadence of conversation, but it only gets you so far. Real-life speech has many supplementary processes that aid and enhance the way it’s comprehended: gestures, inflections, etc. The written word, while powerful, lacks these extra helpers.

One major rule has helped me with my writing and could go a long way with improving many authors’ dialogue: READ IT OUT LOUD. It sounds silly, and you’ve probably heard it before, but trust me on this one.

Something else that helps immeasurably is breaking up dialogue with natural pauses and unobtrusive scene description. Example below.

The biggest culprit as far as written conversations go has to be the rapid-fire exchange between two characters, where each of them speaks a handful of words before the other one responds. Note the distinct lack of description, however minor, surrounding this dialogue:

“Hello.”

“Hi Paul.”

“Want to go to see a movie? I hear Transformers 8 is really good.”

“I hated all those movies and I don’t want to sit in a theater with a bunch of people who talk and text the whole time.”

“I liked them. I think they’re really good.”

“Well, you like a lot of bad movies. I would rather eat dirt.”

A normal, everyday conversation could play out this way, but there would be breaks in the verbal exchange to add a sense of realism. Authors can do this do. A line of dialogue does not have to be written fully, from beginning to end, without interruption. Think about where a person would naturally take a break while speaking and mimic that in your writing by splitting up sentences or adding description (changes italicized):

“Hey,” said Mike.

Paul smiled. “Hey.”

“Want to go to see a movie? I hear Transformers 8 is really good.”

“I hated all those movies,” said Paul, “and I don’t want to sit in a theater with a bunch of people who talk and text the whole time.”

“I liked them,” said Mike. He kicked at a pebble on the ground. “I think they’re really good.”

“Well, Mike, you like a lot of bad movies.” Paul stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away. “I would rather eat dirt.”

This isn’t the best example ever, it simply exists to illustrate a point. The added description and breaks in dialogue add a sense of pacing that was nonexistent before. This lets the reader’s mind pause naturally and digest the cadence of the conversation. Whether they realize what’s happening or not, the organic rhythm works to create a more fluid—and ultimately more enjoyable—reading experience.

Following these helpful hints can enhance dialogue and make your story more enjoyable for the reader.

Hank Buckley Gets A Chapter

Meet Hank.

In my next novel, HELLO DARKNESS, Hank is a mild-mannered, God-fearing hardware store owner in the small town of Falling Rock. Hank is not one of the book’s main characters and is only mentioned a few times (and seen once) before his moment in the spotlight.

So why does he get even a little bit of the story? The reason is because there’s a lot going on in Falling Rock—evil is nesting in the woods just outside town, and most of the main characters are still unaware of its existence. However, the reader needs that little peek behind the curtain so they aren’t asking the same question for a hundred pages. Asking questions is good (essential, even) but a question that evolves over the course of a novel is even better.

Enter Hank Buckley.

He stumbles into a little bit of bad luck that provides a great opportunity to widen the view about what’s going on in the book. Through Hank’s eyes I am able to give the reader one more piece of the puzzle that everyone else in the story is still trying to figure out. It’s not exactly a spoiler, but it’s enough of a reveal to let the reader know there is something huge going on—something deadly. Hopefully, it creates a little bit of suspense throughout the rest of the book. The reader knows what lies in wait for the good people of Falling Rock even if the characters don’t.

I don’t think there should be any hard and fast rules when it comes to Point-Of-View (POV) in a story. As long as you aren’t head-hopping and ripping people out of the moment, do whatever you need to further the narrative. That’s why the characters exist in the first place—to help tell your story. Use ‘em. Toss ‘em. Make new ones. Whatever enhances the reader’s experience should be a writer’s first priority.

KDP Promo Ends

At midnight last night my books switched back to paid status. Here are the total number of free downloads over the entire promotion (Thursday-Friday):

Total Numbers

A DREAM OF WAKING was the clear winner, but I’m still pleased with the number of times ASHES was downloaded. It was left out of at least 2 good web sites where DREAM was posted (my guess would be because it had no reviews when I submitted it for consideration). That, and the fact that it had to compete with a LOT more books in the horror category on Amazon led to underwhelming results. Hopefully (and it’s already happening) I get a few people to read it and come back to comment on ASHES so the next time I do this it looks a lot more appealing to potential readers.

LONELY HAIR and FROM THE DEPTHS got shafted in the advertising department as well (I submitted all 4 books to each site I solicited; the web site owners picked which ones to promote) and the numbers aptly reflect this. With more advanced notice and with more reviews for each book, I’m confident all 4 of them will be visible during the next promo.

The only site that DREAM was on by itself was Ereader News Today, and I’m crediting most of its downloads to that web site. Bookmark it and make sure you give them at least a week’s notice when you’re preparing to run your own promo.

Rankings for all books plummeted, as I heard they would directly following the free promotion:

adow_rank A DREAM OF WAKING

ashes_rankASHES

However, the clear benefit of the promotion is that both both remained at their respective positions on the Top 100 lists even after switching back to free status:

adow_rank

ashes_rank

DREAM is still in a great position. ASHES made it all the way to #18 on the second day of the promo before slipping in the late afternoon. I just went back and checked my stats and DREAM has already risen to #38,226 in the rankings. 4 people have purchased it this morning. One person has lent it to a friend*. At this point I’m expecting more lends than actual purchases, but I’ll be happy either way as long as people are reading my stories.

*Quick primer on lending: Amazon allots an amount of money each month (this month its $600,000) to distribute amongst the authors whose books enrolled in KDP Select and are lent to other readers. If there are 100,000 total lends during the month, and 100 of my books are lent, I earn .001% of the $600,000 purse (100/100,000=.001%). That means Amazon pays me $600 because other people let their friends borrow my books.

I won’t be posting updates on stats nearly as much now that the promo is over. I’m going to wait at least a week so I can have a good amount of data to compile before making any declarations of the promotion’s (personal) effectiveness. My prediction is that ASHES will get a couple reviews over the next month but not many purchases. LONELY HAIR and DEPTHS won’t see any noticeable rise in popularity. DREAM will probably sell a dozen copies or so and might get lent around a small group of friends.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of this one promotion, it’s proven to me that it’s possible to get my books in the hands of over 3k readers. That means 3k potential future customers. For me, it was worth it.

I need to take a moment to thank everyone that made this promotion more of a success than it would have been on its own. If you spread the word—even if was just to a handful of people—thank you. I really felt a sense of community while running this thing and I think that went a long way toward making it a success. If you wrote a review or tweeted/facebooked the promotion to your friends—thank you.

Thanks to my wife especially. She was there every step of the way and informed hundreds of people about my books.