I've had this post on my mind for a while but I needed to finish the final draft of the fourth Girl in the Box book before I felt I could take the time to write it. I've experienced a measure of success recently and I feel very fortunate. When you're feeling grateful for said fortune, it seems like the thing to do is to try and help others, which is the genesis of this post. Whatever success I've had is because writers who were smarter and more experienced than me put their advice out there, and I read and absorbed it, applying it in my career. Now I think it's my turn to pay the favor on to the next generation of writers.
So here it is - all my collected advice for writers, based on my year and a half of experience in publishing. Whee. That's not really a lot of experience, is it? The funnier grain of truth is that most of the advice I'm about to give isn't even really mine. It's an accumulation of business principles I learned in financial services and the wisdom of people who have been more successful than I have been. I did a post over a year ago that you could call the antecedent to this one, called I Stole This Opinion. With over four thousand books sold this month at $4.99 (or the foreign equivalent, thanks UK!) I feel like I am finally qualified to at least give some guidance.
Let me start out by saying that YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. I know that seems obvious (and cliched, but it gets the point across, no?) but I feel like I have to disclose that because different authors are going to have wildly different experiences based on their publishing or self-publishing journey. In addition to the above disclaimer let me add that I don't consider myself very judgmental - people make decisions for their own reasons. For me, for my personality, it made zero sense to pursue the traditional publishing path of agents and queries. For others, it may be all they've ever wanted. More power to them. I don't pass judgment, because I don't have to live with their choices, I have to live with mine. Whatever you want to do with your career is fine with me because it's your career.
That's not to say I wouldn't take the right traditional publishing deal if it came along, because if it made sense for me and my career, I would. I don't like the terms typically offered, but if they came knocking with copious amounts of money and a no non-compete clause, I'd consider it. I don't understand binary thinking or the "I WILL NEVER DO THIS..." type of declarations. I have to manage a career that I hope spans for the rest of my life and I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. What if Amazon suddenly slashed their royalties to 35% for all us indies unless we join KDP Select? I have a lot of readers that don't use a Kindle to read my books, so Select doesn't really make sense for me, (maybe) even if they slashed royalties (and that would hurt quite a bit, by the way). Who's to say what's around the corner? I want to be in this game of being a full-time writer for the rest of my life, and that means being willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and that means I never say never.
This goes hand in hand with another point I'd like to make, which is about marketing. There's this huge divide among indies about whether you should market like mad with every book you write or whether you should go write a ton of books and not worry about marketing at all. I think you should do whatever you want to do. There are enough examples of success down both paths that it'd be hard for me to discount either one. I know which I prefer, and that's to do as little marketing and as much writing as I can get away with.
That doesn't mean I do zero marketing - I have two e-books set to permanently free status. That's marketing - it's a loss leader for me, a sample to get people into the door of my business and give them incentive to buy the next books in the series without any obligation or cost on their part (or mine, really). But this is an incredibly low-effort type of marketing, which is what I prefer over more time-intensive things like blog tours, twitter networking, etc. Again, those things work, I've seen it in sales figures for the people doing them, but they just don't fit my personality so I don't do them. The only type of paid advertising I've ever done is with Bookrooster (which really wasn't advertising at all), back when they first got featured on J.A. Konrath's blog, to get myself some reviews on my first novel (it was an interesting experience with mixed results, with the sordid details to be found here). That's it. Again, I'm told advertising works in the right circumstances, but I'll leave it to others to explain strategies.
So what advice have I given so far? Indie vs. Trad? Make your own mind up. Marketing or no marketing? Do your own thing. Sense a pattern here? I'm equivocating on everything I've said thus far, because there are in fact multiple ways to run your career. I've seen it, even in the tiny space of time I've been in the industry.
The way I do things comes down to personal preference; I write (relatively) fast and prefer to spend my time doing that rather than launching a robust web presence, networking, and putting my name out there. I have 11 people I follow on Twitter and I like it that way. I follow each of them for a good reason and I don't randomly follow people back just because they follow me (it's not a judgment on any of you, it's just that the longer my twitter timeline is, the longer it takes me away from writing when I check it). Others can manage a timeline with hundreds of people on it. I used to follow back (and had over a hundred people I followed), but most of the people who were following me were authors promoting their own books. Cool for them, but I couldn't get any use out of twitter while I was doing that, so I simplified it (mass unfollow!).
Anyway, my overriding advice on these areas of your career - the business areas - is to learn business, get savvy about it, read everything (even your indie publishing contracts with Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc) and make sure you understand it. Yes, this takes time, but it's your career, and your life, and you're in charge, even if you have an agent (as an aside, and this is just for me - I will NEVER have an agent. I know I said "never say never," but unless it becomes a mandatory legal requirement of the industry...I won't. No offense, agents.).
Now we come to the portion of my advice where I will not be equivocating any longer. Run your career however you'd like, market or don't market, sign with an agent and a traditional publisher or don't, you can become successful either way (but it's going to be tough no matter what, and from my perspective traditional publishing looked like the tougher path to make a full-time living at) but one thing you MUST DO in order to be successful over a long period of time (we're not talking about one and done, here, we're talking about a career, with dozens or hundreds of books over your lifetime) is to work on your craft.
That's it. That's my big advice. I see authors all the time who want to PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE! I've got a book out and YIPPEE! I'm gonna get my name out there and it's gonna sell like a bajillion copies and everything's gonna be great!
You know what? Maybe it's just me, but I started dozens if not hundreds of novels over the course of my writing life, and until Defender, every one of them was awful. Defender actually started as something completely different, an episodic short story I wrote for some friends, and when I decided to adapt it into a novel I put it through about ten drafts to alter it to where I thought it was acceptable for publication. My wife read the first forty pages and asked me a question that I will forever remember - "Where is this going?"
"To publication," I said with a smile on my face. "And then hopefully to the top of the bestseller lists."
"No," she said, "I mean the plot."
I blinked at her a couple times, having to think about it before answering. Not a great sign, nor a high point of my career, because I realized that because of the episodic nature of the story I had been writing, all the episodes didn't culminate in any sort of real, tangible plot of its own for the book. It was set up for a major conflict two books out (It was going to be part one of a trilogy. Now it's eight books plus more. I don't get more concise as I go, apparently.) but the book itself had no real climax, no finale, no thread running through to hold it together other than the characters running around the world trying to do stuff and getting into dramatic situations. (I think I read a review not that long ago that asserted this is still the case. I don't think that's true, but only because I was the one who had to spend my time writing multiple drafts to get the plot inserted into the book.)
I know, you're better than me, and you haven't made this error, nor any of the other copious ones I've made throughout my short professional writing career (less than two years) and long amateur one (since I was in second grade. I have a database of story ideas, an accumulation of hundreds of them, from about fourth grade on). But let's assume you're not Stephen King and agree there are areas of craft you could be spending your time on, okay? Spend your time on those areas. I know, first time authors, you want to promote that book, to get out there and flog it to the masses so they can see your excellence on display, so you can reap the kudos you so richly deserve.
That may be, and you could certainly do just that, but if I may point to one commonality of success I've seen from indie authors - they tend to have more than one book for sale. And promoting takes quite a bit of time, I've heard (which is why I don't do that), so my suggestion - and this is only a suggestion - is to spend as much time as you can working on A) Craft and B) Writing your next book (you should actually do A and B at the same time for best results) until you get to 5 or so books in your backlist before you spend that copious amount of time promoting. The reason I suggest that is because if you're going to spend a hundred hours flogging your book (that sounds dirty, doesn't it?) wouldn't it be nice if the reader could finish said book, then go look for other books by you, then buy those in turn? Because the alternative is that they love your book, they read it in hours, and they forget about you in the busy day-to-day of their lives and never see your second, third, forth and fifth books come out.
I mention this because it's still a concern for me to this day. I've sold 4,000+ books so far this month, but I only have 130 facebook likes, 70-something followers on twitter and 250-ish subscribers to my new release newsletter. That means there are probably something like (assuming 1,000 of those buys are unique individuals buying multiple books, which is probably fair) 750 or more people that WOULD BUY my next book if it were out today (WHICH IT IS! Family: The Girl in the Box, Book Four) that might not buy it two months from now, or six months from now. If I'm marketing heavily, let's assume I spent twenty hours pushing my book, getting it out there, (or in my case, giving away 100,000 copies of Alone in the last three months without a ton of effort on my part but nice mentions from Bookbub.com, Pixelofink.com and Ereadernewstoday.com) and what's my return on that? If I've got one book out at $2.99, then I'm making $2 a copy, now, and maybe nothing in the future once I stop promoting it like crazy. But if I wait until I've got five books out and I managed to hook (through good writing, not through prostitution, m'kay?) a reader with my promotion, then I can get $10. My return on time invested is much greater. Do what you will with it, but for series writers, building a big catalog before spending time promoting is a wise investment of your time.
It's always a balancing act, though, isn't it? My original plan was to wait until I had four books in each series before putting Defender and Alone to perma-free. I missed that one by a bit, and the reason was because I got impatient. Which goes to show, I don't know what the hell I'm doing. It's working out just fine at present, but it may backfire on me in six months. Who knows?
To get back to the original point, if you're a new author, the best things you can spend your time on are 1) Craft and 2) Writing more original works, and the two are not mutually exclusive. I keep hammering these points because even with a ton of promotion I've seen authors fail (even ones who I would consider to be good writers who tell engaging stories). You can control craft and output (to some extent) but you can't control results from promotion (or if you can, congrats to you, most of us can't). You can practice every day and get better as a writer, which helps you tell more engaging stories, which helps you get a better return on investment from the books you write (can you tell I used to be a financial advisor? Always going on about the return on investment for time you've put in.) I still practice every day I can, and I'm still reading books on the craft (got Stephen King's Secret Windows sitting here on the desk, in fact) and taking workshops to get better. Take from that what you will.
A quick note on professional courtesy - publishing is not a knife fight to the death, in spite of how some in the field want to treat it. Act accordingly. I understand the temptation to be jealous and/or irritated with others in the field. Believe me, I understand - one of my fellow authors has me fairly irritated right now for reasons I won't get into, but that involved them doing something I would never, not in a million years do, that to me feels like an a-hole move to both their readers and as well as their fellow writers. I doubt this person knows they're irritating me (whether they would care is also questionable) and most of the instances I've seen involving disputes between writers spring out of similar circumstances. How someone does things is their business, even when it feels like it messes with your career. Sorry, but it is. Getting worked up at others about things you have no control over only ends up reflecting poorly on you (and I include myself in this warning, because of the aforementioned example).
The other side of the coin is almost as nasty - jealousy. I know how it feels when you're not selling, how easy the temptation is to think that if this person wasn't sitting in your way, you'd be doing better, but that's probably not accurate. You're in charge of your career. If they're outselling you, make changes. Believe me, I'm doing well, but I wish I had Hugh Howey's sales numbers. Being pissed at Hugh for outselling me would be both irrational and stupid (especially because he's an awesome writer and a pretty cool guy) but I've seen people do it. Don't be that writer. No one likes that person except the other jealous losers who all band together to talk crap and nitpick that person's successes rather than try and take notes to figure out what they're doing and alter course to learn from it. Petty jealousy doesn't help you sell better; it just makes you look like a dick. I don't care how bad you think their writing is, if it's selling, it appeals to someone. If it's outselling yours, well...sometimes it's hard to look yourself in the mirror and admit that someone else is writing better books than you. It's even harder to swallow your pride and try to figure out what you can learn from them. Might not be a terrible idea, though.
I think that's about enough of my opinions for this year. If you're going to be learning the industry, though, here's the places I learned from, in no particular order:
Kristine Kathryn Rusch - The Business Rusch. I also read her The Freelancer's Survival Guide when I first got started and looked at going full time in writing. The Business Rusch blog series keeps me up to date on all sorts of industry matters, and I read it every Thursday morning without fail.
Dean Wesley Smith - His whole blog is gold, but for new writers (or old), the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing and Think Like a Publisher series of posts (I believe Think Like a Publisher is also an ebook, because I remember buying and reading it) are especially worthy of note. He also offers workshops both online and in person that I would recommend. I've already taken one of the online workshops (Cliffhangers) that was fantastic and I'm taking another in February. He's written and published over a hundred novels...'nuff said. He's pretty busy nowadays, though, so maybe I can beat him to two hundred (grin).
If you've made up your mind that you want to market your books, I really recommend you go to Lindsay Buroker's website here. Lindsay has done all sorts of marketing and even though I don't do most of the things she suggests, I still like to keep track of what works and doesn't, in case I change tacks in the future.
Joe Konrath doesn't tend to blog much nowadays, but if you look through the archives he has some pretty good posts. I read pretty much his whole blog before I published. I also read most of Amanda Hocking's blog, but I'm not going to post that link because it's easy to google and she tends not to talk much about indie writing nowadays. She has a couple of really good ones in there, though, about her epic story of how it all happened.
For good insight on all the news of the industry, I recommend three sources - The Passive Voice, Karen Woodward's Blog and David Gaughran's Blog. I'm sure there are others, but I follow all three of them on Twitter and it tends to keep me up to date with goings-on in publishing. Karen and Passive Voice Guy pull from a variety of sources and while David Gaughran doesn't update as much as he used to, his book Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should is another great resource for those interested in getting into the self-publishing world.
For writers interested in building an audience, this is seriously the best advice I can direct you toward: S.M. Reine's Guide to slowly building sales. It's a post on the Kindleboards in the Writer's Cafe (which is a forum I tend to hit at least a couple times per day) and it contains a key difference maker in audience building.
It should be noted that once you've got the basics down, you should spend most of your time writing and honing craft (or marketing if that's your bag) and not all your time reading this stuff. Squeeze it in while you're not doing other, more important stuff. I read all the books I recommended before I published my first book and I keep up on all these blogs first thing in the morning when I'm watching my kids or while I'm watching TV at night. I like the Kindleboards Writer's Cafe, but if I need to choose between doing my daily output of words or editing or whatever and hanging out reading posts...well, it should be an easy choice (but isn't always, cursed procrastination!). The most important thing you can be doing with your time is writing. Period. Just my opinion, but I can give you about thirteen thousand reasons (so far this month) why it is worth it.
One last piece of advice. If you see an indie author doing well, consider reading their books. (Not mine, please. There are more worthy mentors, ones that will offer more than one advice post per year.) I've watched the careers of these authors and taken advice from all of them: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, J.A. Konrath, Lindsay Buroker, Hugh Howey, S.M. Reine - the other thing they have in common is I've read their books. I'm a huge fan of Kris Rusch's Retrieval Artist series and have been chewing through it at as fast a pace I can manage with my reduced reading schedule these days (my To-Be-Read pile is ridiculous). I've been reading hers and Dean Wesley Smith's books since I was in Jr. High School. J.A. Konrath's Jack Daniels series were the first thrillers I've ever read, and were a great introduction to the genre (if you pay close attention, you can see a tip of the hat to that series buried in my novel Soulless). I'm on the third book in Lindsay Buroker's Flash Gold series of novellas and I'm looking forward to starting the Emperor's Edge series next year. Same with S.M. Reine, whose book Death's Avatar I just finished a week or two ago and will be moving onto the series next year as well. And do I even need to mention Hugh Howey's Wool? Phenomenal sci-fi series, just marvelous.
My point here is that you should take advice from people who can make you better. I read a lot of craft blogs, and some of them are written by experts, some aren't. I tend to consider the source before I consider the advice imparted. I read their writing - is it good? Do I want to be able to write like them? If not, maybe I go the opposite direction if the advice isn't something solid I've heard from other, more established writers. This is especially true in marketing. If someone's not doing sales numbers you want or has the type of career you'd wish for yourself, I would hesitate to take advice from them (or at least hesitate to put their advice into effect if it's going to cause questionable results or completely shake up your career). That's why I said at the beginning that your mileage may vary - trying to base your career entirely on what I'm doing with mine isn't necessarily going to work, because you're not me (and you can't be me, either, unless you're Hugh Jackman, in which case my wife says it's okay for you to pretend you are, at least for a little while). Be yourself. Find the way that works for you, that plays to your strengths. If you love marketing, go do it. If you love to write more, go do that. The happier you are, the more creative you get - pretty sure I read that in an article a while back. If you're not having fun with your writing, it's probably a bad sign.
I wanted to write even when it didn't make sense for me, even when I was working a hundred hours a week and had a new baby and I knew I had to be at work at seven the next morning, but all I could do was keep working on my story even though it was 2:30 A.M. I loved the days when I was done at work early, and could put the kid to bed and set up in a quiet out-of-the-way place and just hope to get a couple thousand words out before my eyelids got too heavy. I knew I was in trouble in my financial services career the day I sat in an office from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. and wrote 16,000 words of what I thought (at the time) was the best thing I'd ever written. I love stories. I love reading them, watching them in TV or movies, playing them in videogames and telling them most of all.
I love these days even more than the frantic ones where I had to indulge my hobby like a furtive secret, jotting down ideas while I was sitting in meetings, thinking about my stories when I was in traffic and writing whenever I got a free minute. I love these days when I can write all day and save the evenings for sleep and other stuff (except when I'm close to finishing a novel, then it's all-out to the end) but I still love the writing. I always have, though I recognize the discipline it requires at times to press on when you're working within the structure of a novel that has to be finished. The story is all-consuming for me, telling it is what matters most when I'm in the heat of it. I love it more than anything I've ever done in my life, and it's not work. Reading contracts for Apple's iTunes store and ACX is work. The business side of things is work, keeping spreadsheets and sales numbers. The writing is not work, not really; it's fun. Hopefully, if any of you writers out there feel the same, this post will give you some directions you can look in to learn the things that will get you full-time in writing, too. Because that's why I wrote it. I shouldn't be the only one having all the fun here.