Patty’s epic trip to the US. Part 1

So.

When I returned from the US two weeks ago, it seemed that I took a little nasty passenger called a chest infection and I’ve only just recovered.

I promised to post some pictures, so here is the first lot. I have no idea how many there will be.

First off: I was away from 6 January to 4 February. The first 13 days of the trip were a tour with a community wind orchestra. We did some touristy stuff (Disney!) but a lot of those days were dedicated to music and musical things (none of which produce great photographic material).

When the rest of the group was dropped at LAX, my second daughter met me there. I had hired a car and we did an epic 2500km through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. I managed to drive all this without once venturing on the wrong side of the road, although I’ve distributed dust (or snow) over the windscreen plenty of times, because the position of the windscreenwipers and indicators are swapped.

Anyway, after staying for one night in Santa Monica, we made for Death Valley.

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We enjoyed Death Valley much more than expected. I’d expected it to be dead-boring, but the colours are amazing.

So we stayed overnight in Beatty, and then went back the next day, because we only had to drive to Las Vegas.


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Going Wide: Direct Or Aggregator?

When people decide to put their books on more than one retailer, they invariably face the question: should I go direct to other retailers or use one aggregator who does the distribution for all the books?

There are some very good aggregators like Smashwords and Draft2Digital. They make life very easy for the author and some, especially Draft2Digital, offer a lot of additional services that are very useful.

What are the pros and cons of using these platforms?

In the first place, when you start going wide, the number of tasks that need to be performed can seem overwhelming. And the amount of work that needs to be done multiplies across however many books you have. At the moment, I have 44 different products. They are not all individual books, because some are box sets of multiple volumes, but each is an individual project that needs to be uploaded separately. I go direct on platforms where I can, so uploading all those books to all those platforms represents a significant amount of time. In the past few days I have spent hours preparing my books to upload them directly for sale on my website. I fully appreciate how hard it is and how daunting if you’re faced with this task and have to do it all at once. So the main pro is: aggregators are easy.

However, what do you lose by using a distributor, uploading it to their website just once and then clicking a button for each place where you want your book to appear?

In the first place there is the money. Aggregators usually take 10% of your earnings. Now this may seem like chickenfeed to you when you’re not selling much, but when you’re selling a lot, it quickly becomes an annoying cost.

But in my opinion, the biggest cost to you is not a monetary one. It is that you lose control over your appearance and pricing and individual categories on those websites.

Each retailer has a different way of categorising their books. Each retailer has different ways of displaying your book’s information.

For example, Apple gives you an incredibly long and detailed list of all the different categories you can use. Different countries use different library categorisation systems for their display in stores. If you are using aggregator, they determine the category, and you lose the ability to fine-tune your listing.

Some sites give more importance to the description, and some force their pricing into an even amount, and some give you special promotional opportunities that you cannot take part in when you use an aggregator.

For example there is absolutely no good reason not to go direct on Kobo. Kobo gives the author a promotions tab which allows you to enrol your book in as many promotions as you like. Most of these have no up-front cost. You pay 10% of the books you sell through that promotion.

When you use an aggregator you cannot set your pricing different from one retailer to the next. Sometimes, you want to do this, like when you have a promotion on that retailer.

Another issue is the display of series. Some retailers have series pages, some do not. Some allow you to add non-numbered books to a series, some do not. Some allow you to add books with odd numbering to your series page and some do not.

If you want to change something, like your cover, blurb or price, these changes usually take (much) longer with an aggregator.

It is this level of control that you give up when you go through an aggregator. It also makes it very hard to have personal contact with the retailer. You must decide for yourself if the convenience is worth giving up this control.

None of this means very much when you’re just starting out, but when you’re just starting out, you also have few books. It is when you have to upload a big catalogue that the project becomes daunting.

However, it is important that you make the right decision as early as possible. Once you have your books listed through a distributor, if you upload your own version later, it is likely that you will lose all your views. People on some platforms are much more likely to review than they are on Amazon. Losing all those reviews would be quite painful. The retailers may be able to accommodate you and move them over, or they may not. It is up to you to email and try.

It’s up to you. Make your choice and stick to it.


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Can You Make A Living Selling Short Fiction?

There are many things you can do with short stories. They don’t take as long to write as novels and you can try out a lot of different worlds and styles. They can be pilots for books you plan to write or expansions or delving into backstory of characters of existing novels.

If you have a short story to give away, you can use it to get people to sign up to your mailing list either by offering it as a prequel, or offering it as an extra bit of interest after people have read the first book.

But it is possible to make a living selling short fiction as a self published writer?

I certainly know writers who are doing this, and they fall into one of two categories.

The first type of writer starts off in the traditional circuit, submitting and selling to major genre magazines and then reselling the same stories to different markets and eventually self-publishing it digitally.

This is the type of writer who would have come up through the ranks of the traditional circuit. They would have come up through writing workshops and traditional writing events and would, after selling a few stories, realise that they can resell the stories in many different ways.

Short stories can be made into a longer stories, they can be translated, they can be made into graphic novels, you can sell them as reprint, they can be made into audio stories. Each of these can be re-sold. The possibilities are endless.

The second type of full-time short story writer is a writer who writes volume to a specific audience. They know this audience well, they know how to deliver the stories this audience is looking for, and they write a lot, like a story every week. The stories never get submitted anywhere, half the time they don’t even get edited very much, it is all about satisfying the readers who are keen to read more of the same. Most of those latter writers are in the genres of hot romance and erotica. The demand for short stories in those genres is quite high.

Anywhere else, you’re going to find that you have to provide a pretty strong driver for people to want to buy your stories. Either you have to put out a lot of them, they have to be connected to a certain world, and you have to bring a market ready to buy those stories.

When putting out short stories on retailer sites, they are definitely much harder to sell than full novels. And then there is the presentation. A lot of writers think they can just fling a short story onto Amazon with a home-made cover because it’s only a short story, and then they’re surprised if it doesn’t sell. Short stories still need great covers. Great covers cost money.

This past year, I have found a decent amount of success with the Jonathan Bartell series. These are technically novellas since each of them is over 20,000 words long. I have clearly branded them as series. I have paid for an editor, but since I can do my own cover design, the only costs I have for the cover are the images, if any, and other costs such as the font and the graphics software.

As is the case with novels, short stories to do better when there is more of the same available for sale. I feel that a lot of people don’t mind reading short fiction, but I hate having to invest in different characters all the time. So publishing them in a series is a good alternative. People can then read one short story every day if they want, and at the end you can bundle them into a bigger book which will then make a it a worthwhile investment for a novel reader to buy. And you can also make a print edition.

So if I wanted to make money with my short stories , I would do either of these things. I would try the traditional route as first port of call, keep my stories in circulation until they sell, and then self-publish and re-sell them. Or I would write them in series and publish a lot of them quickly.


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To Pre-order Or Not To Pre-order

On most retail platforms, self published writers now have the opportunity to use pre-orders.

Should you do this?

There are some people in the industry who are very much in favour of pre-orders. There is a Smashwords survey that says that authors who use pre-orders sell better than those who don’t, but I think there are a few different things going on here and you cannot simply draw these results from the survey. In short, I think that conclusion puts the cart before the horse.

In order to ultimately answer this preorder question, it would be a good idea to go back to your own behaviour and by extrapolation the behaviour of other readers.

When you find a book by an unknown author that looks interesting, would you preorder that book out of the blue without prior recommendations?

It is my bet that you wouldn’t. Especially because many sites don’t offer a sample for a preorder book.

You would however, preorder a book by an author that you are familiar with, especially when it is in a series that you are already interested in.

So it seems, that pre-orders have their uses.

Pre-orders retain readers for series that are ongoing, and maybe to lock in readers for a bundle if the price is an extraordinary good deal.

But come to think of it, there are so many books already available for free or just 99c, that a reader will just find another book instead rather than waiting for a book to be released just so that they can have it for 99c. Instant gratification is a big thing.

Of course people who use pre-orders sell well. They are using preorders to capture orders for new books in a popular series. People who use pre-orders successfully already have an audience. If an unknown author puts up a pre-order, it is very unlikely that they would sell a lot, unless they already have an audience.

But on the other hand, preorders are about strategy. What would you rather have: that these people pre-order the book or that you have them sign up to your mailing list so that when you decide to send out an email that the book is available, they’ll rush out and buy it? And then if they don’t buy it immediately, that you can send another email a month later to remind them that is available?

I know what I would choose.

I have found pre-orders quite useful for making sure that the book releases on time.

I will use a pre-order for a short period only, like a week or two, to make sure that the book uploads properly and that there will be no delay in the release of the book due to technical or Internet related difficulties.

For everything else, even existing series, I use a page where people can sign up so that I have their email address and I can notify them when the book is out.

Note also that on Amazon, your ranking will jump the moment a preorder hits, so if you have a three month pre-order period, you will dilute your sales ranking compared to the spike you would normally experience when you release a new book. If a rank spike is important to you, then don’t release books on pre-order.

In the end, it is all about tactics. Is it more important that you get sales over a longer period, or is it more important that you have your dedicated fans on your mailing list who will rush out to get the book?


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What To Look For In A Book Cover Designer

We all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, except people do this all the time. People judge books by the cover when they see other people carrying those books on the train, they make judgements about what sort of people they are. This is of course why erotic fiction took such a leap with the event of ereaders. Nobody could see what you were reading.

Book covers are extremely important, and I would even say that they are more important for e-books than they are for physical books. Because an ebook has no tactical properties, the visual appeal is all you get to judge its attractiveness.

If you’re starting to self publish or you have published a few books but you know your covers are not up to scratch, how do you find a cover designer who can make book covers that sell, and what you look out for in this person?

The first port of call will be to look at a selection of books in your genre that are selling well and preferably that are also published by self published writers. Why not publishing houses?

Well, publishing houses often have other aims with their covers. In the first place they usually try to appeal to a buyer in a bookstore, and this is a different market and you can do different things with a print book. You will find that print book covers are often too intricate to work well on postage stamp size thumbnails.

So you would be looking for books that have been self published and that are selling well.

A lot of these authors will list their cover designer in front of the book. If they don’t, simply google the author, go to their website and ask. Not all will be happy to share, but many of them certainly do.

Now when you do this, you should find a moment to take yourself out of the equation. It doesn’t matter that you dislike the type of covers of books that sell well in your genre. Your aim is to make your book sell better, and you want to clearly communicate to the reader what genre it is.

Then find the cover designer through the authors—preferably find a couple of designers—and start asking for quotes.

How much should you typically pay?

Most good cover designers who serve self published authors and have proven themselves in terms of quality and reliability will charge from $250-$500 for a photo manipulated cover. Illustrated hand drawn covers are often a bit more expensive, but in general it should not be necessary to spend more than $800 on a cover.

If you wonder whether to go with a friend who is also a graphic designer, I advise against doing that. There are a lot of really good and effective graphic designers around, but good book cover design is a special art, and if you have never done it before, you don’t know what its requirements are. You’ll end up with a less-than-effective cover which you can’t replace without upsetting your friend. That’s a horrible situation to be in.

And you don’t want to go with a family member or friend who is an artist either, no matter how awesome they are. Naturally, artists have an increased sense of the importance of art on the cover. In reality, the effectiveness of cover design is about 50% art and at least 50% typography. I have seen great art ruined by horrible typography. I have seen great art custom-made for a cover that left no reasonable quiet space for the title and the author’s name, so that either had to be added with too many hideous text effects to even make the text legible, or it had to be added in a super small front somewhere down the bottom. That is just horrible and nobody is going to buy that no matter how much you spent on that book cover.

A good book cover designer is someone who has experience in book cover design. Someone who has good typography skills and who knows that a cover contains both art and typography which should enhance each other.

It is also someone who can work to deadlines, give you a timetable of events and then stick to it, and will make reasonably small changes to the design. A good book cover design most likely has a list of customers and you can ask them what they thought of the process. A good cover designer also has a well-designed website that displays book covers they have done.

If you can’t afford a custom-made cover, many designers also sell premade covers—where all you get to change is your name and title—at a much cheaper rate.


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The Ingredient Is Time

In the days of what seems like instant success, viral posts and overnight careers, a lot of people seem to forget that for someone to have a decent amount of success takes time.

When a writer or a blogger or a singer or anyone creative puts out a product which is an instant success, what you don’t get to see is that there is often a long story of preparation. Often these people have worked for years to get to the point where they can launch a product to great success, or write something that catches the immediate public interest and goes viral. Often these people have spent a lot of time not on the product, but investing in themselves to find out what the market wants and how to best deliver that. Often, too, they have had a number of failures which conveniently get left out of the story.

Why is it then, that we expect immediate success when we start something new?

It is probably because we can’t see the learning and preparation time, unless we are personally involved with the person in question.

There is a important distinction between spending the time on the actual product and spending it on yourself, investing in your own education, investing in business strategies that won’t work just so you can find out what does work, that people don’t see.

So they burst onto the scene, expecting to make a splash with the first book they have ever written. They get taken off track by the fact that a very select one or two people indeed did find success with their first book. They don’t want to see that these people are the exception rather than the rule, and that in many cases, when it comes to their second book, these writers have not the faintest clue in the world how to repeat that first success.

To build an audience that will reliably buy your books takes time. It is easy to get a large number of subscribers onto your mailing list with things like giveaways and competitions and Instafreebie, but it takes time to sort through all of them, to retain those who are interested, and to turn these readers into fans. It takes quite a long time to build an audience that delivers you the results that you want. It takes a while to figure out who these people are, and it also takes a while for them to read enough of your books to want to buy the next one in any significant numbers.

The main ingredient in a successful writing career is time.

How do you use this time?

You learn as much as you can. You learn from people who are at the stage in their career where you want to be and you learn from people outside your genre comfort zone. Apart from that…

The companion ingredient is testing. If you have published three books and they are not selling as well as you want, why do you think publishing a fourth book in the same series is going to make any difference? Why do you think that creating volume for the sake of creating volume while it doesn’t sell is going to deliver you any different results?

Use your testing time to figure out which of the things you are doing are most successful, then stop doing the things that are least successful, and continue with the things that are more successful. Meanwhile, try something new to see if that is yet even more successful. As you learn more about the market, you’ll probably find that the chance of a new project being successful is greater.

But it is about time. It is about having the patience to give something decent amount of time to see if it works. It is about time to learn, to improve and time to let the processes you have set up kick into action.


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The dreaded M word

The mention of the word marketing gives a lot of writers hives.

I think this is mostly because they misunderstand what is meant by marketing. They think that marketing means shouting buy my book on Facebook and Twitter. They think that marketing means sleazy tactics and mentioning your own book at every available opportunity, whether appropriate or not.

They remember when they went to a con and a writer on a panel sat down at the speaker table and displayed all his books in front of him, they thought it looked silly, and they desperately didn’t want to be like that.

The news is that you don’t have to do this at all. Schlepping your books is not marketing. Schlepping your books is ick. Effective marketing is both fun and smart. It’s fun because, having created the product, marketing is where you get to see the sales and make the money. It is where you can make the difference between seeing almost no return to gaining a healthy income, if your book does its job.

Effective marketing is to position in your book in places where people will naturally find it. Marketing is to display your book in a way so that people who normally like those types of books will be intrigued and prepared to give it a try.

You are right to be turned off by the hard selling author, and there are not many good reasons for doing this. If fact I would say it turns most people off.

Marketing isn’t even about doing promotions and holding sales, although some of it can be. But promotions and sales are nothing if there is no tactic behind them. If you promote the first book in your series, you hope that people will buy the rest at full price, because that’s where you make the money. If you give away free books for people to sign up to your mailing list, and you will have their address for new releases and develop a better relationship with your readers, which, if done well, will result in increased sales.

Your cover is marketing. Your blurb is marketing. The way you interact and do promotions with other authors is marketing. Marketing is purely about finding where you audiences are and making it possible for them to find your books. Most of this is done behind the scenes.

Marketing is not sleazy. Selling can be sleazy. Marketing is not selling.

Writing the book is only one part of the equation. Once you have written the book, it would be silly not to try to position it so that people can find it and if they like the sound of it, buy it. That is marketing. That is where the fun begins.


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Don’t kill yourself over daily word counts

In the three year plan that is the foundation of my self-publishing books, I mentioned the example of writing 1000 words per day to achieve a publishing speed of four novels year.

But this is assuming that you write relatively clean fiction.

How many words do you really need to write per day in order to publish successfully?

Some people write huge amounts, like more than 3000 words a day. Is this necessary, is it feasible, and how do you do it?

I don’t write that much. I find, and a lot of people share that feeling with me, that I simply don’t have enough material that is ready to be written to produce that many words each day on a consistent basis. It’s not that I can’t write words, it’s that deciding which words I need to write requires more time. If I write words, I want them to be words that count and words that have resonance.

I hate writing words for words’ sake. I will bash out a framework of a story and will then spend several read-throughs adding little bits of emotional or informational language where they are needed. I need time to think about how I’m going to do this, and can’t do it when I don’t already have something written.

My story editor can attest to the fact that my first drafts are always extremely underwritten.

When I started publishing, I wrote a lot more than I do currently, but one of the things I have learned is to write more efficiently. I hardly ever delete any scenes or large numbers of words.

In fact, I consider myself a perfect example why you can still publish a lot of books per year without a huge daily word count.

Yet, a lot of the focus in advice on how to publish more quickly centres on actual words on the paper. That you need to “train your writing muscles” and other things that completely rub me up the wrong way.

You do not need to write 5000 words a day to have a writing career. You need to know where your story is going and you need to be confident that you have control of the story structure, to not let it meander in useless directions (that you will then have to cut out). You need to get to know your characters well enough so that you don’t have them doing things that would be—well—out of character. You need to know the setting well enough so that you don’t have something happening that’s inconsistent with the worldbuilding and that you’ll have to fix later.

It’s not about written words. It’s about finished words. If you write 500 finished words a day, you’re way ahead of someone who writes 3000 words but then has to spend months agonising over a revision.

It’s not about written words. It’s about how well you know the story and how you can shape and deepen it in a subsequent draft, rather than having to cut huge chunks.

This comes with experience. Your first book is likely to take you ages and you are likely to have to cut big chunks.

Focus less on the number of written words, and more on the story you’re telling. If you’re like me and find word counts useless or depressing, but you want to measure progress, measure it in scenes. Give yourself one or more scenes to write each day, then give yourself one or more chapters to edit later.

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Why do you hate Amazon?

I admit, that’s a click-bait title. I don’t actually hate Amazon at all, although sometimes people could be mistaken for thinking so. I certainly make enough comments about the things that they do and we have to watch out for. But hate? Nope.

My position on Amazon is indifferent. Amazon just is. I use it. I don’t buy Amazon hype and I don’t buy Amazon hate. I don’t think either of those two options are healthy for the independent writer. Use with care. Watch your chickens and don’t let your own prejudice stand in your way.

One position I see touted at times is that if you sell on Amazon you have to love everything they do or get out because we have to be grateful they let us play in their sandbox.

Seriously what bunk.

Just because you list your books on a site that means you can’t criticise them?

Amazon deserves our criticism. So does Google or Apple or any other large company when they do something that doesn’t pass muster. By their very nature, very large companies slip in their standards. They may perform one part of their service well, but might have problems in others.

They may exploit their content providers. They may treat their workers poorly. They may source their materials in dubious ways. Whatever it is, the only way they get called out on it is if we, the public, kick up a stink. And we need to do this, no matter how much we enjoy other parts of their services.

In short, if Amazon does something dinky, speak up as part of the community that has an interest in selling there and being treated fairly.

If Amazon does something dinky, the answer is not to take your books off or shut up. The answer is to make sure they live up to their promise to treat us fairly.

I, for one, am not going to fight my battles over the heads of my readers.

Trends in self-publishing in 2018

The end of the year always offers time for reflection, and I make no exception for this blog. Here are some trends I see coming in 2018.

More people going wide or diversifying income
As the market becomes more mature, people who are interested in a lasting writing career will realise that they need to diversify to spread risk particularly in relation to the second point in this post. This could mean taking books to more distributors, but also doing print and audio and branching out into different genres, different pen names, or creating another income stream from non-fiction, crowdfunding, direct sales or providing services.
This is necessary because…

Amazon will continue to do things that will make sense only to Amazon (and even that could be debated)
And who knows what it will be?
In 2017, writers in Select saw their page reads spectacularly eroded through page flip. And we saw that Amazon doesn’t care that it can’t tell how many pages a reader has read.
We also saw Amazon taking a publicity hit when a scammed book went to #1 in the store. Of course, in Amazon-style, they responded extremely heavy-handed, punishing legit writers. I know they cancelled a bunch of dubious accounts as well, so that’s something at least. But there was a fair bit of collateral damage.
Amazon is known to use a sledgehammer when all they need is a screwdriver.
For us, it’s a constant battle, so…

People will give up
I’ve seen the tone in self-publishing forums change markedly in the last year or so. It’s no longer super-buoyant. People realise that this gig is a lot of WORK. Some don’t want to do it. They will quietly disappear. They will realise that they’ve written the one book everyone is said to have in them and move on to basketweaving.
For the rest of us…

More people will have a go at selling books direct

OK, I already set up my web store, mostly for ebook cover design, but with Bookfunnel, we now have a secure ebook delivery mechanism that doesn’t include having to provide the reader with instruction on how to put the book on their device. So more people will start doing this. How successful they are remains to be seen, because discoverability is an issue. I see this function valuable for large collections and special material for fans.
But to continue in this vein…

Bookbub will take steps to start selling books
OK, this one is a little bit out there, but why not? With Amazon eroding affiliate income, it makes sense for Bookbub to retain a higher percentage of the cut and start selling direct to customers.
Which brings me to…

A reduction in the number of rented lists
Anyone who says that the efficiency of “rented” lists (Freebooksy, Bargain Booksy, Ereader News Today, Free Kindle Books & Tips) has declined markedly is not dreaming. I’m not entirely sure what is to blame, but my guess is poor curation could be part of the problem. For some of these lists, you only need a credit card to join the fun. It’s a pay-to-play environment, and that benefits no one.
These lists should be curating what they feature, not rely on lazy-arse selection through “star ratings”, but actually, y’know, look at the books that are submitted, and only feature books that meet their criteria. Anything else might make a little bit more money in the short term, but is otherwise just shooting themselves in the foot.
So my prediction is that some of these sites will have to reinvent themselves or bite the dust.
For authors, it means finding new ways to promote…

More people will jump on the collaboration bandwagon
If the hot buzz last year was author cross-promotion, this year it’s co-writing. Since output is the name of the game (to some people at least), what is better than to write and publish twice as fast with someone else? Nothing, in theory, and so people will jump on the co-writing bandwagon in order to make millions…
Except when they don’t.
Realise that it is a bandwagon and that the head of the column—where the most profitable deals are—has already passed.
If you want to collaborate, nothing is stopping you. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Making a metric butt-tonne of money is not a reason.
And also…

Some multi-author collaborations will explode. Spectacularly. Like, in a take-me-to-court fashion
I’m seeing some stuff that gives me hives. While it seems fine to try to publish a book with a friend, what happens if tensions arise over content or payment? What happens if one of the partners suddenly finds spectacular success and resentment builds in both directions? What happens if a partner fails in their commitment through no fault of their own? What happens when a writer realises that the co-writing contract they signed is poor and/or exploitative?
Pleaseplease, if you co-write, make sure you have a proper contract. Please ask the hard questions before the difficult situations present themselves. What if someone can’t do it anymore? What if one partner wants out? How are you going to make the accounting transparent to all involved? What if one of you gets hit by a bus? Before you embark on a co-writing project, run the contract past someone with a strong BS meter and ask them to poke holes in it.
But to close off…

Some things never change. Keep writing the best books you can. Attempt to own and control as much of your audience as you can. Sales are cool. Readers on your mailing list are better. Don’t rely on the retailers to market for you. Learn to do it yourself. No one is going to care as much about your work as you do.

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