M is for Mercantile

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Oh, right, selling books. That reason we’re all here as authors. Yeah…how, exactly, does one go about doing that? Fear not! This is your one-stop shop for getting ready to publish. Once you have a manuscript. So, you know, if you don’t yet have a manuscript, bookmark this post and come back to it.

First things first…what do you need to publish on an online site?

  • Blurb: you need a blurb for your book. There are two basic formulas. The first is: [selling point, such as an award] [another selling point, maybe a quote from a review] [brief overview of your book, using not only words that describe the narrative, but words that describe why your narrative will appear to readers]. The second is [really amazingly engrossing synopsis that sets up the main question of the book]. Both work. Both will seem like a very simple proposition and then will drive to screaming insanity. It’s harder than it looks – just stick with it!
  • Author photo: you need a good head shot of you. Just you. Not with someone else cropped out of the photo. It doesn’t have to be super formal, but if you don’t have a good one, get one! Or be mysterious and put up a picture of a chipmunk.
  • Author bio: your author bio should let a little bit of you shine through, whether that’s whimsical or serious. If you’re writing non-fiction, list credentials. If you’re writing fiction, list awards. Either way, don’t be afraid to get a bit whimsical. Remember – you’re not selling this one book, you’re selling you, as a brand that has created this one book and can create others.
  • Keywords: an oft-overlooked portion of book uploads, but an incredibly important one. The difference between sloppy with this and being precise is about 20 minutes of research, so get on that. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming how you think readers should find your books. Should they search for “dragons”? “Young adult fantasy”? Type those into whichever site you’re using and see what comes up. Is it books like yours? Cool. Then make sure to leave room for one or two keywords that are the names of books or authors yours are similar to. Ha! Done. I told you that would be a minimal effort.
  • A cover: oh, my goodness, the cover. GET A GOOD COVER. It is impossible to stress this enough. People do judge a book by its cover. There are fantastic premade covers (I’d urge you towards sites that will only let each cover be sold once), and there are great independent artists who will make original art. Take your time, do your research, and maybe skip some going out to eat or coffees or something. Get a good cover. Get a good cover. Please, get a good cover.
  • Bank information: you need to put in your social security number (for taxes) and some way to pay you (for fairly obvious reasons; if you don’t want the money, you can give it away – but they do have to give it to you first). You won’t need this while uploading the book specifically, but they will ask you for it at some point.
  • A formatted manuscript: this can get a little bit tricky. Amazon is notoriously easy for uploading (.doc or .docx are welcome), but other sites tend to be a bit crazy. If you don’t feel up to the challenge, you can always hire someone to format your book for upload (general rules: someone with verifiable testimonials and up-front pricing). BUT… I believe in you, and it is completely doable for you to manage this on your on. Mark Coker of Smashwords has a Style Guide that, while geared to Smashwords uploads, is just pretty for formatting. Author Susan Kaye Quinn also has applicable posts on her blog. I’m linking you to the iTunes one, for the simple reason that iTunes is the one I find most frustrating.

Got all of these things collected? Great! You’re almost done! One last choice (and it’s okay to spend some time thinking, or change your mind after a little while): do you want to go Amazon Exclusive (KDP Select) or cross-platform? There are benefits to both, and philosophical arguments in both directions. I personally do not do KDP Select for most of my titles, because I want people to be able to search out my books no matter what kind of e-reader they have; Hugh Howey, on the other hand, loves KDP Select because he believes (perhaps quite rightly!) that he reaches far more readers that way. The thing to remember is, neither KDP Select nor cross-platform is irrevocable. Like everything else in indie publishing, it is something you can switch up if your first choice isn’t working for you.

In fact … that’s good advice for quite literally everything in this post. Write a blurb. Get a cover. Choose some keywords. And don’t be afraid to change them up if they’re not working for you.

Onwards and upwards!

G is for Genre

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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I never could read science fiction. I was just uninterested in it. And you know, I don’t like to read novels where the hero just goes beyond what I think could exist. And it doesn’t interest me because I’m not learning anything about something I’ll actually have to deal with.
James D. Watson
There’s a saying I’ve been taught since I moved to the American midwest: “some people’s kids.” You look out at someone doing something terrifically stupid or upsetting, and you sigh, and you say, “some people’s kids.” And everyone nods knowingly. And here’s where it gets wonderful: as far as I can tell, other than rehashing the story over the dinner table, the event is forgotten after that. Some people’s kids. What’re you going to do. Anyone want to go get ice cream?
Frankly, it would be great if we could apply this as a standard to the literary industry, where there seems to be some sort of universal license, as displayed in the quote above, to be a massive asshat about what kinds of books are Real Books, and what kinds of books have Value, and what kinds of books are Emotionally Compelling. We talk smack about adults who read YA, about any sort of genre fiction, about literary fiction writers being snobby and self-published authors being sloppy. In the end, we’ve managed to waste a while bunch of time…and make some writers and readers feel terrible about themselves.
For. No. Reason.
Originally, this post was about learning what’s in and out of style in your genre and why, being familiar with tropes, and learning to work with what your audience expects. To paraphrase Larry Brooks of “Story Engineering” (a book I heartily recommend, but maybe look at the reviews so you know what you’re in for before you read it), what is overdone and boring in one genre may be groundbreaking in another. I wanted to teach you to work with what you’ve got.

And then I got sidetracked. Which happens incredibly often. Ah, well.

Instead, this post became about something very dear to my heart: writing the book that’s in your head, that you are passionate about, that shows the characters you love. Damn the torpedoes genre naysayers, full speed ahead. To illustrate, I want you to try an experiment. Think of a book or movie that filled you with emotion, go look it up on a review site, and skip straight to the 1* reviews. You’ll see “boring,” you’ll see, “lacking characterization.” You’ll see reviews by people who were seventy kinds of un-wowed by this book, and some by people who hated it with a burning, fiery passion.

The reason I say to try this experiment is that it’s far easier with someone else’s work. You know how you felt when you read that book (or saw that movie). It’s non-negotiable; it just is. The experiment is still going, though: now I need you to realize that not only were there people who did not feel the same as you, there are people out there who think that the entire genre of this book or film adds nothing to the human experience.

They are clearly wrong. So we can leave that in the dust and move on.

So I’m going to lay out some truths for you, and these are truths I want you to cling to when people talk crap about your chosen genre – because they inevitably will, and somewhere in the raw-feelings wasteland of having published a book, you’ll stumble across this diatribe and soak it all up and get magnificently angry while kind of wondering if everyone else believes it. (Spoiler alert: they don’t.)

  • Sad-spectrum feelings and serious feelings are not the only important feelings in the human experience. Write a happy story if you want to. It does not lack merit.
  • There is no genre that has a monopoly on all the available reader feelings. Anyone who says that a particular genre can’t elicit serious feelings is wrong, full stop (and not so great at philosophy or logic, either). Your choice of genre says absolutely nothing about your skill as a writer. Your choice of genre does not lack merit.
  • It is almost inevitable that your book will share qualities with other books, and I only say “almost” for the sake of statistical accuracy. Your book will share qualities with other books. You will hit tropes. This does not mean you have nothing new to say. This does not mean you have not said it well. Similarity does not mean your book lacks merit.
  • If your book gets popular enough, there will be people who talk smack about whether or not your book is really whatever genre you’ve billed it as, and whether your fans are real [genre x] fans. Have some tea and ignore it. This does not mean that your book lacks merit. Some people’s kids, right?
  • Oddly, if your book gets popular, there will be a lot of people who find this a reverse-indicator of quality. I suggest reading Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” for an informed and unapologetic look at why books get popular, and then shake your head at the idea that people who read books are not good arbiters of what makes a good book. Popularity or lack thereof correlates with merit, but is not an indicator that your book either has merit, or lacks it.

So I will leave you with this wonderful quote from Madeleine L’Engle, and go back to writing. Happy reading, happy writing, and ignore the haters!

Madeleine Quote

Amazon vs. Hachette

Gentle Readers,

You may be aware that there is an ongoing dispute between Amazon and a publisher named Hachette. There is much speculation over the terms of the dispute, and proponents of both sides are claiming that the other is hurting authors.

I want to state my own stance up front:

Hachette Amazon

This means authors, and it also means editors, copy editors, publicists, agents, IP lawyers, cover artists, and many, many more people. If you keep buying books, I promise that the future of publishing is very bright, whether or not it includes either of the two companies involved.

Now, a few points that I don’t see coming up much:

  • Battle lines were already drawn before this dispute, so the waters are not only muddied with preexisting loyalties and dislike, but also with preexisting disputes (treatment of authors, diversity in publishing, quality of books, anything and everything). Publishing today is a web of allegiances, generally with traditionally published authors siding with Hachette and self-published authors siding with Amazon, although there are exceptions.
  • No one knows what this dispute is over except Hachette and Amazon – and both are bound by a confidentiality agreement during this time. While it seems fairly likely that the dispute is at least partially over book pricing, no one who is writing articles has the full details.
  • I personally believe that inefficient distribution channels and outdated stocking methods, among other things, have created a system in which ebook prices are kept artificially high to compensate for other losses – the largest component of a print book price is the cost of printing the book, so ebook prices on par with print prices are a bit weird
  • All evidence is anecdotal (there are a few studies about whether self pubbed or trad pubbed authors are happier with their situation, but nothing definitive), so all I have is my own experience: the disruptive publishing technology harnessed by Amazon and other companies has allowed me to make a budding career doing something I love. Amazon, in particular, has been easy to work with: clear in its terms of agreement, with easy-to-use technology, and comfortable providing me with stats on how my books are selling. (Some of the other systems are a real pain in the butt to use.) If you’re looking for an example of an author who has enjoyed traditional publishing, I would suggest reading John Scalzi’s blog, as he’s quite well-spoken and explains why he feels he’s gotten a good deal.
  • You will see a lot of bandying about royalty rates – some trad publishers arguing that Amazon can’t or won’t continue their high royalty rates, self publishers arguing that traditional publishers don’t give authors enough. The problem is that the dispute over royalty rates is not an exact parallel:
    • Authors who publish via traditional routes are given editing, cover art, distribution, formatting, etc., and the reduced royalty rate reflects the fact that many people are involved in the process
    • Costs for self-published authors are accrued through different channels and are taken outside the mechanism of royalties
    • It seems unlikely to me that traditional publishers set out to screw their authors, and it also seems unlikely that a bargain struck between a new author and a publishing company will be made with both parties on equal footing – generally speaking, the party with hundreds of lawyers has a leg up 😉  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle between “screw over” and “idyllic communal happy times,” just as it is with Amazon. Neither Hachette nor Amazon is in the business solely because they love books or because they want nothing more than to pay authors, but I don’t think the employees of either companies sit about rubbing their hands and cackling over how much they can extort their authors, either.
    • It is highly unlikely that Amazon will ever have the market power to establish itself as the sole publishing vector in the world and then screw over every author and reader – they’ll topple and fall before that happens. I mean, to do that you’d have to control the internet, and the FCC would never allow a company to … hmmm …
    • Seriously, though, Amazon has competitors waiting in the wings, willing and able to take it out at the knees if it becomes some crazy monolith
  • Following from the last point, if you enjoy books by a certain author and are comfortable with the price set on purchasing their work, do so. You are the only person who can make that calculation, and if you enjoy the books produced by Hachette and find the finished product worth the price, then please by all means DO compensate the author, editors, cover artists, formatters, secretaries, interns, and all other involved parties. Likewise with self-published authors and their helpers.
  • Likewise, if you think the price ISN’T worth it, well, don’t spend your money and DO speak up so that the publisher knows why you aren’t buying.

I know it seems hopelessly naive to cry, “but can’t we all just get along?” But, honestly…we’re all here because we love books: writing them, reading them, editing or advertising them, making art for them. Hachette and Amazon are locked in a battle of wills on a grand scale, but the rest of us have two options:

  1. Make dramatic posts siding with one or the other and decry the future of publishing if the opponent wins
  2. Continue to make rational decisions regarding price and value of books, and consume media accordingly

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got, I’m off to read Ancillary Justice.

-M

P.S. Happy 4th, American readers!

 

On Quality

Every once in a while, quietly, an author wonders why some other book, some book that is not nearly as good as their book, is doing so much better than their book is doing. Why do readers pore over the pages of that book, the author wonders. Why are there so many fans on facebook, why do readers line up thousands-strong for book signings or – envy of envies – movies?

This is normal, this desire to measure ourselves against our peers. Humans do this constantly. It may not always be healthy, but it’s certainly normal. Healthy, well-rounded adults experience these feelings from time to time. And it may really trouble them. All normal, all within the bounds of healthy behavior.

What is not normal or productive is when these musings spill out into the public sphere as fully-formed thoughts, as musings we have turned back on everyone else. Readers only like crap these days. Or: Everyone’s looking for an easy read. Or: No one gets my book. Or: Publishers aren’t willing to take a risk. You want more? I have more. I’ve heard a lot. Heck, I’ve thought some of it.

And you know where this leads? It leads to one of the single most unproductive discussions that any set of artists has ever had about the state of art in the world, namely: why are such awful works getting all the attention?

On the face of it, it makes sense. Author A has only one work, and that work is riddled with typos and poor characterization, and Author A is now a millionaire and you are working at Starbucks even though you have a book that is properly-formatted, (almost entirely) typo-free, with a stunning plot and characterization, just the right amount of quirk. All in all, your work is a masterpiece. You think it makes sense to ask if perhaps you should turn out typo-ridden crap so that you can at least have a shot at proving that money can’t buy happiness.

Here’s where I must ask you, and ask you honestly, three questions:

  1. Where, exactly, does this bitter wondering get you?
  2. Can you think of any better, surer way to get success as an author than to keep producing really good books?
  3. Why do we entertain the notion that readers don’t have a grasp on what makes a good book?

On point the first, I will say only this: spending time wondering why a “bad” book is doing better than yours is about as productive as spending your workout time not working out, but instead wondering how Jim seems to subsist on french fries and still maintain his svelte figure. That is to say, it is not as productive at all. Go write a good book. Or write a book of typo-riddled crap. Pick one, be honest with yourself about your goals, and shoot for the moon.

On the second point, throw everything you want at me about clever marketing and million-dollar advertising budgets, I have yet to see a single more effective and successful path to success than continuing to show up with good books for people to read. Provide me statistics that contradict this and I will (a) believe you; and (b) be really goddamned impressed.

Lastly, there is this thought, which is (again) very natural to have within the confines of one’s skull, which is that no one “gets” your work. Someone called your book “a good read” and you wanted it to tear them open emotionally. This has happened to me. And I love you all, and I feel your pain, but please listen to me when I say this: your readers are not wrong. Think, think, of the books you have loved and raved about to your family and friends, only to have them say, “eh.” Think of all the books they have told you will turn your world inside out, only for you to think, “eh.” Think of it! You will get readers who have read your genre inside and out, you will get readers who have never cracked open a book of its type before. Every single one of them will see the book a little bit differently, and they. Are. Not. Wrong.* Your book was not finished the moment you wrote it – it is finished when someone reads it and thinks about it, and I am sorry to say that at least some people will hate it. This is unavoidable. It is also natural and even healthy to feel crushed when someone reads your work and doesn’t like it (although I recommend finding some way not to be crushed, because that gets exhausting). What is wrong is to take this (very natural) thought and, instead of dismissing it, actually say out loud that your readers don’t know what they’re talking about.

What I’m getting around to is this: make your books the best they can be. No book can please everyone, but every book has the potential to be its best self. It’s really useless to sit around wondering why other authors have so many more sales than you do, when you could be editing your manuscript or writing a new one. Solicit feedback. Take feedback. Edit ruthlessly and often. Listen to your readers and write better books in the future. Write because the stories are all bottled up inside you and you can’t stand another minute with them not on paper. Write because you love to write, and edit because you want your readers to have just as moving an experience as you did, and the truth is that the words don’t always come out right the first time.

Also, it’s no fun being cynical all the time. I was a teenager once, I’ve tried that.

Go write.

-M

* Please note that there is a way for readers to be wrong, which is to review the wrong book, a la, “this book is about the life and death of the Mongolian water beetle” when it is in fact a cozy murder mystery. This sort of wrong is extremely rare. Also, please note that, “this book is crap” does not constitute slander. An example of slander is, “this author punts baby hamsters in her spare time and is an illegal arms dealer.”

 

The Author’s Pledge

The authors pledge

Motivated by a combination of Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” (a million thanks to Tammy Salyer for recommending it), recent and well-publicized kerfluffles in the community, and some recent reading about personal accountability and perfection, I present you with The Author’s Pledge – just in time for NaNoWriMo!

The Author’s Pledge

I, [author name], pledge that I will support the writing and reading community, both by emphasizing quality in all aspects of my own work, and by supporting writers, readers, and industry professionals. This means that…

  • I will be vocal in my support of a reader’s right to dislike any book, in my support of authors whose books and personal characters have been unfairly targeted, and in my opposition to the concept of banning books
  • I will not leap to conclusions in internet kerfluffles. Instead I will weigh the evidence and if necessary make a carefully-worded statement
  • I will remember why I love books, and why books are important to society. Because of this, I will thank the authors whose work has challenged me, inspired me, and gotten me through really tough times in my life – and if I am lucky enough to have fans who tell me the same things about my books, I will make time to listen to them and thank them for reading
  • I will pay it forward by sharing my hard-won knowledge with other authors, without fear that their books will surpass my own
  • I will remember that authors are not in direct competition with each other, and I will promote deserving work without fear for my own sales
  • I will remember that we are all here because we love books, and I will therefore judge other authors and publishing professionals by the quality of their work, by their comportment as an individual, and by nothing else
  • I will remember that just because my name is on the cover, the book was not produced by me alone, because no book is. I will acknowledge and thank everyone whose work has gone into my books: my editors, copy-editors, formatters, cover artists, agents, publicists, lawyers, friends who got me coffee and listened while I sobbed about my work, fans, beta readers, book bloggers, and anyone else whose effort has contributed to the final product
  • I will understand that writing is an art I can always hone but never master, and I will strive to make my work better by writing, reading, and accepting criticism
  • Before I send a book to my editor, beta reader, or agent, I will not accept a single word, phrase, paragraph, or plot point that is “good enough.” So help me, I will beat my head against that piece until it as perfect as I can make it on my own
  • I will edit my work with increasing ruthlessness every book, and I will also admit that I alone cannot be responsible for editing my own work. Then I will seek editing help*
  • I will put my readers first by emphasizing quality in all things: writing, editing, cover art, formatting, and any other facet of book publishing that may exist in the future. If I cannot complete a task on my own, I will find someone who can, because that is what my readers deserve
  • I will take final responsibility for the work that comes out under my name

May your NaNoWriMo (or November, if every month is NaNoWriMo for you) be fruitful and illuminating!

-M

* Seriously, people, I cannot stress this enough. DO NOT make the mistakes I have made. Get editing help. This is a piece of hard-won knowledge that I hope you spread as much as possible.