Archive for the ‘indie authors’ Tag

The Irascible Indie. Part 2: Unclassifiable?

Until now, I’ve had trouble answering the question, “What kind of books do you write?” As soon as I said, “Well, they’re not really mysteries. Or science fiction. Or thrillers. They’re sort of … different,” I knew I was in trouble. Writers are supposed to be able to tell people about their books in 25 words or less. Waffling around about what they’re not is pretty lame.

The trouble is, my books are in an awkward category. Or rather, they don’t sit squarely in any category. Calling them “literary supernatural” feels right to me. My settings are 98 percent realistic, my characters are fully developed and the plots are built around their interactions and conflicts. There are elements of the magical and the unexplained, but not enough to qualify for the “fantasy” or “paranormal” labels.

And I recently found this in Wikipedia: “Supernatural fiction continues to be popular, but because it is not simple to define and is not popularly understood, it is not used as a marketing category by publishers, booksellers, libraries, etc. When marketed, supernatural fiction is often classed as mainstream fiction, or is subsumed by other subgenres.”

Dang!

Calling your book mainstream fiction is the kiss of death, I’m told. The advice is to pick a category (on Amazon, this is) not shared by thousands or tens of thousands of other books. Get specific. The trouble is, as noted in the Wikipedia entry quoted above, there is no category called Literary Supernatural. And of course “literary” comes with its own burden of perceptions — elitist, complicated and (worst of all) boring.

In fact the topic of book categories, especially on Amazon, is a popular one in the blogosphere, as authors try to figure out the optimal categories to maximize sales. Advice abounds, but somehow I’ve never managed to find the magic bullet (assuming one exists). After going through the available categories I settled on Literature and Fiction > Action & Adventure and Literature and Fiction > Literary > Psychological. I have no idea if different choices would have better results in terms of sales.

Which, of course, is a problem in itself.

I also have a small swarm of tags buzzing around the books, which do approximate their content, Here they are, in alpahbetical order (the most important ones in bold and/or UPPER CASE:
Acadians, alchemy, Arkham, artists, boys, Cape Cod, corpses, doctors, first person narrator, first world war, gay men, Gulf Islands, HERBERT WEST, journalists, librarians, miracles, Miskatonic University, Providence Rhode Island, psychological novels, raising the dead, reanimator, secrets, supernatural novels, tramp steamers, widows

And at least I’ve come up with the requisite 25-word description of my books:  psychological fiction about a man who can raise the dead — after a fashion. Why does he do it and where does it get him?

Ha! Twenty-four words!

 

 

The Irascible Indie. Part 1: Writing By Feel, or Why I Hate Reading “How To Write” Books

As I read blog posts and discussions by writers, both indie and trad, I notice recurring topics: It’s not enough to write your book and put it out there. Your book will not sell itself. Writing is a business. You must know your market. You must position your book in the correct category. You must use social media. And so on.

While I recognize the value of this advice, inevitably, I consider, mull over and often question. I thought I would turn my musings into blog fodder. The result is a series of posts about “writing right.” Not so much the writing, but the presentation — of both the writer and the written works. I admit I often have a contrarian reaction to advice. Maybe it’s just a reflex reaction; maybe it’s because I’m sort of lazy (I considered calling this series The Indolent Indie). Does that mean I’m a (gulp) Bad Writer?

So here goes —

Part 1: Writing By Feel.

Confession: I have never taken any courses in “creative writing.” But I have written all my life — essays in school, term papers in university, memos, reports and documentation at work, a journal for many years, hundreds of blog posts and five (soon to be six, I hope) novels, four of which I have published.

I often end up arguing with the advice given by “how to write” books and falling into “angry child” mode (kicking and screaming — metaphorically, of course). It’s possible I secretly fear that my writing won’t be good enough, that I won’t be able to incorporate all the advice, and therefore FAIL.

Selling one’s writing may be a business, but creating it should not become an arena of failure. Writing should flow, not jerk along with the writer consulting a handbook between paragraphs and questioning the correctness of every sentence. (All right, it may help to bring the book out at the editing/rewriting stage, but first drafting goes best when it’s unfettered).

I also resist a formulaic approach to writing, given the huge element of subjectivity in how it’s judged by any individual reader. (Readers vary tremendously; consider the difference between a casual reader, a critique group member, an editor, reviewer or writing teacher. Each of them reads for a different reason, which colours their evaluation of a piece.)

Consider too that reading books about writing may be a great way to avoid doing any writing yourself. There are so many of these books you can’t hope to read them all, which means you may never set pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys).

But then there’s Stephen King’s On Writing. I did read that. Unlike many of King’s novels, it’s a slender little book. Far from provoking my usual cranky reaction, it inspired me to start writing. It was magical — suddenly this thing I thought was impossible was the only thing to do. But then, I’ve been a fan of King’s writing for decades. In fact, reading and re-reading his novels (and those of other authors) helped me learn how to write.

That’s the thing: I believe the best way to make yourself into a good writer is to read — read A LOT — feel intensely, fall in love with an idea, a plot, a character, and WRITE. Then find a group of people (maybe writers) you trust, who will read your work and tell you what they think. Then rewrite (or not!). Keep doing all this stuff long enough, and you will probably produce at least something worthwhile. But don’t rush to publish prematurely. It’s better to take longer and produce a really good piece of writing than to quickly crank out a bunch of mediocre efforts. Setting a manuscript aside for a few months is a good idea too; you will return to it with the sort of objectivity that leads to improvement.

Time for writing is so precious, I hate to waste any of it reading “how to write” books. Okay, maybe if I was between writing projects, with time to spare, a book about writing written in a style I find engaging might be worth reading. Not as a paint-by-numbers manual, but as something that could be stashed in the brain attic to mingle with all the other stuff up there, possibly to improve my next writing effort without my even realizing it.

No More Gatekeepers?

Until a few years ago, aspiring writers sought out advice on how to query agents and publishers, spending fortunes on big fat books full of names, addresses and tips, not to mention all those expensive conferences where writers could sign up for a 5-minute encounter with (gasp!) an actual agent.

In the Trad Pub era, supply was controlled by those gatekeeping dragons. Most aspiring writers’ hopeful submissions were relegated to slush piles and recycle bins. A few wannabees were seduced by vanity publishers, but no one took them seriously. Then came the internet. Self-publishing became respectable (and a source of income for those catering to the self-publishing crowd). The floodgates opened.

One of the bonuses of publishing your own books is that you, the writer, are in charge. You hire the editor, you decide what the title is and what the cover looks like. You set the price and carry out the marketing plan. No more rejections from agents and publishers.

No more gatekeepers.

Well… no.

There are still barriers between writers and the blissful state of success, except instead of big, iron-clad gates, there are a lot of little hurdles and pointy-picket wickets. They’re called book bloggers, reviewers, publicity agents — and readers!

Many readers seek the help of critics and reviewers to guide their reading choices. Amid the welter of star ratings and “reviews” by anyone, including grumpy people and trolls, an authoritative voice recommending a book can make a huge difference. But a good review is hard to find.

The blogosphere is full of advice on this point. Don’t scream “Buy my book” on social media. Don’t plaster links to your books all over the place. Be subtle. Figure out your target market and frequent online discussions populated by those folks — for example, middle-aged, golf-playing men who like to cook. Or cat-loving video gamers. Or cello-playing spelunkers who also collect stamps. You join those groups and lurk. Occasionally you contribute to discussions, demonstrating your expertise in the subject of interest and your writing style. Never mention your books. Make yourself so interesting that the bloggers, reviewers and readers find you irresistible and want to know more about you. Once they seek out your blog or website they’ll discover your books.

This reminds me of advice once doled out to women about enticing a man — don’t throw yourself at him, don’t seem desperate, talk about interesting topics to show your intelligence and sense of humor in order to make him want to know you better.

Hmm. Given our short attention spans these days, be prepared for a long campaign and don’t be surprised if you don’t get 100% results.

You see, the fundamental problem hasn’t changed: too many writers, too few readers.

So if the subtle approach isn’t for you, what about advertising? There’s BookBub, a book discovery service that sends recommendations to readers. Authors can purchase their services, but money doesn’t guarantee admission. They have a Submissions form. This is from their website: “BookBub employs an editorial team to review the many submissions that meet our requirements and select those they feel are the best fit for our readers to be featured in the BookBub email.” They actually send out rejections. From their Submission Tips: “Certain genres and subgenres perform better with our readers than others. There’s a chance we simply don’t have a good place for your title right now or that the particular subject matter of your book isn’t as good a fit as others in the same category.”

What does that remind you of? (I wonder if they end with “Good luck with your writing efforts”).

But really, these gatekeepers are pussycats compared to the dragons of former days. They’re not keeping writers from getting their works out of the bottom drawer and the cardboard box.

My advice, for what it’s worth: Fellow indies, don’t get desperate. Remember why writing is important to you. Adjust your expectations. Even more, don’t put yourselves into a situation that generates desperation by going into debt with your self-publishing efforts. That way you can afford to take the long way around, assuring yourself that at least your works are published and available for readers to discover — somehow.

Will the cream really rise to the top? Is there too much cream? Only time will tell.

 

Wishes and Horses: The Phenomenon of Self-Publishing

Last week I attended a book launch by a writer from one of my critique groups. It was a pretty splashy event, complete with an Elvis impersonator who arrived in a vintage Ford Mustang.

That got me thinking again about the whole self-publishing thing. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the result, I think, of three things: thwarted creative ambitions, market forces and technological developments.

“Everyone has a book in them,” and when it became easy to create manuscripts, everyone wrote their book. With all the touting of books and featuring of authors in the media, wannabes began submitting their creations to publishers. To serve this market, how-to-get-published books and courses proliferated.

Publishers could not cope with the flood of queries and submissions. The big ones fenced themselves off behind agents. Smaller publishers insisted on print submissions, hoping that exacting submission guidelines and the cost of postage would act as a deterrent — to no avail. Who hasn’t heard of five-foot stacks of “slush” plugging up publishers’ mail rooms?

Rejections flooded out from agents and publishers to hopeful writers, many of whom (despite advice to develop thick skins) got seriously pissed off and started looking for other ways to get their creations out there. By this time the internet was available to all and creation and sharing of “content” was the name of the game. In the best tradition of the free market, alternatives opened up to meet the pent-up demands of writers. Self-publishing went from suspect (the vanity press) to last-resort (POD and “subsidy” publishers) to normal (today’s new world of ebooks, Smashwords and Amazon).

When you think about it, this progression is logical. Why wouldn’t people start to write memoirs, novels and how-I-did-it books, when all through school they were told to be creative, follow their bliss and take chances? Especially when the personal computer and Microsoft Word made whiteout and carbon paper obsolete.

Having poured one’s passion into a literary creation, why wouldn’t one hope to share it with others, receive admiration and make money? Most famous authors aren’t beautiful, athletic or talented at anything besides sitting behind a computer and stringing words together. Oprah’s Book Club, here we come!

Publishing has always been a business with narrow profit margins, in which a few wildly successful books subsidize the less-than-best-sellers. In the traditional situation, a book has a short time to prove itself before it’s taken out of print and remaindered. With the best will in the world, there was no way publishers could hope to publish all the wannabe authors flooding them with submissions.

And there was no way that the writers, full of newly-discovered creative joy and the self-esteem that had been introduced to them from childhood, would accept their multiple rejections and settle for bridge, bingo and birdwatching. Entrepreneurial types recognized a huge and eager market, and hastened to serve it. Editors, book and cover designers, advertising and publicity providers rushed to fill the gap. Writers, no longer thwarted by the gatekeepers, became published authors eager to market their books.

I am a self-published author, and I can say without hesitation that I much prefer that to being an unpublished writer, full of self-doubt, resentment and frustration. I decided to publish my works, and it was up to me how much and what kind of editing to do, what cover images to use and what sort of marketing to do. Several years have passed since I published my first novel. It’s still in “print” (as an ebook) and selling steadily. Instead of sending out submissions I am writing new material.

You could say that the slush pile has been liberated from publishers’ mail rooms and made available to readers. Some bemoan the flood of crap, but let’s face it — there’s always been a flood of crap. The internet has made it possible to create and share more of everything, “crap” and good stuff both. The best indie authors are producing books as good as anything by the traditional publishers. What can possibly be wrong with writers and readers having more choices? It’s an exciting time.

A Manifesto!

Mark Coker of Smashwords has created a manifesto for indie authors. While one should be cautious of things calling themselves manifestos, this one is hard to resist if you’ve ever slogged through the submissions process and found an antidote to it in publishing your own work.

Number 6 is my favourite. No more submission.

Writers — Don’t Submit, Publish!

I am not a big fan of the word “submit” when it refers to sending one’s writing to publishers with the hope of getting published. In fact, I wrote a blog post all about this antipathy.

Which is why I was happy to see this blog post by author Hugh Howey and this comment on it in Publisher’s Weekly by Smashwords founder Mark Coker.

These gentlemen cover the topic more than adequately, so I will add only that this is another reason for indie authors and those with the temerity and courage to bring forth their works to the world to take heart. Write! Publish!

Views on Book Reviewing

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on book reviewing organized by a literary journal published in the city where I live.  At another recent event , a successful novelist said that one reason for his success was that before submitting his first novel to agents and publishers, he had done a lot of book reviewing, thereby gaining a measure of credibility with those folks. So what is it about reviewing, I wondered, and when I saw a notice of this panel discussion, I decided to go.

There was a distinctly academic flavour to the presenters, the organizers and even the audience, not surprising, perhaps, given that the literary journal organizing the event is situated at the local university. The first speaker, a professor of English literature, emphasized that a good reviewer takes in a writer’s entire oeuvre, not merely the book that is the focus of the review. He also noted that (given sufficient space in whatever publication the review would appear), a review could function as a critical evaluation of the author, or explore a larger literary topic as exemplified by the work being reviewed. Finally, he said, a review must be as crafted a piece of writing as any literary work.

He was followed by a freelance writer and editor who succinctly described the responsibilities of a reviewer to the publication for which they are writing, to the readers of that publication and to the author of the work being reviewed. Self-interest is not absent from these considerations — the author whose work you trash may appear on a committee evaluating your grant application.

Another panel member, speaking strictly from the perspective of reviewing poetry, noted that critics are failing poets these days, not the other way around. Reviews are full of received phrases that sound intelligent but are empty of meaning. Certain words, such as “meditative” are overused.

Finally, a publisher stated that the dearth of reviews is worse than badly written or “unhelpful” ones. The biggest problem today is the decline of book pages in newspapers and magazines, due largely to the undervaluing of the arts in today’s commercially-minded society. There are fewer reviews because there are few reviewers willing to write for peanuts. Reviewers should focus their energies on lesser-known authors, rather than reviewing books already on the best-seller lists. The internet should be used to start conversations among writers and readers.

It was interesting that not one of these folks said the word “Amazon” until a question from the audience prompted it. Everyone acknowledged that for many readers, Amazon is a primary source of reviews. They are not always used in order to make a purchasing decision, either (although someone pointed out that you need to have spent $25 with Amazon before you can post a review — the opposite of reviewing for pay). Some readers (myself included) go to Amazon after having read a book, to seek the opinions of other readers. Does anyone else out there think that this book is an overrated piece of trash? Or — does anyone else love this book as much as I do?

By the end of the session, a consensus emerged that the literary conversation should include both amateur and professional reviewers, perhaps juxtaposed as in the Rotten Tomatoes movie review site.  The truth is, there is no shortage of book reviews, ratings and rankings on the internet — sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing and individual blogs abound. Anyone can review a book any way they like, even without a degree in English Literature. A trend is emerging here, similar to the rise of the “indie author,” as Smashwords founder Mark Coker calls the folks who publish ebooks on his site. Incidentally, readers of Smashwords ebooks can post reviews to the site. Anyone can publish on the internet and anyone can review too. Maybe we’ve gone from a relatively polite conversation to a buzzing cacophony.  Is this good? It’s probably too early to tell, and maybe it doesn’t matter.

Write, publish, read, review!  What’s holding you back?

Find out more here http://www.slideshare.net/Smashwords/introduction-to-smashwords-ebook-publishing-and-distribution-made-easy

 

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