contrarian attitude

Advertising, Hypocrisy and Other Offenses

I just finished processing today’s load of solicitations for funds masquerading as personal letters, full of smarmy sentences such as, “We know you’re passionate about [their cause] and want to be a part of making the world a better place,” followed by several more paragraphs of similar verbiage and a separate sheet with suggested dollar amounts to donate. Then there are the employees of call centres who, after interrupting your supper, writing or blog-reading session, inevitably start off their spiel by asking, “How are you?” As if they care.

This kind of hypocrisy is extremely irritating — dressing up appeals for funds to make them look like friendly, personal attempts to reach out and befriend. While I’m scribbling out my name and address on the paper junk mail before chucking it in the recycle bin, I can’t help but recall the advice I’ve read in countless blog posts about how authors should present themselves on the internet. Never say, “Buy my book.” Not even, “Please buy my book.” Don’t be annoying — instead, create content readers find so fascinating, they will rush to seek out your books without any appeals from you.

Isn’t this a kind of hypocrisy, though? Let’s face it — most of us indie authors started blogging for one reason:  to create an “author platform” from which we could launch our book marketing strategies. After a while some of us figure out that almost all the folks who follow and read our blogs are other authors, and selling books to them works about as well as selling sand to desert dwellers. By that time we may also have found other reasons for blogging — making connections with fellow authors, creating a body of writing in the form of our blog posts, and so on. But in the background is the refrain, even if faint, “Look at my books, check out my books, please buy my books.” Otherwise, why do we display our books’ cover images in our sidebars, complete with links to where they can be bought?

I admit it — I hate advertising of all kinds. That’s one reason I kissed television goodbye decades ago. I’m an expert at avoiding click-bait on websites, and if the first or second thing I see on a website or blog (yes, even fellow writers’ blogs) is a pop-up plea to sign up for a newsletter, I’m gone. When it comes to advertising my own books, I put myself in the place of the recipient of such appeals and imagine them doing what I do when I recognize a sales pitch.

Writing — creating good quality prose or poetry — is a demanding art, with perfection always receding into the distance. Some writers manage to turn themselves into marketers as well. Good for them. I don’t happen to have a natural inclination for that aspect of the book business, so am walking the indie author path in my own fashion.

 

Rose coloured specs

 

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The Irascible Indie. Part 4: Who Are the Real Writers?

If you’ve read the other parts of this series, you may be thinking it’s about how not to promote your writing. If it inspired anyone to seek out the many blogs offering positive advice on marketing and promotion, so much the better. I admit my approach to these aspects of being my own publisher is lackadaisical. But does that make me a Bad Writer?

This might be an answer…

Writer = one who writes.

Real writer = one who makes one’s living by writing.

Hobby writer/dilettante/fake = one who writes for one’s own amusement, with something other than writing as a source of income.

Is it really so?

Real writers have to market, promote, make business plans, etc. (unless they have publishers who do those things for them). Hobby writers can just put their books out there and hope for the best.

Real writers have to work social media, make connections with their readers, create and maintain their brand. Some, perhaps many, hobby writers do these things too, but their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.

Hobby writers (unless retired with adequate pensions) need to spend most of their time and energy at their day jobs. That leaves only “spare time” for both writing and marketing. Which one do you suppose gets neglected?

Things all writers have in common:

1. A compulsion to write.

2. A desire to have their writing read and recognized.

So the only difference between real writers and hobby writers is that real writers need to make a living from their craft.

This leads to the big questions:

1. Are real writers better at writing than hobby writers?

2. Does any of this matter to readers?

The writing itself may be bad or good, regardless of what kind of writer produces it. Hobby writers, under less compulsion to keep producing new works and marketing their existing ones, may take more time and so turn out work of greater quality. Without the need to direct all their writing to a target market, hobby writers are free to write from inspiration, possibly creating works of originality (or weirdness). On the other hand, career writers must sharpen their game if they want to succeed, so have to pay attention to quality as well as quantity.

All writer-publishers should be aware of the “ugly truth” about the publishing business.

But does this mean if you don’t want to market and promote, or are a dismal failure at it, you’re not a Real Writer?

Of course not! It’s only a problem if you expect to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. Most of us began writing because it’s what we love to do, not in order to set ourselves up for failure and guilt. We all have choices and not everyone is looking for the same rewards, as illustrated by this quote from writer SK Nicholls (commenting on another writer’s blog post about trad vs. indie publishing):  “I have heard people say hobby writers can’t be taken seriously. Only writers writing for money and those who treat writing like a business can succeed. I suppose that depends on your point of view and your definition of success. It certainly isn’t mine.”

It’s crucial to maintain a balance between your expectations of whatever constitutes success for you (money earned, readers attracted, awards bestowed) and the effort you are willing to put into marketing and promotion. The gap may in rare instances be bridged by good luck or magic (but don’t count on that).

For readers, there’s really no point in worrying about whether the writer of a book you are considering is a real writer or a mere hobbyist. Some readers will not read anything that has not been endorsed by critics or reviewers, but most look at the story first. If the story interests and excites them, then they want to know more about the author.

Who are the Real Writers? All of us — all who write with passion and energy, striving to perfect our art. How good we happen to be at selling our work is another matter. There are professional writers and writers who prosper financially, but those are subsets of the broad category. We are all writers.

So endeth the series. The Irascible Indie goes back to reading, mulling, questioning and writing. (And with spring just around the corner, add gardening to that list).

The Irascible Indie. Part 3: My Target Market?

Having read any number of exhortations to writers to “Know your target market,” I ask myself — what is my target market? Haven’t got a clue, except — wait for it — people who really want to read my books, of course!

Which is pretty lame.

I suspect it’s related to the fact that I don’t write in a standard genre.

But really, does every writer start writing with a specific group of people in mind, tailoring their work to please that group? I think not.

Many writers start to write because they’ve been haunted for years by a story plot or a character. Finally, the opportunity arises and they embody the plot or character in words. With luck, the piece of writing takes on a life of its own and compels the writer to keep on writing until all is resolved and an end is reached. Now that it’s so easy to publish, many works are rushed into print (or ebook format) without any thought for a potential market.

This may be naive, foolish even, but surely not evil.

The writer who wants to make a career of writing, or merely to supplement their income in a reliable way — that writer needs to think about a target market, to write within the constraints of a genre, to direct their marketing efforts toward readers of that genre, and to find ways of creating a fruitful relationship with those readers. Those of us who need not depend on our writing for our livelihoods, and have the luxury to write from inspiration alone, need not fret about markets.

But readers, fans, a devoted following? What writer doesn’t want that? The trick is to find these readers and to know who they are.

In the old days of traditional print-on-paper publishing, authors had no way of knowing who bought their books. People went to bookstores, picked up books they found interesting, paid for them and went away. Even when authors held book-signing sessions, they didn’t ask the people who wanted their books signed to leave their names and addresses. Only real “fans” (in the original sense of “fanatics”) who bothered to write to an author’s publisher would impart such information, but they were a minute minority.

Clever authors now use a variety of enticements to obtain readers’ email addresses and build contact lists they can use to inform those who have bought their books when new ones are to be issued. Not so clever (or lazy) authors do not.

Another piece of advice with apparent logic on its side is to think about the interests of potential readers and to frequent online hangouts where those folks gather. All right, so my books were inspired by a story written by H.P. Lovecraft. HPL has a huge number of fans, and there is a multitude of Lovecraft-related blogs and discussion venues to check out. Have I done that? Well, yes. Sort of. But I don’t really have much to say to video gamers and I don’t relate well to tentacles.

Well, how about other elements found in my books? The funeral business, for example. Physicians and surgeons. There are plenty of places where these topics are featured, but somehow I can’t see attempting to insinuate myself into professional discussions of these groups in any credible way, lurking and contributing until one fine day I can let slip the fact that I’ve written novels featuring a doctor who once worked as an undertaker and has an interest in revivifying corpses. Oh, and his best pal is a librarian.

For that matter, I am a librarian — a cataloguer, in fact, just like the narrator of my first book. I belong to a very active discussion list about cataloguing and related matters, but I would never dream of mentioning my books in that venue. It’s simply not done.

This business of targeting a market is yet another of the potential arenas of failure that surround the indie author/self-publisher. Even when making a living from writing isn’t a necessity, being inept at marketing is yet another club we can use to beat ourselves with. Rather than seize it and administer blows to our egos, I suggest we treat ourselves more kindly, administering humour when possible. Let’s be grateful for being able to publish our own work as easily as we now can, recognizing that some of us are better at selling our creations than others. And we’re lucky to have a community of fellow indies online with whom we can share our woes and wisdom.

 

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.