I have seen far too many ‘gurus’ chime in on this subject, and after nearly a year in the business of growing a digital publishing company, I feel like I have some value-add to bring to the mix. I’m not a ‘guru’ and do not ever want to be considered one, but I have been doing this for a while now, and I’ve observed some things you might find usesful. It’s worth the effort, I think, to try and get it all into perspective in my own mind.
First of all, books are books. Stephen King’s eBooks sell better than those of a new writer no one has heard of. Blogs about and reviews of Stephen King books get more notice than those of lesser-known authors, and generate more sales. Authors – in short – who were already popular before putting their titles out in eBook format are still more popular than authors who were not. Authors who bring an audience from mass market publishing to their eBooks sell better than those with no track record. These are facts, and no amount of blogging, posturing, or tears will change them.
So what do you do?
There are solid answers. Covers matter. That said, you don’t need to go out and break the bank on a professional cover designer to get a very good, commercial cover. I’ve done some extensive analysis on our titles, and I can tell you that there is absolutely ZERO evidence in my data to show that the cover art is a huge factor unless it is godawful. If your little brother did it in Microsoft Paint, or you let Calibre generate it for you, or the colors are all mis-matched, you’re going to lose sales for the same reason a similar cover would not work on a print book. It looks amateurish.
That said, there is a lot that can be done with Photoshop, and there are people out there with some amazing artwork that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. You just have to look for them. Join the community at Deviant Art and meet some of the wonderful artists there. Browse the public domain photo sites. You may pay some for the rights to an image, but you can often find one you’ll like for a very reasonable price – or even free. Then all you need is to study some books, see what sort of font and text arrangement appeals to you, and find someone capable of dropping it onto your image. All that is a fancy way of saying – most of you aren’t going to make hundreds of dollars on your eBook right off the bat, and investing a bunch of cash in a cover is a serious risk that isn’t really necessary, in my opinion (and experience). Some of the covers we’ve used that I think are the most mundane have resulted in great selling titles, and several titles with amazing covers have not done well at all.
Copy-editing and format matter. If you just run a word document through some conversion program and slap it up, it’s not going to look good. If you don’t get at least one other set of eyes carefully going over your work, it’s not going to read well – it’s going to have typos. Almost no-one is perfect enough to write without errors…and though you may see them easily in another person’s work, you may also NOT catch them in your own. Do yourself a favor and – even if you have to pay a small fee for it – find a proof-reader worth their salt. Then salt them.
On most eBook sites you can assign “Tags” to your books. This might seem trivial, but it is not. There are whole groups out there cross-tagging one another’s books to bring the numbers of people “agreeing” with them high enough to bump them up the search ranks. On Amazon, for instance, if you search the word BLOOD – the book with the highest ranking on that search term is going to come up first. Also, books that have the word BLOOD in their title may start getting that book listed in the “related” products and sent out in “you might also be interested in” e-mail notices.
Price matters. If you are a known quantity,and you present new, original work, you can get more for your eBook. If you are NOT a known quantity, or if you are bringing back older work that can be bought used and cheap in print editions, don’t be greedy. If you charge the $2.99 league minimum at Amazon, you will get more per sale than you ever got from a print publisher per sale by a huge factor. Print books pay (average) 4-10 percent royalty. If you sell your book through Crossroad Press – for instance – you get 80 percent of $2.05 (about what Amazon pays us per sold title after deducting their “delivery” fee) – that’s a good chunk per sale, and it adds up fast. We sell new, original works higher – $3.99 and $4.99 – and those seem to be workable prices as well, but keep in mind what you are asking of your readers. Ignore everything else and buy my book. Give them as many reasons as you can.
Do a good write-up for the book. I sometimes have a hard time getting my authors to help with this, and I do what I can, but a good solid “hook” in the product description is crucial. In print publishing you usually have little or no input to what the publisher puts up as a description, but here – in the digital world – you can write it and even change it with impunity.
When you get reviews, respond to them positively, even the bad ones. Never drop to thelevel of a sour-voiced reviewer. You’re just playing into their game, and you’ll regret it before all is said and done. Remain professional.
Visit forums and bulletin boards and blogs that are related to a: your genre and b: eBooks in general. Be a pro-active part of their communities before blowing your own horn, or it will backfire.
Make sure your author info is available. Set up your Amazon Author’s Page. Set up your Smashwords profile. If you get reviews complaining about typos – proofread and re-publish. Never believe that because someone else did a thing, you can copy what they did and it will work for you…it’s not going to. Each book, and each author, is unique in some way, and requires an individual approach.
Product, product, product. If you have words sitting around out of print, or languishing for years without publication, I suggest you dust them off and get them out there. A body of work in eBook format can generate steady sales much more quickly and reliably than one, or two eBooks. One thing is certain – a story or novel on your hard drive for ten years unread made you no money at all.
The bottom line is – you don’t need a guru. You need hard work, patience, attention to detail, and the same bit of luck you always needed to succeed. It’s easier to get IN the door of digital publishing, but the doors are open very wide. In the old days readers clamored at the publishing door for more to read. Now those doors are big and revolving, and the readers disperse in all directions as they pass through. Latching onto them and drawing them to your work is a whole new ballgame. Pay attention, learn from what you see, don’t let ANYONE tell you the best way to do a thing is”blah blah” unless they can show that “blah blah” has worked for a lot of people over time. And just SAYING that it has worked isn’t enough. Show me stats on how that new expensive cover built sales. Show me, in other words, the money. And don’t do it by showing me someone already successful.
Also, don’t listen to tales of inflated sales. You can go to Novelrank.com and put in the AISN of any book there and track it. If it’s already being tracked, you just log in and add it to those you are tracking. This way, when someone claims a thousand sales, you can check, and if you see a title upcoming you want to keep an eye on to see if something someone did worked for promotion – you have some (albeit imperfect) stats. I’ve seen some eye-opening whoppers told on the net about huge sales that I observed personally through Novel Rank to be much smaller. Keep in mind that Novel Rank is not perfect, and that it only tracks from the moment you START tracking, so any sales prior to that you can’t see. Hype is what it is.
I am happy to offer advice if asked, but that’s all it is. I don’t know how to make your book sell better for CERTAIN – I only know what is working at Crossroad Press. We’ve grown in leaps and bounds, sales are up (best month ever happening now).
One last thing…Kindle Nation Daily sponsorship. While this is not a guaranteed success – I have found that if you listen to them – go in with a good cover price, a decent cover, at least a couple of good reviews on your book already (and not fluffy, gushing ones either – real reviews) – you can generate a good number of sales that last over several days…
We have sponsored several books there, and at least three of them did very, very well. I would recommend their service to anyone.
Enough for one day…
One of the most popular subjects among authors and those who study authors is that of influences. It is a natural trait of those who teach writing, and those who study writing, to want to know cause and effect – to see if there is a combination of outside events and internal decisions behind the success, or lack of success, of a given writer’s work. When I’m asked about my influences, it can send me into a tirade, or drop me back into reflective silence. It all depends on context, and where my mind is at the moment the subject is breached.
It’s easy to get caught up in analysis. Nobody works in a void. Someone influenced every creative voice in history, and the two –pronged question is how much, and does it really matter? If you ask the question directly you may get a pat answer filled with all the right names. You may get a group of avante garde trailblazers, or a group of the most popular, financially successful authors working. You might get movies and relatives and heroes and mentors, but what you will never get is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
You can interpret the question more than one way. Who influenced me? Well, popular authors influence me all the time; some of them because I love and devour their work, like Stephen King and John Grisham. Others because their phenomenal popularity has struck a chord with the world, and I want to be a chord-striker too – even if I can’t get interested in their writing. Dan Brown is a good example for me. I know that millions of people enjoy his fiction, but for me – if it’s an influence – it’s on the choice of subject matter; I don’t care for his writing style at all.
I think the question goes much deeper than what other writers have influenced you, though. There are things that form you as a person, and when writing is at its best – as you might gather from the title of this work – I think it is very personal. The writing and the writer are not far removed from one another, and so, whatever influenced the formation of the writer is what influenced the writing. Religion – philosophy – experience – relationships – all of that, and so much more. What music do you listen to? Why? When did you listen to that music, and what was happening in your life. Do you like art? What artists – what types of art – why? Who introduced you to them, and why do they stick with you.
There are too many influences in a writer’s life to categorize them all. I think you can break them down into categories though – or periods. I grew up in small-town Illinois. I was a nerdy book reader, not great at sports but participated anyway, picked on by several different groups and types of other students and friends with some great kids. From that period I brought Vonnegut, Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Tolkein with me. I left behind The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Abraham Lincoln and Kenneth Roberts, whose historical autobiographies kept me glued to the page for days at a time and taught me the truth behind history – that it’s rewritten again and again and really just a form of fiction. The book that set me straight told the full story of Benedict Arnold, who was far from the traitor we are taught in school. I also left behind a ton of comic books, and somehow never re-acquired the love of reading them I had as a boy.
What came next were my US Navy years. I brought from those Stephen King, Salvador Dali, the music of Steeleye Span and a thousand rock groups, the ability to play guitar and the first few novels of my career. I left behind mountains of fantasy trilogies, elves, goblins, and other such critters, even as I moved to and through Dean Koontz and on to Clive Barker. I also left behind my first publishing venture – a magazine called The Tome – the editing of which was eye-opening and deeply influential on my career, as well as my writing.
I’m cutting each of these periods far short. I visited countries and continents in the US Navy, lived in Spain, joined a Bike Club (Tiburon MC) – visited Masada and Jerusalem, Rome and Pisa and Florence, Greece and Crete. I loved and lost and married and divorced. In other words, I lived – a lot. All of that is in my writing if you look for it, though it may not be easily discernible to anyone who didn’t share all of that experience (a person, in other words, who does not exist).
You can gain absolutely nothing from huge chunks of your life and be influenced forever by just a few moments. What you take from a book might be a short quote you can’t shake, a style of getting a particular bit of plot or information across, a conversational tic. Stephen King’s characters often say, “I had an idea that,” or “I had the idea that,” and that sticks with me. I haven’t used it, but I recognize it in his work and smile when I see it.
Since we’re still in the introductory part of this book, I’m going to close the door on this influence thing for a while with the note that throughout the pages of this book, the things that have influenced me will become apparent. I’ll tell you stories. I’ll reference other writers and talk about thing I like or do not like in their work. I’ll say repeatedly that all opinions are subjective, and that these are just mine…something I have learned to say through the influence of Mr. Richard Rowand, editor of the late and much missed STARSHORE MAGAZINE – who published my first major genre piece, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” which later became the novel “This is My Blood.” He used to tell us – right before hacking our work to bits – that we should keep in mind that all reviews are subjective.
Before I continue, I’m going to sit back and listen to some Hank Williams Senior and follow that with Charlie Johnson’s Birdland – music picked up while being influenced by Poppy Z. Brite’s novel “Drawing Blood,” though ol’ Hank was with me since my childhood (and you can read about that in my novel Deep Blue). Onward.
Back in high school I had some unique individuals as teachers. One, for instance, was Mr. Montz. I may be botching the spelling of his name, it doesn’t matter. Mr. Montz was famed throughout the school, both for being the best and the strangest history professor in the school’s own history. Mr. Montz began with each new class by listing Montz’s Laws on the blackboard. I don’t remember all of them, but there are a few that stuck with me. A Student is one who studies. An instructor presents information. A Teacher is one who teaches.
And Mr. Montz was a teacher. Some of his students were allowed not to attend class at all. He made the deal first day that if you came to class on the day of exams and maintained an “A” average you did not have to come to class. Everyone came anyway. He was also very adamant to suggest welding schools near you if you were not doing well. He did this in an non-insulting manner in which you knew your best interest was at heart. You never knew whether he would be talking about the American Revolution, or reading to the class from the Just-So stories by Rudyard Kipling. He had the perfect voice for it – and I’ll never forget hearing him read about the Great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River. I’ll also never forget that I learned in his class – that it was what education should be about. Not a list of deadlines, some memorized facts that sift in and out of the brain and disappear. Lessons – some about history, others about life. He was a great teacher.
I was probably blessed when it came to teachers. My creative writing teacher, Nell Wiseman, still teaches (I think) and has won acclaim for her work in Illinois education. I wrote a great number of poems in her class – that is what I remember best. We had to complete a poetry notebook that was turned in to an Illinois women’s literary society (don’t recall which one). First prize was something like $10 – more money then than it is now. I wrote what I thought was a very creative poetry notebook, and one of my poems – the Ballad of Daniel Dunn (notice the alliteration?) won second prize. What I remember best is that my poem about a bear caught in a forest fire due to a careless smoker won first prize.
Except I never got that prize. I had sold the poem (and an entire second poetry notebook) to a friend. He won first prize, and he didn’t’ even share the money. That was the down side. The up side is that at that moment in time, I knew I could write. I was certain of it. I had competed against all of the kids in my school who thought they might be interested in creative writing, and I’d taken first and second place. Of course, I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be able to write…that knowledge came years later…but it was the start.
I also had a teacher named Mrs. Plath. She was a very strict disciplinarian, but she truly seemed to love books. In her class I discovered Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (I had to go to the desk and ask her after reading most of the book if she was aware of all that happened in that book because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for writing about it). I also wrote a long poem called The Torture Chamber (lost to history) as an extra credit assignment, and a short story titled “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.” That story, years later, was rewritten and actually published in 365 Scary Stories. Even at that age I was writing the sort of thing that would draw my creative attention later in life – and fairly well, I think. Still…I didn’t take it as seriously as I needed to. Later in this book I’ll talk about turning points, and how I think my career would be different if I’d applied myself even a little bit sooner than I did, but that is digression.
My early life was filled with teachers. My grandfather, an absolutely amazing man, taught me a lot about life – about being honest – about working with my hands. He took me fishing and taught me to polish stones to make jewelry. He taught me to make a Vinegar Sling and the wonders of foods like “brains and eggs” and homemade yogurt by the mason jar. He escaped a nursing home once, stole his own car from his house (a bronze VW bug) and drove it eighty miles to my house for a visit. He was a great man, and he blessed me with a plethora of images, ideas, and stories that continue to color and populate the worlds and stories I create.
You never know when you will encounter a teacher. You never know what the lessons will be, or when you’ll put those lessons to use. I was fortunate enough to have a wide range of influences at a very early age, and to be gifted with the sort of memory that not only recorded them all in detail, but that can sift them and rearrange them and put them to good use. The best of your stories come from your life; the things that have mattered to you, brought you to tears, scared the crap out of you and brought you to your knees with pain. All the rest is trappings and fluff…the important words flow when you are writing with emotion.
Most of what I’ve written that I believe matters in more than a superficial way came to me when I was writing what hurts. That’s what this book is about, at its core. Writing what hurts, what blinds, what uplifts and what captivates. Writing in that zone where the world fades, and you disappear into the words. Writing things that, when others read them, make you hold your breath and cringe in the fear that they’ll hate them, or not understand them, or laugh…
I suppose a book about writing needs to be broken into sections of some sort. Characters. Plots. The tools of the trade. I’ll get to all of that. First I want to establish the ground floor of this house of cards. I call it that because, in the face of someone else’s methods, dreams, and career, all that I write might blow away like it was caught in a stiff wind. Writing is a solitary occupation, and no two writers occupy the same little world, in the end. You take what you can use, discard the rest, and focus on the work. Let’s get to it.
Okay, I am one of the least likely people on the planet to utter a racial slur. I fully understand that perception can be everything, and that many of our children have a hard time disassociating themselves from modern culture when experiencing history. My seventeen year old son watched “Blazing Saddles” with us last year and was horrified by the same thing that bothers people (apparently) about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…that stupid “n” word.
But there is no excuse for watering down classic literature. Mark Twain didn’t write Native American or slave into his original text, and I don’t want my kids reading the book some new, less dynamic way just to shield them from what bastards their grandfathers and (in many cases) fathers) were. Why not just write into our textbooks that things didn’t really happen the way they did and …oh. Wait. They’re doing that too.
Listen up, you mooks. This is not just ridiculous, it’s dangerous. Throughout history the civilizations that allowed their history to be rewritten to political or social agenda were almost always the same ones reviled by future generations. If we change the way things were, we not only do a disservice to our own heritage, but we risk losing the truth in the shuffle…teach the kids why the language is the way it is in Mark Twain. Discuss it. Learn from it. Don’t change it so it’s just a nice little story about two boys…
God only knows what they’ll want to do to my books – but I can tell you – libraries across the country carry them currently – and now, along with the fear of dropping into obscurity – I can add the notion that I might become censored, or known for writing something in language that isn’t even my own.
In the words of Brittany’s defender on Youtube… “Leave Twain alone, man…”
There are two more days until we uproot everything we own and move it about twenty minutes away from where it now rests. That probably seems a lot less significant when you put it that way than it really is. Honestly, we’re moving from a 100 year old historic home to a brand new home. We’re going to save a lot on utilities and taxes. We’re going to halve all commutes and school trips. We’re going to have a house without drafts, where the doors and windows work…there are are many other things.
As a writer and publisher, I hope it will free up more time, help me organize the clutter, and in general give me a better attitude. All of these are productive things moving into a new year. I hope it will bring more serenity to the family. I hope we’ll like the new place, the neighborhood, and the situation. I don’t know where my computer will sit, or where I’ll write – that will be new.
Still, I can’t imagine anything more refreshing than a total reboot, and that’s basically what has been accomplished here. I won’t take much credit for it – Trish worked long and hard to find a place; providence dropped buyers into our lap in a market when we had no good expectation of finding one…the stars apparently aligned. I’m good with that.
Exciting things will happen with publishing this year – both digital and audio – and if all works out, even some print. Who knows? Maybe the long-awaited book featuring myself and Neil Gaimain writing fiction inspired by the art of Lisa Snellings will happen. I believe it might…we are one story away, and Neil has begun writing it.
For now, I have to wait. In a few days, we’ll be in a new place. I’ll have more to say then. For now, I will fill the hours with the current ghost-writing project and some publishing catch-up…
Change that makes a difference…
Among the myriad things I do, the one that is probably most important to me is writing. I don’t want that to sound like writing comes before my life, happiness, family – it doesn’t. What I mean is – there are a lot of answers to the question: “What do you do?” – and I usually shift that question in my mind to – “What are you?” I’m a writer and a personal statement writer . When I’m awake, on some level, the words are churning. I may not sit down and process them immediately. I may not even realize when something is coalescing that will become a work of fiction, but I’m always doing it. I’m aware it can be a character flaw, but it’s not something you can put on and take off at will. In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor, “I am what I am.”
With that in mind – I’ve been working on a semi-autobiographical book on writing and my writing process…I’m going to start at the beginning and post it here in pieces. Once a week. Also, there is a category titled “Writing What Hurts” and that’s where you’ll find the posts as I write them. Hopefully by year’s end, I’ll have enough for a book…if not, the catharsis should be more than worth the journey. I give you – Part I:
There are a lot of books on writing, and I honestly hesitated before deciding to add to the woodpile. I’m a reasonably successful author, but I have no best-sellers behind me at this point in my career. You won’t find my books face out in any bookstore I haven’t visited personally, and to date no cable company or network genius has commissioned a mini-series for one of my novels.
When I thought about it, I realized there are also a lot of different types of books on writing. There are those with formulas and instructions. There are those laid out like a syllabus for and English Composition course, and there are others – like Stephen King’s “On Writing” – that are as much about the writer as they are about the craft.
Then there is the fact that writing is only a small part of the magic. I am also a reader, have been addicted to the written word from a very young age. I have written endless reviews, essays, and commentary on stories told in every imaginable format. There’s value in that. I have been a publisher, and an editor. I have mentored authors who are making their own marks now, and helped to discover others.
All of that winds down into the same barrel, I suppose. I think if I’m careful, I can dip out all the most important parts and share them. I’ve seen a half-century of life, and at least half of that was spent with the following words on my lips and embedded in my mind. “I’m a writer.”
That’s what I told people who asked what I planned to do with my life. It’s what I told people when I joined the US Navy at age 17 and set out to see the world. It’s what I continued to say, despite the fact that all I’d written for a very long time at that point was poetry, none of which I’d shown to more than half a dozen people, and the lyrics to songs that never made it to the stage.
Then, while stationed in Rota, Spain, I started reading Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer. I read the adds, and the articles. I thought about what I might actually write. I even started working on a novel – a young-adult fantasy where the last of the magical creatures of the world appeared near Chicago for one last shot at putting the world back the way it once was – back to a time where magic worked. What happened, in the end of that story, was that the city demanded taxes, and the government sent the army…it ended with the heroes carried off by Valkyries. It was horrible (not the idea, so much as the execution).
I, of course, thought I was a genius, and that the only thing between myself and publication was the act of actually writing something down. Time passed, and my service in Spain ended. My wife at the time, Chrissy, was also in the Navy, so we worked a deal to be stationed together in Norfolk, VA.
A lot of things happened in a short period of time. I took a course from Writer’s Digest School, for one. My assigned instructor was Jerry (J. N.) Williamson. Jerry had dozens of published horror novels to his credit at that point, and his list was growing fast. He also had two other important things. He had an innate ability to teach, and he had connections. I’ll get to why the connections were important eventually. Let’s start with a simple statement.
I have always said that I am a writer. I don’t believe that became a true statement until after I finished that course, and I will always be grateful for Jerry’s help and guidance. He was one of the nicest and most helpful professionals I’ve met in a long career, and he is sorely missed.
So, that is the first thing I’ll say to you. If you are reading this because you have always said you were a writer, but have not really written anything, taken it seriously, or agonized over it – I hope I can be the one who pushes you off the brink – or pulls you back and sends you on your way without getting hooked. I think that writing is either a mild form of insanity, or a particularly tricky form of therapy. Either way, it can consume your world if you aren’t careful – and if you are, it can leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Sounds great, eh? Believe me when I say, we’re just getting started.
It is not an easy thing to erase (well I didn’t erase it, but I backed up and removed it – very similar) years of posts and words and thoughts and images. Sometimes, though, it’s a necessary thing. Purging, they say, is good for the soul. I think that applies to blogs, possibly even better than it actually applies to souls. I think that the experience of running this blog for so long will aid me in making it a better, simpler, more organized way for readers, authors, friends, and family to keep up with me. If Facebook / whateverstream / Twitter / Etc. all fail or drop away, I will have this place. Most of what I post in those other streams will originate here … that is the plan, anyway.
For now, I have updated to my most recent bio – and I have added images and links for the greater part of my books. Next I’ll do a similar page for my audiobooks. We’ll see what else gets added – stories, at some point, though I dread re-inventing the wheel on that. I already did a really cool online tracking thing in PHP for my stories – but it was too complicated, and I stopped updating it a while back, and so – it’s no longer accurate, and unlikely to become so…and I move on.
What do YOU think?
I’ve been horrifyingly silent here at the ol’ blog…and I believe the reason for this is that it is no longer the same thing to me it once was. That was a place to spout off, to try and market, to talk about what’s new and fascinating…and though all of that is still part of my life, the focus has shifted.
Now there is the writing, Crossroad Press, which has taken off like I never expected, and family. Beyond that it’s difficult to find time to post. What I intend to do is to re-invent this blog into something that fits those three priorities and blends with them … a place that presents my writing, links to my publishing company, and gives me an outlet for the other things I enjoy without being so busy and crowded and crazy. I have downloaded the blog, and I’ll import it into an archive and dig through it for things that are really important…I can bring those back shortly.
Expect the shift near the first of the year…and to those of you who still come here occasionally to see if I am writing anything…I am. Just not here. Soon…
For now…Merry Christmas…