On the anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s death, I happened to have the chance to watch the new HBO remake of Fahrenheit 451. I’ve been a Bradbury fan since I was a teen—I even have a 451 tattoo that I’ve been designing for some time now and hope to get inked soon.
And while I was not overly impressed with the new HBO remake—it fell flat for me and seemed like there were a lot of missed opportunities and felt too rushed—and didn’t use one of the best lines which just happens to be on my tattoo design it did get me to thinking about some things. My youth, my love of all things Bradbury. But mostly, my life since becoming a digital author and rethinking my stance on physical books—actual printed records of our words and why we NEED them.
When I was a teen, Bradbury’s books opened me up to a world that was so much bigger than the bubble I was forced to live in, something I’m eternally grateful for. I recall vividly on the day of his death, that only thirty minutes before it was broadcast that he’d passed, I’d named him as a personal hero and influence on my own writing path during an author event I was taking part in. And although during a meh HBO remake, Ray’s voice still rang through loudly and has opened up my mind again.
Of the books I sell, 99% are digital. My main focus these last few years has been almost entirely on my digital creations. Over the last year, as KDP print emerged and rumors abound that createspace would close, I even debated pretty hardcore about doing away with print altogether. Because one, I sell so few paper copies is it even worth it, and two, going digital saves trees and is eco-friendlier, and three, publishing only digital content is so much easier and it’s what the people want, right?
I’ve heard the argument so many times about how physical books will never really die because there is something visceral about holding a real book in your hands. And while I agree that there is something special about a real book, and I do still own, buy, and read physical books (three guesses which author has a permanent stack of books on my nightstand—his name rhymes with Bay Radbury), I have kept my professional focus on digital and moved a huge part of my personal life toward digital, and had come to see paper as an art form dying a slow, inevitable death. Something to be accepted and even embraced as an author in this digital age.
Until in the middle of watching 451 when a sickening feeling welled up inside me that suddenly had me shaking in my slippers as I pictured a world gone totally digital and all our precious words wiped out, without any permanent record. What an absolutely terrifying thought that was to imagine.
Digital = Impermanence.
Easy to erase.
Easy to become non-existent.
The quickest way to ban content, ever.
Our digital words can be taken away without notice. Whether by a group of people in charge, or an overnight fictional horror story come to life and our digital devices no longer work… or… think up your own nightmare—you’re an author 😉
In some ways, this is already happening with all the banhammers slamming down lately for content and whatnot, a bad enough scenario already. But I think it has become too easy to forget how fragile the digital world really is. It is this seemingly giant TOO BIG TO FAIL (we’ve heard that before) ecosystem.
We fear our words being stolen and freely and unfairly spread across the digital universe. But do our words even truly exist if they’re only living in this digital universe? And now we have a generation of young people growing up, unaware of this potential fragility. And if not completely so now, we’re not too many years away from this.
And while I still fully embrace the digital world, because I love it, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon, I fully intend to reinstate my efforts to keep paper alive. Not just for my own books, but for the good of human-freaking-kind. Perhaps, someday, I’ll even open my own bookstore.
I absolutely do not want to face a future where are voices are no longer recorded in some permanent way, or have our younger generations growing up without the knowledge of what it means to have this, or how easily their voices could be stripped away without it.
If we ever end up in a society where our words are silenced, I, at the least, want to have a physical book to fight back with as it’s harder to destroy something you can hold, versus something that only exists in the digital universe.
So, Paper—I’ve been absent from caring about you for too long, but I’m back now baby and full on in love again.
Thanks, Ray. Your lessons are timeless 😊 and have changed my life so many times now. The power of words and imagination is a beautiful fucking thing.
I’ve been publishing for several years now and had the chance to work with extremely amazing people. The stories have ranged from heartfelt successes to humorous failures. I’ve sat with million dollar earners as well as authors struggling to make a single sale. What I’ve noticed as a big difference between the two, the successful author is able to remove their ego, package it up, set it on the shelf, and shush it when necessary. I admit there is an artistry to the craft we’ve undertaken, but great art does not equate to sales and often times this ego rearing its ugly head is the author’s biggest dilemma. I’m here to drop a truth bomb, your ego, it’s got to go.
Let me amend where I’m going with this statement. This is targeted to the author looking to make a career from writing (which means making $$$.) This is not targeted to the authors who write as a passion project. However, if you hope to have your passion project seen by the world, or at least more than your family, this is very much directed toward you. I wrote for passion for many years (and still do at times) so I never want to discredit or tell an author how their journey should be directed. But herein lies the conflict, when authors, even passion project authors, want their work read by many, but refuse to see their authorship as a career. So let’s start with major mistakes.
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Bookshelves are a thing of the past.
There is this romantic image of an author casually browsing a bookstore and stumbling upon their work. They may ask to sign it, the store rewards them in free lattes and by some bit of magic, throngs of fans arrive demanding story time. Let’s be frank here, this is not the case. Angela Lansbury and Castle are fictional. The romantic image of the writer is 99.9% myth. And I’m not sure about you, but I don’t build a career on the possibility of winning the lottery (which has nearly identical odds.)
Consumers are steadily growing, but they’re not growing in the bookstore sector. We can see this with the demise of Borders and the frequent profit loss reports of Barnes & Noble (which is kicking and screaming to its grave.) If you do out the math of what is selling in bookstores, you’ll find most often it’s only the .1% that is making sales worth it. I’ve met multiple authors who have gone to bookstores and set up sales channels only to find the books do not fly on the shelves like they imagined. I write superhero novels, and I thought putting them in comic shops would be a great market plan. After countless hours, I managed to get them into several stores where almost none sell. If I did the sales and divided by the time spent, I probably made about $.10 an hour.
Remove the romance of writing from your business model. Push to where the market is strongest, and for many, this is online. This goes with the determination of selling physical books in online stores. Do not ignore them by any means, but also realize an ebook sale is often easier, faster, and selling in bulk can be more profitable in the long run. Don’t let your ego get in the way of letting go of outdated mentalities.
Book signing events
This is where I admit my ego often rears its ugly head. I’m an introvert by choice, but every now and then, I want to go out and bask in the glow of my admiring fans. I set up a book signing event and expect the line down the street, where people will let me sign their chests (it’s happened!) and kiss their babies. To my amazement I’m sitting alone gabbing with employees basking in the smell of fresh books. Poor.
We all have our vices, this one is mine. The reality of the matter is, unless you’re well-known, you’re not going to have people showing up to your signings. Or if you do, it’s people who would have bought your books without needing a hand sale.Most bookstores do not have the budget to advertise more than a social media post or a sandwich sign out front. The four hours I spend at a bookstore, is time lost doing something else, like selling books or writing. When I factor in the payout at the end of my last couple author events, I probably made nearly $.25 an hour and maybe met six people, five of who just know me and want to hang out. My ego is burning money, creating anxiety, and ultimately, disappointing me. But let’s be honest, this is where my vice will probably never let up.
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Libraries can be a time suck.
I am the son of a librarian. I support libraries. Librarians are some of the most underrated superheroes in the universe and should be sung about. With that being said, getting your book onto library shelves can be tedious, a waste of time if you over invest, and ultimately, not reward anything other than your ego. I have sent mailer cards to every library in the state (multiple states even.) My sales from this? Of over six hundred libraries, I sold three books. That didn’t cover the shipment or hours wasted sending release notices to librarians.
Do not discount libraries as part of your marketing plan, just make sure you’re investing a reasonable amount of time and money. My new strategy to help myself and still reach these golden bastions of information is to reach out to my newsletter and ask my fans to inquire about my book at their libraries. It takes a few minutes of my time, my fans do the leg work, the library sees interest in my title, and ultimately, I’m helping support libraries. This level of time commitment, it’s a smart business decision. Losing hundreds of dollars pushing your books onto librarians, not so much.
Industry reviews are not reader reviews.
So you’ve decided your ego needs a huge boost or a huge slam. You’re ready to go for one of those fabled, massive, professional recognized reviews. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, and you’re hoping they like your book and give it a positive review. You’re gambling. You’re gambling your reputation and your money. Your ego has reared its ugly head and it demands that you be recognized for your hard work. But when was the last time, a reader went to read these reviews? Sure you can add it to your Amazon product description that you received the golden star of the BigCompanyReview.
Honestly, when was the last time you, as a reader paid attention to that? I go to book pages because I either like the author and buy everything they write, or I browse and look at people reviews. I don’t care what some big company said about your book, I want to know what fans, people like me, have to say about your book. I want social proof that I won’t be let down.
These big review sites, they’re for professional ego stroking. Would I like to have BigCompanyReview tell me how much they love my work? Sure. But not for the money it requires and not at the risk of a bad review. The worst part, of the people I know who have received glowing recommendations, nearly all of them agree, the reviews have not made them sales. So then why get them? The determination for peer acceptance? Or is it our ugly friend again, the ego?
Books alone are not always viable.
This is aimed at the authors looking to make writing their full-time career. It’s a hard pill to swallow. My personal dream is to live in a remote cabin, write manuscript after manuscript and roll around in my money. Truth is, my writing alone isn’t going to cut it. I’m doing well, and reaching my personal goals, but the big goal is to be a career author. I’m finding my revenue is starting to shift from writing of books and now includes audio and boxsets. It’s still my writing, but it’s not solely books.
You may find that a combination of writing and patreon is your solution. It could be speaking engagements and writing are your thing. You as an author may write books, but that is not your only marketable skill. Diversifying your revenue streams to include a little here and there will eventually add up. I’ll keep praying that I land a movie deal, but I can’t put all my chips on a long shot.
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A business requires goals.
The idea that you are a writer is a glamorous life filled with Starbucks, late night inspirations, and falling in love with fictional people. It is also a job, and at times, your boss will be the biggest pain in the ass. But that boss is pushing your business toward a goal. These goals do not need to be large and mighty. Most often the best business plan has small steps. These small achievable goals push us toward the greater goal, no matter where you define success.
I’m going to give you a small exercise, and I think it’s important, so be a trooper and join me.
- Take a sheet of paper and at the top, write and finish the statement: My goal as an author is… Make it a single overarching goal. Perhaps look at it as your ten-year goal.
- Make three columns
- In the left column, take ten minutes and write down every thing you do as a writer. Include your writing habits, your marketing, your events. Literally try to write as many things as you can think that you’ve done in your author career journey. For me, it might be: attend cons, ams ads, facebook ads, writer conference X, attend author expo, manage NESW, boxset promotion, audio books….
- In the center column, this is where it gets a bit difficult. You need to write how each item in the left column achieves your greater goal. You need to be honest here. No inflating the purpose. Some of these you might not know if you haven’t done them yet. This is where you can ask people who have. Never attended a convention to sell books, ask veteran sellers, they’ll be honest about their goals. Never done a book signing event and not sure how it might achieve your goal, ask.
- Now here’s the part I find authors have the most difficulty doing. Tape that paper somewhere in your office. Each time you execute one of the items on the left column, write the result in the right column. If it does not achieve that goal in the center, kill it. If it does, then make notes. If it did something unexpected, it’s time to rewrite how it’s achieving your greater goal.
- Stick with it. You’ve just unknowingly created a business plan. It might be loose, it might be incomplete, but you’ve started. This works for authors seeking a career, hobbyist, and even the causal, “I do it for the love.”
I will bluntly say, all the above advice should be taken with a grain of salt, a lot of scrutiny, and raked over with your personal and business goals in mind. No person’s career is identical to another and there are numerous paths to be taken. But the one thing I stand by, and I urge people to conquer for the sake of sound decision-making to advance your goals, your ego.
In the digital age, every author needs an online presence. This can manifest in a multitude of ways from social media, to simple newsletter landing pages to full websites. While not many websites offer discoverability for an author, it does offer fans a one-stop-shop for all things related to the author. These digital business cards can also serve a multitude of other purposes such as blogs, online retail, or additional book related content. But what is most important? With nearly twenty years of web design experience and two degrees in graphic design, I decided to the website of several authors at different spots in their authoring journey.
Pros: Straight forward goal to get visitor emails. Streamlined method to see books and buy on third party websites.
Cons: Some additional bells and whistles that serve no purpose. Overkill with the pop up. Merchandise link takes visitor offsite.
Pros: Great visuals on front page. Books are easy to discover. All essential information is easy to find.
Cons: Wasted space and required scrolling. Some information that doesn’t serve business goals. Blog link takes visitor offsite.
Pros: All relevant book information is discoverable.
Cons: Ads. Links take up 1/3 of the real estate. Unnecessary information on sidebar. Links aren’t easily identifiable. Books need buy links. Serves two audiences: authors & readers.
Pros: Books are listed along with buy links.
Cons: Uses non-standard HTML.Blog link takes visitor offsite. Serves two audiences: authors & readers. Uses iframes for blog.
Pros: Gives a good personality of author. Social media is easy to find.
Cons: Cluttered navigation column. Links are “out of reach” at top. Ads. Not providing “conversion” to purchase books.
Pros: All relevant information is available. Fast options for website conversions. Book content comes before author content for increased conversion.
Cons: Each page has too many call to actions. Colors could be jazzed up for more of a website identity.
The biggest question to ask when critiquing the website is “What is the purpose?” For many people, the ego is standing in the way of their website being an effective marketing tool. What is your traffic? Where are people clicking? Quickly it becomes apparent that blogs and reviews of other books which were once the bread and butter of interactivity on a website have gone by the wayside. Using the website as a marketing tool requires a call-to-action, either converting into sales or obtaining information such as an email for continued connection to your patrons. When examining, take off the creative hat, and put on the business hat, because ultimately it is a business tool.
I see this graphic posted quite frequently, or at least some variation. The image changes, as do the numbers that unlock the hidden wonders of Amazon. At least this one has a coherent theme and a sense of pizzazz. Unfortunately, it’s also hogwash.
Now, the importance of reviews can not be expressed or emphasized enough. Think to how you interact with products you’re about to buy on Amazon. Me personally, I read the 1 Star reviews instantly (even before the product description.) I want to know the worst of the product so I can do a personal risk assessment. Without reviews, we’d be buying blind. Let me repeat this: Reviews ARE important, but let’s dispel some common misconceptions.
Myth: After X number of reviews, Amazon includes your book in “also boughts”…
Reality: No. Wrong. Want proof? I have had books with zero reviews appear on multiple also boughts. The Also bought category is not influenced by reviews (or at least nothing I’ve seen quantified.) It is literally based on people’s purchasing decisions and common themes. Buy my book, then buy Twilight, if this happens enough times, I’ll show up in the also bought for Twilight. Reviews be damned. This is about purchasing history. The proof comes from how we can influence these. My fans buy books in both my series, so I see both series in my also boughts. Now that I’ve started using AMS ads targeting people like Robert Kirkman and Max Brooks with my zombie novels, I see them show up in mine and I even showed up in a Walking Dead also bought (short-lived victory, but I got there!)
Myth: After X number of reviews, Amazon highlights the book for spotlight positions…
Reality: No. Wrong. Amazon is not making marketing decisions based on the quantity of reviews. The almighty algorithm is looking at quantity of books being sold. Perhaps the review rating influences this, but it’s not the sole (or even key) decision. This is a case of fame begets fame. You sell 20,000 copies, Amazon will promote you. You have to sell to sell. Frustrating, I know. Amazon does however alert your followers on Amazon or purchasers of your previous books that you’ve released a new book. It’s erratic, not guaranteed, can be months after the release, so do not depend on this. It is nice however when my mom shoots me an email with a screen shot of my book being listed because she buys everything I write. She thinks I’m famous. I perpetuate this lie.
Myth: Reviews can be short, just say, “I liked it.”
Reality: Eh. Kinda false. When was the last time you bought a book because your friend said, “I liked this book.” If you’re going to be short, at least use better descriptors. “I absolutely loved this book.” Okay, now maybe I’ll look at it and leave it in my Amazon cart for three months. Think back to when you went to Amazon and read dozens of reviews with comments under ten words. I’ll give you a moment. You can’t, can you? Because nobody reads these types of reviews. They’re wasted space. Sure, it might lure somebody in to click on your book, “Wow, 200 reviews, this must be amazing.” You get there only to find dozens of one liners. This is starting to look like owed favors and family members trying to do you a solid. In the wake of numerous scams happening on Amazon with reviews, purchased ranks and even authors buying their way onto the USA Today Best Seller chart, appearances matter. Be persistent, but push readers to leave reactions, feedback, hell, I even promote leaving non-5 star reviews (once in a while) to keep things authentic and truthful. It pays off. Watching you what you pay attention to on products, the same goes for your books.
Myth: You don’t need to buy the book to leave a review…
Reality: True, but similar to short reviews. Yes, you can review anything on Amazon regardless of your purchasing. However, unverified reviews (reviews left by people who have not bought your product) are hidden. Their review shows in the total number of reviews, but the actual verbage is hidden unless the customer goes down, clicks on reviews, and then clicks on unverified. That’s a lot of work. To me, the customer, they didn’t buy the book and left a review. Why would I believe a review of a person who didn’t buy the product? I wouldn’t. Yes, again, it helps snag the attention of the customer, “Ohhh, look at all those reviews!” But when you get onto the product page to find almost no reviews are visible (cause how many people truthfully read unverified reviews?) it’s going to start looking shady.
This happens often at the start of a release. You have given out a thousand ARCs and one hundred people have reviewed it. Many have not bought it (some ARC readers are awesome and will also buy your book) so their reviews are not verified. There is a certain forgiveness during launch time that fades quickly. So make sure you continue to promote leaving reviews, but be honest about why they are needed.
Myth: You need X number of reviews for promotions…
Reality: There are many promotional tools out there and many authors utilize “Author Email Promotions.” These are services that will send out your book to their mailing lists. Bookbub is probably the most well-known and coveted. Some are very specific, you need 10 reviews to be eligible. Others are rather ambiguous at best. I only received my Bookbub after I received 40 reviews. Does that mean it’s the magic number? No, but well reviewed books stand a higher chance. Each promotion will state what their needs are. I believe the most I’ve seen is 10 required to promote your book. Of course, more is always better.
There you have it. The floating images with misinformation have been debunked. I think reviews are extremely important (even bad ones.) They are the digital equivalent of your friend recommending a device you need and they have tested. However, we need to have realistic expectations and not imagine that a magical number will open the doors to Nirvana.
This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.
I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.
The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.
The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.
The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.
Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.
What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.
The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.
We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.
If you are a comic book writer, you’re obviously in the right place, but what about science fiction and fantasy authors? Can you have success as a vendor at Comic Cons? My experience says yes. But purchasing a table and showing up won’t be enough for a successful weekend. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your Comic Con experience:
- Create an eye-catching display. You’ll have a good-sized table, so be sure to make it appealing. Put out a bowl of candy. Give away bookmarks. Set up a banner behind you.
- Interact with the crowd. I attended Cons before I was ever a vendor at one, so I love the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, and I’m a fan myself. It was easy to talk to the people who stopped by. But I didn’t just wait for them to stop, I stood behind my table, smiled, and said hello to just about everyone. I complimented costumes and asked people if they were having fun. Be approachable.
- BUT, don’t annoy people with hard sell tactics. I engaged with people as they walked by. I didn’t talk about my books unless someone asked me directly.
- Have a quick, enticing pitch ready when they do ask. My nineteen-year old son was my table buddy at Boston Comic Con last summer. When he heard me stumbling over my book description to the first few interested people, he said, “Mom, that was terrible. You have got to do better.” We practiced and refined for a few minutes until I had a couple of sentences that captured the essence of the story. Think log line but with a more conversational tone.
- Use the opportunity to build your mailing list. Have a clipboard with a sign-up sheet for people to leave their names and email addresses. I send out a weekly, very brief communication to my mailing list called “Monday Musings.” Mailing lists are a powerful tool for an author and Cons are a great place to add names. I find that because I’ve met and spoken to these people, they are less likely to unsubscribe, and often will respond to my mailings with personal notes.
- Be ready to make sales. Have a cash box with change, and make sure your credit card reader is functioning. Keep a supply of extra pens or markers easily accessible for signing your books.
- Network! Selling books isn’t the only opportunity at Cons. Make new friends. I left every Con with at least one interview booked, stacks of business cards in my bag, and a nice bump in my social media following. And ‘BarCon’ is a thing! Find out where people are congregating after hours and join the fun.
- Take care of yourself. Cons are fun, but exhausting. Have a bottle of water, some power bars and snacks with you. Wear comfortable shoes.
- To cosplay or not to cosplay? I choose not to when I’m a vendor. Generally, I break out my Rebel Alliance or Starfleet Academy t-shirts, but I don’t wear a costume. A friend of mine is a fantasy author who writes about deadly mermaids. She rocks ‘aquatic chic’ like nobody’s business at Cons. It totally works for her. But my books don’t easily lend themselves to a costume, and I don’t want my attire to be the focus of conversations. Ask yourself if a costume will help or hinder you.
- Take Monday off. If possible, give yourself some downtime after a Con. The days are long, and sometimes the nights are even longer! I’m a disaster after a weekend on my feet, and I plan an easy day when I come home.
As a sci-fi/fantasy writer, I feel right at home at Comic Cons, and I’m as excited to be there as any of the attendees. Enjoy the experience and energy, and most importantly have fun!