Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing, Editing, Publishing, and Patience

It has been a long time since I posted anything.  The main reason is because I've spent my time working on a new book.  Every morning from 4 to 6 or so for the past seven months and this past Friday and Saturday, two ten-hour days to really get my book in readable shape.  The other reason is because I've grown very skeptical of the ebook world.  Some authors believe this is the be-all and end-all, the inevitable future, and some still think it's a place for impatient writers to see their books "published."

Let's look at the first part, the writing part.  It's never been too challenging for me to be disciplined enough to sit down daily and write and, over time, produce a first draft that more or less holds together.  My problem has always been impatience.  Once a first draft is done, I want to move on to something else.  Finally, this time, I forced myself to go back and edit, edit, edit.  Joe Hill's blog post on revision from last August really inspired me.  He's an author I highly respect and his advice, as well as his own practice, is to write at least 5 drafts and--this part is key--completely rewrite the book for the third draft, every word, line, etc.  So, the first draft took me from Sept. to Nov.; the second draft to Jan.; and the third draft until the very end of March.  Then another quick pass through and I have something my wife and a few close friends can read.

Is this book markedly better than my other efforts?  Maybe.  I don't know.  Spending all that time editing really makes it tough to be objective.  In Betsy Lerner's ( Forest for the Trees, she discusses this problem in detail.  (The book is also very practical and inspiring; I recommend it wholeheartedly.)  The real question is:  Was the 'Joe Hill' method of editing worthwhile?

Yes.  I have never gotten so inside one of my books before.  I can quote passages of it.  I can recall what page something happens.  I think it's crucial for me to know my book that well, if I have any hope of creating something worth reading.  I've also learned I need to go slower.  Sometimes during that third-draft retype, I went on autopilot and simply copied.  That is unproductive.  When I started edits for draft #4, I was dismayed and a bit depressed at how much needed further editing.  With the next book, I will go slower and be more critical.

However, editing is a process.  I'm nowhere near an expert, so for me to get to a "publishable" stage may take innumerable drafts.  That, of course, tries my patience.  I need to get over that, if that is, I want to be taken seriously.

Which brings us to self-publishing.  We know of the success stories.  We know of the best-selling author who turned down a six-figure deal to self-publish.  We know about Amanda Hocking.  Speaking of, in an interview here, she discusses her tremendous work ethic (5,000 - 8,000 words daily) and shares her self-publishing insight.  Of the current market, she writes:

"Right now, the market's gotten really saturated, and there's so many books that it's hard to make them stand out. I was fortunate when I started publishing; the market was just starting to take off. I think that writers need to just focus more on writing and relax. I know it's really hard when you're publishing to separate yourself from it. In the beginning, I was obsessed with checking my sales every 10 seconds. I think you need to take that deep breath and take a step back and focus on writing and just relax and be present on the Internet. If you are writing and you're putting out something that's good, I think eventually you will find an audience. It's just a matter of how long it will take."

This is a great point.  If I don't spend quality "present" time on the Internet, how will anyone know my books exist?  At the same time, who the hell cares that I've written and self-published a book?  She writes:

"I think the biggest things that I see people do is becoming very spammy. Or they'll comment on blogs and all they really say is, "Yeah, I agree with you because my book is like this." They're not adding anything to that conversation. They just immediately start talking about their book. I get tweets all the time from people that say, "Buy my book." I know nothing about this person. I know nothing about their book. All they're saying is to buy their book and I'm not going to do that. They're just being obnoxious."

I am guilty of that.  And I tend to disregard when other authors post that he or she has a new book out and that I should BUY NOW.  I click "Like" and that's that.  Hocking makes a point about authors needing to be part of the conversation, that whole being "present" online aspect.  

And when will I find the time to do that when I'm busy writing and working a full-time job?  Cry me a river, right?  Even so, it's a valid point.  Just as in "traditional" publishing, the odds are stacked high against success.

Am I being too negative because I haven't hit the million-dollar status yet?  Maybe.  But here's an interesting question that no one seems to ask:  Do you buy self-published e-books?

Obviously, people do.  But who?

I will download free samples endlessly and read and read.  Of ten free samples, I might purchase one book.  And I am biased against self-published books.  Even if the sample is good, I still might not buy it because there's nothing else persuading me.  Most authors have ten to thirty 5-star reviews and, here comes the negativity again, I can't help but think they are friends of the author or other writers looking for a quid pro quo investment.

Okay then, so now what?  Dare I say, back to the traditional publishing route?  I hear you cry, The future is e-books!  Probably, but I'm betting those e-books that sell are still coming from publishing houses, big or small, because readers like me will think, Well, I at least know a few people have read and approved this and invested the time to put something out that is of quality

Why, for instance, have so many formerly self-published authors signed up with Amazon's own publishing imprint?  Why do that if the new world is a self-published world?  Because skeptics like me need to know my investment (even my measly 0.99) is worth it.  Some authors create fake publishing companies to trick readers like me.

Now, the big guy of self-publishing is J.A. Konrath.  I respect him immensely, but he is also sitting high atop his millions, laughing at the little authors like me who find viability in the traditional route.  Why is he laughing?  Because he can.  He worked his ass off, worked tirelessly, and made a fortune.  I applaud him.  But to say that the asteroid has hit ( and the Big 6 are the last dying dinosaurs seems just as impossibly arrogant as saying e-books are a fad. 

Konrath has made millions and you probably can too.  Assuming you put in all the hard work he has as well.  Now, if he's worked so hard, why didn't he make a fortune the traditional way?  Well, there is certainly a bias against "genre" books.  This is where the self-publishing e-book world will rule:  in the land of the genres.  People will pay $2.99 for a horror/romance/serial-killer thriller/etc. because it's like junk food.  Enough people buy the salty treat you're selling and you're rich.

Nothing wrong with that.  Hell, I'm trying to do that.

However, the Big 6 are not going to die off so long as they continue to publish books people want to read.  Even if the future sees only a mere dozen or so physical books published from the Top A-List authors, the Big 6 will downsize and survive through strong e-books and integrated media and smart packaging.

Why, after all, did Hocking sign with a big publisher?

"Having a team of people that can help me do all of the stuff so I don't have to is definitely an advantage. I was getting really bogged down and stressed out by all the little details that go into publishing a book on your own, and now there's a whole team of people that did what I did. It's much easier. I can just focus on writing a book, and then I can just send it to them, and if I have problems and stuff, I can tell them. I guess the disadvantage is that I have lost control over things. I have input and everything, but I don't get to decide how much things are priced for or when they come out. I don't mind it, but I know that for other people that would be a bigger issue. So, it was a trade that works for me.

I'm still involved with the publicity and the marketing but they set it up. They made a website, and they set up the campaigns, and they do the commercials. They've done really great marketing for me that I wouldn't have been able to do on my own; they had a big spread event in a "Hunger Game Special Edition" for People magazine. And they did commercials on MTV. That stuff I wouldn't have been able to do myself or know how to do."

And there is the other advantage:  the expertise.

In the end, however, it all comes down to the books, which goes back to the writing and the editing.  Produce something good, package it professionally and you have a great shot.  Look at Christopher Paolini:  he wrote a book and his parents spent a year carefully editing it and constructing a polished look for it before they went forward.

Which goes back to the book I've spent 7 months working on.  Should I just make a cover and publish it?  It's tempting.  Am I deluding myself hoping an agent will see "commercial" potential in my genre-ish book?  Maybe.  Look at Blake Crouch and his book Run.  He held out a while before Konrath finally pushed him into self-publishing.  But he, like Konrath, had already tried the traditional route.

I could publish my book and watch it sell 15 copies a month.  Of course, a traditional publisher might pick it up, spend a year or two prepping it, and it might sell just as dismally.

I noticed today one of my books is selling far better than the others and I thought, Okay, I need to write a sequel and get it out there soon.  Make that quick buck with my salty treat.

Paolini and his family showed patience.  

I'm still learning.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Harsh (though promising) Reality of E-publishing

Yesterday, I received my 1099 from Amazon Digital Services:  in 2011, I earned $655.77.  From B&N, I made a paltry $56.44.  Now, those numbers are nothing about which to get excited.  However, in 2010, I made a mere $140, so at least I'm heading in the right direction.  Perhaps this year, I'll jump in royalty profit into the thousands; it's impossible to know.  JT Warren may have already hit the saturation point.  Only time will tell.

I'm not offering those dismal numbers because I want sympathy or because I feel I've been duped by the promise of "easy millions" through e-books:  I offer these numbers as sobering expectations for those of us who are still new to the e-publishing world.  Unlike many successful e-writers, I have not been published previously by the traditional houses, nor do I write paranormal romances geared toward teens.  I'm not criticizing here, just attempting to be pragmatic.

But I might as well be honest.  Why haven't my sales skyrocketed?  I, after all, must take some responsibility in my own success or failure.

1.  Almost no advertising.  It is common knowledge now among e-writers that if you want to sell a lot of books, you must spend a lot of time promoting them.  The number I've heard is about 70% of your time should be consumed with self-promotion, cross-promotion, tangential-promotion (guest blogs, interviews about e-publishing, what you're reading now), and any other type of promotion that gets your name (brand) out there.  I have not even come close to 70%.  This is my fault.  When I sit at the computer, I try to spend that time writing or revising.  On the other hand, if promotion can push my books into the Top Selling category, it becomes a self-sustaining organism.  If I want to read an e-book (or a traditionally published book) I either read reviews in The New York Times or I see what's selling and then buy what looks appealing, thus keeping those high-sellers in their high rank.

2.  My books aren't great.  If you read my previous posting, you know that I wrote a lot of books before realizing I had to invest ample time revising if I ever wanted to improve.  Of my 7 current titles, 4 have been extensively revised and edited.  Two merely went through two fast edits and a quick editorial polish.  Amusingly, or depressingly, those two briefly edited books are my big sellers.  I make no conclusions about that except to say that in both cases, I very consciously wrote books that I thought would have a market.  Apparently, I was right.

I won't say my books are awful--I've gathered as many 5-star reviews as 1-star reviews and often the complaint is that I'm depraved, which may actually be a compliment--but I will say that simply churning out books as fast as I can (and I can write a 50,000 to 70,000-word book in 3-4 months) makes me the classic "hack" writer.  Now, if I manage to make money as a hack, does that mean I should feel bad?

Regardless of money, I want to be a better writer and that means treating writing as a craft, working slowly, revising and editing at length, seeking trusted first readers and honestly evaluating their comments.  It means not rushing to publish simply because I think I can make a quick buck and, as mentioned above, that's pretty much all I have been earning.

The market is flooded with self-published e-books.  All books will find some readers, but most books will fall away as a kind of natural selection weeds the bad from the good.  I'd like to be part of the good.

Final note on this:  I have a book I've written and revised again and again.  I have collected endorsements from traditionally published authors.  I have two agents reading it now.  Previous agents rejected the book saying, "the shifting landscape of the publishing industry makes it challenging for a book like this to find a home."  Blake Crouch waited a long time before self-publishing Run because he wanted a traditional deal.  I wonder what I should do.  Help me out and take the survey below.

3.  No endorsements.  It's tough (or damn near impossible) to gather positive endorsements from proven authors.  I was lucky enough to have Scott Nicholson lead me down this e-path and he was kind enough to provide an endorsement as well as push my books to his fans, but the reality is the highly successful authors are either too busy with their writing and promotion or simply uninterested in reading an unproven author (think of that irony for a moment in the e-context) to have any time to give a new author a chance, let alone an endorsement.  So it's the same Catch-22 as traditional publishing:  if you want an endorsement (or an agent or a publisher) you need a readership or proven sales to deserve attention and if you want to gain a readership and substantial sales, you need an agent, publisher, or an endorsement.

Proposal to the multitude of unknown e-authors:  let's start endorsing each other's books.  We can do it quid pro quo style.  You might say that such a practice will render the whole notion of endorsements irrelevant and that may be true, but I think it could prove an interesting test.  So, if you want JT Warren's "[book title] is unputdownable.  Read it now and you'll be a fan of [author]'s forever" endorsement, e-mail me and we'll put this theory to the test.  I think 5 to 15 endorsements per book might push sales quite high until, that is, every e-book has that many endorsements.  So, hop on this bandwagon now!    

A few other side notes:

1.  Freebies:  With KDP Select, the big thing is giving away e-books to help create buzz for your book (and brand) and, ideally, garner reviews and fans.  I have done this and my books have been downloaded a few thousand times.  However, there has been no noticeable increase in sales following these giveaways.  Why is that?  Perhaps people have so many books on their e-readers they have yet to read my book and thus have not been able to become a fan or post a review encouraging (or discouraging) other potential buyers.  I think that's part of it.  However (and I'm going to admit to being part of the problem), with so many books constantly going up for free, it makes perfect sense to wait for the free ones and download a ton of titles without ever paying anything.  I do this all the time.  If I become a fan of a particular author after a free taste, I might then buy one of his/her books, but then again, why not wait for the others to be free too?  Writing a series might be a successful strategy--give the first away for free, hook the readers, and then resist the temptation to make the sequels free.  That may work but with the flooding market, which drives down e-book price, authors start to feel pressured to give the books away in the belief that freebies lead to dollars.

Side note about this:  as a high school teacher, I have heard students talk passionately about how all forms of entertainment should be free.  They, generally speaking, see no reason to pay for songs.  With many sites offering pirated music, why would anyone pay?  The few students with e-readers have mentioned that they download only free books--obviously that's not completely true (look at Hocking), but the point is further made:  if anyone is going to spend money on anything, quality is expected.

As for my creative students who want to write, sing, draw, they change their "everything should be free" tune when I ask them how they expect to make a living.  (The future rock stars point out that they'll make money selling concert tickets and merchandise; it's a shame authors don't have the same proven option.)

2.  Konrath has a good post on his blog about a potential e-book bubble.  Read the links to the two articles he posts--the one about author Franzen and the one specifically about the bubble.  There's a lot of gloom and doom there and perhaps too much assuredness from Konrath that there will be no doom and that e-books are the the be-all, but as e-writers, you will find them interesting.  Franzen may be pompous, but he's not necessarily wrong and dismissing him offhand is presumptuous.  Konrath is always good for some debate.

I don't believe there will be an e-publishing bubble burst, but I also don't believe traditional publishing will die off like dinosaurs.  Much like the music industry, the book industry will adapt and carve a path to sustained profitability.  Along with my truth about waiting for free e-books, I am also much more likely to purchase a book published by a traditional house than a self-published e-book because it says to me that the publishing company believes the book is good and has faith it will sell.  (We could argue all day about what makes a "good" book.)

3.  Books about making millions writing e-books:  I'm thinking this is where the real money is.  Wannabe successful e-authors will spend up to $5 on a book promising the yellow brick road to e-success.

This goes back to the second reason why I'm not an e-book millionaire:  with the ease of self-publishing, I am not taking enough time to write good books, tediously revise them, polish and re-polish, before publishing.  Speaking of, I need to get back to what I really love to do:  write.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How I Got Here

I've wanted to be a writer since I was in fourth grade when I spend every recess scribbling stories and screenplays in a marble composition book.  I wrote an on-going tale called The Dark Man about a detective chasing a serial killer.  My teacher read these entries with concern and, eventually, my imagination earned me a few trips to the guidance counselor.

In high school, I kept writing my brand of horror and read every Stephen King novel I could find--both my writing and my reading furrowed teachers' brows and sent me for yet more professional help.  It seems that part of education is driving out the active imagination.  Adults who have lost the ability to imagine things that don't exist find it particularly troubling when encountering someone who seems to live perpetually in a world of make believe.

There was one teacher who encouraged me to write, to keep improving.  With that little bit of encouragement, I kept writing and wrote two stories that were published in fanzines.  I was paid a dollar for one story and contributors copies for the other.  I couldn't have been more delighted.  I submitted those stories for writing assignments (to a different teacher) and, you guessed it, won another trip to the guidance department.

Against the best efforts of public school, I ended up in college writing my first novel.  Then I wrote another one and another one and another one.  I graduated college with five novels in the fabled Writer's Trunk.  Over the next several years, I wrote several more novels and tried to elicit the interest of publishers and agents.  I collected tons of rejections.  After a few dozen rejections for any book, I put it aside and started another.

Then I wrote a book about a trio of boys and a haunted house.  I wanted to write a haunted house story that was about young kids but was not censored.  I knew it probably wouldn't fly as a Young Adult novel, but I wrote it anyway.  I liked it immensely.  I tried to interest agents and even managed to get a few requests for partials.  Even so, rejections piled up.  I decided to commit myself to making the book better.

Enter Scott Nicholson.  I found him through a simple internet search.  I sent him a sample of my book and he sent back revisions and then I hired him to go through the whole book.  A few weeks later, I received my manuscript back, the pages laden with red marks, and a five-page handwritten critique.  I read through all of Scott's comments and, after a period of depression and despair, committed myself to improving the book.

It seems so obvious now, but that was the first time I had ever seriously revised anything I wrote.  Before, I would write the first draft, reread for typos and occasional awkward phrasing, then give it to a few people to read, and then make a few minor changes based on readers' comments.  With this haunted house tale, I finally ripped a book apart, dissected it, rearranged the parts, rewrote lengthy sections--I honestly and diligently sought to produce a great book.

When Hudson House was as revised and polished as I could get it, I recontacted agents.  A few requests for partials again.  All rejections.  Meanwhile, I had written another novel, a really dark tale of religion and sex and violence.  A published young adult author read the opening chapter and said the book would never be published--far too graphic.

In the summer of 2010, I explained to Scott Nicholson my frustration with trying to interest agents.  He suggested I self-publish.  Before I could balk and declare that vanity publishing was not for me, he told me about Amazon.

Scott guided me through the whole process and in August, Hudson House went on sale.  I sat back and waited for my money to roll in.

I averaged one sale a day.  I experienced a few peaks following a very positive review from Misty Baker and a piece about the book in the local newspaper, but my profit averaged around $50/month.

I took my really dark book about religion, which had been rejected numerous times at this point, and self-published it as well.  The world was not interested.

At the same time, I managed to glean the interest of a couple agents on a different sort of haunted house novel I had written.  A prominent author with whom I had been in contact as a fan, read the book and offered a great endorsement.  I even received an e-mail from an agent that said simply, Call me.

I thought I was on the cusp of publishing greatness.  I spoke with the agent for twenty minutes and came away with instruction to rework the book.  I sought the advice of another author (who has the same agent) and he volunteered to read and critique.  Months and months later, I produced a fully revised book.  The work on this book made the editing of Hudson House look like child's play.  I sent the book to the agent and . . . I'm still waiting.  I contacted him and he assured me he would get to it soon.  

I remain hopeful that the book will lead to professional representation.

While all that was going on, I wrote two more books specifically to be published as e-books.  One has been very positively reviewed (Blood Mountain) and the other (Rampage) very poorly (amusingly, the one with the bad rating tends to sell better).

Then Kindle Select started and I gave away books.  Almost three thousand in a month among the available titles.  I just received my royalty payment for December 2011:  $14.

I did, however, publish a collection of short stories called Sometimes There Are Monsters at the end of last year and while the book has not sold incredibly well, the collection includes the two stories I wrote in high school, the ones that suggested I needed therapy.

Even with the dream of full-time writing far off in the future, self-publishing e-books is the best therapy for an over-active imagination.

I apologize for rambling.  I left a lot of stuff out, including several people who helped me during this process.  I thank them now:  Karla Herrera, LeeAnn Doherty, Neil Jackson, Christopher Jammal, Stephen James Price, my mother, my in-laws, and my wife.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Welcome to the E-book Writer Blog

If you've found your way to this blog, odds are you're a self-published author or on the path to that title.  Welcome.  I'm a self-published author with seven e-books currently available.  Four are novels.  One is a collection of short stories.  One is a collection of one-act plays.  One is a potpourri sampler of my writing.

I am not making a living as an e-book writer.  If you click on the links below, you will see that my books run the rank spectrum from 25,000 up to 400,000 and beyond.  This translates to fewer than $100/month in profit, typically much less than $100.

I only mention those figures because I don't want anyone to think that I'm some e-book writer hotshot who has found the pot of gold at the end of the e-book rainbow.  I have not.

I am, however, a writer with a disciplined routine (writing/editing every morning from 4:30 to 5:45) and an honest desire to get better and, hopefully, make enough money to some day be a full-time writer.

And I could share all my experiences with you about writing and publishing e-books, as well as my struggle to find professional representation in hope of being "traditionally" published, and all of that might be interesting to some, but I want this blog to be something more.

You have no doubt been to J.A. Konrath's brilliant blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, as I have many times, which begs the question:  why another damn blog about e-books, especially from someone who has yet to do anything amazing?

Konrath started that blog in March 2005 and in response to that inaugural post, a reader responded that she was excited to be able to experience a writer's career as it matured from first-time novelist to seasoned veteran.  If that reader kept with the blog, she has witnessed something special, as Konrath is now making tons of money as a completely self-published author.

Let this blog be the beginning of something special, too.  Not only is this my blog; I want this to be a place where we can converse about all aspects of writing and publishing.  I want there to be guest author blog posts and intriguing interviews with people doing what we're all trying to do:  get our books in the hands of as many people as we can.

My name is J.T. Warren.

Welcome to the E-book Writer Blog.