Myth #2: Writers Are Born, Not Made

This is one I still hear a lot, more often than not from people who don’t write and never will, usually as a prelude to an opinion about who the “truly great writers” are, which will be a long list of highbrow names that the speaker may or may not have ever actually read. As I have said before, there’s a great deal more snobbery among those who want to be perceived as literary than there is among actual writers.

Do I sound like I’m ranting? Perhaps. But as a person who has devoted a great deal of time to writing instruction, and someone who has seen literally dozens of my students later publish, I find this myth not only offensive, not only stupid, but actually destructive. Because it can only lead the person struggling to write wondering if they weren’t “born” to this endeavor, since the words don’t come easily and their early work isn’t nearly as good as they would like it to be.

I personally don’t believe there is a “writing gene,” a special brain synapse, something encoded in the DNA, or even a specialized form of intelligence. I think writing is both an art and a skill, and you learn both by: 1) reading the best material you can lay your hands upon, 2) practicing, practicing, practicing, and 3) getting useful instruction and advice.

Reading is how you feed the muse. Every time you read something of value, your brain absorbs the rhythms, the flow, the style. You’re teaching yourself how to write. No one is born understanding grammar or punctuation, much less mechanics and style. You get that by reading. You cannot write if you don’t read. It’s simply not possible.

Practice is essential. Writing is no different from anything else–the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. Kurt Vonnegut suggested that we all have about a million words of garbage we have to get out of our systems–then we start writing well. I think there’s some truth to this. Even if you don’t ultimately publish what you’ve written, you haven’t wasted your time. I spent about twenty years sending in stuff that was uniformly rejected, for a good reason–it wasn’t very good. Was I wasting my time? No. I was teaching myself how to write.

Good advice and instruction is essential. Yes, there are a few genius writers who did it all themselves, but there are far more who benefitted from a mentor, teacher, or writing program. Maxwell Perkins mentored most of the great writers of his era. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find that level of mentoring at a large publishing house today–they’re too busy taking meetings. Find a program or person that has a track record of success and learn what you can. I’ve had far too many students come to my writing retreats after spending thousands of dollars on “book doctors” or “writing coaches” who gave them some of the worst advice I’ve heard in my life. Check the resume. If the person hasn’t published anything themselves, why would you imagine they can help you publish anything?

I do think some people develop a love for books and stories at an early age, and that may be the greatest impetus to wanting to write yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t come easily. It never comes easily. Writing is hard and always will be. But it is so worthwhile when you do write something wonderful, when you hear that your work has made a difference in someone’s life. And you can make that happen. Just keep writing. And never quit.

By the way, Rose State has extended the early registration discount for our writers conference to August 26. Save yourself some money and give yourself the push toward publication you need. Join us for the Rose State Writers Conference, September 23-25, 2016.

Rose State Writers Conference Info and Registration 

The Ten Most Common Myths About Writing

I think I’ve written enough about the publishing world and not enough about writing in this blog lately, so I’m going to take a break and address the ten major myths, the cliches I hear spouted most frequently at conferences and workshops despite the fact that they are completely and demonstrably wrong. At least in my opinion. I’ll do the first five, take a break, then get back to the others later.

Today’s myth: Writers wait for inspiration to write.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I think this is nonsense. If we all waited for inspiration to write, there would be a lot less writing, and probably nothing longer than a short story. In my experience, creativity flows when you’re writing. Often the best ideas come unexpectedly when you’re writing a scene and immersed in the characters and the situation. If you write every day, the ideas will come more frequently and purposefully. The smart writer will chase creativity by committing to a regular working schedule, rather than sitting around idly waiting for lightning bolts from heaven.

In Excellent Editing, I discussed the growing “pantser” phenomenon, that is, those who prefer to write from the seat of their pants rather than planning their books in advance. This approach may seem like more fun, but is far less likely to result in a polished (or even finished) book. At conferences I’ve asked self-professed pantsers if they’ve produced work they were able to publish, and the answer has never been yes. I think sometimes people are misled by author interviews. Authors in the spotlight never admit to planning or outlining. They’re afraid that will make it seem too mechanical, less creative, and subject them to abuse from snob critics. But don’t confuse what people say in interviews with reality. Most professional writers outline, because they’ve learned it results in a better book with less time wasted.

I like the answer attributed to Somerset Maugham when asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck. Answer: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

I have often wished I had a magic formula I could give my writing students that would make writing easier, but I don’t. Writing is hard work. You write and rewrite and rewrite and hope that in the end you get something worthy of your time and talent. But there are no easy paths or quick fixes. I can give you tools, ideas, and suggestions, but you still have to put in the effort. If you think your first book will be easy (or easier than your current job), you’re probably wrong. The next one might be a little easier because you’re more experienced, but it still won’t be easy. It never will.

That’s why it’s so important to work through all the steps in the writing process (detailed in Excellent Editing). And most importantly, don’t shy away from the outline just because you’re anxious to start the book or it doesn’t sound fun. If you write a solid 60-scene outline, your chances of finishing a first-rate book increase exponentially. It’s worth the time, and it won’t stifle your creativity. To the contrary, it will give you a useful framework within which your creativity can be most productive.

Next Week, Myth Two. Wanna guess what it will be?

Have you considered attending the Rose State Writer’s Conference in OKC, September 23-25? I organize the conference, which this year features over thirty presenters, including top writers and literary agents. It’s the lowest price and best value you’ll find anywhere. Take a look at the website and see if it might help you take your work to the next level.

Excellent Editing: http://ow.ly/tLZX3032C3G

Rose State Writer’s Conference: http://ow.ly/BK4n3032Ca0

Create Your Own Audiobooks

Last week, I blogged about the dramatic rise in audiobook sales. This week, I’m going to tell you how to make one yourself.

The simplest, least expensive, most cost-effective approach (though not the only approach) is to use ACX, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. ACX is basically a platform for pairing authors with narrators (what ACX calls “producers”), uploading the work, and listing it for sale on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You’ll sign up as an author, then search for your book. (If it’s on sale at Amazon, it will be there). Claim it as your own. Then you can choose to read it yourself (complicated) or find a professional audiobook narrator to read it (less complicated, but you will share your profits). You post a script of about ten minutes of your book, and invite interested narrators to record the sample and send it to you. If you like what you hear, you can hire them. If not, you don’t.

Or you can be more proactive about it. The narrators all have pages with samples of their work. Listen around, and if you hear someone who sounds perfect for your book, send an email inviting them to audition. If they’re interested, you may save yourself a lot of time and get someone you really like.

Once you have your narrator, you have two choices. You can pay them an agreed-upon sum up front, or you can split the royalties 50-50. Most people choose the later. Partner up with your narrator. Make it a joint enterprise.

Some of you may be tempted to record your books yourself (as I have done with the Red Sneaker books). I will warn you–this will not work unless you have a studio and professional recording equipment. You might be able to reserve time in a recording studio, but this is expensive. When you consider recording, editing, and post-production work, you will likely have an hourly bill three to four times the actual length of the book.

You can set up your own studio at home, but again, you need professional equipment which is not cheap. I had it easy–my wife is professional audiobook narrator and already had a studio I could borrow–but if you’re setting one up from scratch, you will have to invest both money to buy the equipment and time to learn how to use it. Even then, unless you are a professional sound engineer or experienced narrator, you will have to send your work out for post-production work.

ACX does have specific and high recording standards. They will not accept anything that is not of first-rate quality. So if you’re thinking you can do this on the microphone built into your computer, forget it. Not gonna happen. Believe me, unless you have a pro in the house, the simpler approach is to seek out a narrator. Let the pros do it and split the profits.

And then the work you did on that book starts earning money in an entirely different realm, one that is growing by leaps and bounds. You’ve done the hardest work. Make the most of it.

ACX: http://www.acx.com

What’s the Fastest Growing Format in Publishing?

Audiobooks.

If you’ve been to one of my writing retreats in the last three years, you’ve heard me say that audiobooks are huge and getting huger. It’s still true. In fact, despite the huge growth of recent years, audiobook sales jumped another 21% last year, while most publishing sectors declined. Audio revenues increased by 36%. As a result, publishing houses are increasing audio budgets and hiring big-name talent. Reese Witherspoon recorded the audio for Go Set a Watchman. Stephen King released “Drunken Fireworks” in audio format four months before it was released in print.

But the fact that the Big Five are producing audiobooks doesn’t mean you can’t too.

Once upon a time, audiobooks were impossible for self- or small publishers. No longer. Now anyone can do it. I won’t say it’s easy. But I will say it’s possible. And if you don’t do it, you’re not giving your book its maximum possible exposure. To put it in Hollywood terms: You’re leaving money on the table.

The reason for this surge in sales is digital downloads. Audio is no longer dependent upon bulky and fragile physical media like CDs and cassette tapes. Listeners can download audio directly to their phones or iPods in seconds. They can listen while they drive, exercise, run, watch a kid’s softball game, even while they swim (waterproof iPod). Listeners often switch between media–listen with the phone in the car, listen from a tablet while they eat, then switch to actual reading (eBook) when they’re at home. WhisperSync allows them to pick up reading right where they stopped listening to the audiobook.

The largest producer of audiobooks is Audible (now owned by Amazon). Their membership increased by 40% last year. And the stats indicate that Audible members also buy 40% more books in all formats after they become members. They read with their eyes, too, when they can.

In other words, if you still have the audio rights to a book and you haven’t produced an audiobook yet, you’re making a mistake. My wife Lara records audiobooks, and what she has seen time and again is that the existence of an audiobook increases the visibility and spurs sales of both the audio, print, and eBook editions. She has also seen books that have middling print or eBook sales but surge in audio. Sometimes, publishing is just not predictable. You want your book to be available to as many people in as many places as possible.

Have I convinced you that you need to produce an audiobook yet? Good. In the next blog, I’ll tell you how to do it.

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.

Is Social Media the Key to Publishing Success?

If you would much rather spend time writing your book than posting on social media–you’re not alone. But there’s no denying that social media has become an indispensible tool for spurring book sales.

In the early days (my first novel was published by Random House in 1991), publicity was primarily print ads (ineffectual), book tours (largely ineffectual), and book signings (boring and largely ineffectual). At least social media can work–and doesn’t cost anything, except of course the precious hours of your life.

Here’s a startling statistic: According to Statista, 78% of all Americans have a social media profile. You would think that just eliminating the elderly and children under ten would make 78% impossible–but it doesn’t. And 2.72 billion people worldwide will be social media users by 2019. Internet users have an average of five social media accounts.

But that doesn’t mean they use all five equally. As I’ve written before, Facebook seems to me to be the most effective for promoting books, book events, and authors. But you have to find the platform that works best for you, the one that allows you to engage readers most effectively. I like Facebook, but my pal Mel Odom swears by Google Groups, and Instagram has created the most popular poets writing today. So don’t try to do everything. Do what works best for you. That means you must:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Know where they hang out, and
  3. Build your outpost there–and work it regularly.

One final thought you may not have considered. According to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report, blogs are the third-most-influential digital  information source for consumers making purchases, following only retail sites (like Amazon) and name-brand sites (like a publisher’s webpage). Are you blogging? Are you guest-blogging? A simple Google search would turn up fifty potential blogs that might be a good fit for your book, and most of the blog hosts would welcome a guest columnist with something interesting to say. Send them a short query and you may find yourself selling books in an unexpected way.

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from AuthorEarnings.com are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

Image 1

So gross unit sales are rising, but…

Image 2

…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

Image 3

As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit AuthorEarnings.com, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.

 

Use Preorders to Crack the Bestseller Lists

Traditional publishers have long known the advantages of taking preorders. Did you realize that in most cases, the New York Times bestseller list number are based upon preorders rather than actual sales? True. It’s based on how many copies go into the store, which can sometimes be wildly different from the number that are purchased in the store, which has led many to question the validity of the list.

Up till now, taking preorders has not been an option for independent publishers, but that has changed. Amazon’s KDP platform for self-publishing eBooks now permits you to take orders for a book before the launch date. The advantage? When that launch date finally arrives, you’ll get credit for not only that day’s sales but all the preorders as well, and that extra boost can propel you to the top of the list (especially if you have carefully and strategically chosen the list when you categorized your book). Although iBooks and Kobo have done this for a while, this is a recent policy change for Amazon.

Does it work? Last year, almost two-thirds of the top 200 bestsellers distributed by Smashwords took preorders (though overall, only one book in eight at Smashwords took preorders). It would appear preorders get you on bestsellers lists.

This won’t happen by accident. You’ll have to work Facebook and other social media to encourage people to preorder. Presumably you’ve posted a lot about the book in advance, building interest and anticipation, before you actually offer it as a preorder. But once the book is available, every post about it should contain a link to the preorder site.

If you really want to spur preorders, the obvious play is to offer a lower price. 50% off for preorders, but the price jumps on release day.

Don’t start taking preorders until the book is a done deal, finished, uploaded, perfect and ready to roll. A book not ready on the release date will not only not get you on the bestseller list, it will be a personal embarrassment and a business disaster.

Get your superfans, your near and dear, to post positive reviews as soon as possible, preferably on the release date or, where possible, earlier. That can only help push you up the list.

Update the back matter in your previous eBooks to tell readers about the new book with a hyperlink to the preorder site. You could even lower prices or pulse prices to get more people reading the older books–and seeing the promotion for the new one.

And then? Plan an agressive marketing campaign that covers the entire week of the release. How? That will be the topic of next week’s blog.

Should You Pay for Reviews?

I’m guessing your first-glance response was, Of course not. I don’t even need to read this. I would never do such a thing.

But then again…everything else pertaining to publishing has changed in the past few years. And we all know some shoppers will only consider a book if it has 4+ stars. And it’s hard to get people to review your books…

You’ve probably read about Amazon’s discovery that some entrepreneurs had multiple Amazon accounts and were using them to upload positive reviews bought and paid for. Amazon tried to crack down on that, as well as reviews from spouses, close friends, etc., whenever detectible. But a lot of perfectly legal review sales still take place–from respected and venerable sources.

Publishers Weekly has a program called PW Select. For $149, PW will run the cover, a synopsis, and will consider the book for a full review. Blue Ink Review specializes in self-published titles, reviewed for $395. Kirkus Reviews will offer “professional, unbiased book reviews for self-publishers” in 7-9 weeks for $425. And if you’ve spent much time on Amazon book pages, you know that Kirkus reviews are often pulled out and featured prominently above all the other reviews as if they were official editorial content.

None of these sources promises glowing reviews, but of course, they wouldn’t be in business long if they were selling lousy ones. Quoting successful self-published writer Tamara Linse, “I actually have done paid reviews for all three books with PW Select, Kirkus, and IndieReader. I’ve definitely gotten some good publicity from it. I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly…” Linse essentially writes literary short fiction, and the success of the book that got the starred review led to her getting an offer of representation from a major literary agency. Another author credited his paid-for Kirkus review with getting him a film option.

As always, when self-publishing you must make your decisions for yourself. But with about half a million self-published titles coming out each year, you must seriously consider any option that will draw attention to yours. Blue Ink has now published over 5000 reviews of self-published titles since they started in 2009. They must be doing something people find valuable.

 

To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Structure-Successful-Fiction-Sneaker/dp/1484024893/

Excellent Editing: http://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker/dp/0692703225/