What’s New in Author Earnings?

I will return to the series on writing myths next week (probably) but I wanted to comment on the latest report from Author Earnings while the news was fresh. As many of you know, the people at AE have been using computerized data-gathering and number-crunching programs to collate book sales data, particularly at Amazon. Since Amazon never releases official sales figures, this data is invaluable. Every single time AE has released findings since it began over two years ago, it has shown indie publishing sales on the rise.

Until now.

It’s true. In the October report, for the first time ever, AE data indicates that the indie market share has declined. Not drastically, but significantly. Basically back to where it was in early 2015. Traditional publishers have gained some ground in the eBook arena, and Amazon’s publishing program continues to grow.

First, please note that these figures pertain to market share–not how much money is earned by authors. Authors at traditional houses take a much smaller royalty percentage, so the two are far from the same. Authors at small and medium-sized publishing houses take home about the same amount of money as authors at traditional houses (in the aggregate). This amazing. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable.

But it has declined since the last report.

How can this be? Everybody’s got a theory. Early speculation was that the decline was attributable to traditional publishers finally lowering their eBook prices, but this turns out to not be possible–because they haven’t. A more likely explanation is that the Big Five, and many small and medium-sized publishers as well–have started adopting the marketing strategies and tactics pioneered by indie authors. That would include price pulsing, discount newsletters, Facebook ads, retailer-specific metadata, and similar tricks. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. Especially when it works.

I think this explanation may be correct. Do you get the Bookbub daily newsletter? I do. It has a huge distribution list and it offers deeply discounted books, usually 99 cents or perhaps $1.99. I’ve bought way too many books because of this newsletter. (AE says Bookbub may be responsible for 5-6% of Amazon’s total eBook sales.) But I’ve also noticed how its content has changed. Originally, the books promoted by Bookbub were mostly indie books. These days, books from traditional publishers, who are presumably willing and able to pay more, take up an increasingly large share of the newsletter. By stealing indie thunder, they’ve managed to halt their sales decline. At least for now.

This doesn’t change anything. We are still fortunate to live in an age in which authors have options, not only publishing options but sales venue options. Your decision about how and where to publish should be based upon your book, your goals, and your personality. Digitalization and online sales have been the great equalizer and a great friend to many indie authors. Since the Old Guard has learned to imitate the first batch of tricks, indies will have to develop new ones.

I’m betting they do.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/october-2016/

Inspiration and Commitment

Hemingway wrote about “a clean, well-lighted place.” Virginia Woolf wanted “a room of her own.” E.M. Forster wrote about “a room with a view.” Sandra Dee wanted “a summer place…”

Okay, I’m starting to digress. But you knew what I was saying at the outset, right? A writer needs a place to write. Ideally that place is quiet and distraction-free so you can muster the enormous focus required to write a novel. Or for that matter, a short story.  Or a magnificent poem.

Studies have shown that, unlike computers, we do not multitask. We focus on one thing at a time, and when we try to do more, we are in reality rapidly shifting our focus in ways that undermine the quality of our work. Only one task can be in focus. The rest are on autopilot. This can make the already daunting task of writing even more daunting, especially when there are children in the house and dirty laundry, etc.

I totally get it. While I raised my first batch of children, I learned to block out everything. You can tell your kids not to bother you unless they’re bleeding or on fire, but we all know it doesn’t actually work that way. So we end up scrabbling for time wherever we can find it. I’ve written in shopping malls and hospitals and parking lots. When you’re trying to get a book finished, I told myself, you can’t be too choosy.

If you’ve read my Red Sneaker novels, you know I advise aspiring writers to commit to a written contract in which they promise themselves they will establish a schedule and stick to it–two hours a day, four hours a day, six. Or so many pages or words a day, whatever works for you. Sign the contract in the back of the book and get the other members of your household to sign it too. You want them to respect your commitment? Get it in ink.

Some distractions you can eliminate yourself. Hire a babysitter if possible. Get someone else to pick the kids up after school, or let them ride the bus. Tell the other members of the household to do their own laundry. And by all means, turn off those email and text pop-ups on your computer. Shut off the wi-fi. Pry your cell phone out of your hands.

At the Rose State conference last weekend, Katherine Center talked about stealing away to a family place in Galveston to write. Michael Crichton used to check into the Beverly Hills Hilton for a month to do the same. I personally have spent too much of my life in hotels and have no desire to ever do it again.

Happily, there is an alternative. The writer’s colony.

A decade ago, there were more than a hundred writer’s colonies in the US. Today, there are about thirty. If we do not support them, soon there will be none. Lara and I travel to Eureka Springs at least twice a year to spend time at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, a beautiful mountain retreat. Costs all of $75 a night, food included. You can write all day without interruption, surrounded by some of the most glorious scenery on earth. Last year I even held two five-day writer’s retreats there, and they were huge successes. I’m doing it again next year (June 7-11). Lara and I have spent the past few days at Dairy Hollow (I’m writing this on our beautiful balcony) and I felt compelled to share this inspirational opportunity with you.

The most important thing, of course, is that you find the time and quiet to write. If a writer’s colony will help you get it done, go for it. Dairy Hollow still has space available in 2016, and lots more in 2017. Make the commitment to your writing future. Make your reservation today.

Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust

Myth #4: Writing is the Loneliest Profession

True, when you’re actually writing, it’s pretty much just you and your imagination. The most productive writing spurts typically occur when you’re “in the zone,” when you’re experiencing “flow.” Time passes unnoticed because you’re in another world, creating each moment keystroke by keystroke. But the actual writing is only part of what writers do. Does it have to be the loneliest profession?

Speaking for myself, I’ve never been much of a joiner, mixer, or party animal. Most writers are introverts. I can force myself to speak and spent a decade as a trial attorney, but it does not come easily or naturally. I never speak off-the-cuff. I prepare in advance. So I suspect that, but for publishing books, I might never meet people at all. Writing has given me the opportunity to travel from coast to coast and all around the world.  Teaching seminars and speaking at conferences has given me a marvelous chance to meet people who share the same interests and concerns. Many of my best friends have emerged from these opportunities–and none of those would have happened but for the time I spent alone “in the zone.”

Do you have to write in solitude? Probably at first. Many years of working at home with three children in the house gave me the ability to block out almost anything. The rule supposedly was, “Don’t disturb Daddy unless you’re bleeding or on fire,” but in actual practice, the standard was significantly lower. I learned to focus. I’ve written in shopping malls, hospitals, sports arenas, parked cars. When you’ve got work to do, you take whatever time you have to get it done.

The internet has given us more opportunities to connect–assuming you consider social media to be connecting. Homebodies can Skype and post and share–almost too easily. I hope I don’t have to tell you to shut off those notifications that appear on your computer desktop or to stop checking your phone or email every ten seconds–otherwise you’ll never get much accomplished. Instead of battling solitude, too often today we’re battling constant interruption in a world where messaging is far too easy.

I’ve been in this business almost thirty years now, but I distinctly remember when I first started trying to market my first book. I eventually became aware that there were writing groups in the area. Tulsa Nightwriters was a group of friendly folk who met once a month. The speakers were often terrific, but what I liked most was the chance to hang with other writers.  Nightwriters hosted an annual conference back then, and I never missed it.

Almost everything I do now, outside of writing itself, is based upon my memory of those early years, desperately wanting the information I needed to break into the world of publishing. I knew of no one-on-one retreats where experienced pros worked over manuscripts and gave people one-on-one advice on how to improve their writing. How much time I might’ve saved! Now I spend a great deal of the summer providing those opportunities to aspiring writers, hoping I can shorten the time they wait for success. I host the annual conference at Rose State for the same reason. If someone is serious about being a writer, a small fee and a weekend is all they need to give up to obtain access to top-flight professionals. Knowledge and opportunity, all in one building over one weekend. Many people have jumpstarted their careers with a connection made at these conferences.

I don’t think writing is the loneliest profession. I think I would’ve been far lonelier if I had done anything else–in no small part because I would’ve always rather been a writer. Writers can make all the social connections I’ve just mentioned, but most importantly, they can reach out to readers–hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of readers. Reading is a communion between author and reader, two people who probably have never met, but still have a profound shared experience. I don’t know of any other profession that gives people anything like that. I think we are truly fortunate.

Click here for more information about the Rose State Writers Conference.

 

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 

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.

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.

 

Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”

 

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing: https://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B01FHYK3N2