Two More Ways for Writers to Milk the Cash Cow

So you want to make money as a writer. I feel a Seinfeld coming on: Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Because there absolutely isn’t. In fact, it’s a good thing to write for money.
Writers write. And these days, writers increasingly publish. But digital and print are not the only games in town. To invigorate the flow of your income stream, think diversification.As in, trying new things, putting out your content in all possible forms. Here are two to consider: Audio and Serialization.
According to the Wall Street Journal (link may expire),there is an “explosion” in the production and consumption of audio books:
“We’re moving toward a media-agnostic consumer who doesn’t think of the difference between textual and visual and auditory experience,” says Don Katz, Audible’s founder and CEO. “It’s the story, and it is there for you in the way you want it.”
Audio books have ballooned into a $1.2 billion industry, up from $480 million in retail sales in 1997. Unit sales of downloaded audio books grew by nearly 30% in 2011 compared with 2010, according to the Audio Publishers Association. Now they can be downloaded onto smartphones with the tap of a finger, often for the price of an e-book.
This development is not without its critics and concerns:
The rapid rise of audio books has prompted some hand-wringing about how we consume literature. Print purists doubt that listening to a book while multitasking delivers the same experience as sitting down and silently reading. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that for competent readers, there is virtually no difference between listening to a story and reading it. The format has little bearing on a reader’s ability to understand and remember a text. Some scholars argue that listening to a text might even improve understanding, especially for difficult works like Shakespeare, where a narrator’s interpretation of the text can help convey the meaning.
Despite the doubts, it’s clear that audio is not only here to stay, it’s going to keep on growing. Which means another income stream for authors.
If you are going it alone, writer, the path to a recorded version of your work couldn’t be simpler. The ACX program at Amazon has one of the most user-friendly sites in publishing. Go cruise around it and see for yourself. Start hereto get an overview of the program.
You have two basic choices. You can pay for equipment (or rent a studio) and figure out how to produce your own work. Or you can partner up with a narrator/producer and split the proceeds. That’s what I chose to do with a guy named Sands from Alaska. Together we have two audiobooks available:
I’m currently auditioning female narrators for the audio version Pay Me in Flesh (Note: I retained those rights during contract negotiations. If you go traditional, discuss this with your agent). I’ll do the same with the other 8 books I have available with women as protagonists. For some of my other work, I’m planning to try it myself. I like listening to Stephen King narrate his own books, and I figure what’s good enough for him…
Now we come to the serials idea, which is gaining momentum via Amazon. I recently interviewed thriller author Reece Hirsch, author of The Adversary (serialized via Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint) about his new venture:
“I’m writing a series of thrillers for Thomas & Mercer, featuring Chris Bruen, a former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor who is now in private practice helping clients combat hackers and cybercriminals. Each of the three books in the series will be published initially as Kindle Serials, which means that for a one-time price of $1.99, an episode will be automatically delivered to your Kindle each week for eight weeks. After the serialization is complete, the book will be available for order as a paperback and as a regular ebook. The book’s pricing is typically higher after the serialization period.”
In addition to the serialization, Amazon sets up a discussion board for each Serial so that readers can comment on the episodes as they’re released. “I intend to mix it up with

readers on the discussion board as much as possible,” Reece says.

Reece also notes an additional marketing aspect of serialization:
“The Serials program offers a two-month initial rollout as the episodes are released at a relatively low price, and then the opportunity for a renewed marketing push when the complete ebook and paperback become available. Thrillers, which tend to feature plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings, are uniquely well suited to serialization.”
There was another writer who did okay with serials. Hmm, what was his name again? Oh yeah, a fellow named Dickens. Will the same dynamic that worked in 1875 work in 2013? “I’m looking forward to finding out,” Reece told me. “I measure the ROI in terms of the massive amounts of time I devote to writing a novel for readers. If being part of the Kindle Serials program helps me connect with a larger readership, then I trust that will translate into a decent financial return.”
What about you, TKZ readers? Do you listen to audio books? What about the serials idea? Maybe you should use Reece Hirsch and The Adversary as a try out. 

Learning the Hard Way

by Reece Hirsch

A few years ago, I was fortunate to read a copy of Reece Hirsch’s thriller THE INSIDER before it found a home. Now, I usually don’t read unpublished manuscripts, because my agent warned me against it. But I knew Reece from a critique group, so I made an exception. And boy, am I glad I did. THE INSIDER is a heck of a debut, everything a good thriller should be. I recommend picking up a copy before they sell out, you won’t regret it. -Michelle

My debut legal thriller The Insider was published by Berkley Books this month as a mass-market paperback, marking the end of the first phase of my education in how to, and how not to, write a thriller. While I am but a humble newbie writer, I learned a few things in my six-year struggle to complete a novel and get it published. I make no claims to the wisdom and experience of your regular Kill Zone authors – they’ve all written many more books than I have. But here are a few lessons that I think I’ve learned, most of them the hard way.

  • The All-Important First Page. I’ve been enjoying the Kill Zone’s recent series of first-page critiques because the importance of the first page, and the first chapter, cannot be overstated. Take it from someone who sent his manuscript out to agents the first time with a less-than-gripping opening. The competition for the attention of agents and, later, publishers, is so intense that if the first chapter doesn’t grab them, they often won’t read further. I tried out several different openings for my book, in response to the urging of a couple of knowledgeable readers that it needed to be “bigger” and “grabbier.” They were right.

  • Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up. Despite the number of legal thrillers lining the bookstore shelves, I found that, as a practicing lawyer, there were still many aspects of the legal profession and law firm life that were relatively fresh ground for the genre. If readers recognize authoritative details drawn from life (in my case, the world of lawyers and law firms), then they’re more likely to follow you when you venture into areas where you’re working from research or sheer fabrication (in my case, the Russian mob). For example, in The Insider, I touch upon the tussles over billing credit among partners that can sometimes define a legal career. In another scene, I try to show the drama that can be found in the gamesmanship of an M&A negotiation. I also drew upon my knowledge of privacy and security law in developing one of the novel’s key plot elements involving government domestic surveillance and an actual National Security Agency program from the mid-Nineties known as the Clipper Chip. However, a little legal verisimilitude goes a long way with most readers, and I soon figured out that if I painted too accurate a picture of the life of a young corporate attorney like my protagonist Will Connelly, my book would be about as exciting as a day spent reviewing contracts in a due diligence room.

  • Embrace the Process. Many of the debut authors that I’ve met recently have a first, unpublished manuscript in the drawer, their “learner book.” Instead of scrapping my first attempt and starting over on a second book, I chose, perhaps from sheer stubbornness, to laboriously rework and rework my first book until it was publishable. Whichever route you take, there seems to be no getting around the fact that, unless you are some sort of literary prodigy, writing a publishable novel often takes years of painstaking revision and refinement. Find a reader or two that you trust and listen to their comments. If you hear a suggestion that you know will make your book better, don’t fight it – even if means discarding a chapter or character that you love or doing a page-one rewrite.

  • There Are Rules. This is a corollary to my point about revisions. There are certain rules and reader expectations that apply to thrillers. For example, your protagonist can’t be passive. And it’s always nice to kill someone early on. Read widely in your genre of choice, try to get a sense of the rules, and ignore them at your peril. If you’re violating a rule, make sure that you’re doing it knowingly and for a good reason, like subverting reader expectations.

  • BlurbQuest. One thing that surprised me was how early the success of a book is evaluated by publishers. Before a single reader has purchased your book, its fate will to a certain extent be decided by how many copies are ordered by booksellers. And how do booksellers evaluate a book by a debut author? They judge the book by its cover, the blurbs and the degree of push that the publisher is giving the book, as reflected in how highly it is placed on the list in the publisher’s catalogue.As a writer, you can’t control how good your cover art is (but I was really pleased with mine) or where a publisher slots you on their list, but you can be the master of your own fate when it comes to obtaining blurbs. And if your blurbs are really good, it may influence how your publisher views your book (and thus where you end up on their list and how much effort goes into the cover art). Start your BlurbQuest early, and don’t be afraid to approach established authors. One of the great, pleasant surprises of my debut author experience has been learning how generous fellow writers, even very successful ones, can be when it comes to reading and blurbing a new writer’s work. And Kill Zone author Michelle Gagnon takes the prize because she actually read my manuscript and blurbed me before I even had an agent!
  • Reece Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis, Bockius LLP.

Never Look Back

by Michelle Gagnon

Yesterday, Joe discussed knowing where you’re headed before getting started. I received an email from a college friend this week who’s writing his firstnever look novel, and he asked me a few questions about my process. I thought I’d share some of what I said in reply. Of course, there is no one “right way” to write a book; everyone has to find his or her own path. But after hammering out four books, I’ve learned what works for me.

1) At what point do you seek formal feedback, rather than just cranking it out?

I don’t show my work to anyone until I’ve completed two drafts. And then I send it to my “Beta readers,” 5-7 people whose opinion I trust. What I’ve discovered, however, is that they’ll all like different aspects of the story, and they’ll all criticize different aspects. I always take that feedback with a grain of salt. If more than one person is saying the same thing, I know it’s time to go back and figure out where I went wrong.

In Boneyard, one of my readers was so taken with a character in the initial chapter, she felt strongly he should be incorporated into the rest of the storyline. I had fleshed out that character fairly well, so that when something happened to him, you’d fear for his well-being. But ultimately, he was a device to kickstart the plot. Think of it as the garbage men who find a body in a dumpster in the first five minutes of Law and Order. You don’t expect to see the garbage men help track down the killers, or try the accused–they’re there to find the body, then they’re gone. Same with this character. No one else had that comment, so I chose to limit him to that opening chapter.

2) Do you counsel quantity (ie, getting more on paper) over quality (tweaking sentences) early on?

In my opinion what separates published authors from people who have been working on a book for years without completing it is this: never look back. I don’t start editing–at all–until the entire book is written. A lot of people get fifty pages in, then go back and start editing chapter one. The danger in this is that while you might end up with a perfect first fifty pages, by the time you finish those there’s a good chance you’ve lost the thread of the story.

It’s also discouraging to suddenly realize you’ve spent three months on fifty pages, and another three hundred and fifty remain to be written (of course, that’s discouraging whether you’ve stopped or not–I call it the “interminable middle”). I never even re-read what I’ve written until I’ve finished the first draft. (I also spend most of that draft thinking that what I’m writing is the worst junk ever committed to page. But I forge ahead, because I know the next draft will be better.) And then when I do go back, the bones of the story are in place.

3) When does it help to have a literary guide (agent? editor? coach?)? How do you get a good one to take you seriously?
Start the agent search only when your manuscript is as absolutely perfect as it’s ever going to be. That means a minimum of three drafts. And after completing each draft, put it away for a month before looking at it again. That gives you a fresh perspective.

Resign yourself to the fact that the agent search might take months- not always the case, but frequently enough that it’s good to be prepared for it. And not hearing back right away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be rejected. My first agent asked for an exclusive on the full manuscript right away–then three months passed. If I had to do it over, I’d probably call after a month and ask if it was all right for me to submit to other agents. In the end it worked out for me, but I was gnawing my nails to the quick that entire time. A month is more than enough time for an agent to have an exclusive.

Begin by querying your 3-5 top choice agents, always making sure that a) they’re currently acquiring manuscripts, and b) they represent the kind of work you write (these seem like givens, but you’d be surprised). There are a lot of good books on querying an agent (my favorite is Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages”). Your query letter needs to be perfect, as do your first five pages, since that’s what an agent reads to make a snap judgement on your work. I loved what people were saying yesterday about switching the second chapter with the first. About a year ago, I read a tremendous manuscript written by a friend. And the entire first chapter I was yawning-not good for a thriller. It was all back story: how the protagonist got his job, where he went to school, his mother’s medical condition…then, scene two kicked in. The main character picked up a woman home at a bar, was accosted in his apartment by Russian mobsters, was threatened with blackmail and suddenly boom- we were off and running. Telling too much at the outset is a common mistake. Bear in mind you have 100,000 words to develop your characters, so there’s no need to overdo it at the outset. (By the way, this excellent book- FREEFALL, by Reece Hirsch- found representation and will be published next year).

Your agent shops the manuscript to editors. Very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts these days.
Getting an agent is hard. My best advice would be to go to a writing conference that good agents are attending- a face to face meeting goes a long way toward getting you out of the slush pile. Incidentally, Thrillerfest is hands down one of the best for finding an agent for a thriller- I can’t think of another conference that gathers forty top agents in one place to hear pitches. Well worth the investment if your manuscript is ready.

4) Not a question but an observation — I can’t seem to help harvesting the real lives and personalities of friends and acquaintances. Ringing in my ears is Elizabeth Gilbert: “Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

I suppose my personal life infiltrates the storylines in some places–but it depends on what I’m writing. For the screenplay I’m working on right now, my co-writer and I are drawing heavily on our life experiences. But for my series, much of it is pure creation-I’ve never defused a dirty bomb, chased down a suspect, or done many of the other things my characters do. I just imagine what it would be like, basing it on research and discussions with people who do those sorts of things for a living. So the old, “write what you know” has never been something I strongly adhered to. Otherwise I’d write about sitting alone in a room typing day after day. And trust me, that is rarely exciting.