How to Make Good Dough Self Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Recently, Amazon’s paperback publishing unit, CreateSpace, sent out an email confirming that CSP was merging with Kindle Direct Publishing. All print-on-demand services are now under the KDP umbrella.

Nothing earth-shattering in all this, just a switch of platforms. Shouldn’t be a big adjustment.

What caught my eye, however, was a line at the end of the letter. Amazon is famously tight with their data, so it was interesting to find this little ditty:

As Amazon’s recent shareholder letter noted, there are more than 1,000 authors who earn more than $100,000 a year from their work with us.

That’s good to know. Because at one time (back in the “gold rush” days of self-publishing, roughly 2009-2012) the vibe was that virtually anybody could make six figures if they wrote fast enough and in the right genre. That was a myth, of course, but like all myths it had a toe-hold in the truth. Some previously unpublished writers, like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, did strike gold. Some traditionally-published midlist writers, like Joe Konrath and Brett Battles, hopped in and hit it big. There were even a few, like Bella Andre, who scorched into eight figures.

So everyone wanted to know who was making what via self-publishing. Some authors gave out their numbers. But that small sample size couldn’t tell the whole story. Then Hugh Howey and the mysterious “Data Guy” started their Author Earnings reports, which scraped hard data out of Kindle sales rankings. And yes, indeed, a lot of indie writers were doing very, very well.

AE is now dormant, having transitioned into Bookstat.com, a pricey service for companies whose “annual revenues are $10 million or more.” But the final AE report showed that while the gold rush days (such as they were) are gone, indie publishing is here to stay.

But it wasn’t until I saw that Amazon number—1,000 making over $100,000—that I was able to get a feel for how many authors are in that zone. (We must note that Amazon’s number would include non-fiction as well.)

Now, if a thousand indie authors are making six figures a year, I would venture to say that a substantially higher number are in the fives. Very few fiction writers of the past ever made it there. That’s why I continue to say it’s the best time on Earth to be a writer.

Of course, the admonition, “Your mileage may vary” is more apt in the writing game than anywhere else. There are so many variables at play that no two writers will ever come out the same in terms of method, production, and income.

But there are ways of increasing your odds of monetary success, just as there are fundamentals in any entrepreneurial endeavor. And that’s what self-publishing is, after all.

Written Word Media conducted a survey comparing authors who make over $100,000 a year (“100kers”) and those earning less than $500 a year (optimistically called “EAs” for Emerging Authors). Some interesting results here, including:

  1. Indie authors dominated the 100k club.

We wanted to know if there was any correlation between how an author was published and whether or not it got them to the 100k club. The results were pretty surprising to us. Of all 100kers none were purely traditionally published. To be fair, only about 5% of overall respondents were solely traditionally published (James Patterson did not take our survey), so traditionally published authors didn’t make up a big part of the surveyed audience, but none of them were in the 100K club.

Of the 100kers surveyed, 72% were indie and 28% were hybrid. Publishing independently rewards authors with higher royalty rates which means it is easier to start generating meaningful revenue when you self publish. The Author Earnings reports are showing a trend in which indie authors are taking share from traditional publishing, despite the fact that titles of indie books are priced lower than traditionally published titles.

  1. 100kers spend more on covers and professional editing.

No surprise there.

  1. It takes time. 88% of 100kers have been at this for 3 years or longer.

Indie publishing is no get-rich-quick scheme. In the traditional world they used to say it took 3-5 books to establish an author. Unfortunately for writers who have entered the Forbidden City, that number is now only 1-2.

  1. 100kers use paid marketing (e.g., deal alert sites like BookBub; paid ads with Amazon and Facebook) more than social media marketing.

That’s because social media does not sell a lot of books.

  1. Being prolific matters.

From the survey:

Emerging Authors spent 19.8 hours per week writing, compared to 100Kers who spent 28.6 hours per week writing. That’s a 46% increase! The 100kers write a lot more than the emerging authors.

To this list, let me add my own advice:

  1. It helps if you can write

We should all know this by now, but it bears repeating: far and away, the best and most ubiquitous marketing tool is word-of-mouth. And that is generated by, gasp, writing books that are so good people talk about them.

Which is what TKZ is all about—helping writers get better. It’s something you should want to do anyway, if you’re a real writer.

  1. Think like a publisher

You need to put your projects through an analysis like a pub board at a traditional house would. Who is going to buy your book? Is there an audience for your genre? How popular is the genre? Who are some other authors doing well in this area? What are they doing in terms of marketing? What can you learn from them?

Are you an author who can keep producing? In the traditional publishing world, a bestselling author used to be held to a minimum of one book a year. These days, some publishers are pushing their A-list writers to do two books a year, supplemented by a short story or two for marketing purposes.

If you worked at a publishing house that needed to make a profit, would you offer a contract to yourself?

  1. Establish a system of quality controls

If you self-publish, quality of production is your responsibility: editing, cover design, formatting, marketing, SEO, metadata and so on. You can learn do to some of this on your own, but other things, like cover design, you’ll want to farm out. Do your due diligence and be prepared to invest some money.

Also be prepared to review your system as each new book comes out, and make incremental changes geared toward greater quality. That’s called kaizen in business circles.

  1. Learn a few basic marketing skills

Even traditionally published authors have to do this, so don’t complain. As Russell Rowland recently put it:

The part that I never quite understood was the lack of support from the publisher, but it did give me a strong understanding that this is a business where you can’t rely on others to toot your horn. If they do, it’s a bonus. But marketing is up to the writer, even if you’re with a major publisher.

But beware, it is very easy to fall into the vortex of marketing frenzy, thinking you have to do every single thing possible lest you miss out on the “tipping point” of massive sales. Big mistake. Which is why I wrote a book on the tools that really work.

  1. Repeat, over and over, the rest of your life

You want to be a writer who makes some a good side income or maybe enough lettuce to live on? Then work hard. This is business. But if writing is what you love (and it should be, because there are plenty of opportunities to quit), then keep on writing until they pry your cold, dead fingers off the keyboard.

Do you have a “system” for your writing career? Not just how you write a book, but how you see yourself in the world of publishing and what steps you are taking to make it happen.

16+

What Should I Expect From My First Novel?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I got an email the other day from a young writer seeking advice about his foray into self-publishing. Here’s a clip:

As for my career this is going to be my debut work and as an author I currently have no following. My goal with the book is to establish myself professionally and get a small following going as well as bring in a good amount of money for a first book. My question is what are some steps I can take to build publicity about the book and myself without having any real following or platform?

Here is my answer.

  1. A small following does not bring in “a good amount of money”

Of course, what qualifies as a “good amount” varies, but I’m assuming this writer means more than Starbucks money. To get there, you’ll need a large following and more than one book. So…

  1. Attract a following with really good books

And what qualifies as a good book? Any book that follows all the advice on Kill Zone.

Ahem.

Only halfway kidding. It’s a book that is crafted in a way to connect with readers. It’s a book by an author serious about that craft. Which means …

  1. Get serious about your craft 

Because this is what you want to do. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually doing it well. Get feedback from a critique group or beta readers or professional editors. And…

  1. Plan ahead

Even as you’re finishing your novel, be developing two or three or four more, because …

  1. Your first novel will probably not be ready for prime time

They say everybody has a novel inside them, and that’s usually the best place to keep it. Really. First novels are almost always best seen as a learning experience. Rarely does an author hit it out of the park on the first pitch. In the “old days” of traditional publishing (roughly 1450 – 2007) the vast majority of authors went through many rounds of rejection, and it was that third or fourth or fifth novel that finally sold.

There were some notable exceptions, like Brother Gilstrap’s debut effort, Nathan’s Run. An exception which, you guessed it, proves the rule.

Today, of course, you can easily self-publish, but that ease is a lure, because …

  1. Self-publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme

The explosion of content out there now demands not only that books be of good quality, but that the author understand and implement some basic fundamentals about running a small business.

Self-publishing can be a profitable enterprise if you …

  1. Produce and market at a steady clip

The only real formula for making bank as an indie is quality production over time, sprinkled with a modicum of marketing knowledge. Keep in mind that the single greatest factor in selling books is word-of-mouth. Hands down. Glitzy marketing efforts only get you so far. Your books have to do the heavy lifting, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking the only thing that matters is how vigorously and breathlessly you check all the marketing boxes.

Keep writing and learning on parallel tracks, and …

  1. Don’t go shopping for a yacht

At least not until you can pay cash for it, and have enough in the bank for docking fees, upkeep and a crew. Which reminds me …

  1. Learn to handle money like a Scottish shopkeeper

That’s good advice for anybody, no matter what they do. But what you do is write, so follow the above advice and…

  1. Repeat over and over the rest of your life

A real writer writes and does not stop, even if it means managing only 250 words a day between family or work obligations. Even if it means you’ve got a broken leg and you’re in a cast that’s hanging on a chain from a rack over your hospital bed. You can still talk 250 words into Google Docs through your phone.

That is what you can expect from your first novel.

So, Zoners, what did you all learn by finishing your first novel? Where is it now?

 

10+

Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

19+

Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story about self-publishing back in the olden days.

Now, I know you kids think it’s always been easy. You just hit “upload” and … Johnny, put down that iPad! I’m telling you about real self-publishing, back when a writer had to have guts and grit! The days when self-publishing meant you paid for an honest-to-goodness print run and … Yes, Jenny? … no, print run was not a 5k. It meant shelling out money for printed, bound books made with pages made of actual paper! And let me tell you, that was not cheap! And at the end of it all, you know what you’d get? A bunch of boxes of unsold books in your garage!

You see, there has always been self-publishing in America. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman dabbled in it. Heck, Whitman may have been the first sock puppet, writing a glowing anonymous “review” of Leaves of Grass and buying space for it in a literary journal.

But it was in the 1970s and a man named Bill Henderson that modern self-publishing went wide. Henderson’s The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook started a small but growing movement of ex-hippies and frustrated wannabes designing and printing their own work. (This is not to be confused with “vanity publishing,” wherein a company took a whole lot of money from you to produce a print run of books that would, well, remain in boxes in your garage.)

In 1979 Dan Poynter published the first of several editions of his Self-Publishing Manual, bringing a much-needed business sense to the movement.

Which was around the time my dad, L.A. attorney Art Bell, decided to write a memoir of his service in World War II and publish it himself.

Raised in Hollywood, Dad was a star football and baseball player at Hollywood High School. He went on to play catcher for the UCLA baseball team, where his teammate was one Jackie Robinson.

Ensign Art Bell

In college he joined the Navy ROTC program and saw action throughout World War II. He was captain of three ships: the destroyers USS Dallas and USS Kinzer, and his first command and first love, the PC 477.

PCs were 173-foot, steel-hulled submarine fighters. Uncle Sam had thousands of seamen on hundreds of PCs convoying and patrolling in WWII. They were introduced in the desperate days of early 1942, when the waters off America’s Atlantic coast were a graveyard of torpedoed ships. They performed essential, hazardous, and sometimes spectacular missions, yet the PCs were scarcely known at all outside the service.

The Navy didn’t even dignify PCs with names. But the crew of the PC 477 did. They called her “Peter Charlie.”

Which became the title of Dad’s book. It was a true labor of love, and brought him back in contact with many of his shipmates. He collected letters and stories and photos, and organized a couple of reunions.

Dad was already self-publishing a digest on California search and seizure law, which had become the go-to resource in the state, so he had one of his graphics people do the layout of Peter Charlie, which he had typed himself on an IBM Selectric. He then paid a local printing outfit a princely sum for a beautiful hardback edition, with dust jacket and all. I can’t recall how many he had printed up. Maybe 2,000. He sold them himself out of his law office and it found popularity among many ex-Navy men all over the country.

Dad died in 1988 and I took over his practice. And I am proud to report that by 1999 or so, the entire print run had sold out. The book even returned a bit of a profit!

And that might have been the end of things were it not for the most recent iteration of the self-publishing movement: digital. I wanted Dad’s book to live on, and a few weeks ago I set out to make that happen.

First, I had to get the print text scanned. A writer friend recommended BlueLeaf Book Scanning. Per their instructions, I sent them one copy of the hardcover and chose their “destructive” option. That means they take the pages out of the binding for scanning, and you don’t get them back. The entire job cost $37.17. What I got were two Word docs (formatted and unformatted text), two PDFs (one large size, one small), and a JPEG of the dust jacket cover formatted for ebook use.

The scanning job was amazingly good. There was only one minor issue I found and took care of that with a quick find/replace.

Next, I opened up a Vellum project. Vellum is a Mac program for formatting ebooks (and, now, print as well). It is easy to use and creates gorgeous interiors. It will import a docx Word file and create most of the book that way. I went through the formatted Word doc and used cut-and-paste to put it into Vellum. Since there were a lot of block quotes and lists my dad used, this was the best way for me to check the transitions. Once again, Vellum makes the process easy.

I was also able to include photographs from the PDF scan. I copied the photos and saved them as JPEGs, then inserted them into the Vellum file.

Once that was all done, I generated the .mobi file and sent that to my own Kindle so I could go over it on the device and pick up any last formatting issues. I fixed those in Vellum and generated the final .mobi that I used for publication under my imprint, Compendium Press.

The entire project—from the time I shipped BlueLeaf the book to the official pub date—took six weeks.

And so Peter Charlie lives on. My hope is that those who had parents or grandparents who served in World War II and … yes, Billy? … Yes, we won … and anyone interested in a first-hand report of what life was like aboard a naval vessel at that time, will be both edified and educated by this account (I must add a slight language warning here, for the first captain of Peter Charlie was not averse to using God’s name to get the attention of his junior officers, Dad included). It is full of funny stories, historical data, some rare photos, and lots of interesting details.

It’s a Kindle Unlimited title, available here.

So … does anyone else remember the grand old days of self-publishing—before digital and print-on-demand? Anybody got a garage with boxes of unsolds?

9+

Letter to a Discouraged Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My man,manwriting

Here’s the thing. You got yourself good enough to get a publishing contract back in the “old days” when you needed to impress an agent, get repped, get shopped, and then sign on with a house. Your books came out with nice covers, some marketing, some placement. You did book signings and conference appearances. Three books I think it was, right?

So what happened? Sales weren’t enough to earn back the advance. And not enough to get another contract from the publishing house.

There’s an author support group for that. It’s called “Practically Everyone” and they meet at the bar.

I don’t know the exact percentage, but most fiction authors who ever lived never caught on in a big way. Many used to manage a “midlist career” which meant at least enough sales to keep on publishing, though not enough buy a yacht.

So you went through a dry period. Your agent shopped you but without success. So you parted ways. That was a tough time for you. You wondered if you’d ever get published again.

A couple of your colleagues, myself included, suggested you ought to look into self-publishing. That was four or five years ago. You said you didn’t have the desire to learn “all that stuff.” You just wanted to write.

Then you found another agent, a newer one, and he thought you ought to start over with a pen name. So you did. And he got you a contract. (See? You are still good enough!) Yes, it was a smaller house, so the advance and marketing were minimal. You got some good reviews for the new book, which was to be the start of a series.

But the book went nowhere. And the publisher decided not to bring out the next book. (To hear more stories like this, go to the next Practically Everyone meeting at the bar).

Then your agent got out of the business.

You told people, That’s it. I’m done. Goodbye, writing. No use. Never again.

Your colleagues gave you a pass the first time you expressed this. We all understood. But when you did it again, I decided to write you this letter.

Look, bud, are you a writer or aren’t you? I’m not talking about someone who has a contract. I’m talking about someone who has this yearning to tell stories because you’ve been caught up in storytelling dreams and you want to do that for other people.You long to move them, entertain them. Is that you? Then you’re a writer.

And as such, you’re subject to the slings and arrows of this crazy business. The question is, what are you going to do when you get a few arrows in the keister?

You can give up. Or you can go see Miracle Max. (You’re only mostly dead!) And when you can sit comfortably again, self-publish.

Sure, it takes effort to learn what to do. But no more effort than it took you to learn how to write a good scene.

I know, I know. You’ve heard about that massive “sea of content” out there. Yes, you’ll be starting out as a minnow. But at least you’ll be alive and swimming. The beach, meanwhile, is covered with rotting kelp and flies and the bones of writers who gave up.

When you self publish, you’ll instantly be better off than you are now. Like the old prospector said, “A handful of somethin’ is better than a cartload of nothin’.”

It’s within your power to make it happen. Think about that. You’re not at the mercy of a corporation or committee, or the shrinking shelf space in bookstores. You are your own captain, your own boss.

You say you’re not a particularly fast writer. Well, fine, here’s my advice: write to a quota and stick to it. Find out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Then up that by 10%. You have to have extend yourself a little. Even the lowly oyster needs a bit of grit to make a pearl.

Do you want to be outclassed by an oyster?

Get out of your shell, man. Start by putting out short stories and novellas. Get them out there and in the Kindle Select program. Use the free promotion to move units. Set up an email list with a service like MailChimp or Vertical Response, and make it easy for readers to sign up on your website. Put a sign-up link in the back of your books.

This is your foundation. Meanwhile, work on a full-length novel. Continue your series if you like. Or write that book that’s been tugging at your heart. Keep at it—quota, steady pace. The pages mount up like magic.

You will make some money. How much? It depends. The formula is quality + production + time. Do your best every time out. Keep on doing it.

For the rest of your life.

That’s what I said. Because you’re a writer.

Am I right?

You’re bloody well right I’m right.

So write! You’ve come too far to give it all up now.

Your pal,
Jim

P. S. You still owe me that ten spot, but if you write a thousand words tomorrow, we’ll call it even. Deal?

20+

Self Publishing as a Lemonade Stand

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Lemonade

I always used to stop at kids’ lemonade stands. Not anymore, because you can’t find them. You see, our local government here in Los Angeles, which is so business-friendly scores of enterprises are moving to Texas, decided to regulate the tots and their drinks some years ago. It’s happening all over. Not even Jerry Seinfeld could talk his way out of a lemonade shutdown.

Idiotic and sad, because the lemonade stand was often a kid’s first lesson in free enterprise and what it takes to run a successful business. That’s why I always stopped. I love encouraging ambition and the work ethic in kids.

Self-Publishing is a bit like running a lemonade stand, only without government interference. There’s a little something called the First Amendment, you see. With that in mind, what are some of the lessons we can glean from those little businesses we used to see in the summer by the side of the road?

  1. You’ve got to have a good recipe

The quality of the lemonade is the most important thing. Why? Because it leads to more business. I remember stopping at a stand and tasting dull, watery lemonade. And at another where there was way too much sugar in it. But when I got that glass of fresh lemonade that was just right, I went home and told my wife to go get some, too. A quality product gets talked about.

Writer, the most important thing you can do is write books people delight in and want to tell others about. Don’t serve up an inferior brew. You want word-of-mouth from your customers, not just a polite nod as they go looking for another stand.

  1. Get your mom to taste it

Before going out on the street, you need an expert to check your lemonade. Mom knows best. She can suggest changes and show you how to make a better batch.

Just like a good book editor, critique group, or beta readers. Indie writers need solid outside opinions of their work before they put a book up for sale. The ones who ignore this part of the process soon realize no more cars are stopping.

  1. Create curb appeal

The best lemonade stands had a nice look about them. They weren’t just a table and chairs. The owner-operators took time to create a colorful sign prominently featuring LEMONADE on it, with the price. It was big enough to read as you drove by, and wasn’t just a quick scrawl with a crayon on cardboard.

Self-publishing writers need eye-catching covers and compelling book descriptions. We all know that. Great covers and copy will get you to the next step in the selling process, a browse of the sample. So don’t shirk on the design element.

For covers, hire a pro. Expect to pay between $250 – $500. You can pay less, but caveat emptor. You can pay more, but I’m not sure you get more bang for your buck above half a grand.

You must also learn how to write compelling book descriptions. A solid formula can be found in this post.  Study book descriptions in your genre by browsing Amazon.

  1. Spread the word

I always liked seeing a little creativity in a lemonade stand’s “publicity.” Like when a kid would call out to the cars driving by, but not just by shouting, “Lemonade!” It was more like, “Cool off! It’s refreshing! Give it a try!”

When you start taking to social media, writer, don’t just shout, “Book! Buy my book!” Instead, create desire by telling people how it refreshes. Be fun about it. Don’t oversell.

I remember my own lemonade stand efforts. You know who did the most buying? The neighbors who already knew me.

In the same way, build up your social media presence by being a good neighbor. That should be your main focus, always. Then when you come out with a new book, you can announce it to those with whom you already have a trustworthy relationship.

  1. Thank your customers

It was always fun for me to pull up to the curb and see little faces light up. But much more do I remember one stand run by a couple of girls who jumped up and down and shouted, “Thank you! Thank you!” as I drove away. Their sincere gratitude was infectious.

Nurture your readers. As you begin gathering an email list, don’t pepper them with buy messages. Thank them every now and then. Put a “Thank you for reading” note at the back of your books, with a link to your sign-up page and a request for a review. Keep it simple. And sincere.

If you need some lessons in running a lemonade stand-style publishing business, I can offer you a couple of resources:

Self-Publishing Attack

How to Make a Living as a Writer

You will have challenges, of course. That’s another great lesson for kids, one they need to get early––things don’t always go swimmingly, even with your best efforts. That’s why you don’t give up. You look at the setback, learn from it, and try again.

Remember, if life gives you lemons, gather them up and throw them at people you don’t like either make lemonade or learn how to juggle.

How about you? Did you ever set up a lemonade stand when you were a kid?

If a child came up to you and said, “Gee, I’d like to be a self-published writer someday!” what would you tell them?

14+

Think your book is ready to publish? Maybe not.

Note from Jodie: I’m busy packing to move to another city next week, so bestselling – and prolific! – author Allison Brennan has kindly consented to share some valuable advice for aspiring authors today. Welcome, Allison!

Allison Brennan

In 2002, I finished my first full-length novel, a masterful romantic suspense. It had everything … and I mean everything … that a romantic suspense novel could have.

A Heroine … beautiful, smart, sweet. And a virgin. She was a computer expert who worked from home.

A Hero … tough, dedicated, handsome. And a cop.

A Chance Encounter … the heroine thought the hero was an intruder in her apartment building. An old house converted into three flats. How was she to know the landlord had rented the vacant unit?

A Villain … he worked at the coffee shop where the heroine bought her morning coffee after her daily run. He loved her. He was certain she felt the same way, but he couldn’t talk to her, so he stalked her.

A Victim (or five) … the villain, unable to share his feelings for the heroine, rapes women who look like her. Of course my hero catches the serial rape case.

The Ex-Girlfriend … the hero has a psycho ex-girlfriend who is none too happy when she sees the hero kissing the heroine. At some point, she trashes the Heroine’s apartment.

The Ex-Fiancé … yes, the heroine had been engaged. She broke it off for some reason I don’t remember (but I’m sure it was a very good reason), and then she learned that her ex was selling company secrets to a rival. So of course she turned him in.

The Heroine’s Brother. A priest. Well, a former Marine turned priest. (Why? I don’t know. It sounded good at the time.)

Danger. The Heroine’s ex-fiancé, furious that he was fired, plots to embezzle money from the company. But he needs the Very Smart Heroine to hack into the system and steal the payroll before it’s direct-deposited into employee accounts. To force her to help him, he and his gang hold her brother (the former Marine turned priest) hostage, shooting him in the leg when she refuses to help.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day!

But lest you forget Stalker Boy, he was just as upset as Ex-Girlfriend that Heroine and Hero were kissing. Around this point, Hero realizes that the rape victims (and he’s escalating, because one died) all look like our Heroine. He gets all Alpha Hero wanting to protect her. But because Villain is a psycho, he kills Ex-Girlfriend and frames our Hero. While our Hero is in jail, our Stalker kidnaps the Heroine and takes her to the Cascade Mountains where he forces her to wear his mother’s wedding dress in a mock ceremony so that they can “legally” consummate their marriage.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day … again.

Did I mention that Villain also killed his mother and kept her decomposing body in her house?

Yes, Hot Latte had it all. Literally.

(Stop laughing. Yes, I called it Hot Latte. Because that was the heroine’s preferred beverage at the coffeehouse.)

Alas, Hot Latte has never been—and never will be—published. Truly, I had at least six good books crammed into that one novel! I’ve used some of the plot twists in future books, and I still have more to spare.

My first book taught me a lot about writing. In fact, writing Hot Latte was essentially a crash course in fiction writing. What to do … and, mostly, what not to do.

I sold my fifth completed manuscript, The Prey, to Ballantine in 2004. My first four books aren’t publishable, but I truly believe my career depended on me writing them. Through the process of writing those books, I learned how to structure, pace and plot a story. (I use the word “plot” loosely because I don’t plot, per se.) I learned about character, backstory, conflict, and self-editing.

My first book isn’t salvageable. I would also argue that ten years ago, I didn’t have the skill to completely rewrite anything into something that was the same core story … but different. Better.

I owe more than I can say to my former editor at Ballantine for helping me learn how to see the big picture. In fact, I still hire her to edit my indie books because, even after twenty-five traditionally published novels, I crave editing. I also insist on revisions for every traditional book I write. I don’t consider it a failure to get a long revision letter—to me, that external guidance makes a good book great. While I’m a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean my books don’t benefit from a thoughtful developmental editor. (I’m not talking about copyediting and proofreading – those are a given. I’m talking about someone who looks at the big picture and helps make it clearer.)

I thank God that self-publishing was not a viable option in 2002 when I wrote Hot Latte. Because I honestly thought that it was a good book. My best friend read it and she liked it, too. (Ahem. See tongue in cheek?) It was clean – meaning there were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors. Who wouldn’t love it? I mean it had everything in it! Literally!

But all the agents and editors who rejected it were right. When I found an old copy of the manuscript a few years ago, I cringed. It was that bad. Every cliché in romantic suspense found a home in my book.

I recognize that the publishing world is different today than ten years ago. Yet … there are some truths that remain the same. The primary truth is that you should only put your best work forward.

Just because the new climate has allowed everyone to publish doesn’t mean that everyone should publish their first … or second … or fifth book.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were rejected by “New York” and obviously “New York” doesn’t know what’s good, so they’re going to self-publish.

Or how many people have said they can’t afford an editor, but their daughter/mother/best friend is a good proofreader. (Proofreading is NOT editing.) One person actually told me that once they start making money selling their books on Amazon, then they can afford to hire an editor.

Or how many people feel they have written the perfect book and any editorial input would make it less perfect. That they don’t want to change anything in the story because it’s exactly the way they want it.

Or how many people tell me they don’t really care whether they make money or not, they want to “get their story out there” and since it’s free to do so, they don’t want to spend any money on editing or cover design. These people actually make me angry – because I take my career seriously, I take books seriously, and I don’t think that “just getting something out there because you can” respects authors or readers.

New York rejects books for two primary reasons: either the book is total crap or they have no idea how to market the book (meaning, it doesn’t fit into one of their pre-defined genres.) It’s much easier to sell a thriller to New York because they know how to market a thriller, they can look at the book and see exactly who the audience might be. It’s much harder (not impossible) to sell a book that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the pre-established genre shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I’m certainly not opposed to self-publishing. There are many authors who have chosen self-publishing to great personal and professional success. Sometimes it’s because they’ve tried New York and couldn’t break out, but had built a solid readership who then moved with them into the digital world where they were able to grow and thrive. Some were successful in New York, but for one reason or another felt they would be more successful in the indie world. Others don’t fit neatly into the mold, but readers simply like good stories and therefore they found a readership because they told good stories.

But with the glut of books available digitally, and so many of them really not publishable, readers are having a harder time picking the wheat from the chaff.

I am disheartened that so many aspiring writers have completely forsaken the process in the rush to be published. It’s your name on the book. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing a book—usually while working at another job or raising a family. You wrote that book in your free time, meaning it had value to you—you sacrificed doing other things in order to write. Respect yourself! Respect your time! You deserve to invest in that book, to make it as strong as it can be.

If you want a career as an author, if you want to build a readership and grow your audience, the process is important—whether you walk down the traditional path or the indie path or, like many, a combination of both.

If I was starting today, I would have self-published Hot Latte and, in effect, lowered the bar for myself. It was a complete story, it had great characters, and it was cleanly written. Yet … it wasn’t a good book. I didn’t see the flaws because I didn’t know what to look for. It took me many books before I could see the flaws in my own work. Even now, I don’t always see the problems and am grateful to my editor because there is always something I can do better.

And that’s my goal: to make every book better than the last.

I’ll pop in and out today to talk about anything you want or answer questions! I’m easy that way 🙂

Oh, and for my BSP … COMPULSION, book two in the Max Revere iAllison Brennan_Compulsionnvestigative reporter series, is on sale now in hardcover, digital, and audio. RT Book Reviews gave COMPULSION a Top Pick: “Brennan really pulls out all the stops in this intense, terrifying thriller!” and Catherine Coulter says, “Don’t miss Max Revere’s roller-coaster new thriller. Talk about grit and courage—Max never gives up.”

You can check it out on my website, allisonbrennan.com.

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Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and mysteries. She’s currently writing the Max Revere investigative reporter series (COMPULSION, April 2015) and the Lucy Kincaid romantic suspense series (upcoming: BEST LAID PLANS, August 2015.) She lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.

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The best of times and the worst of times

by Allan Leverone  @Allan Leverone

When I was very generously invited by Jodie Renner to share a post at The Kill Zone, my intention was to talk about career options for Indie writers. I was going to highlight my new novel, THE OMEGA CONNECTION, which had just been released by Kindle Press after being selected through the Kindle Scout program, and use it as an example of authors giving new opportunities a chance.

Well, the initial releases by Kindle Press have been delayed a couple of months, presumably because Amazon recognized the intense scrutiny those first Kindle Press releases will face, and they want to be certain each book is as polished and reader-ready as it can be.

I’m one hundred percent in favor of this.

However, that decision did leave a gigantic hole in my Kill Zone plans. So, instead of talking about options available to those who have already dedicated themselves to a writing career, I’ve decided to direct my post toward aspiring authors, and the whole “things are wonderful/things suck” debate that seems to be raging among Indies at the moment.

There’s never been a better time to be a writer.

It must be true, because more people than ever own e-readers.

It must be true, because reading as a pastime has been making a comeback over the past few years.

It must be true, because now, anyone with a story to tell and the self-discipline to pound it out on a keyboard can get that story out to the public, no agent or publisher necessary.

There’s never been a worse time to be a writer.

It must be true, because e-book sales have flattened out over the last year or so.

It must be true, because the glut of available material has made it increasingly difficult for new writers—traditionally published or Indie—to get their work noticed.

It must be true, because anyone with a story to tell and the self-discipline to pound it out on a keyboard can get that story out to the public, no ability or talent necessary.

So, which is it?

Is this the best of times or is this the worst of times? There are plenty of people on each side of the debate more than willing to hit you over the head with fact and opinion until you commit to their camp.

Here’s my take: it depends.

If you’re looking to throw some half-assed crap together, poorly written, unedited and formatted badly, stick a homemade cover on top of the whole mess and then wait for the cash to come rolling in, well, it might just be the worst of times for you.

There might have been a period when that was possible, way back in the prehistoric early days of the e-book/self-publishing phenomenon. But that train left the station a while ago, and hopefully it ran over you while it was pulling out. Readers are savvy, not stupid. They know what to look for and they’re not falling for amateurish junk cluttering up their e-reader.

Mostly.

Have all the charlatans disappeared? Of course not, and they never will. They spring up like poisonous mushrooms in every fast-growing industry, hucksters who think they’ve found a way to make a quick buck by circumventing hard work and offering an inferior product to a gullible public. These are the people who give Indie writers a bad name.

On the other hand, if you have some talent and a strong work ethic, if you approach writing as a craft as well as a job, if you’re willing to listen and learn and respond in a positive way to constructive criticism, this just might be the best of times.

I place myself firmly in the second camp. Am I making millions of dollars with my fiction? Hell, no. I’m nobody’s idea of an overnight success. But I am making money.

More importantly, I’m doing what I love and building an audience. With nine novels to my name and two more coming by April, I’m paying my dues, laying down a career foundation.

There’s nothing quick or easy about it.

But it’s extremely gratifying, and everything I was working toward when I was sending out dozens and dozens of agent queries over the course of several years. To no avail. Everything I was working toward when I attended Thrillerfest back in 2008 just so I could put myself through the torture chamber/learning opportunity that is Agentfest. Also to no avail.

For the record, I was never able to snag an agent, either through the query process or through the Agentfest meat market, or any other way.

But something happened along the way. I stopped actively seeking an agent years ago and now, as far as I’m concerned, the shoe is on the other foot. Any potential agent wishing to represent me would have to convince me of the value he or she could add to my career, not the other way around.

If you look at writing as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, one where you can rake in lots of cash quickly, you’re probably considering the wrong profession, especially now. Not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s such a rare occurrence you can be virtually certain it isn’t going to happen for you.

You’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning. Twice.

On the other hand, if you start to feel a little…twitchy…when you go more than a day or two without writing, if you have the ability to tell stories and phrase things in interesting ways, if you are confident in that ability without being unrealistic in your expectations, if you recognize the value of hard work and you’re willing to take a chance on yourself while understanding there are no guarantees in this world, then by my estimation, there’s never been a better time to be a writer.

So as far as that debate over whether things are good or bad for writers is concerned, I suppose the real answer is: who cares? Worrying about it isn’t going to advance your career. Get writing.

Allan Leverone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nine novels, including MR. MIDNIGHT, named by Suspense Magazine as one of the “Best Books of 2013.” Allan lives in Londonderry, NH with his wife of more than thirty years, three grown children and one beautiful granddaughter. Connect at AllanLeverone.com,  on Facebook or Allan Leverone (@AllanLeverone) | Twitter.

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The Self-Publishing Sky is Not Falling

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Toward the end of last year a meme started to develop, asserting that the salad days of self-publishing are over. Only spotty hors d’oeuvres remain. One blogger put it this way:
I’ve been luckier than many Indie writers. I heard the complaints about falling sales, but for a time I hung in there, made more money every month than I had the previous month. But then the other shoe dropped and my royalties, rankings and readership tanked. New readers are not discovering me as they’ve done for years. I can’t  ignore reality. Things might pick up, but I doubt it. And I’m not taking any chances.
Much of this despair was drummed up because of what many authors experienced in the Kindle Unlimited program. Indie superstar H. M. Ward had this to say:
Ok, some of you already know, but I had my serials in [KU] for 60 days and lost approx 75% of my income. That’s counting borrows and bonuses. My sales dropped like a stone. The number of borrows was higher than sales. They didn’t compliment each other, as expected.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of the more astute observers of the writing biz, wrotethat the “gold rush” is over, and that 2014 became “The Year of the Quitter.”
Those of us who have been in the publishing business for a long time have seen writers go away from the start of our careers. It’s predictable. We also knew that the rate of writers disappearing would accelerate from 2014-2015, when indie writers realized just how hard writing is. A lot of indie writers disagreed with us every time we made that prediction. They believed that if a writer didn’t have to deal with traditional publishing, the writer wouldn’t quit.
And now, there are blogs and comments and anecdotal evidence everywhere that indie writers are quitting in droves. This point’s hardest of all to quantify, because most indie writers who have given up just fade away. It’s not even a what-happened-to, because most of these folks never had a following. But for those who did have a small following, a few people noticed when these writers faded.
Add to this the fact that the big publishers have not died like dinosaurs, as some predicted back in 2010 and 2011. They have smart people working for them. These folks don’t just eat donuts in Manhattan conference rooms.
In a #FutureChat conversation with Porter Anderson, I said that one of the developing stories in 2015 would be the “staying power of the Bigs.” They would, through new strategies and alliances, truly begin to adapt to the changing marketplace.
It’s happening. In December Hachette began partnering with the e-commerce platform Gumroad.
HarperCollins created a program to incentivize their authors to sell direct to readers by giving them a bigger slice of those sales.
And what do you know? Sales of print books actually rebounded in 2014, after sliding the previous four or five years.
On the digital side, the Bigs are strategically bringing prices down on their backlists. Which, of course, makes it harder for new writers to compete. If there’s a John Grisham title available for $4.99, many readers will click Buy and not bother to root around for a $2.99 thriller by someone they’ve never heard of.
 
So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?
First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors. 
Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!
To wit:
You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.
It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!
And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.
Phooey.
The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.
I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:
1. They know their craft. All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.
So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.
Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.
I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.
I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.
As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.
2. They upped their production. As indies, these authors write more, not less, than they did when they were traditionally published. And they love that. The ability to write a book or novella or short story and have it available, boom, is nothing short of intoxicating. In the trad old days it would take a year or 18 months for a book to become available. Now it takes 18 hours.
For those just starting out, I always counsel that you look at your schedule and estimate how many words you can comfortably write in a week. Then up that by 10%.That’s your Goldilocks goal. Not too hard, not too soft.
3. They operate like a business. Indie successes are strategic about choosing their projects, and marketing smart, not wild. They spend less time trying to force-feed sales via social media and more time rotating among the deal-alert services like BookGorrilla and EbookSoda. (BookBub remains the top producer, and is therefore highly selective). They assess what’s working and what isn’t. They adjust and take action. Most of all, though, they keep the main thing the main thing—writing books.
The writers doing the three things listed above will be the ones who survive and thrive, come what may.
For them the sky is not falling. It’s the limit.
Finally, dear writer, let me engage in a lawyer hypothetical by way of the old Even if argument.
Even ifthe sky does fall, even if income streams become little whispering trickles, ask yourself this: would you quit writing?
If the answer is yes, then you know you are not a real writer. That’s okay, not everyone is.
As for me, I always liked what one of my favorite authors, William Saroyan, once said: The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.
I will never stop writing.
Will you?

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Branding Through Cover Art

Nancy J. Cohen

Series branding can be just as important as author branding. What’s the difference? Author branding tells who you are and what kind of stories you write. For example, my works blend elements of murder, mystery, romance, and humor. Readers know they’re in for an entertaining yet suspenseful ride with a satisfying ending. I also write stories set in Florida, and this tropical flavor adds a layer of depth to my work.

Currently, I’m working to revise and reissue my earlier mystery titles. I hired a new cover designer and liked her idea of putting a collage together of photographic images. Similar to an art sheet from a publisher, I filled her in on what might make an appropriate scene and what elements it might include. I looked at the images she subsequently sent me and picked ones that seemed perfect.
All went well until she put them together in a cover mockup. My stomach sank. It didn’t work for me. The images were fine. So were the colors and title placement. But the whole didn’t speak to me as a cozy reader. Where was the humor element? The fun factor that would make me smile and want to buy this book, like these covers below?

ManicureMM    Shear Murder

And so I did a search on Amazon for “cozy mysteries.” The overwhelming majority of them were illustrations, not photographs. I’d given this designer a list of covers that appealed to me, but she didn’t seem to “get” the genre. My original cover artist, who’d had to bow out for personal reasons, had sent me a mockup of a cover that I’d really liked. Looking at them side-by-side, I had a bad feeling about the photo-based imagery. It wasn’t right for the genre.

Even if I rebranded myself by having all my reissued titles have similar designs, would these more realistic covers attract cozy readers? I didn’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t appeal to me. As a cozy reader, I look for a certain style. Normally, you can identify a cozy just by looking at the cover. And so I regretfully parted ways with designer number two. I approached my original artist to see if she was available again, and to my joy she said yes. We’re back to fixing the details on the original cover, and I feel much happier about the process.

What is the lesson learned? It’s not only about your author brand. It’s also about reader expectations. Readers can tell from the cover what type of story to expect. Go for a change if you want to broaden your readership. But if you want genre appeal, stick to the tried and true. Flowers never did it for me as a romance reader. I still like the old-fashioned clinch covers. Remember the old gothics, with a woman in a gown running away from a spooky mansion? You could tell at a glimpse what genre it represented. So yes, your cozy or thriller cover at a glance might resemble others in the genre, but that’s what readers want and expect.

Whichever route you go, plan for series continuity via the same font, author name and title location, series logo, design style and color statement (i.e. pastels or bold and bright).

Does reader expectation figure into your cover art or does this aspect not concern you?

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