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.

*

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.

11+

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.

0

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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Profits of Doom?

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Cassandra, prophetess of bad tidings

There’s a bit of a buzz (meaning less than a meme, but more than idle chatter) about declining profits for indie authors. If I’m tapping into this correctly, there are more than a few writers who’ve experienced  significant drop offs in their Kindle royalties. Some attribute this to the Kindle Unlimited program. Others say it’s the massive entertainment options that compete for our attention. 

Or could it be that the ever-increasing number of titles sprouting like steroid-laced Kudzu each day offers too doggone many choices?

That is the view of Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, who has (perhaps reluctantly) donned the robes of a Cassandra. On his blog recently he issued this prophecy:

The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve heard a number of indie authors report that their sales at Amazon dropped significantly since July when Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited… Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all…. 


[E]very year there will be more and more books for readers to choose from. Unless the number of readers and the number of books read by readers grows faster than the number of titles released and ever-present, there will be fewer eyeballs split across more books. This means the average number of book sales for each new release will decline over time unless readership dramatically increases, or unless we see an accelerating pace of transition from print reading to screen reading.


He was challenged on his assertions on the Passive Voice blog. To one commenter Mr. Coker responded


[I]f you’ve got a better method of describing the big picture dynamic, please share. I’m open to suggestions. If ebook readership (both a function of the number of ebook readers and the number of ebooks read by readers) is spread thinner across an ever-growing, ever-accessible number of books, and the growth in ebook supply exceeds the growth in consumption, then what happens? Very simple question. Does the average new release get more readers or fewer?


I’ll take a stab at answering. I don’t believe that ebook readership is “spread thinner” because of an “ever-growing” number of titles. In fact, readers never choose from the whole universe of books. They filter their choices through author favorites, recommendations, genre preferences. They usually stick to certain places they like to shop for their books. Rarely, if ever, do they pull a Captain Kirk and blast out into the great unknown seeking new life and new civilizations. 

Thus, an expanding universe of content does not have a proportional negative effect on readership. 

One might call it a “discoverability” issue. But again, I don’t see a causal effect here. As I’ve emphasized over and over, by far the best discovery tool is word of mouth, which is based upon the writing itself. The more quality you produce, the greater the word of mouth. This will happen no matter how vast the sea of options out there. Add to this the author who wisely becomes an “ownllist” writer, and there is no reason to believe that we’re only going to see profits of doom henceforward.

Mr. Coker also says there is more quality now in indie books, making competition tougher. I do think he’s right about that. There are a number of reasons this is so, including more trad-midlist writers ditching the old system and jumping into the new. I think, however, Mr. Coker overestimates the breadth of the effect. Quality is always the toughest thing to produce in any enterprise. We have more of quality indie books, true. But not nearly so many that it makes competition any more formidable than it’s always been.

The writers who do the best in the future are going to be just like the writers who’ve done the best in the past. They will write books  readers love and keep that their primary mission.  

For those writers I still say there is good money to be made and deep satisfaction to be enjoyed in self-publishing. In fact I wrote a book about that. (In the interest of full disclosure, and adding to the anecdotal evidence, my own revenue has ticked upward in each of the last four months. I don’t have my novels in the KU program).

I therefore agree with Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, who says in a post at The Guardian: “Many of the association’s members are earning significant salaries now. I’m not talking here about the outliers, like the Kindle millionaires, but the many who are earning enough to leave their day jobs, feed their families, pay their mortgage, afford comforts and luxuries. And let us not forget that sales doesn’t just equal money, it equals readers. It’s one of my great delights to witness what this does for their confidence in themselves and in their work.”

One last thought. Mr. Coker surmises that, “Some authors are considering quitting.” Well, those are precisely the authors who should quit. This has never been a profession for the easily discouraged. As David Eddings has said, “Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead.”

It’s always been the case that the successful writers are the ones who can’t not write. Who exhibit persistence, discipline, production of words. Who write even in the face of serial rejection or dismal sales. These writers keep punching. As the old boxing guys used to say, you always have a puncher’s chance.

Can you accept that? Then politely tell Cassandra to put a cork in it…and get back to the keyboard.


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How to Launch a Self-Published Book

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ah, the book launch. The nerve-wracking bane of the author’s life. Will my baby make it out there in the big, dark, roiling tsunami of content? Will all that love and attention I’ve lavished on my project finally pay off with some actual readers?
In the traditional world it’s getting harder to launch. Publishers are stingy with marketing dollars. Unless a publisher puts some real money behind a title, it’s not likely it will register as more than a sonar blip in the ocean of books. Your single copy is likely to be shelved in a store (remember those?) spine-out. Your publisher has to pay for better placement, and that’s usually reserved for the A-listers.
Book launch parties and bookstore signings can be fun, but are often depressing. All of us who’ve been published traditionally know the feeling of sitting in a bookstore, stacks of our books on the table, watching browsers amble by with a look of pity in their eyes as they go off to find the new Stephen King. We put out bowls of candy and colorful bookmarks, and end up eating both of them ourselves.
In the new world of self-publishing, however, you have control over the launch. So what’s the best way to go about it?
Last week I came out with my newest book, How to Make a Living as a Writer. The launch was a success. The book hit #1 on Amazon’s Writing Skills list and #2 on Small Business.
Let me offer you the simple formula I use.
1. Write the best book you can
No-brainer. Every time out, do your best writing. Study the craft. Keep working at it. By far the biggest factor in a writing career is producing quality. This is the unavoidable law of all business. You can’t sell what consumers don’t like. Ford put a ton of money behind the Edsel, a famous flop named after Henry Ford’s son (even though it sounds like something you take to cure rumblings in the stomach). The public did not like it. So they did not buy it, despite all the fancy ads. Don Draper himself could not sell Edsels.
Thus, if you give your writing 90% of your concentration you’re on absolutely the right marketing track.  
2. Publish your book
I favor having direct accounts with the major retailers. Others opt for a one-stop distributor like Smashwords or Bookbaby. Some use a combination of the two. For example, some go direct with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and then via a distributor for other sites. It’s up to you, of course, but the extra effort to upload directly is not onerous and in return you keep all the profit.
What about going exclusive with Amazon? You can find plenty of debate about that online. If you’re just starting out, however, you need eyeballs on your book. The Kindle Select program is one way to accomplish that. C. J. Lyons, self-publishing megastar, put it this way:
Newer authors with limited readership probably have nothing to lose by granting Amazon exclusivity while they use Select to build their audience. Select becomes a tool to build a presence on the bestseller lists, reviews, and solid sales figures, along with an income before expansion, much in the way that smaller presses can serve as a stepping stone to larger publishers.
One more note: Amazon now offers a pre-order option. I have not used it yet, but will probably try it out soon. (Any of you who’ve had experience with this option, please tells us about it in the comments).

3. Mailing list
The best way to announce a book is to an email list of fans. I’ve been building my list for at least a decade. So my message to you is…start now! Make it easy for people to sign up for your updates on your website. Use one of the services, like Vertical Response, Constant Contact, or MailChimp.
Yes, it’s slow going at first. You have to build a base by producing good book after good book. If it’s your first book, go to your family and friends. Send each person an individualized email. Don’t bcc everyone with a blanket announcement. Shape each email to the person and then ask if they wouldn’t mind spreading the word to their own circle of friends. Offer them a free copy of your book in return for this.
In the back matter of your ebooks have a link to your mailing list form. You want pleased readers to be able to sign up immediately. How do you please readers? See #1, above.
Be smart about your emails. You can’t just send out any old message and hope for the best. You are making a presentation. Every email is a chance to grow fan goodwill or … to have someone hit “unsubscribe.” Write, edit, and re-write those messages. 
I use text only, because I want the message to be personal, not graphics laden. The latter strikes me as too much of a “sales” look.
I make my emails short. People don’t have time to sift through War and Peace. I try to make them fun to read. I’ll include some humor, talk about the book a little, then provide links. I try to stick to only one or two calls for action in an email. One is probably best.
I promise my email list that they will always be the first to know when I have a new book. If you want to see how I do it, feel free to sign up here.
My timing is to send a launch email on the Saturday after the book goes live, because of #4:
4. Blog post
On Sunday, my regular stint here at TKZ, I’ll do a content-heavy post about the book. What I mean by that is it’s not just a sales pitch. I want to make the post about something of value to the audience for the book. The least effective way to sell is to be only about the sale. I want to give people proof that the book is worth buying. You can check out my post on How to Make a Living as a Writer here.
This is, of course, a popular blog, one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 blogs for writers. The great bloggers here, and those who are now emeritus, have been building the brand for over six years. What if you don’t have a blog, or care to create one?
Then specialize in one social media platform. I chose Twitter. Secondarily, I have a Facebook author page.
5. Twitter and Facebook
So I will make mention of the book on FB And then plan some tweets for the week. During a launch week I’ll stick to a 90/10 ratio of real social interaction and “soft” selling. Normally I’m probably about 95/5 on Twitter. That’s really what social media is for. Build your presence around sharing good content and relational communication.
That’s it. That’s my launch plan. And I don’t have to leave home to do it.
I don’t pay for publicity services, blog tours, banner ads and so on. I’m not against these things if you want to give them a go, but for me the return hasn’t been worth the investment. Concentrating on the five items in this post is the best use of my time.
Down the line, of course, there are the deal-alert services like BookBub, BookGorilla, eBookSoda and the like. But remember your best follow-up action is writing your next book. You need to think in terms of 4 – 5 books that readers love before significant momentum starts to kick in. Keep that in mind and keep writing.

Feel free to share any other ideas you think are effective for a book launch, or marketing in general. What has worked for you, either as an author or a buyer of books? 


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Writing What You Love and Earning What You’re Worth

 
Many folks, including your humble correspondent, feel that this is by far the best time on earth to be a writer. In the distant past (you know, before 2007) precious few scribes were ever able to eke out a reasonable living from scribbling alone.
 
That’s all changed.
 
Every month more writers are added to the roster of those making enough lettuce to consider leaving their day jobs. But even short of that, many more are making a side income that is significant and steadily growing.
 
I love this! I love it that more writers can now earn a fair, merit–based return on what they write.
 
Today, let’s forget about the prognostications, vitriol, cries of doom, and hand-wringing over the future of culture in general and publishing in particular. Today I want to talk about being a professional writer.
 
For two decades now I’ve studied, analyzed, and practiced what works in this arena. I have determined that writers who make it almost always share these seven characteristics:
 
1. Love
 
An inner fire to make it as a writer will get you through years of cold reality. I suspect that the majority of writers who make it to full-time status love what they do. Writing is a part of them, a calling as well as a vocation.
 
It’s certainly possible to write out of sheer business-mindedness (I think, however, that this is much easier when you write non-fiction). Yet there’s a certain something that gets translated to the page by the writer who loves the work. I believe you can write what you love and, if you do so with the other characteristics listed below, earn a fair return.
 
 
2. Discipline
 
“One of the big lessons of sports for dedicated individuals and teams is that it shows us how hard work, and I mean hard work, does pay dividends.” – John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach
 
Love is not enough. Ask anyone who’s married.
 
Work puts legs on the dream.
 
 
3. Perseverance
 
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”
 
The true writer puts this thought in mind: I am going to write and never stop because that’s what I want to do. I will keep learning and growing and producing the words. I’ll keep carving out time to write, even if it means giving some things up. And it will always be too soon to quit.
 
 
4. A Sound Mind
 
By which I mean the ability to overcome emotions and see things objectively. To take some of the hard knocks that are part of the writer’s life and turn them into opportunities to grow. To keep yourself from exploding in a stupid or vainglorious way on social media and thereby harming your reputation.
 
 
5. Business Savvy
 
If you want to earn what you’re worth you have to approach writing and publishing as a business. A successful business makes a profit. To make a profit you need a plan.
 
Many writers and other artists shudder at this notion. Some even rebel against it. For them writing success is usually an accident.
 
I don’t want you to be an accident. I want you to think like an entrepreneur. Fortunately, the business principles you need are not that difficult to acquire.
 
 
6. A Support System
 
As author Peter Straub once put it: “Every writer must acknowledge and be able to handle the unalterable fact that he has, in effect, given himself a life sentence in solitary confinement.”
 
Every writer needs support from other people. Nurture relationships with fellow writers and communities of writers. Hang out with positive folks. Be kind to your family, even Aunt Betty who thinks you’re nuts for trying to be a writer.
 
 
7. Talent
 
This is the least important item.
 
First of all, it’s a subjective judgment. There is no final arbiter of what constitutes talent. It’s a little like what a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
 
You do have to have some ability to string sentences together in a coherent fashion. This is a matter of education and the habit of reading.
 
Having that, you can now put the other six items on the list into practice. This is how you make it in this game, and why I have just released a book called How to Make a Living as a Writer.
We all know that digital self-publishing has opened up a vast universe of possibilities for the writer. But this book is not about self–publishing alone. It also talks about how to approach traditional publishing. I advocate multiple streams of income, so I also discuss the best practices for writing both fiction and non-fiction. I cover what a publishing business actually looks like, and how any writer can create an enterprise based on quality and production. There are sections on how to become relentless, how to set and meet goals, unlocking your creativity, how to write better and faster, how to choose the right ideas for projects, and a whole lot more.
 
In short, I am attempting to give writers the skills that will greatly increase their odds of making a good return on what they write.
 
For the ebook:
 
 
 
If you like your writing books in print, HERE YOU GO.
Carpe Typem!


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