Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year One (Part Two - Control and Being an Adult)

Last Time on Ninja Stuff: I wrote about adjusting your expectations as a debut author to match reality, not your dream. I also discussed the virtue of patience as books depend on word-of-mouth to build readership and that takes time.

And now the thrilling conclusion...

Today, I want to share with you some of what I've learned over the last year publishing 4 ebooks, 2 print books, 3 (soon to be 4) audiobooks, and a whole lot of afterwords that a surprisingly large number of people have read:) I don't want to repeat myself, but if you're curious, I've already discussed my reasons for publishing independently, the thrill of having my story ranked next to Stephen King's, my excitement about being able to make my stories available, my troubles with covers, and the making of my first audiobook.

I love being an indie author. It's not for everyone, but it's for me. I've had more fun this year as a writer than I've had in any year previous. Last post, I may have come off a bit negative and that's not my intention. There's a difference between being negative and being realistic.

When I say I'm not a famous, best-selling author, I'm not being negative or down on myself, nor am I precluding the possibility of either of those things becoming true in the future. I'm simply assessing the reality of my situation which is easily verifiable by anyone with internet access and is similar to the situation of many debut novelists: better than some, not as good as others.

I want to present a balanced view of being an author. Authors, like any professional, wish to appear successful and they are, after all, professional liars (I made up some lies, people paid me for them). In my time obsessively reading the K-boards and other sources of information geared toward indie authors, I've noticed a tendency for some writers to present the world of independent publishing in the best possible light.

In too many cases, I've caught writers in outright lies. You can write a blog post about how your ebook is selling more copies than the Bible, but I have internet access and it's not going to take me long to decide whether I should continue reading your advice or whether you're writing it in an alternate universe unrelated to the one in which I live where facts apply.

Typically, we focus our attention on the extreme outliers, as though being the world's second best-selling author would be so bad. If you're not first, you're last might be a catchy slogan for a T-shirt, but it's a silly way for adults to approach the world. I'll take 50th best-selling author any day of the week and so long as the royalty deposits arrive in my account, you'll never hear me complain:)

This first year as an author has been a waking-dream, probably because it's also been my first year as a parent and sleep and I have gone our separate ways. I've never been more distracted from my writing and I've never needed to pay more attention to it. If I hadn't published All Together Now two months before the birth of my son, I might have stopped writing, at least for the year if not for longer.

I don't think it's coincidence, these two major life events happening simultaneously, as together they're forcing me to become something I've long resisted: an adult. What I'm about say next applies only to me and my experiences. For ME, I think querying in the traditional publishing model was a form of extended adolescence.

Obviously, I'm not against traditional publishing (I am against bad contracts for writers, but that doesn't apply to all traditional models). I'm providing a whole host of interviews with agents and editors for writers to query. For the right project, a traditional deal is absolutely the way to go and a writer should investigate every option available for her manuscript before publishing it. Your book should be published wherever you think it will reach the widest readership.

I'm sharing my experience because I think it will be helpful for writers going through something similar and for writers considering publishing their own work. Remember, being a successful indie author has only just recently become a viable option, so I can't be too hard on myself for the decade and a half I spent querying agents and editors and I consider myself lucky to have had that time to hone my craft. If I had been able to publish my first manuscripts, I might have, and I'd have been shooting myself in the foot as I wasn't ready for readers. I'm glad those early efforts aren't available and haunting my Amazon page.

I'm also glad I stayed with the traditional system long enough to have signed with an agent and to have had editors tell me yes (committees said no). After 15 years of writing queries, it would've always bugged me not to have achieved the goal. That I hung around waiting an extra year or two after the writing was on the wall that there was a better option available for my books haunts me a bit, but life's too short to waste on regret when it could be instead wasted on Facebook:)

When I was in my twenties, I decided I would wait to marry until I had published my first book. I didn't want a family because I knew I'd have a harder time writing and I do. My first apartment had a desk in the center of the main room and after a shift waiting tables, I wrote all night and slept only a couple hours before my next shift. It would all be worth it, I reasoned, because when my first book hit big I'd have time to relax and start living my real life. And there was nothing for me to do but keep writing and waiting on some agent or editor to change my life for me and make my dream come true. I also planned to quit smoking and swilling Mountain Dew at 7 or 8 cans per writing session (not as exciting as the habits of young Stephen King or old Ernest Hemmingway perhaps, but certainly self-destructive). After all, soda and tobacco were just short-term necessities to keep me writing until the big break came.

It's ironic to me then that my first year as an author, not just a writer, finds me happily married with a family. What's more ironic is I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't drink soda or smoke cigarettes these days and my desk is shoved against a window in an office rather than dominating the front room, and those are all good changes. Behind my desk is an elliptical machine I'm going to hop on before my morning is done, because I've learned my mind needs my body in at least bare minimum working condition to keep writing:)

I'm more than just a writer and who I am is separate from my books. I didn't believe that in my twenties, the source of no small amount of misery, but I believe it now. I'm somebody's dad and somebody's husband and more important than my next book is my son's next bottle. I'm going to write today and everyday, but I'm also going to play patty cake and both activities will make me happy.

Publishing my books on my own has done something for me nothing else ever has: it's given me perspective on my writing. It turns out my books aren't half bad. I'd always hoped this was true, but it's been quite something to talk with actual readers who think so. Not everyone loves my stories, but some readers do, and that's amazing.

A younger reader was planning to go to "book character day" at school dressed as Bilbo Baggins, but after reading my book, has instead decided to go as Banneker Bones (see the image above). That might be the greatest compliment anyone has ever given my writing, and it couldn't have happened if Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was still sitting on my shelf unpublished. 

Doesn't change the fact that I have a diaper to change and soon the Diaper Geni will need to be dumped, which is hardly a task befitting a noble author, and yet he's going to do it anyway:) It also doesn't change the fact that I have to finish Banneker Bones 2 and Zombies 3. But I will finish them and publish them and by the time they arrive new readers will have read the first books and might be interested in reading more.

As Voltaire said, "the better is the enemy of the good." Having my books snatched up by a major publisher who loved them and was willing to put lots of cash into promotion would've been nice, but it didn't happen. It's not personal. It doesn't happen for 98% of writers (76% of statistics are made up), or whatever the actual, very large percentage is:) But letting that dream of ideal publication, which is extremely unlikely even if you get a contract offer, stand in the way of getting your fiction to readers is silly.

Although I'm not presently rich and famous, I am extremely happy and grateful for all my readers. And my writing royalties, though not enough to buy castles Nic Cage style, are paying for book production and providing a nice source of income that has allowed me to pay bills and justify the time spent writing more books. I didn't get an advance, but I've already earned more than the advance I was previously offered--I just had to accept it in monthly installments instead of a lump sum. And remember, my books will continue to earn something for the rest of my life (and I'm selling T-shirts and audiobooks). That money combined with not paying for daycare has allowed me to reduce my hours at my day job and stay home with my son during the week and I assure you that time is far more valuable to me than all the castles.

I want to end this post by sharing the most important thing I've learned this year: I control what I can control. I don't have any say in what reviewers think of my books, I can only make sure they're reading the best work I can produce. I can't make readers recommend my books to their friends any faster than they're already doing. There's no sense patting myself on the back when I get a great review or beating myself up when I don't. Those things are beyond my control and therefore not worth worrying about.

What I can control is writing my next book and promoting the ones currently available. And that's it. That's plenty.

And so my first year as an author finds me back where I started and where I always return: staring at my manuscript and trying to think of the next thing to type to keep the story going and hoping that when it's finished, readers will like it at least half as much as I do. What else could I expect from a writer's life?

Monday, December 8, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year One (Part One - Fortune and Glory)

This is to be the last post of the year, Esteemed Reader, as I'm shutting down for the holidays. We'll start up again sometime in January with new guest posts and interviews with writers and publishing professionals and I might even review a book or two or finish that chapter-by-chapter retrospective of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the internets need more posts about Harry Potter!). But as you may recall, when I began my experiment in indie publishing a little over a year ago, I promised to share my experiences with you, so I thought we'd end the year with my thoughts on being an author so far.

Rather than telling you once again about the books I've published, I'd like to begin with a discussion of expectations and setting them properly that I think is relevant to all authors, whether traditionally published or otherwise. Based on chatting with a number of writer friends after publishing their debut novel and my own experience, I want to write a post assuring debut novelists that they're not alone.

If you find yourself moping a bit after the publication of your first book, it's completely understandable as most major happy life events are followed by a bit of moping to balance emotion--I find this is best offset with exercise and ice cream:) If you find your moping to be sliding on toward ruminating or depression, odds are that you haven't set realistic expectations for what life as a published author is going to be like.

As you know, I'm now wildly rich and famous and would someone please tell Steven Spielberg to stop calling me for ideas as I'm far too busy counting my money and reading my fan letters and marriage proposals from around the world. My hometown has recently been renamed Ninjasburg and all the girls who snubbed me in high school, recently renamed Robert Kent High School, have written to tell me how wrong they were and to assure me they cry their eyes out every night with bitter regret. Also, I have reason to believe I'm developing super powers, so my first year as an author is going pretty well:)

Obviously, none of the previous paragraph is true, nor would I want it to be (except the bit about superpowers--those would be sweet). In the information age, I can imagine few fates worse for someone than to become famous. I like twitter mentions and FB posts from strangers and I've got no problem speaking in front of a crowd (I once wanted to be an actor, after all), but real fame on the level of say, John Green, looks to be a hassle.

I occasionally make an emergency run to Kroger in sweat pants with my unwashed hair poking in all directions and I'd hate to be stopped while looking so slovenly by someone asking "aren't you that author fella?" Nor would I want people talking about how much money I must be making as I have no desire for a target on my back. A server friend of mine once waited on Stephen King and confessed that he and the rest of the restaurant staff gathered and stared at him and his daughter while they ate their lunch. I personally witnessed Michael Chabon being yelled at for his success while the screaming stranger's manuscripts had been rejected. And I mean really yelled at to the extent security moved in, as though Wonder Boys had taken the last publishing slot available.

This same waiter friend once told me he loved to play video games because most of us are destined for lives of mediocrity anyway, so why not fantasize about being something great for a few hours each night. I love video games, but I'm not living a mediocre life and I hope you don't feel you are either, Esteemed Reader. I'm not the President, or, more important, a teen idol, but I don't want to be either of those things. I'm perfectly happy being who I am and should future historians fail to note my many accomplishments, I won't be around to read their histories anyway, so I can't imagine I'll be bothered by the grievous omission. If friends and family think of me and smile, that will be memorial enough. Is being beloved by most of recorded history after he died penniless and in relative obscurity doing Mozart any favors?

I bring all this up because we Americans live in a celebrity-obsessed, capitalist society. It's just our time and place in history. Even if you don't subscribe to the idea that only the most rich and famous among us are truly successful, you'll be impacted by the fact that so many Americans do. One of the great absurdities of our age is the masses of Americans living lives better than any of the generations that came before them longing to be the folks at the very top, while the folks at the top appear largely miserable. If happiness in this life is being rich and famous, what is the deal with Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, next year's celebrity drug-related suicide, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?

Of course, despite these words, you may crave fame, Esteemed Reader. If so, you will probably have better luck dropping this writing thing and setting up a YouTube channel (or work as a cashier at Target).

I've been asked more times this year than at any other time in my life how much money I'm making. After all, I have books available, so I must be making bank right? And somehow the fact that a portion of my income now comes from writing seems to make it okay for people to ask about a dollar figure in a way it wasn't when I was just working a regular job. I never answer the question as it isn't anyone's business, but I'm doing much better than I thought I would, not as well as I would if I spent my writing time day trading. But I'd keep writing and publishing even if I made no money.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if making lots of money is your primary desire, writing isn't the way to do it. Yes, a handful of authors take off and make tons of cash. Some people also win the lottery. Neither writing nor lottery playing are strategies to great wealth for the majority of participants. If it's money you want, get 50k, a day trading investment account, and a copy of Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets (a great read, but never going to be a Book of the Week).

One advantage of knowing so many writers is that I was able to appropriately manage my expectations prior to publishing. I've been to plenty of author events where I was one of three attendants and I've talked with no small number of authors during the launch of their debut novel as they agonize over the lack of feedback in the form of sales and reviews.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit a small part of me fantasizes every time I hit the publish button that I'm triggering a mushroom-cloud explosion of excitement across the internet so great that every reader will stop what they're doing to immediately read my book. A horn will sound from the heavens heard around the world so that every head shall turn and there will be a rash of airplane crashes and automobile wrecks as pilots and drivers are too riveted by my new book to pay attention to the sky or road.

I have a similar version of this fantasy every time I publish a post at this blog. It never happens, even when it's an interview with somebody really famous. Instead, what happens is my most dedicated readers who follow me on Facebook and Twitter show up and traffic gets an initial burst, then it ebs and flows and builds steadily before tapering off. The number of readers varies depending on the post, but the pattern of traffic doesn't: A bunch of folks, a few more, another burst when the post gets retweeted and shared, a few more folks, a steady stream for a time followed by diminishing numbers until the next post.

When I started this blog, I used to watch those numbers like a hawk, refreshing every 30 seconds and celebrating a new reader with a cheer. Now I look at them once or twice a week, and sometimes not at all. I still celebrate new readers, but there's so many of them I can't spend all day cheering:) I know what the traffic numbers are and if I think about them too much, I begin to feel like I'm standing on a great stage.

But I also know a secret: whatever the number of people who read a blog post when it's first published, it's a tiny fraction of the number of people who are going to read it over time. Sometimes blog posts suddenly surge in traffic months or even years after they're published. When I do check traffic numbers, I'm frequently surprised to find some old blog post I forgot I wrote has suddenly become the most popular thing on the blog. This blog is available to readers all around the world while I'm sleeping, and they read it whenever it's convenient for them, irrespective of when I would prefer they read it.

I got an email from an excited reader of All Together Now last week with questions about the characters. For this reader, it doesn't matter that I published that book a year ago and I'm not really thinking about zombies any longer as I'm focused on Banneker Bones 2. She didn't care that I had to check old notes for details about Ricky Genero. For her, the story just happened, and the book will be available a year from now and five years from now and 50 years from now to have "just happened" for readers I'll probably never meet. Every month that book sells more copies than it did the previous month and certainly more than it did its debut month.

As of this posting, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees hasn't set the world on fire, but it's only been out a month. Let's give it a minute:) I've been less concerned with promoting the book than with publishing it and making sure it's done right. Now that I'm comfortable with the version currently available to follow me around for the rest of my life, I have forever to promote it. I'm going to be talking about that book while I promote its sequels and when I publish my next horror story. Whatever I write or do for the rest of my career, readers who seek out my writing will find Banneker Bones waiting for them, and some of them will tell their friends about him.

We live in a world of instant gratification, but books, however published, depend on word of mouth and word of mouth takes time. The best thing for an author to do while he or she waits is to write the next book. After all, however long from publication a reader finds a book, if they love it, they're going to want another book by the author. If they don't love it, it might be better if the next reader finds a different book by the author:) Either way, another book will be needed.

In the second part of this post, I'll talk about how becoming a parent informed how I approach publishing, some of the successes I've had, and Nicholas Cage. Same Ninja time, same Ninja channel.

Monday, December 1, 2014

GUEST POST: "Why I Self-Publish" by Jake Kerr

It’s the question I am asked the most: “Why are you self-publishing?” One of the reasons I am asked the question is that the road to a traditional publishing contract and agent representation is open to me. Of course there are no guarantees, but after being nominated for two of the most respected awards in fantasy and science fiction, the interest is definitely there. And for many writers, turning your back on that path makes no sense.

But I did it, and I’m glad that I did. So the question, again, is—why?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, and I thought I would outline them for you:

My personality

Certainly one reason is that I’m an entrepreneur at heart, having owned my own business and worked for start-ups. I love the risk and challenge of building something on my own. All writers share this love of creation, but not all share the love of risk and excitement in moving beyond the creation and into the other pieces like marketing and packaging. I do.

The money

While all contracts are different, on a per book basis, writers will generally make four times or more publishing themselves than going through a publisher. This means that you can price your novel at half what the big New York publishers price their books at and still make more than their authors.

For a lot of authors, the idea of an advance is a big inducement to a publishing deal, but these advances for new writers can be as low as $5,000. You can’t make a living on that much money. So the proper thing to do when thinking of your writing career as a business would be to maximize your royalties, not look at the advance. And there is no better way to maximize your royalties than self-publishing.

There are no guarantees with traditional publishing

When I looked at what traditional publishers bring to the table, the single biggest benefit to my mind was the marketing. But an examination of the experiences of published authors illustrated to me that even the power of New York publishing did little to move publishing success beyond a crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, the higher the return the more the risk is worthwhile. So the high return of self-publishing made sense to me.

The challenge

I love learning new things and taking on new challenges. Not everyone is like this, but I certainly am. As a result, self-publishing is fun to me. Learning how to use Adobe Indesign to design a trade paperback was very exciting. Examining contesting applications, investigating social media marketing tools, and assessing cover artists—all of these things were enervating. Make no mistake: Self-publishing takes an enormous amount of work and learning, but if you love the process then that is actually part of the appeal.

I have the network

While I noted that there are no guarantees with major publishers, there is no denying that they have the marketing resources and connections that nearly every self-publisher lacks. Just take a look at any review site run by librarians. A common review policy item is “no self-published works.” That’s just one illustration of the marketing advantage of traditional publishers. However, while I don’t have the marketing resources of a major publisher, I have a significant network.

I am a member of several large writing groups. I’ve been nominated for major science fiction and fantasy awards. My Twitter footprint is significant, and I have a powerful network of people who can potentially give me a major signal boost. As many of you know or expect, when a trusted and popular figure recommends your work, it has a major impact on sales. My network can move the needle in this way.

You’re racing a marathon and not a sprint

It’s the nature of major publishers that there is always another book in the pipeline. When your book is released the countdown clock starts. Even if your book is building slowly, it may not be building fast enough to maintain the attention of your publisher, and when you fall off the radar screen, your book will not get back onto it.

With self-publishing, the ebb and flow of your book’s fortune are not a big deal. The only thing that counts is if you continue to sell books and you are building a fan base. Your book could be out for a year, but a self-publisher knows that it is still not too late to take advantage of an opportunity to push sales, whether it is a review in a big newspaper or a promotional showcase.

Things like price pulsing (lowering the book’s price for a time to push sales) can be used for months after a book release. Again, there is no deadline. All you need is to continue to make progress to know that the possibility of a breakthrough is still alive.

Designing the frame

I wrote an essay on Medium about how much of the creative packaging of a book is outside of the writer’s control. This is not necessarily bad, but it’s the kind of thing that I prefer to oversee myself. As I wrote in that essay, I chose everything from the cover artist to the typeface used in the book. Each decision was important and personal to me, and these were all decisions that would be outside of my control if I were being published by a traditional publisher.

I decide on the schedule

A friend of mine recently signed a deal with a major publisher. Her book is coming out in the Fall of 2015, a full year from now. For books in series, the idea of releasing all of the books in a single year is almost inconceivable. Yet this is what the readers want.

So I love that: When my book is ready, I can release it as soon as possible. I can also immediately promote the next book release, which is months away, not years. This is not just great for me and my impatience, it is also good business.

I decide on the pricing

For a very long time I was going to price my debut novel at $6.99. It seemed relatively inexpensive and also on par with traditional publishers. But two things changed my mind: for readers with a limited budget, the difference between $3.99 and $6.99 was significant, and with the holidays coming up, I felt that the $3.99 price point would be low enough to push impulse purchases for parents giving their children a Kindle. If I’m an author at a traditional publishing house, I have zero say in pricing, even if I know that something like a Bookbub or other promotion would help.

I feel empowered

The pressure is obviously higher when you are responsible for everything, but that also provides a very real sense of empowerment and freedom. I can start and stop various marketing initiatives. I can look at my finished book and know that every piece of it has my heart and soul behind it. There is really nothing I can’t do. 

I can do what I want to do

The natural conclusion of all of the above is the simple truth that as my own publisher I can do whatever I want to do. This is not just true of the packaging, but in the writing, as well. If I want to write a thriller, I can. If I want to write a romance, I can. There is no one that will tell me that I’m at risk of being dropped by an agent or publisher by writing a novel in an unexpected genre or style.

And this leads me to my debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light. We all know that there are some significant trends in middle grade and young adult fiction, whether it is a dystopia or a shape shifter. The further you move outside of these conventions, the more pushback you may receive from your editor or agent.

As my own publisher I didn’t get any push back. I wrote a book that is kind of in between young adult and middle grade. No one told me to rewrite it to fit one age range over the other. I set the novel in 1938. No one told me that historical fiction was out of fashion. The motivations of various characters are complicated. No one told me to dumb it down. And on and on.

So that is the answer to the question why. But I think that in asking that question people miss a more important point: When I first started writing twenty years ago the question of why wasn’t necessary because the possibility of self-publishing success didn’t even exist.

What a wonderful world we live in where there are multiple ways of achieving writing success. For that reason I’m glad to answer the question of why. It celebrates new opportunities by asking about them from someone who chose one. 

After fifteen years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr's first published story, "The Old Equations," was nominated for the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year's best collections.
A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.