My writing goals for 2019

2019

After falling short of my goals for 2018 (see this post for details), I’m almost wary of setting any for this year. But without goals, it’s easy to let things slip, so here are the things I hope to achieve over 2019.

Release the new edition of Dark Glass and seriously market the Dominions series

I should have the new version of Dark Glass out by the end of February, and then I can start marketing the whole series. I intend to run Amazon Ads (to drive sales on Amazon, obviously), Bookbub (to target other retailers, like Kobo and iBooks) and Facebook (to encourage mailing list sign-ups). Obviously, with Dark Glass being a permafree title, I’ll have to monitor read-through closely to calculate how effective the ads are.

I also plan to release a box-set of the first three Dominions novels, and use ads for this too. If the writing of the next Dominions books goes to plan, the box-set will probably come out over the summer.

Release two more Dominions novels

I’ve always viewed Dominions as a series of trilogies. The first followed Rodin’s journey of self-discovery, but dropped hints about a larger story involving the Domes and Authority. The next trilogy (which started with Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)) is wider in scope, following more characters as plans slowly unfold.

I’m pulling ideas together at the moment (and re-reading all the Dominions books has helped here), and I aim to release Dominions V and Dominions VI, along with another short story, around summer/autumn time.

Go wide with Shadows

I’m getting new covers done over the summer, and I’ll pull these books from Kindle Unlimited before this so that I can do a re-release/re-brand while going wide (running ads, reducing the price of the first book for a limited period, and so on). Out of all my books released so far, I feel this series has the strongest writing and tightest storytelling, so I want to give Shadows a big push.

Release paperback books

When I first put out my ebooks, there was so much to learn, so much to take on board, that I pushed paperbacks to one side. But this year, I intend to put out physical copied of as many books as I can. I’ve been learning about paperback formatting‌—‌even if I eventually hire someone to do this, it’s still important to know the basics. I’m getting new Shadows covers (including for paperback). And for Dominions, I’ll investigate Draft-2-Digital’s paperback service, which apparently can extrapolate a paperback cover from the e-book version.

Dive into dictation

I’ve recently purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking, and I fully intend to be dictating most of my fiction by the end of the year. There are a few reasons for this.

  • It’s faster. At the moment, I can type around 1500 words in an hour when I’m ‘in the flow’, but statistics I’ve read suggest that dictation potentially speeds this up to 5000 words per hour‌—‌a couple of half-our sessions will give me more words than three hours of typing.
  • It frees me up to ‘write’ all over the place. Especially with transcription, I could be ‘writing’ while doing stuff around the house and garden, going for a walk (although I’m conscious of the strange looks I might get) or driving.
  • Moving about while working has got to be healthier than sitting down (or even using a standing desk).

This will only be for first drafting, though‌—‌I’ll still use the laptop for editing. But the decreased time for producing that draft will still make the whole process faster.

A new project

I’m constantly getting new ideas, and I have a couple that could be developed into a new series. If things go well over the first half of the year, I’d like to start serious work on this new series toward the end of 2019.


So, five goals for 2019. Of course, I intend to add content to this website every week (alternating posts and short stories), I still want to develop my writing, and there is always more to learn about marketing and the business side of independent publishing.

Things will surely happen to disrupt these plans, but I’ll keep you posted on what’s happening, and I’ll give you a summary in about twelve months.

How was 2018 for me?

 

Another year over, another opportunity to look back at what I’ve achieved (or otherwise). Like any year, things haven’t always gone to plan.

Shadows

My aim for 2018: to release the third book in the trilogy in the first quarter of the year.

Shadowstrike_smallShadows was originally supposed to be a short series of ‘easy’ books as a palate-cleanser between writing Dominions stories, but each book required far more work than I’d envisaged. The third book, Shadowstrike, was no exception, and the editing stages involved a great deal of cutting and rewriting to reduce the overblown 160,000 word first draft to something just under 100,000. This took a lot of time, especially as I then had to do another couple of editing passes to improve the language, and I only managed to release the finished book a few months ago.

But I don’t see this as a failure. The book is far stronger for all that work‌—‌in fact, I feel that the Shadows series contains some of my best writing to date. And readers seem to enjoy the books‌—‌I received a cery positive review for Shadowfall, and my Kindle Unlimited page reads suggest that readers who start Book One generally continue on to finish the whole trilogy.

I was going to leave this series as a trilogy, but I’m rethinking this now. I might have more to report on that at a later date.

Dominions

My aim for 2018: to release Dominions IV and V along with a couple of supporting stories, and to start work on Dominions VI.

Well, that never happened.

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)I already had an almost-finished version of Riled Dogs (Dominions IV), although I wasn’t ready to complete it because I planed to release IV and V close together. But with Shadowstrike taking far longer than expected, I knew I wasn’t going to get round to Dominions V before the second half of the year. And Deep Water (Dominions III) came out at the end of 2016‌—‌could I really leave over 2 years between that and the rest of the series?

So between edits on Shadowstrike I worked on Riled Dogs. This didn’t require too much‌—‌a quick polish, an external edit, and then all the formatting and finalising stuff (I already had a cover, and I’d been throwing around ideas for the product description for some time). I published the finished version back in March.

I also had a short that I’d originally written when I started work on Riled Dogs. This took a few more edits to complete, but being a short story, this didn’t take as long, and I was able to release Animus (A Dominions Story) as another free gift to my mailing list (although this will probably go on general release fairly soon).

When I’d completed Shadowstrike, I set to work on Dominions V. But I’d been enveloped in the world of Shadows for too long, and I needed to reacquaint myself with Dominions. I decided to re-read all the older books, and started (where else?) with Dark Glass (Dominions I).

And I wasn’t impressed.

This book came out in the summer of 2016, but was finished back in 2015. Three years further on, any my writing’s improved‌—‌and the state of Dark Glass made this obvious. The main character was passively carried along by the plot for most of the time, the story moved slowly, and the writing was overblown. And this was the first book in what I intend to be a nine-book series. How did I expect readers to pick up the second book if the first wasn’t a good read?

I couldn’t let this stand. I needed to re-write Dark Glass.

This had been my project for the last few months of 2018, and I’m far happier with the new version. It’s almost finished, and should be out early next year.

Marketing

I’m constantly learning in this area, and had some success with KU free days and a Kobo promotion. But paid advertising is becoming more necessary, with Amazon especially leaning towards a ‘pay to play’ environment. Over early December I ran a few Amazon Ads for Shadowfall, but without success. I had quite a few impressions (meaning that the cover showed up when potential readers were searching for what I considered to be similar books), but hardly anyone clicked (under 1%). I believe this is down to the cover, and after a lot of consideration I’ve decided that all the Shadows covers need to change.

Other projects

PowerOfWordsCoverBack in 2017, MLS Weech sent out a call for stories inspired by the First Amendment, to be included in an anthology he was putting together. He accepted my story (Ghost Stream), and then started an intense editing process that stretched into 2018. It was a lot of work, but it’s definitely made the story stronger (and I learnt a great deal from the whole process).

The release of The Power Of Words was at the start of October, and we had a Facebook party‌—‌the first time I’ve been involved with one of them. We’ve garnered a few decent reviews, and I’m proud to be a part of this anthology. There’s also an audio version‌—‌and listening to someone else narrate my own story was an eye-opening (ear-opening?) experience. It was like discovering a new story, and it’s pushed me further down the road to getting audio versions of my other stuff.

It's Behind YouBack in March, I had a short story (The Reason We Run) included in Samie Sands’ horror collection It’s Behind You.

I’ve continued to post a new story under 1000 words on my website every couple of weeks. I did have a break in the summer (putting out posts connecting the stories by themes instead), but I finished the year with my 60th of these shorts, and have just compiled the last twenty into another collection (Millenary 3). I’ve also continued to post various thoughts/musings on reading and writing, keeping up my schedule of putting something new on the website every week.


So that’s been my year in writing/publishing. Two novels released, a couple of shorts (including a very long one) in anthologies, and more shorts and posts on the website. Not the year I’d envisaged, but I’ve learnt and I’ve developed. I’m a stronger writer now, and I’ve increased my understanding of marketing and the business side of independent publishing. Re-writing Dark Glass, while appearing to be a backward step, will put the series on firmer foundations. It’s also given me the courage to accept that the Shadows covers weren’t helping sales of those books.

And I have plans for 2019, some more formed than others (and some little more than sparks of ideas at the moment). But I’ll tell you about them next time.

The Freedom Of Pen-Names

fake-30346_640TW Iain is not my real name.

For any of you who have read my ‘about the author’ page, this should come as no surprise. I use a pen-name.

I’m not alone in this. Throughout the history of the written word, people have worked under pseudonyms. Some writers use multiple pen-names.

So why pretend to be someone else? Surely, if I’m proud of my books, I shouldn’t have a problem with them coming out with my real name on the cover. And if I’m embarrassed about them, or I’m worried that they’re not good enough, what am I doing throwing them out into the world?

It’s not that simple. There are many reasons for using a pen-name.

Writing in multiple genres

A lot of writers stick to one genre, occasionally flirting with others but always returning to their core. JRR Tolkien wrote some children’s stories, but they were still set in fantasy worlds, or had elements of the myths that influenced the rest of his work. Robert A Heinlein was prolific, but stayed within the bounds of science fiction. Terry Pratchett wrote comedy, predominantly within a fantasy setting.

But other writers spread themselves wider. Julian Barnes writes literary fiction, but he has also written mysteries, released under the name Dan Kavanagh. When JK Rowling writes her Cormoran Strike books, she does so under the name Robert Galbraith.

There are good reasons for this. If readers are accustomed to a particular type of book from an author, they are not going to be happy if that author releases something too different. Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are written for very different audiences.

Many authors who write across different genres cultivate different brands, with a pen-name for each one. Even someone like Johnny B Truant, who writes and produces a wide range of books under that name (which is not his real name anyway), uses another pen-name, Aubrey Parker, for his romance titles. Many authors who write clean romance and erotica use different names‌—‌readers wanting a sweet love story are not going to be enamoured by graphic sexual content, and the erotica readers are going to be disappointed if there is nothing physical between the main characters.

So using different names for different genres can help readers identify the books they are more likely to enjoy. It can work to avoid confusion and frustration

Going against prejudices

The Cormoran Strike books highlight another reason for using a pen-name, one that was more common years ago but that still (unfortunately) exists. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are written for children (of all ages), but the Cormoran Strike books are thrillers. This is a genre where, generally speaking, readers are more likely to accept a book written by a male.

There have been cases of female authors using male pen-names in order to gain acceptance throughout the history of the written word. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became George Sands. Harper Lee, when she released To Kill A Mockingbird, dropped her first name (Nelle), using instead her more ambiguous middle name.

And such prejudices do still exist today, and I came across a book review recently that highlighted this. The book was by an author who used initials rather than a first name, and the reviewer was angry. He seems to have enjoyed the book, but also assumed the author was male. When he found out that this assumption was wrong, he changed his opinion of the book, and his review explained how he felt tricked, and would never have read the thing if he’d know the author was a woman.

I don’t know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, or be concerned that some people think like this.

Of course, many writers use initials rather than a name. Nora Roberts writes detective fiction as JD Robb. Another example is Joanna Penn. She writes books about the indie-publishing business, and is well-known and well-respected as a podcaster and speaker, and a driving force in the whole indie scene. She also writes dark thrillers with supernatural elements, and puts these out as JF Penn. Yes, part of her reason for doing this is to separate her two brands, but I believe she went with initials partly because it makes her books more acceptable to a wider audience.

There are times when male authors lean towards a female pseudonym, especially in romance, as the previously mentioned example of Truant/Parker highlights. I have also heard of a husband-and-wife team who write erotica, but they use her name on the covers, because many erotica readers are more comfortable reading books written by a female.

As a final example of this, when Bloomsbury published the first Harry Potter book, they suggested Rowling use initials, on the basis that boys were less likely to pick up a book written by a woman.

Anonymity

This is, I think, a big reason for using a pen-name, and there are a number of facets to it that are worth considering.

Generally, the job people do comes to define who they are. When someone asks ‘what do you do?’ they mean ‘what job do you do that takes up the main part of your day and provides your main financial support.’ Anything else is considered a hobby, maybe interesting but often frivolous. The job is the important thing.

So some writers, especially those with ‘important jobs’, or those working in a role that brings them into contact with ‘the public’, can use a pen-name to shield the writing part of their life.

For others, there can be tension between their ‘job’ and their ‘writing’. I’m thinking here of those who work with, but also write stories of a more adult nature (such as erotica or hard horror). And some of you reading this will feel awkward at this point. Is it right that someone producing such adult material can also work as, for example, a teacher? Is that even safe?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be safe. A teacher might work with children, but they are still an adult. A teacher with children of their own has engaged in activities that are unsuitable for kids. As long as that part of their life does not have a negative effect on their job, there should be no problem. But a teacher writing for a mature audience needs to be careful, and using a pen-name can help greatly. It is not about hiding, but about keeping different parts of their life separate.

This doesn’t only apply to those working with the young or the vulnerable. For many people, it is healthy to have some separation between work and home life. Books, once they are released, are public. Family is private.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote a book describing his early life living in poverty, but he didn’t want this to embarrass his family, so he used the name George Orwell. Out Of Africa was originally credited to Isak Dinesen, although it is now available under the author’s real name of Karen Blixen. It is unclear why she used a pen-name, but one suggestion is that the Blixen family were well-known in Denmark, and she wanted to protect the family name. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen as cashing in on her family’s credentials.

Maybe this is why Joe Hill writes under that name, and not under his given name of Joseph Hillstrom King. Being the son of Stephen King would definitely garner interest from the public, but it would also pile on the expectations. Using the name Joe Hill helps his books succeed or fail on their own merits.

And, interesting, this is a reason that King himself used a pen-name for some of his books. He wondered if his books were selling because they were good, or because his name was splashed across the cover, and so he produced a series of titles under the name Richard Bachman, with none of the marketing push his ‘King’ novels got. He never answered his own question, though, because after a few years he was ‘outed’ when people spotted how similar in style Bachman was to King (especially in Thinner, which contained a similar supernatural element to his ‘King’ books).

So using the anonymity of a pen-name can protect family, and it can provide a way of proving (or otherwise) an author’s writing. It can also provide a way of escaping expectations, either externally or internally imposed‌—‌important when a writer wants to go wherever the story leads without having to worry about possible repercussions in the ‘real world’.

It sounds better

This one might appear flippant, but the sound (and look) of a name is part of a writer’s brand, and plays a role in marketing and selling books. I’ll give a few examples.

Charles Lutwidge Dobson is a bit of a mouthful, but the name Lewis Carroll rolls of the tongue in the playful manner associated with Alice’s adventures. The name Joe Hill has a far stronger impact than Joseph Hillstrom, especially for a writer of horror and thrillers. Daniel Handler is a fairly forgettable name, but Lemony Skicket grabs the attention and promises something different.

The Harry Potter author has no middle name, but someone obviously thought J Rowling didn’t sound quite right. So she borrowed the first letter of her mother’s name, and became JK Rowling.

Sometimes, the better sounding pen-name can work against prejudices too, especially when readers might be wary of trying a ‘foreign’ author. So Jozef Korzeniowski becomes Joseph Conrad, and Alisa Zonov’yevna Rosenbaum becomes Ayn Rand.

And the look of the name? I recall hearing that ‘Stephen King’ is an ideal name for marketing because of how it looks on the book cover‌—‌longer first name in smaller letters, with the strong second name in larger letters.

 

Of course, there are many more reasons writers use pen-names, but this post is already too long. And besides, does it really matter? The name is a label, and it is useful for branding and marketing, but after that? When I’m reading a book I don’t think about who the writer is. I don’t look at the cover. I just want a well-told story.

Fast, cheap and good – but only two at a time

There’s this thing called the Designer’s Holy Triangle. The three sides of the triangle are labelled fast, cheap and good‌—‌but it is only possible to use two at a time. According to this idea, you cannot have something that is high quality and at a reasonable price if you also want it quickly.

good-cheap-fast sign

The Problem

I read a collaborative book recently that made me relate this to writing. The authors worked very fast on this book, going from idea to finished project in something like a month. The writing itself took five days (or so I believe), and editing about another week.

It’s an enjoyable book. It’s fairly short, fast paced, and held my interest the whole way through. But something bothered me as I read it.

It could have been so much better. I’m no expert, but I spotted so many minor adjustments that would have made the writing stronger. Some of the phrasing felt clumsy. The characters’ actions didn’t always ring true. And too often it fell into ‘describing what was happening’ instead of giving me a well-written scene.

In my view, the book could have done with at least one more editing pass, possibly more. The problems weren’t major, but they were enough to drag it down to ‘meh’ when it could have been ‘wow!’

Supply And Demand

But fast, at least in indie publishing, is often seen as a necessity. According to some, if you don’t release a book each month you’ll be left behind. People talk of Amazon’s 30-day cliff, after which a book doesn’t get as much organic publicity, so you need a new book out to keep the interest up. Readers, hungry for more, contact authors to ask when the next in a series is out, and authors feel pressurised to keep their stories coming.

There is a strong argument in favour of this workrate‌—‌supply and demand. It’s giving the readers what they want, or at least what they say they want. And there are writers who consistently produce a book a month. There are those who have turned writing into an industry. And this can apply to traditionally-published authors as well. Apparently, Lee Childs’ books are polished first drafts. James Patterson uses collaboration to create a constant stream of new product. And authors like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are capable of writing thick tomes in months rather than years.

But there are many who argue that a book should take at least a year to write, and moving any quicker makes you a hack. They argue that a book written too fast will automatically be rubbish. They say that real quality takes time.

There is some validity in this. Writing a decent book or story is far more involved than simply putting down the words, and a rush job is more likely to have rough edges. But I don’t think it necessarily holds that a book written fast is any worse than one written over a longer time period.

laptop-820274_640Everyone is different. Every writer works in their own way. Some are able to achieve a flow state, and the words fly from their fingers. Some use dictation to work at 5000 words per hour on their first drafts. There are those who plan meticulously before they start writing, and so there is not as much structural work required later (and I believe this is Lee Child’s method). And others are simply capable of putting in ten hours of work on their books every single day.

Then there are authors who agonise over every word they type, and who will spend a couple of hours honing each sentence. There are those who seek perfection in every phrase, and who will discard pages as they go.

A book a year might be a guideline, or an average, but how many people are average?

But, as I said before, there is pressure on the independently published author to churn the books out. And with this pressure, I believe there are too many writers who are skimping on editing.

I’m not talking about typos, or about hiring a developmental and a copy editor. Yes, these things can clearly help (especially having other, expert eyes looking at the book). But from what I have read, many writers could do with spending more time on self-editing.

I don’t class myself as an expert, and I know I have so much more to learn about writing, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve spotted an easy way to improve a book. I’ll notice repeated words, and come up with alternatives. I’ll think about how the story could be restructured to have a stronger impact on the reader. I’ll cringe at unwieldy dialogue, imagine how someone would actually say something similar, and wonder why the writer didn’t put that down instead.

Yet these books sell as they are. Reading the reviews, many people love them. So maybe I’m in a minority here. If these stories have an avid and eager audience, who loses out with these ‘could be better’ books?

Minimal Viable Product

Short-term, it looks like the only losers are those who spend longer on their books. Without the constant ‘here I am again’ factor of regular releases over the year, each new book needs more of a marketing boost, and slow writers can easily slip from even their fans’ minds.

But long-term, things aren’t as clear.

There’s a concept called ‘minimal viable product’. If you’re producing something for public consumption, be that an object (physical or electronic) or a service, you work out what the basic model is, release this, and then work on refining it as you build an audience or customer base. There’s a lot to be said for this, and with digital products it is easy to make minor adjustments over time. Think of all the software and apps that are released and then constantly updated as they are tweaked and improved. And these improvements are based on real-time customer feedback. The first release no longer needs to be a perfect product.

But does this work with books? How many of the fast writers go back and refine already published works? Generally, by the time feedback comes in on one book, they’re already onto the next, or the one after that. Returning to an old product would slow their momentum. And so, in the majority of cases, the ‘minimal viable product’ is also the final product.

Again, if people are happy with this, where’s the problem?

Expectations

I’d argue that the problem involves expectations of quality.

Imagine someone who is budget-conscious. They want to cut their food bill. One suggested way of doing this is to buy slightly less expensive products‌—‌not jumping straight to the budget range, but simply moving down a notch. The difference won’t be massive, and over time you’ll become accustomed to the less expensive brand. And then, you can down-grade again.

This saves money. And it also gets you accustomed to lower quality.

food-686922_1280But in books (in fact, in any art), this becomes problematic. Good art has a long-lasting appeal. Well-written books can be re-read countless times and still feel fresh. Classics last forever.

Popcorn is great for a few minutes, but it goes stale far too quickly.

If someone wants to write a book for the particular moment, that’s fine. But I think that most writers want their work to have some kind of a shelf-life. Even in indie-publishing circles, where fast is encouraged, part of the reason for this is to build up a library. Those older books become catalogue, and the aim is to continue selling them. An old book is always new to someone discovering it for the first time. But for a book to last, it has to be of a decent quality.

And yes, I have already argued that fast writing can produce quality books. But there is a difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and maybe this is where that extra work comes in.
I’m reminded here of the 80/20 rule (at least, one of the ways of understanding it). This states that 80% of the work comes from 20% of the effort‌—‌or, to put it another way, getting the final 20% of something done will take 80% of the time. People use this to argue that it is more time- and cost-effective to work to 80%, and that the returns for reaching closer to 100% are simply not worth it.

80% is pretty good. An 80% story will be enjoyable. It will be of good quality. I’m quite happy reading 80% books, although I’ll probably only read them once.

Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done (And Done Is The Enemy Of Perfection)

Another phrase I’ve heard‌—‌‘perfection is the enemy of done’. Spend too long refining a book, and you’ll never be finished. How many perfect books are there in the world? How many classics can any one writer produce?

I’m aiming for the middle ground. I know my own writing won’t be perfect, but I’, working on it being as good as I can make it. And, for me, that means more than writing a first draft and then doing some quick cosmetic editing. It means looking at the story structure. It means throwing away sections that don’t work. It means re-writing huge chunks.

I don’t want to go years between releases. But neither do I want to bring out books too quickly if they are not the best I can do.

And when I’m reading? If I read a good book, I’ll want more from that author. But I’d rather wait for ‘wow’ than settle for ‘meh’.

The indie-author’s ability to grow up in public

steps-1081909_640It’s interesting how different arts view the development of talent. In the visual arts, it is common for a painter’s early years to be regarded as training, or as an apprenticeship period. It is often later works that are more highly valued. Then there are actors who mature with age, performing with more gravitas and filling larger roles. The ones who relied on their looks fall by the wayside, but the ones who worked at their craft and developed their acting skills earn increasing respect.

Music is a little different. In some circles (’art’ music as opposed to ‘popular’ music, if you care for such distinctions), it is expected that a musician will improve with age. But in more popular circles, the instant impact is all-important. A band who do not have a massive hit with their first song are deemed failures, and it is common for record companies to drop bands if their debut does not live up to a certain sales-related standard. Sometimes, only breaking the top ten, rather than reaching number one, is seen as a failure.

It was not always this way, though. Fifty years ago, record companies were more likely to see a new signing as an investment. The first couple of albums might not be that successful, but they lay the groundwork for the third and fourth. If these more mature works didn’t catch the public’s attention, only then were the bands let go.

The perfect debut

Then we have books. There are so many examples of the authors who appeared to explode with a debut success, but struggled to find similar success with subsequent books. Think of Alex Garland‌—‍his debut, The Beach, was a popular hit, but how many people have read, or even heard of, The Tesseract (or The Coma)? Then there’s someone like Joseph Heller, who was never able to match the commercial success of Catch 22 (and even used his experiences of this as the basis for one of his later books, Portrait Of An Artist As An Old Man).

But viewed logically this makes no sense at all. Writing is a skill, and it takes time and practice to develop it. Surely, the more someone writes, and the more intention they place on improving their craft, the better their writing will be. It seems evident that later books should be far superior to earlier ones.

Terry_PratchettTerry Pratchett is a case in point. He wrote a few books before starting on the Discworld series, but they are not a patch on his later works. Even with the Discworld series itself, it took him quite a few books before he got into his stride. The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic are still Pratchett, but nowhere near as good as many of the later ones.

Yet it seems that publishing companies are still searching for that impressive debut. They are still after the runaway success by the unknown author. It takes time and, more importantly, money to nurture a talent, so it makes far more business sense to have a success from the very start. When the public are always after novelty (while also looking for familiarity, but that’s a whole other issue), ‘another’ book by a mediocre author doesn’t stand a chance of being noticed.

As a side-note, I’m not placing blame on the publishers. They are in business, and they are doing what they need to do in order to survive. As much as they care about the artistic side of books, the bottom line will always be profit.

Many authors get dropped, and the publishing companies lose money on these authors. But some shine through. There are the runaway successes, the rags-to-riches stories that capture the imagination of the public as much as the written words themselves. And this is what the publishing companies appear to be searching for.

Maybe this puts too much pressure on the successful debut author, thrust into this strange world of being touted as a genius, even if the advance has already been spent, and the endless promotion gives little time for working on the next book. Maybe that is, at least in part, why so many struggle with the second book, and the third. Maybe too many are finding it impossible to reach the heights others have elevated them to.

But in independent publishing the story is different.

The debut as a starting point

I read loads of books by independently published authors now (and it is not always clear from the writing‌—‍I have read excellent books that authors have published themselves, as well as clunkers published by the big houses), and it has been interesting to see how some authors have developed over the years. I’ve read many of the Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant books, and there’s such a clear improvement in their writing. Unicorn Western is great fun, but the character interplay in last year’s Devil May Care is writing of a far higher standard.

BeatrixRose_seriesAnother example is Mark Dawson. A well-known name in independent publishing due to his marketing strategies, he has been writing thrillers for years, and did in fact start off in traditional publishing. I’ve read quite a few of his books over the last few years. I got some of his earlier ones for free, and although the stories rattled along at a good pace, I didn’t initially think they were anything special. Not bad, but not excellent either.

Then I went to his more recent Beatrix Rose books, and it felt like his writing had stepped up a level. There was more depth to the characters, and Beatrix’ personal journey was well integrated into the external plot. The writing itself was smoother‌—‍those odd passages that sounded clunky had now disappeared. Now, I’m eager to read more.

I wonder if Mark Dawson would have reached this level of writing if he hadn’t gone the independent-publishing route. I can’t help thinking he’d be spending his time querying agents and editors, and building up a string of rejection letters, rather than working on his writing. I don’t know how long his earlier books took him to write, but it’s probably a fair assumption that, now that he has total control over his career, he is able to finish books far quicker. If one book isn’t as good as he might like (although I’m sure each book is the best he can make it at the time), there will still be readers who will enjoy it. Some might pick up on ‘poor writing’, but many more will simply enjoy the story, and be contacting Mark to ask when the next book will be out. And he’ll be working on that next book, using what he has learnt to make sure the new work is better than what he’s produced before.

And this, maybe, is how it should be. Yes, there will be those outliers who produce a near-perfect debut, and struggle to reach that height again. But for most authors, writing is a constant process of learning. However successful (whatever that means) those first few books are, the later ones should naturally be an improvement.

This is something I need to keep in mind for my own writing.

editing-1756958_640Recently I formatted a PDF version of my first Dominions novel, and I was almost embarrassed by some of the sentences I saw. I had to stop myself from going through it line by line, because I knew I’d find so much‌—‍too much‌—‍I could improve. In the last two years, just through the process of writing more and working at my craft, I’ve grown as a writer.

I could go back and make that first book better, but then I’d be tempted to ‘fix’ the others as well. But how productive would that be? If I kept these files to myself, tinkering away until they were perfect, they’d never see the light of day.

And I’m not sure that readers want ‘perfect’ anyway. They want a good story. They want a bit of escapism. Just look at how well certain ‘poorly written’ books do.

So far more sensible to write the best book I can at the moment, put it out for anyone who wants to read it, and then concentrate on the next one. That one won’t be perfect, but it will be a step closer. And in the meantime, there are readers who will enjoy these books.

The best way to improve as a writer is to write.

The Price Of Free

Free books. What could be the problem? Everyone loves free, right?

I’ve been thinking about this recently, both from a reader’s perspective and an author’s. And I’m not too sure what I think.

I download free books. If I find something on Amazon that looks interesting, and it’s free, I’ll grab it. A few months ago I got a few books through Instafreebie, and now not a day goes past without at least a couple of e-mails informing me about more Instafreebie giveaways. I’ve lost track of how many free books I’ve downloaded. It must be in the hundreds.

And I’ve even read some of them.

For new authors, it is hard to get noticed. Most people aren’t prepared to shell out for something new. So giving something away for free‌—‌a ‘try before you buy’ strategy‌—‌can help increase visibility.

Author Nick Stephenson’s strategy is to have the first book in his series free, then offer the second free to anyone who signs up to his newsletter.

Does this make sense? He’s spent time and money to produce those two books, and he’s not getting anything in return for them, right?

Not quite. If enough people get that first book, some are likely to sign up to his newsletter in order to get the second. And of those, some will buy his subsequent books. And the readers who only get the freebies? They probably wouldn’t have bought his books anyway, so these are not lost sales. This is e-books we’re talking about, not physical products. Once the original file is created, there is no cost in replicating it.

Although I see the logic in this, and although I have downloaded far too many freebies myself, a part of me doesn’t like this model. I’ve considered it for my own books, but have resisted giving any of my novels away so far (although I do have a novella out through Instafreebie‌—‌check out Expedient by clicking here — and yes, that was a shameless plug).

There are a few reasons for my unease with this model.

Unrealistic Expectations

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I heard a story about an author who was contacted by a reader. This reader praised the author’s books, saying that she’d downloaded and read all of them. But she also said she’d returned the books to Amazon, taking a refund. Other authors had books for free, so this reader didn’t see why she should have to pay for books.

Yes, it is possible to read an e-book and then return it for a refund. Amazon probably don’t like this, but allowing customers to return unwanted goods makes sense from a customer service perspective. And many people who do this probably don’t see it as anything more than a mild inconvenience. After all, Amazon can afford it.

Of course they can. They record both the sale and the return, and no money passes on to the author. Amazon doesn’t lose out. The author does.

But that’s another issue, and isn’t why I mention this reader. What I want to focus on is the expectation that books should be free.

This is becoming more prevalent, especially with subscription services (which feel like getting something for nothing, because it’s easy to forget the monthly fee when you don’t have to pay for each individual ‘purchase’). The same kind of expectation happened with music, when mp3s became so prevalent. It was easy to download a whole album, and as there was no physical object, it was fine, right? Walking into a shop and taking a CD (or a book) is clearly wrong, but downloading something? That’s‌…‌not a thing. So it doesn’t really exist. So it’s not a problem.

I’m sure you can see problems with this. In the case of both music and books, there is a cost in producing those downloadable files. With books, this involves formatting, buying a cover, and paying for editing. There are also other costs around the business of producing and promoting books, like web-site upkeep and advertising/marketing. And then there is the time it takes to write the thing in the first place. Is it really fair to expect someone to spend hours writing a book and then give it away for free?

But once one author gives a book away, that sets a precedent. Others feel they should follow, and then readers come to expect free books. And when the amount of free books available would take over a lifetime to read, why should a reader pay for a book?

Thankfully, most readers still appreciate the work that goes into writing, and they are willing to pay for their entertainment. But the more widespread free becomes, the harder it will be to convince readers to pay.

Maybe, in the long-term, subscription services will be the way forward. But again, this causes problems. Which books are available in which subscription service? Kindle Unlimited is the biggest at the moment (I’ve heard it said that, if Amazon is the largest book store in the world, then Kindle Unlimited is the second largest), but for independent authors it is only available if you go exclusive to Amazon. Where does this leave those who use Kobo or iBooks? Where does that leave those who don’t have, and don’t want to have, a Kindle or Kindle app?

But I’m getting sidetracked. Back to other problems with free.

Perceptions of Quality

editing-1756958_640There is a saying‌—‌‘you get what you pay for.’ Now, I’ve read some fantastic free books, both out-of-copyright classics and books by new authors, so the correlation between cost and quality is not rigid. But there is a great deal of poorly-written free stuff out there. And this, combined with the (thankfully lessening) idea that only traditionally published authors are good writers, has led to a certain attitude towards free books‌—‌that they can’t be much good.

This leads to a subconscious problem. If we read a free book, there is a part of us that doesn’t expect much. If it was any good, it would cost money, right? So we expect the free book to have problems. We almost seek out those typos and grammatical errors that mark it out as sub-par. We’re on the lookout for poor dialogue and plot holes.

Look hard enough for something, and you usually find it.

This shouldn’t be the case, but it is. If there are two books that have the same problems (a few spelling mistakes, a few dodgy plot points), we are far more willing to forgive them if we have paid for the book, and praise its good points. If the book is free, the problems confirm our suspicions that it was badly written, and the good points slip by us.

If the author has a solid reputation (and therefore doesn’t need to give books away), they must be good, and if their writing is hard to get into, the fault must lie with us‌—‌maybe we’re not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate what they are doing with their words. Conversely, anyone who is starting out and who has to practically throw their books at potential readers‌—‌well, they’re desperate. Of course their books won’t be up to much.

Quantity

tablet-1632909_1280Another problem I can see with free is one of quantity. As I mentioned before, there are more free books available than anyone can read in a lifetime. Through projects like Gutenberg, older classics are available to all. ‘First in series free’ is such a popular business model that there are a glut of books in every genre that can be downloaded without any cost.

My Kindle has books I downloaded years ago that I have yet to read. It’s too tempting, when a book looks half-interesting but has no cost, to click on the download button. My in-box is becoming clogged with updates from authors whose mailing lists I have signed up to in order to get free books, and many of these contain links to other offers (the Instafreebie model, to be successful, involves a great deal of cross-promotion). I try to resist, but so many of these books look interesting, and I end up with even more freebie.

The saying that the cream always rises to the top might be true, but it takes time, and with so much material out there, it’s taking longer and longer. I’m wary of spending too much on a new book now, because I start to question when I’ll get round to reading it. There’s a risk that any book I pay for will become lost in this sea of free.

I know not everyone thinks this way. I have heard of people who never consider a book unless it is over a certain price. But I also know there are those who actively seek out free books. And with so many available, why not? Why ever buy a book again?

Of course, the ‘first in series free’ model hopes that readers enjoy the book enough to buy the rest of the series. But I sometimes find myself enjoying a book, telling myself I’ll check out others by that author, but then I’ll move on to another free book, and that first one will slip from my mind.

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problemSo I have problems with the free model. But I still download free books. Sometimes, when I enjoy a book, I’ll buy more by the author, so I know that free can work as a marketing strategy. And authors like Nick Stephenson have boosted their writing careers through this strategy.

Maybe whenever I download free books I’m becoming part of the problem. Maybe I’m helping perpetuate a situation that will slowly become more damaging for authors.

Or maybe it is a situation that is inevitable. When digital files take up so little memory space now, and can be shared and spread across the world in seconds, maybe the idea of paying for such products is becoming a relic of a physical past. Maybe those of us who create digital work need to look at a different way of funding. Maybe we should start thinking of art as a service, and seek funding not for the product but for the entertainment and enjoyment it brings. Maybe the way forward is sites like Patreon, or subscription models.

I don’t know. The only thing I can be certain of is that things will always change.

2016 Roundup, 2017 Aims

What Have I Achieved In 2016?

This has been the year I’ve put my writing out into the world, although I’ve been working on the Dominions books since the start of 2015, and so this is really a look back over two years. I’ve been keeping track of the time I’ve spent on writing (and other aspects of ‘getting stories out there’), and so I can see how I’ve managed to carve out more time each week, and how I’ve increased the time I’ve spent on ‘non-story’ tasks like marketing (including writing stuff for this website). I’ve kept a track of my wordcount, and I’m faster now, which is helping me get first drafts done quicker (although, in some cases, the editing is taking longer). I managed to do 50k in a week over NaNoWriMo, which isn’t too shabby.

And I’ve made a start on the whole marketing side of things. I have this website. I’ve got covers that I like for the books, and I’ve had them edited. I’ve spent time on the product descriptions. I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading up on all aspects of writing and publishing over the last couple of years, and I’m starting to put some of this knowledge to work.

In some ways, getting a book out into the world is a major achievement, but in other ways it isn’t much at all. Many others have done just that, especially with the ease of independent publishing. One book is nothing. There are people producing a book each month. There are others making a killing with Facebook ads, and building a career from a few titles. There are independently published writers who have gone on to become not quite household names, but definitely people with strong, healthy reputations and careers.

Yet they all started from that first book. And now, with three books out, I’ve made a start. I haven’t made a great deal of money (in fact, this whole venture has cost me so far), but I didn’t expect to earn back expenses‌—‌not yet, anyway. I’m learning to split this ‘other job’ into two sides‌—‌writing and marketing. The writing is the fun, creative part‌—‌producing a story and refining it to make it the best I can. And the marketing side is what is needed to get it out into the world and help others see it. I have started to see that, at least in part, I am running a small business. Very few businesses make a profit over their first few months or years. They have start-up costs that need to be recouped (in my case, the cost of covers and editing, as well as expenses around the website and so on). They take time to grow. Many fail.

But, with writing, I have an advantage. I can do this around my day job. At the moment, anything the books bring in is a bonus. And, even if they never pay back their expenses, I can still enjoy writing.

That’s the fall-back position, though. I want to do what I can to make the business of writing work for me. I need to build on what I’ve done this year.

agenda-1458537_1280My Aims For 2017

I want to finish 2017 with more books, more readers, and a bigger platform. Obviously. But that’s far too vague to be a target, so I’ll narrow it down:

  • I will release at least two more Dominions novels. Along with this, I have a few shorter works in progress, and I will aim to have at least two of these out there, either as mailing list exclusives or on sale wide.
  • I will release three books in a new series. I’m working on this at the moment (the initial draft of the first book is done, and I have ideas for the follow-ups), and it looks like being a complete trilogy (although that might change). These books will be shorter (50-60k, whereas the Dominions novels tend to be around the 100k mark), so I think bringing out all three over the year is achievable.
  • I will explore more marketing ideas. One of the reasons for starting a second series while Dominions is still on the go is to give me more content to play with. Much as I like the idea of having my books ‘wide’ (available everywhere I can put them), being exclusive to Amazon through Kindle Unlimited does have certain benefits, and having a second series will enable me to explore this option. Also, as I release more Dominions novels, I can do more promotions on the first book. I intend to put the first three in a bundle, although I’m not sure if this will be next year or in 2018. And I will also have print versions of the Dominions books by the end of 2017.
  • I will keep this website regularly updated. I think my current schedule is sustainable, with one post and one short story every fortnight, but I might consider posting more often. I’m enjoying the short stories‌—‌they are not only fun exercises, but they also give me a break from the books. But the posts need to be tighter. I feel I tend to ramble (like I’m starting to do now), and if I focus more, they’ll read better, be shorter but to the point, and that might mean I can produce more of them.
  • I will communicate more with others. Okay, this could be (will be?) a hard one. I like writing because I can shut myself off from everything else. I’m pretty introverted, so reaching out is uncomfortable. But I realise it’s something I need to do. And so I’ll work on social media, finding out how different platforms work and which ones are the least uncomfortable. I have a mailing list set up, but I need to learn more about how to use that‌—‌when people sign up, I want them to feel that they are getting something in return for their e-mail address, beyond the free book. I realise this is vague as a target, but I don’t want to put figures on this. I don’t want to aim for so many followers or whatever, because that isn’t the point. I’d prefer a handful of people who read every e-mail or post rather than a few hundred who might run their eyes over something if I’m lucky. I want to use social media to reach both potential readers and people who can help me. I’m not aiming for quantity, but quality.
  • I will improve my writing. I know this is another vague target, and will be constantly on-going. It’s very subjective‌—‌a book that one person dismisses as badly written might be another person’s favourite. But I need to be as happy as I can be with my own writing. I need to keep reading, both craft books and fiction, in order to learn how others do things. I need to keep editing my own writing, applying the lessons I learn. And maybe there is a way to make this more specific. By the end of the year, I want to be able to look back at the books I’ve brought out so far and feel a tinge of embarrassment at some of the writing. I want to be able to see that I am improving.
  • I will be more active in my learning. Along with reading, I’ve been listening to various podcasts since the start of 2015, and the number of these that I follow has increased. I’m lucky in having a day-job that allows me to wear headphones and listen to stuff every so often. I’ve heard so many people give fantastic advice, and much of is has sunk in. But now, I need to be more pro-active in this. Over 2017, I’ll have a ‘good ideas’ list that I’ll add to whenever I hear or read something that might be useful, and I’ll make a note of what I’ve used.

Looking back over that list, there seems to be a lot to do. But that’s for the whole year‌—‌twelve months, fifty-two weeks. I’ve made a start, and I know I can find time for different tasks. I look forward to these quiet times of the mornings, with nobody else around and the sky still dark outside, and getting up early is now a habit that I can use.

I know I can achieve everything I’ve set out above, and I’m already anticipating the end of the year, when I look back on how far I’ve come. And yet, I’ll still have a long way to go.

See, this isn’t a race to the end of the year. This whole writing and independent publishing thing isn’t a case of reaching the end and stopping. There is no end. It’s a constantly evolving process. I’ve made a start, proved to myself that I can write and put that writing out into the world. Over 2017, I need to capitalise on that and improve, so that I can do even more in 2018.

And that all starts today.