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.

—————-

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.

A Perfectly-Sized Story: The Resurgence Of The Novella

With the growth of e-books, something interesting has been happening with story and book length. With the ease of putting out ‘books’, many people have tested the waters with short stories, but others have gone for something longer‌—‌not quite a novel, but more than a short. And it’s not only independently published authors who are getting in on this. James Patterson is now releasing his ‘bookshots’, billed as ‘stories at the speed of life’, and I’m sure other big names will follow soon.

This is nothing new, but maybe now it’s time is right.

Why now? Let’s take a step back.

Books for saleA few decades ago, when dinosaurs roamed the plain, there were places known as bookstores, where these strange physical objects called ‘books’ could be bought. Often, these bookstores stocked nothing but books, and many didn’t even sell coffee. If you wanted to read, you’d enter one of these establishments, browse the shelves, select what you wanted, then pay at the till, handing over these strange notes and scraps of metal that were called ‘money.’

It took time to choose the right book. Those in charge of these establishments would place titles they wanted to shift face-out, or even on separate displays. The reader would look for authors they knew and trusted, or maybe they’d be drawn in by an interesting-looking cover. They might pick up a book and read the back, or may even open the book (very carefully, making sure they didn’t damage the spine, because these were delicate, precious artifacts) and read a section.

And usually there were multiple books that looked promising. So how was one to choose, especially when they might all be available for the same price?

There was one fall-back position‌—‌look at the size of the book, either physically, or (if you were slightly more canny) at the page numbers and print size. And then you’d go for the largest book, because you got more for your money that way.

Maybe that’s being a little blunt, but the size of a book was one way publishers tempted readers, and it was rare to find a short book for sale. Yes, there were exceptions, but they tended to be classics like Of Mice And Men or Animal Farm, or one-offs by big-name authors that publishers were confident would sell.

Apart from these oddities, you were limited to novels or collections of short stories.

Fast-forward to today, when so much reading material is digital. How long is a book now? However long it needs to be. And I think this is great.

I like novels. I like having a story I can get my teeth into. But there are times when I want something else.

Short stories are great for reading while having a coffee. They are wonderful ways to fill ten minutes while waiting at the dentist (because, if your dentist is anything like mine, the time of your appointment and the time you are seen are never the same, and you don’t want to sit there doing nothing).

Then there are continuing stories. Look at any e-book retailer, and you will find series after series. This is, of course, nothing new, but it’s far more prevalent now. You can read a novel, then continue with another about the same characters, in the same world. You can be immersed in that world for far longer. If the series is good, your commitment will be rewarded with twists and turns you never saw coming. And independent authors, who can bring out new volumes at a fast rate (because they don’t have to deal with printing presses, or ensuring a good position in book stores), can keep readers of these ongoing sagas happy with multiple releases over the year.

But there’s one book length that, I feel, has benefited most from the e-book revolution, and that’s the novella. Technically, both ‘short books’ mentioned before fit into this category, as do things like The Old Man And The Sea. Publishers generally haven’t been too keen on novellas, mainly because they take almost as many resources as novels, but readers aren’t generally prepared to pay the same price for such a short book (why spend the best part of £10 or $10 or whatever on something barely over 100 pages when you can get a 500-page epic for the same price?). But with e-books, this problem goes away.

I’ve noticed myself reading more and more novellas over recent years, as I’ve switched from print to e-ink.

BookI’m one of those strange people who would rather read than watch TV. I do enjoy the occasional film, but I’d still prefer to relax with a book at the end of the day. And a novella is the perfect length for an evening of escapism. 25000 words, or just over 100 pages, normally takes a couple of hours to read, the same time as the average film. It’s a great length of time for an escape, and when I put the book down (okay, turn off the e-reader), I feel satisfied‌—‌I’ve had a complete story. I feel like I’ve been watching a film in my head, and now I’m emerging into daylight, my eyes adjusting after the dark of the cinema, sad to have to return to reality, but happy for the couple of hours I’ve been entranced by the story.

The comparison between novellas and films goes deeper. Many successful films have been based not on novels but on novellas (and short stories). In most cases, a novel contains too much to condense into a couple of hours on screen, and huge chunks have to be abandoned, or characters and events merged. But a novella is just right. Think of films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, both of which came from Stephen King novellas. In fact, King’s written quite a few novellas, although they tend to turn up in collections like Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars, rather than being available on their own.

Also, some stories simply work better as novellas. I’ve read quite a few novels that have contained obvious padding, simply to make them fit a certain length. I’ve read short stories that felt rushed, and needed more time and space than they had been given.

Of course, there are other lengths of stories, from flash fiction to ongoing epics that never seem to end (and I realise that statement could be negative or positive, depending on preferences and the content itself). And with digital reading, they are all equally available.

So, if I want to escape for a couple of minutes while I wait for an appointment, I can grab a bit of flash fiction. I can have a coffee and take twenty minutes over a short story. I can spend an evening with a novella, or a few evenings with a novel. Or I could dedicate a few weeks to a series, delving deep into a new world.

Story length is no longer defined by physical parameters, or limited by cost and return-on-investment. Stories can truly be as long as they need to be.

And that has to be a good thing.

Are e-books good or bad?

I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical book. I was given one about three years ago, but I only read it out of a sense of duty (it was connected with my work at that time). But it’s been even longer since I bought a book that wasn’t electronic.

When I got my first e-reader (an old Sony thing), I imagined I’d use it solely for free classics, all those books I told myself I really should read at some point. I downloaded text files from the Project Gutenberg website and converted them to PDF (because I wasn’t too keen on how epubs looked on that old machine). I thought I’d still buy and read physical books.

Fast-forward to today‌—‌my Kindle is in daily use, and I can’t imagine going back to reading paper.

But e-books aren’t perfect. Like anything, there are pros and cons — and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.

tablet-1632909_1280

Pro‌—‌nobody can see what I’m reading.

I’m not embarrassed about what I read, but I’m also a private person. I don’t always read books I particularly like, either‌—‌sometimes I read books because I want to know what all the fuss is about. When I’m doing this, I don’t relish the thought of someone judging me based on that. I don’t want to be classified as a reader of such-and-such rubbish. I don’t want people to mentally pigeon-hole my reading habits based on one book.

E-books are popular with readers of genre fiction more so than of literary fiction, and I think the anonymity of e-reading goes some way to explaining this. ‘Education’ tells us we should be reading ‘intellectual’ books, and that only great literature is worthy of our time. On one level we buy into this, yet we still yearn for simple good stories. We want the thrill of a chase, or a book that’s a bit close to the bone. Sometimes we want popcorn entertainment. Sometimes‌—‌maybe much of the time‌—‌we want to relax with a good book rather than wrestle with a great one.

Con‌—‌nobody can see what I’m reading.

But there are advantages to displaying reading material. If I have a particular book in my hands it can work as an ice-breaker to start a conversation. I may want to impress others with what I am reading. It is part of the appeal of coffee-table books, those tomes that get displayed at home to show what kind of people we are, even if they are never opened.

I still have physical books, and I still store them on shelves. But I don’t touch them now. They are pretty much there for decoration, and they don’t represent what I’ve been reading over the past few years. I like the idea of having a ‘library’, a space where I can be surrounded by books, but it would be purely cosmetic, because all my reading is done on a little device with a plain black cover.

Sometimes, we want to advertise our tastes to others. Sometimes we want to draw admiring looks, or even provoke arguments. Sometimes, the anonymity of e-readers keeps us too far apart from others.


Pro‌—‌I can have a vast library of books available to read at any time.

I love the idea that through one small device I have access to more reading material than I can ever consume. I can select new titles without having to move from my chair. I no longer need to travel into town, find a bookshop, then hope it has what I want in stock. Now I can order practically anything I can think of, and be reading it a minute later.

I’ve just checked, and I have over two thousand e-books. I can’t imagine how much space they’d take up as physical objects. I’d need a separate room at least. We’d need a bigger house, one we can’t afford. But with e-books, I am no longer constrained by physical objects, or physical places. I can have this vast library with me at all times. And with apps, I don’t even need a dedicated e-reader. I just need my phone.

When I go on holiday, I don’t have to think about what books to take with me beforehand. If I have the urge to read an old Harry Harrison short, I can do just that in a moment. If I decide to get all intellectual and finally try some Proust, there is nothing stopping me. If I want to re-read Gormenghast, I don’t have to hunt for the book on my shelves.

I have instant access to more books than I could ever read. I am spoilt for choice.

Con‌—‌I can have a vast library of books available to read at any time.

With thousands of books, and access to thousands more, I find it hard to keep track of what I’ve read and what I haven’t. There are books on my ‘to read’ list that I’m starting to think will never be opened.

How many books can I read in my lifetime? How much of my free time can I dedicate to reading?

At the moment I average two or three books a week, which equates to somewhere over a hundred a year. Over a decade I might get through one thousand books, maybe pushing towards two thousand. I might finish all the books I already have over the next twenty years.

But, of course, by then I’ll have downloaded even more, and I’ll still have a backlog to get through. Those books on my ‘to read’ list will still be sitting there, reminding me that I’m too often skimping on the harder reads, settling for popcorn when I should be putting my mind through a workout.

And I’ll feel bad about that, so I’ll download something that looks fun, just to cheer myself up.

But I’ll still be drowning in a sea of never-ending titles.


Pro‌—‌with the ease of creating e-books, publishing is open to everyone.

I have found some fantastic books over the last few years, and very few of them have been through traditional publishers or physical bookstores. Many of my new favourite authors have gone the independent-publishing route, and are making a living through their art, which gives them the time to produce even more books.

There are stories of authors being rejected by publishing companies because their books are ‘not commercial’, or that their particular genre is unpopular at the moment, then going on to sell thousands off their own efforts. Yes, their books might not be ‘commercial’, but in a connected world with billions of readers, there are always going to be enough readers who enjoy a particular style to keep these authors going.

And, because anyone can write and publish a book now, people can take chances. Want to kill off your main character in the first act? No problem. Want to write a book in first person future tense? Give it a shot. Want to release your story as a series of shorts? Hey, with indie-publishing, you can do anything.

Of course, not all these ideas will work. Many will be unpopular with the majority of readers. But that shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying. If there are only a handful of readers who connect with your books in each country, that can still give the indie-published author a sustainable career. And for these readers with these specific tastes, the fact that someone is writing these bizarre books that they love is incredible. Finally, they don’t have to rely on mass-market books chosen by some arbitrary gatekeepers for their suitability to create money for a large company. Finally, individuals can write what they want and set it free for those select few who will appreciate it.

The freedom of e-books means everyone is free to create. And that means more and more books. If many of them don’t float your boat, there will still be thousands that do.

Cons‌—‌with the ease of creating e-books, publishing is open to everyone.

Since getting into e-books, I’ve read some absolute rubbish. I’ve found myself questioning if the author is writing in their second language. I’ve found myself picking apart the writing because it’s more fun than trawling through the turgid prose and unrealistic dialogue in search of an engaging story. I’ve read books with so many gaping plot holes, and such a lack of logic, that I question if the author was thinking at all, or if they even read books.

How much of my time can I afford to waste reading this dross?

There is so much information on e-book marketing out there that it is no longer a case of judging a poor book by a poor cover. Some of this rubbish has fantastic covers, and the authors clearly know a thing or two about effective marketing. They are well-formatted, and it looks like care has been taken on their creation. And yet, the writing itself is still terrible. Often, the reader only finds this out when they’ve already started reading.

I don’t like leaving a book unfinished, and I don’t like the idea of throwing something away (or deleting it). And so I feel that I have to waste my time and storage on trash.

When everyone is free to publish, where is the quality control?


Three reasons why e-books are fantastic, and the same three reasons showing their problems. Which ones are right? That’s up to you. Personally, I realise there are issues with e-books, but I love the positives they bring. When people talk of e-books destroying reading, I remember that over the last few years, as I have stopped buying physical books, I have been consuming more and more. I read more now than I ever did.

Are e-books good or bad? That’s not a sensible question.

The printing press can be used for uplifting tracts or hate-filled propaganda. Film and TV can give thought-provoking drama or mindless gossip. Radio can fill our minds or simply be background noise. Stories told round the camp fire can be thrilling adventures or ego-filled monologues.

E-books are simply another way of presenting information and telling stories. They are not good or bad in themselves.

It is, as it always has been, the words themselves that matter.