Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cross-Promotion, Book Sales, and You

Being an author isn't easy. You put in huge amounts of time and effort to create, edit, and polish your stories, you package them in an eye-catching way, and then you run endless promotions to try to get your books into as many readers' hands as possible. You are, in essence, throwing matches into the forest, hoping to catch something on fire.

Some of us use bigger matches than others.
The problem is that, even if you wrote a really great book, slapped amazing cover art on the front, and you did everything you could to get people to read you, you might still end up as little more than a blip on the radar. However, it's important to remember that none of us are just fiction writers. As such, you can sometimes lever your audience from another part of your professional life into becoming readers.

In marketing terms, it's called cross-promotion.

How Does It Work?

You know how celebrities are always writing books? Whether it's a pop diva, or a reality TV star, or just a retired actor who wants to share his thoughts on his time in Hollywood, publishers are always happy to put out something with even a C-list celebrity's name on it. It's because celebrities, even minor ones, have a pre-existing audience, and the publisher is banking on that audience buying the book to see what's going on.

Talk shit all you want, you know you'd be curious to read it.
That's cross-promotion in a nutshell. If you have one thing that your audience likes (in this case a celebrity's movies, music, TV shows, etc.), then you try to get that same audience to buy a different, but related product (said celebrity's memoirs, parenting guide, etc.).

You, however, are not a celebrity. You're just someone who has a book to sell, and you're trying to get a toehold with an audience. So take a moment and ask yourself what else you are. For example, are you a journalist? Do you run a popular (even marginally) YouTube channel? Do you have a blog? Anything you do that generates an audience that isn't directly related to your book can be used as a pool for cross-promotion purposes.

A Practical Example

For those of you who don't know, in addition to being an author and running this blog, I'm also a freelance designer for tabletop roleplaying games. My second blog, Improved Initiative, is all about gaming, including character builds, strategies for improving your experience as a player, and even sharing my own and my readers' gaming stories. My audience there is significantly bigger than my audience here, and most of them have no idea that I'm a fiction writer. They show up, and follow me, because they've seen my name as a designer in the games they like, or because they enjoy my take on the hobby, and the culture surrounding the hobby.

Which is where the cross-promotion comes in.

Why not go and read the first 2 stories for free?
You see, if I mention to my gaming audience that I've written a collection of steampunk noir short stories titled New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, some of them might perk up and take notice. That isn't why they're coming to me, but they like my other work, so this might be just up their alley. It's a different product, but it's also by an author/blogger they're following and reading on the regular, so some members of my audience will go check it out.

I personally take it a step further, though. For example, I announce giveaways for my book in my gaming updates, and I've been known to give out free copies to those who support my Patreon page as swag, and a thank you for pledging at least $1 a month. This means that audience members who were only familiar with my work as a gaming blogger and creator now have a piece of my fiction, giving me a chance to sink the hook, and convert them into a double fan.

There Are No Guarantees

Cross-promotion might sound like a slam dunk (after all, did you click over to my gaming blog to see what it was all about when I mentioned it?), but there's no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to finding fans, and selling books. If you already have an audience, you'd be a fool not to try winning their support for your other projects. However, you also need to ask how big the overlap between your other projects, and the things your existing audience likes, is.

That way you can make a fair estimation whether you're going to excite, or frustrate, them when you let them know about your latest endeavor.

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what I had to say on this week's Business of Writing update. For more of my work, be sure to check out my Vocal archive. If you want to be sure you never miss one of my updates, then why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Also, if you're a fan of sword and sorcery novels, why not check out my book Crier's Knife over on My Amazon Author Page?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Never Hit Fast-Forward When Writing A Novel

I decided very early on in life (around the age of 13 or 14) that I was going to be an author. All it took was a single extra credit assignment, and the look of disquiet on my teacher's face, to let me know I had discovered something I was good at. It took a lot of years to get where I am today, and in those years I've had to unlearn certain bad habits. One of the first problems I recognized in myself as a writer was my tendency to lean on fast-forward until I got to the good part.

You probably know this already, but don't do that.

The sun rose. There were some trees. Next chapter.

Learn To Stretch Out, Without Rambling

As a writer, I tend to lean toward the Architect end of the planning process. I take a lot of notes, bounce my ideas off other creatives to make sure my logic is sound, and I always make sure I know where my story is going so I don't get lost in the slog. This means that I have a series of stepping stones that I'm building bridges between, and I'm bringing the reader along for the ride. Building those bridges is tedious, but without them the reader falls and drowns in the swamp. Game over.

I know I can't keep writing the story until my bridges are in place... sometimes, though, I have to remind myself that those bridges need to be strong, stable, and believable. That every scene, and every chapter, deserves the same amount of careful thought and attention to detail as the upcoming shootout, criminal interrogation, or climactic courtroom reveal, even if it's just a few main members of my cast talking over bacon and eggs in the morning.

Tell me where we're going, again?
If you're writing a novel, you face an interesting balance. On the one side of the scales, you want to make sure you trim all the fatty bits off so that your story is as smooth and tight as you can possibly tell it. On the other side of the scales, a novel has room to stretch. You can delve into details which, in a shorter story, would be glossed over or omitted entirely.

Your challenge, then, is to build your bridges in a straight line, without rushing through construction to reach those islands.

Every Scene Needs To Mean Something

Think of your book like a movie. When you're watching a movie, every frame is shot and composed in a way that gives you important information. When you see your anti-hero in the prison yard pumping iron, you aren't just getting a shot of a tattooed, shirtless guy. You're showing him in his natural environment, and you're giving the audience symbolic associations. If he's doing body weight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, etc.) then we know he's tough, and self-sufficient. If we see him lifting heavy weights, like deadlifts or a bench press, that's short hand for raw, physical power. Running often implies determination, especially in a prison setting, because even though he's going nowhere, that's no reason to surrender to the walls all around him.

The symbolism here should be pretty obvious.
Your book needs to use that same sort of formula. Do you need to describe every branch, every mile on the highway, and give us the constant, repetitive cycle of your hero getting up, going to work, and coming home? No, because that will get boring very quickly. However, your "bridge" scenes are meant to introduce key elements of your story your readers need to know. These bridges establish the feel of your world, the personality of your setting, the relationships between your characters, and the motivation of your story.

For example, if you're writing a detective story where a pair of cops are tracking a serial killer, you need to have plenty of bridges to lull your audience into a false sense of security. Every time the partners talk about their lives, or go out for dinner, or split up files to read, we are getting a glimpse into their world. We're seeing if they're friends, or just co-workers. We're seeing if there's physical attraction, or emotional intimacy. We are getting invested, and that's why in eight more chapters, when one of them has been shot, and the other has to make the decision to provide first aid, or run after the killer, there's real tension in your readers' shoulders.

Those good parts you want to fast-forward to? Those are the explosions. Explosions are meaningless without the rest of the story to put them into context. That's what your bridges are; your readers' context for why those explosions are good, bad, heart-warming, pulse-pounding, or just a definite end to the tale you were telling.

Hopefully this week's Craft of Writing post was helpful for some of you. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, you could always get a copy of my book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. If steampunk noir isn't your thing, though, you could always stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay up to date on my latest releases?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Authors Live Under The Tyranny of Numbers. Here's How You Can Help!

Authors are like gladiators. We put our all into the production, the show, and the story of our performances. We are surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of our fellows whenever we come to an event. And, most importantly, we live and die by the roar of the crowd. That roar we're all listening for, the voice of the mob, is what I've come to call The Tyranny of Numbers.

Are you not entertained?
The reason I use this term is because there's a major misconception about how authors find success. Most people believe that talent, sweat, hard work, and putting out great content are the keys to regular royalty checks, and an end to financial worries. And while those things are important, there are other factors completely outside an author's control. Much like how you could be the greatest fighter in the arena, but your fate is still in the hands of the nameless, faceless Crowd.

What Goes On Behind The Scenes

Think for a moment about the factors that can help someone succeed in life. For example, if you come from a rich family, you don't have to worry about not eating right, medical care, or dealing with poor public schools. You're given all the help, training, and attention you need, and you're allowed to find your talents. You have the connections to get into a good college, along with the right on-campus organizations, and then the further connections you need to land a good job. Does all of that mean that this imaginary son of a wealthy family didn't sweat, strain, and labor over his skills and talents to become a notable professional? Of course not. He worked damn hard to become as skilled and talented as he is. But he had help, and that help is, more often than we like to admit, what makes the difference between the success stories, and the unknown stories.

Sheila had already put out 26 books... but she was sure 27 was what would get her noticed.
Let's take a smaller, more concrete example that really happened. As some of you know, I was a contributor at Yahoo! Voices before it died. At the time the site shuttered its doors, I was pulling in over 50,000 hits on my content every month, and making triple digit royalties, along with a smaller, secondary check for up-front advances on new content. It wasn't rent money, not yet, but it was getting to the point where it was patching over a lot of the gaps in my monthly earnings when a client begged for more time to cut a check, or a publication date got pushed back.

Of course, after Yahoo! closed that program (giving me and the other contributors less than a month of warning), I still had all this content I'd created floating around. So I found it a new home, and started expanding my Infobarrel archive. While I have not yet put up every piece of old content I had at Yahoo! at time of this writing, I have republished all the pieces that stood out in terms of traffic, and which were consistent from one month to the next. And, while some of them are getting seen, the numbers are a shadow of their former selves. Which, of course, means the content that was once a growing goldmine is now more like a tip jar, paying me between $15 and $20 a month.

Why is that? In many cases the content is the same as it was before, and in some it was improved with better keyword choices, pictures, video, editorial flourishes, and new promotion efforts. Despite those efforts, though, views remain down, and my paycheck remains small. The difference is, of course, that Yahoo! Voices was a huge site, connected to its own search engine, and this gave my content a real leg up on being seen. The sort of leg up where an article like How To Build Batman in The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game would regularly bring in 10k-15k views all on its own. While InfoBarrel is certainly no slouch in terms of tools and experience, it simply does not have the clout or authority that Yahoo! Voices did. And, as such, my numbers remain small.

Numbers Always Seem Easy, But Rarely Are

Numbers are deceptive. For example, I have just over 500 followers on my Facebook author page. Most people would think that, because of that follower number, that I could post a new blog or article, and count on at least a few hundred people seeing it. Maybe 50 or 60 likes and shares to sweeten the pot, too. Or, if I released a new short story or novel, that at least a few hundred followers would want to get a copy. However, in reality, I'm lucky to pick up between 3 and 10 likes from my followers when I post. On very rare occasions, I'll get between 1 and 3 shares on a piece of content. Sales... well, they're far from the triple digits.

That's the same all over social media, too. I've had pages with strong followings (40k+ strong) share my content in an attempt to help me boost my signal, but even in those instances I'm only picking up an additional 500 views or so, with 20 likes, and 4 or 5 shares. Certainly nice to have, but far from what you'd expect from an audience that size.

No matter how you work the figures, they're pretty damn depressing.
The same lessons you learn with blogs hold true with books, as well. For example, a book needs to get around 50 or so reviews before Amazon starts trying to spread the word about you in searches. My latest release, the steampunk noir short story collection New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, has an average of 4.5 stars on reviews. However, only 8 readers have stopped by to share their thoughts, so Amazon isn't putting my book into the mix, where it might be recommended to other browsers shopping for short stories, steampunk, etc. So, in an effort to get more readers and reviews, I held a giveaway several months ago. Nearly 300 copies of my book were downloaded, and I figured that out of those 300, maybe 20 or 30 would get read. Out of those who read even a portion of the book, I figured 4 or 5 people would stop by to leave a rating, or a review.

The end result? Nothing. No reviews, no ratings, and not so much as a few sales as a result of word of mouth spreading.

It's Still Possible to Hit The Lottery

All of that sounds depressing, mostly because it is, but it's important to remember that you sometimes hit the lottery when you're least expecting it. One of my most notable moments was when I published my short story The Watchmaker's Daughter (which is in New Avalon, in case you'd like to see what all the fuss was about) on Yahoo! Voices. At first there were some token views, but nothing very impressive. And then, overnight, an explosion of activity. For two weeks or so I was getting 2k-5k hits a day on that story. That was the equivalent of about $4-$10 in real money, but I had done absolutely nothing other than write the story. Where had all this traffic come from?

10 Our Fathers, and 30 Hail Marys?
I'd like to say that it was because my story was so captivating that everyone read it, and passed it around to their friends. After all, it was free to the readers. However, while that might be where some of the traffic came from, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was my title's similarity to a popular song that spurred a lot of the traffic I got. However, while the monetary gains were short-term, the attention the story had gotten did gain me a few new readers, and it helped me complete the other shorts that eventually went into my book.

I'm not saying that skill, talent, hard work, sweat, blood, and ritual sacrifice won't help sell your book, make your blog popular, or gain you a gigantic audience who will hang on your every word. What I am saying is that "little bit" of luck we always throw in as an afterthought is a lot more necessary than we want to admit. Because as soon as we admit that most of our success (or at least the initial success) comes from an outside force, and not the creator, we start feeling powerless.

Instead, I say this. Raise your sword, raise your voice, and give the crowd something they won't be able to turn away from! Every article, every post, every book, is another entry into the lottery... you may not win, but you don't even have a chance if you never step into the ring.

Hopefully you all found this week's installment on The Business of Writing helpful, if not particularly uplifting. If you'd like to help me bump my numbers, why not visit The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? As little as $1 a month gets you my undying gratitude, as well as some sweet swag. Lastly, please like, share, and if you'd be so kind, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter!

And if you'd like to check out my books, like New Avalon or my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, just head over to My Amazon Author Page!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

You Can (And Should) Force Art

A lot of authors treat their ideas like unborn babies. They coddle them, coo over them, and will take every opportunity to tell you about the smallest of new developments. They want to shelter them from anything that might so much as scratch them, and they want to give them all the time they need to mature. I get that. We've all been there, and no one wants to try and push a story out before it's ready. But have you ever noticed that once you've gone through the process from start to finish a few times, you stop worrying about your creations tossing and turning inside you, or about whether it's too soon before you start pushing? It's because, as their creator, you start to realize that sometimes the only way to get your stories from A to B is to drag them, kicking and screaming.

No, plot, I'm not leaving this table until you give me my 500 words.
There are a lot of writers out there who complain that their ideas won't cooperate. Their characters are refusing to go forward, and the direction they'd planned doesn't seem to be working.

All of that may be true. But you're the parent. Fix it.

Writing a Book is Like Giving Birth

I was discussing this a while back with fellow author Ben Reeder (whose work you should totally check out, by the way), and a good way of describing it came to me. You have a book inside of you. It started from a seed, and it's been steadily growing the more you've nurtured it. You've named it, and you've seen the ultrasound in your mind's eye. You know every contour, and you can feel every shift.

If you want to birth that story, you're going to have to push. Hard.

Some births are more horrifying than others.
There's this common misconception that writing a book is supposed to be a breeze, if you've done everything right. That all you have to do is unlock the channel within you, and the story will just flow out faster than you can punch the keys. I don't know who started that rumor, but I can assure you that writing a book is not easy. Even talented, experienced authors will have to grit their teeth and flex. Probably while doing some breathing exercises. Sometimes pain meds are necessary.

It's not just a matter of gritting your teeth and pushing, either. Complications happen. Sometimes your main character starts strangling on the umbilical cord. Sometimes your plot is trying to come out sideways. Sometimes you need an emergency C-section. The thing is, when you're the writer, you're also the doctor. So it's your job to push the idea out, and to handle any problems before they can kill your new delivery.

And, in the end, you'll be sweating, exhausted, covered in blood, and in need of a stiff drink.

Your Feelings Aren't Important

I hinted at this in Fire Your Muse, And Get To Work! as well as in Authors Need Discipline, Not Inspiration, but I'm going to say it one more time in case I was being too subtle.

Your feelings are not what's important. Do the job.

But... but...
If you're writing a book to boost your ego, or for your own personal enjoyment, that's fine. You do your thing, and do it however you want. If, on the other hand, you're a professional author, then your book isn't about you. You are about your book. You don't have a child, and then expect that child to accessorize your lifestyle. Don't treat your book that way, either. Make time for your book, devote yourself to it, and ensure that your book is a priority in your life. You are the author, the creator, and in the end, the servant of the story. It's not glamorous, it's not sexy, and a lot of the time it isn't even fun. But you get down on your hands and knees anyway, and bleed all over that keyboard, because that's how the book gets done.

Hopefully some folks found this week's Craft of Writing article helpful, if not necessarily insightful. If you'd like to help support this blog, and keep the rants coming, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to maintain an open content tap. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?