Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Finding Your Audience: Unfortunate Lessons From Jack Chick

If you grew up a geek in the United States, chances are good you know who Jack Chick is. You probably received his tracts, cleverly disguised as little flip comics, in your Halloween bag when you went to the church lady's house at the end of the block. You probably found a few in the community rec center, or sprinkled around your college campus. Especially if you went to a religious institution. And, if you were one of the truly unfortunate geeks, your parents gave you these tracts with solemn expressions on their faces, hoping that maybe the medium of a comic book would be enough to make you understand that your soul was in peril.

Souls in peril, you say? Well, keep Jack away from them, he'll just make it worse.
If you were lucky enough to never come across one of these tracts (perhaps because you lived in a country that banned them as hate speech), they're full of some pretty wild claims. Everything from the idea that freemasons are out to destroy the true church of Christ, to the rumors that RPG enthusiasts will sacrifice their friends, and strangers, in order to become ordained as true priests of a hidden, demonic order. Catholics, homosexuals, and other groups were all tarred and feathered as spiritual predators, out to destroy the faithful.

In other words, these tracts were pure Satanic Panic, conspiracy theory nonsense (more on that at The Satanic Panic: America's Forgotten Witch Hunt of the 1980s). They were coarse, ugly, backward, and they catered to the idea that Christianity was being attacked by every aspect of the modern world. They were also more than a little libelous, from time to time. Not only that, but they shared the odd similarity that, somehow, the characters in them had never heard of Jesus. Even characters who had lived their whole lives in farm country, square in the midst of the bible belt.

Despite what should have been a ridiculous pile of scare tactics penned by an amateur cartoonist, Chick tracts grew. Millions of these stupid things have been purchased and distributed, and they built a truly successful propaganda machine. And despite the death of Jack Chick at the age of 92, Bleeding Cool reports that the company is going to carry on. Something that confirms to many of us that true wickedness cannot be stopped by mere death.

And while these tracts have been banned from many countries for their hatred, ruined lives by planting the seeds of paranoia, and been ridiculed by entire generations for the childish ideas contained within them, there is no denying that a lot of people are buying them.

There is a lesson in that.

Understand Your Audience

Authors don't work in a vacuum. There is no secret council of learned elders who decide which work is inherently good and meaningful, and which is dross. Often the success of a book, graphic novel or otherwise, is a total fluke. You managed to touch the nerve of the cultural zeitgeist, and so everyone reacted by buying your book. Maybe you managed to upset a lot of people, and the flames of that outrage illuminated you, and drew a lot of curious people who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe you packed your book with an unusual kink, or got hit with a, "cease and desist," letter in a very public way.

I'm sure there's another example out there... somewhere...
The point is that even "good" books can go unrecognized. It isn't the author's skill, or their time, hard work, or dedication that's being rewarded. You are a gladiator, doing your best to get the crowd's attention. You are writing for the mob, and it is they who decide whether you live or die, drowning in your own red ink.

That's why you need to know who you're writing for, and what need they have you can fulfill better than anyone else. It's also why everything, at its core, is pornography. There are the obvious examples, like the series of incestual mind control stories by Pandora Box that I talked about in You Need Quality AND Quantity to Make a Living as an Author, but that is just the most obvious kind. A series like A Song of Ice and Fire, and even my own book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam are geared toward harsh catharsis. Readers who love to watch awful things happen to the characters they love enjoy those kinds of books, and will tell all their friends about them once they're done howling and crying. Whether your audience loves the tech specs of hard S/F military stories, like you see in the Honor Harrington series, or they enjoy the back and forth uncertainty of a romance novel, all of these things are pornography.

They just cater to different needs.

So what you need to do is sit down, and ask yourself what needs you can fulfill in your readers. What will they get out of your story? What are you selling? Is it ball gags and leather? Blood and guts? Tears and fears? If you had a neon sign advertising your shady little shop on the corner of the Internet, what sort of people would be under the trench coats and big hats who come in to buy from you?

Jack Chick knew the answer. Do you?

As always, thanks for stopping by this week's Business of Writing post. If you would like to toss a little tip in my jar, something which is always appreciated, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it comes with sweet swag, too. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's stopping you?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Take Inspiration From The Things That Piss You Off

"Where do you get your ideas?"

This is, perhaps, the most trite question any author will have to field. Some of us will offer a self-deprecating smile, and talk about how all they do is watch and listen to the people around them. Others will lean in, as if they're imparting a secret, and confide that the ideas for their stories come to them in dreams. And there are at least a few of us who shrug, and claim we have no idea where these inspirations come from.

I'm not going to beat around the bush on the subject. My greatest inspirations come from consuming media that pisses me off.

I got sick of reading bad steampunk, so I wrote some better stuff.
Part of that is because I am a creature of spite, and nothing makes my pilot light flare like seeing a good idea executed poorly. The other part of it is that, if you're going to complain about how a movie, book, or comic is a steaming puddle of afterbirth, then it's your responsibility to do it right.

Put Up, Or Shut Up

I have half a dozen examples of this process, but I'll talk about one of my favorites. I am, as I mentioned in What is The Difference Between Tragedy and Grimdark?, an avowed fan of the grimdark genre. I like my warriors brutal, my motivations murky, and my protagonists more flawed than low-quality rubies. As both a writer and a gamer, I admire the sheer creativity of the Warhammer 40,000 game, which gave grimdark its name.

What I did not enjoy was the Space Wolves Omnibus.

Even though I felt I should have.
For those not familiar with the genre, some of the most famous heroes (and I use the term loosely) in the 40k universe are space marines. These genetically-altered, cybernetically-enhanced super soldiers are colossi in power armor who have had their fear, their hesitation, and even their free will, stripped from them. They have sacrificed their humanity to become living weapons for the emperor, and they are forces to be reckoned with.

That's compelling stuff, and it's one of the many reasons I like this universe. So when a friend handed me the Space Wolves Omibus, and told me it was the origin story of Ragnar, one of the most infamous of the Space Wolves (take all the stuff I just said about giant cyborg super soldiers, and now add in a dash of vikings), I expected to tear through this book like a kid left alone in a room with a chocolate cake.

The problem was, as soon as I put a forkful of this story in my mouth, I found out it was made of wallpaper paste.

The book opens with the kind of fast-paced, hard-hitting action I expect from a Warhammer book. Great stuff for a few pages. Then we go back in time... back to when Ragnar was a boy on an underdeveloped planet. Just one more youth out to prove his mettle sailing the seas, showing no fear, and killing sea monsters with a spear. Then his people get killed, and Ragnar gets recruited along with another survivor as a candidate for the empire's highest honor.

That's a summary for the first hundred pages and change, which is about where I stopped. It was, by no means, the end of the book. But I felt that the whole purpose of going back to Ragnar's youth was to show us who he'd been before he underwent the procedure. Who was his family? What were his aspirations? Did he have lovers? Was he a good man, or was he cruel? How was the person he'd been back then altered, or erased, by what was done to him when he became one of the infamous space wolves?

Sadly, aside from the opening action sequence, it was all bland, cookie-cutter stuff. No great depths were plumbed, and no great characterization took place. No mysteries about who he'd once been were revealed.

That was about the time I cracked my knuckles, and got to work.
I let that disappointment roll around in my head for a while, and when I'd tumbled the gemstones of my malcontent, what fell out was a pretty engaging idea. Picture a dystopian society, where humanity's first intergalactic war had reduced much of the world to rubble and ruin. Corrosive rains, blasted cities, and hives of people living underground as they tried to undo some of the damage they, and the invaders, had done. Relics of the conflict exist everywhere, from massive gun emplacements, to a militarized culture, but one of the most unusual relics are the Myrmidon. Alien-human hybrids, the Myrmidon were created to act as shock troopers whose unique anatomies allowed them to access and use salvaged alien technology to aid humanity's fight. Now that the threat is defeated, though, what do we do with these perfect warriors we built? These perfect warriors who bear physical, mental, and emotional scars from the battles they fought to keep us safe?

That was the premise for my short story "Heart of The Myrmidon," which was featured in the collection End of Days. It wasn't the last story I set in that world, and though the original story is out of print, it's possible that some of the newer tales might be seen in the near future. If things swing my way, that is.

Fix Things, Don't Just Urinate on Them

There's a strong urge among those who are new to spite to take a thing they don't like, and lambaste it. Whether it's a person whose beliefs they find offensive, or a TV show they find banal, there's a temptation to just defecate on it, then point and laugh.

Your goal shouldn't be to just vomit your hate over something. It should be to help an idea live up to its full potential.

Kind of like how we're supposed to treat other writers.
Remember, spite is a powerful thing. But you should use it to build, and improve, instead of tearing down and destroying.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully some folks enjoyed my thoughts on the subject. If you'd like to leave a little bread in my jar, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? $1 a month helps more than you know, and there's some sweet swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Making Money By Self-Publishing With Kindle Direct Publishing Select

Self-publishing has come a long way over the past decade and change. With the rise of the Amazon Empire, and the success of the Kindle publishing platform, authors now have the ability to submit their work for ebook and print publication on demand. Anyone who owns a Kindle (or a device capable of reading Kindle ebooks) can download and read your work, often for a fraction of what it would cost to buy the same book at a bookstore. That means more readers are more likely to see your book, check it out, and give you a hefty cut of the royalties.

Yeah, eat it traditional publishing!
While you miss out on the other advantages that come with traditional publishing (the advance checks, the assistance in promotion, getting your book on store shelves, stuff like that), there is something to be said for the control that comes with Kindle publishing. If, that is, you're willing to wear the hats of editor, marketer, cover designer, formatter, and a few others as well. Hard work, and a little luck, can be what gets you noticed, earns you a following, and puts a check in your hand every month.

If you're contemplating using Amazon, though, then you should also think about Kindle Direct Publishing Select.

What Is Kindle Direct Publishing Select?

This program, usually called KDP Select for short, is a way you can make more money from your digital books. The way it works is that, when you first put your book up, you click the option to enroll it in KDP Select. This means your book is going to get more promotion from Amazon, comparatively speaking, and that it will be part of the Kindle Unlimited library. That means any user with a Kindle Unlimited subscription, which lets them read all the ebooks they want that are part of this program, can do so without any extra charge.

Don't worry, you still get paid.

It just requires a bit of math.
The way this works is that anyone who is a Kindle Unlimited member has to pay a fee for that service. So, at the end of the month, all the money is put together in a big fund. Then Amazon looks at how many pages were read in which parts of the world, and divides the fund up accordingly. Then, based on the number of pages that were read in a certain area, a royalty is paid to the authors. Royalties are only paid the first time a particular user reads your book, and there is a 3,000 page limit when it comes to how much page count you get paid for.

However, before you start asking about picture books and research tomes, Amazon uses something it calls Kindle Edition Normalized Pages. These "normalized" pages are meant to represent a "standard" length page, which means that your pages are likely to be counted differently. If you have a text-heavy novel, for example, then you probably have bigger pages than the display suggests.

While the specific payment will vary from month to month based on how many total pages were read, and how much money Amazon brought into the fund, generally speaking this is still a good way to make additional royalties. Because you have a whole new demographic available to you, and at the end of the day, money is money.

Additional examples and specifics are located on the Kindle Direct Publishing Help Section.

Is It Worth It?

Some authors might feel that tying themselves exclusively to Amazon, even if it's only for 90 days, is just too constraining. However, unless you really do have a huge audience using other platforms that will make up for your losses, Amazon is offering a fairly sweet deal. While it might not be quite as sweet as it used to be, before the current overly complex formula that decided how much every page was worth on a month-to-month basis, it's still better than what you'll find in other places.

Well, that's it for this week's Business of Writing edition. Hopefully it was useful, for some of my fellow authors who've been contemplating the leap into Amazon's frothing waters. If you'd like to support me, then why not stop by my Amazon author page to see if any of my books tickle your fancy? Or, if you'd like to support this blog specifically, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a small donation. $1 a month will do quite nicely, and keep content just like this coming right to you. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

If You're Going to Be an Author, Learn to Think in Word Count

I'm going to make an assumption here, and assume that we've all had to write a paper that came with a page count requirement. Maybe it was a term paper in college, or a report you had to write in your senior English class, but we all had to do it. More importantly, we all learned ways to gently massage our page count to make it seem a little longer. A slightly bigger font, tweaked spacing, the inclusion of charts and images, or just adding big, block quotes were all ways for you to eat up space, and make the arbitrary page count the assignment required.

No need to lie about it, we're all friends here.
An unfortunate habit of projects being assigned to us in school with this metric, though, is that a lot of us think in terms of pages when it comes to being authors. When you're talking about a short story, or a novel, you talk about the page count. If someone asks how your project is coming, you tell them what page you're on, or you tell them how many pages you need before it's done.

You probably don't want to hear this, but you should really stop that. For the same reason the U.S. should bite the bullet and switch to the metric system; because a page-based metric is not going to get you very far in the world of publishing.

Word Count is Where It's At

As I mentioned in 3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You), page count is a useless metric when we're talking about the publishing industry. Because, as I pointed out in the introductory paragraph, there are a thousand little things that can totally alter page count. You could double-space your work, use a size 14 font instead of a size 12, or simply save your work as a pdf instead of a Word document, and it will change your page total.

But word count, is word count, is word count.

But this? This you can trust.
Not only is word count a more reliable judge for the size of your story, but it is the metric used throughout the publishing industry. Whether you're submitting short stories to an anthology call, or sending a novel to a publisher, they want to know your word count. And if you're self-publishing, you have to follow the program's formatting guidelines. That means that your page count is going to be meaningless, unless you wrote your manuscript using the same guidelines your platform requires.

The bigger benefit of learning to think in word count, as opposed to page count, is that you get a better sense of how long a story takes to tell. Whether it takes 5,000 words, or 50,000 words, thinking in word count lets you get a sense of exactly how much story you can tell within those parameters. That means you're a lot less likely to go over your limit, or to find yourself struggling to get another 10,000 words out of your plot so you can submit your manuscript for review.

While being able to turn a phrase is important, and coming up with brilliant plot twists can make a name for you in certain circles, there are few skills as valuable as plotting out how long your story will take to tell. Much like an architect who gives accurate estimates for a project, authors who have a sense of the scale and scope of their stories will find them easier to complete on time, and at the proper length.

That's all for this weeks' Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some of you out there. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? All it takes to get sweet swag is to drop at least $1 a month, and in addition to your gift, you get even more content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?