Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Want To Sell More Books? Target A Niche

For those who don't know, my "day job" is ghost writing blogs. And though I've got a deep pool of topics I can draw on, a lot of the clients I work with want content that's all about marketing. One of the biggest topics in marketing that keeps coming across my desk is how to corner a niche. So I thought I'd cover that for my fellow writers.

Because, counterintuitively, you can sell more books by narrowing the number of readers you're actually trying to reach.

It's kind of like how a sniper rifle has a bigger impact than a shotgun on a given target.

How The Hell Does That Work?

Right, so, let's say you were running a blog. Ideally, you want the content on your blog to be so popular that it appeals to everyone. People of all religions, all political leanings, all ages will come to your site, read your content, view your ads, and make you money. However, the only way you can do that is by creating something that's bland, thinly-spread, and inoffensive. Which, ironically, is more likely to bore your potential readers so they don't come to your blog at all.

Think of your site as if it was a pizza. Because even if everyone likes pizza, not everyone likes the same kind of pizza. So it's pointless to try to appeal to every possible pizza customer out there. So what you need to do is ask what kind of pizza you specialize in. Do you do kickass veggie pizzas, appealing both to the vegetarian demographic, and people who like your unique flavor? Maybe you want to do a meat lover's pizza, and get all the carnivores in your corner? Maybe you want to sway the organic and all-natural crowd by using fresh, local ingredients in your pies? Perhaps you're offering cheap and tasty pizza to get the demographics who can't afford more, but who still want what you're making?

And what does this have to do with books?
You're writing books instead of cooking pizza, but the thinking is the same. You cannot make a single product that appeals to everyone. So instead of driving yourself mad (and possibly taking down your overall quality), you need to pick a niche to appeal to. Ask who is going to read your story, and then establish yourself within that community.

It sounds simple, but too many times authors will try to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, instead of appealing to the entirety of a single, smaller niche. And that second one is where you can get better, more reliable returns.

Have You Ever Heard of Dark Souls?

If you're plugged-in to video games, or geek culture at all, you're probably heard of Dark Souls. It's a video game series that is punishing, unforgiving, but most unusual it caters to those who love a mixture of fantasy and horror. If you know anything at all about video games, you'd know that horror is generally considered a minor niche, and it's one that publishers either ignore, or only fill partially. Particularly with series like Dead Space, which is less of a sci-fi horror shooter, and more of a shooter with weird enemies that occasionally jump out of cupboards.

So... when does the scary part show up?
Dark Souls, as one might expect, did not become a massive blockbuster overnight. It was hard, scary, confusing for a lot of players, and it was different from safer, mainstream genres. A lot of players tried it, and walked away. However, a surprising number of players said it was the greatest thing since ice cream orgies, and would not shut up about how fresh and unique it was. This led to word of mouth spreading, and it started to get a cult following.

Catering to that niche, and giving a specific group of fans what they wanted, was enough to make the sales the company needed to bring out sequels in the same vein. Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, and now Dark Souls III all had bigger and bigger sales as the fan base grew. The sales increased, not because the games adapted to appeal to bigger, broader audiences, but because they served a specific niche. No one else was doing anything like them, and even when imitators did step onto the field, the fans kept coming back to this company because they had a reputation.

In short, you get better results by making something everyone in a certain niche wants, rather than trying to appeal to the mass market and rolling the dice.

You Still Might Need To Take Multiple Shots At It

Zeroing in on a more potent target is a smart move, marketing wise, but there's still no guarantee it will work the first time. My other blog, Improved Initiative, is a gaming blog that focuses on tabletop gaming in general, but on the Pathfinder RPG in particular. So, while I have something for the broader niche of people who like tabletop RPGs, I have very specific content for people who play Pathfinder.

And last Monday I put up a post that got me over 37k hits over the weekend. Though that is far and away my most widely-read post at the moment, even my unpopular pieces consistently hit the 4-figure range now. When I first started writing that blog? I was lucky to get 500 hits on a new piece, and that was if it was popular.

Roll enough dice, and you'll eventually get a 20.
Part of my success with Improved Initiative has been that it's been running for several years, and I built up a backlog of content. I've gotten known in the community as a writer who provides quality content, and I've lucked into some formats and topics that always get readers to tune-in to see what I'm talking about. One of the most important factors in my success in that blog, though, (limited as it is) is that I appealed to the market who wanted what I was producing.

Find a base, and get their attention by giving them stuff they want. Do that, and you've got the makings of an audience, a paycheck, and if you're lucky, a career.

That's all for this week's installment of Business of Writing. Next week we'll get back to technique, and I should have something interesting for you. If you want to stay tuned-in to everything I'm putting out, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter so you never miss an update. Lastly, if you want to help support my work as a blogger, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! $1 a month is all I ask, and it buys you my everlasting gratitude along with some sweet swag to call your own.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

5 Signs You're Actually A Writer

There is an obsession within the writing community about separating the real writers from the poseurs and pretenders. Sometimes it's easy to tell the difference. If you can walk into a bookstore, and pick your book off the shelf, then there's no doubt you're a writer. You have physical proof. However, if you haven't hit the big-time yet, you might be feeling some anxiety about whether or not you can lay claim to that title. That's why this week The Literary Mercenary is laying out the top 5 signs that you're probably a writer.

So let's get started, shall we?

#1: You Adopt Pens

Hello my darlings... where are your parents?
When you're walking along the street, and you find a discarded pen, what is your first reaction? Normal people will see them, and usually walk on by. Writers, on the other hand, will stop. They'll pick them up, and give them a field examination. They'll check the grip, pop the tip out to check how much ink is left, and typically write a word or two to feel how well the pen works. Then they'll tuck the pen into their pocket, and take it home with them.

This happens pretty much anywhere you are. Whether you're signing for your check in a restaurant, or staying in a hotel room, pens just find their way into your pockets. Even if you have hundreds of them at home, there's always room for one more. Because you never know just when you'll need it.

#2: You Have More Notebooks Than You Have Socks

Come here, sweety. I just had a new idea...
If you're a writer, you're one of the easiest people on the planet to buy gifts for. Because no matter what time of year it is, no matter the event, and no matter how rich or poor you are, nothing will make you happier than a new moleskine notebook. Full-sized or travel, cheap or expensive, notebooks represent fields of potential. And whether you get it as a stocking stuffer, as a free sample in the mail, or just as a throwaway present from a friend who found this old notebook and has no use for it, there's always a little spike in your happiness when you hold it in your hands.

#3: You See The Threads When You Read

This is the part where they kiss. Yep, saw that one coming.
It's true that the best writers have a voracious diet of fiction. They read as much as they can, and they absorb what they see. Much like Neo in the Matrix, they develop the power to see the code. This means they understand the building blocks of story reality, and they can recreate them in their own worlds. So if you find yourself watching TV in a pose reminiscent of The Thinker, or analyzing the story line of every book you pick up regardless of the audience it was intended for, you understand the basics of the writing craft.

#4: You Can Tell The Age of A Book By Its Smell

And sometimes you can even tell the genre.
There are two types of people who walk into bookstores. People who look at the books, and people who smell the books. Whether it's the scent of fresh print on a new bestseller, or the smell of vanilla dust that lingers around old libraries, you have an acute sense of where these books come from. That perfume always makes you smile, and you inhale books the same way a wine connoisseur would sniff his glass. The body is certainly good, but first you need to savor the aroma.

#5: You Actually Write Things

Mileage may vary.
 I said this way back in my post How Do You Know if You're A Real Writer?, and I think it holds just as true now as it did then. Everything else on this list is amusing, and you may even find that it's true for you. However, if you don't write things, then you're not a writer. And if you do write things, no matter what they are, then you are a writer.

It's easy to hem and haw, and to claim someone isn't a real writer. It's a lot harder to actually sit down, put your fingers on the keys, and finish a project. Whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel, and whether it's good or bad, if you wrote it, then you are, by definition, a writer.

Speaking of which, don't you have work you should be doing instead of reading listicles on the Internet?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully you got a snicker or two out of it. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my work, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help me keep it going, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get some sweet swag as thanks for your support.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Writing Is Easy? Largely Because of The Dunning-Kruger Effect

If you're a writer, you know there are a lot of people out there who think what you do is easy. People who assume that, because they have the ability to pick up a pen and write intelligible sentences, that there is really very little difference between them and you. Oh sure, you might have a little more practice, maybe a few more connections, but if they wanted to be an author all they'd need is a little time. They've got stories, man, and if they wanted to they could write them up the same way you do.

You just watch, I'll write my own novel! With hookers, and blackjack!
If you've ever had to deal with these folks, then you already know they're full of shit. Because sure, they might be able to construct complete sentences, and put them into paragraphs. It's even possible they'll be able to explain a cohesive story to a reader. But as we all know, those are just a few ingredients needed to make an author. You need to mix in a lifetime of reading, stir it with genuine love of stories, and add a pinch of experience to be able to tell what does, and what doesn't, work. Just because you've got some flour and a few apples, that doesn't mean you can bake an apple pie from scratch. Even if you think you can.

So why do so many people seem to think all you need is a notebook and a few months of spare time? Well, it's complicated, but science calls it The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Who With The What Now?

Have you ever noticed how people utterly unequipped to do a task not only think they'd be pretty good at it, but rate their performance as higher than it really should be? Well, that's the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. In short, dumb people are too dumb to understand that they're dumb, and thus think they're doing pretty great. Or, put another way, if you completely lack a skill, then the only way you'll realize that is if you sit down and actually receive some training for that skill.

Sharon, I know you think you can do Susan's job. Trust me, you'd be as effective as a match in a hurricane.
Put into more scientific language, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias. Your brain tricks itself into believing something that isn't true, despite evidence to the contrary. The original study, performed by Dunning and Kruger natch, was inspired by the curious case of a bank robber. This guy had pulled off two bank robberies before getting caught, and he did it after covering his face with lemon juice. His logic was that, since lemon juice is used in the making of invisible ink, it would obscure his identity and make him impossible to record on security cameras.

Was that one guy a lone loony for believing that? Or was that just an extreme example of how people think they've got the inside track on life every, single day? The scientists decided to find out. They asked students in a psychology course to rate their own skills in areas like grammar, logical reasoning, and even humor. Then, after students were scored on a test (how you score humor I don't know, but that's not the point), they were asked to evaluate how well they did compared to the rest of the class. People who scored well, and who had some demonstrable skill in a given area, pegged themselves pretty accurately. If anything, they underestimated their own abilities. Those who had scored poorly? Well, they figured they were still slightly above average. They weren't, though. In short, the people who belonged in the D and F categories thought they deserved at least a low B.

You Can't Explain It If They Don't Speak The Language

Among Americans (since our culture is what gives rise to this effect), there really is no winning. Even if you want to sit your co-worker, extended family member, or casual friend down to explain why writing a book is really difficult, they aren't going to get it if they lack the skills and experience in doing any of the tasks associated with it.

At the end of the day, authors really do speak our own language. A language only other authors can understand. The more you write, the better you'll be able to speak and understand that language. So, congratulations to those willing to put in that work.

Speaking of which... shouldn't you be writing?
That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. While it might sound like it belongs in the craft section, trust me, you're going to need this knowledge when you work in the business side of books, blogs, and other literary endeavors. If you'd like to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support me so I can keep making content just like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For $1 a month you can buy my unending gratitude, and some sweet swag. So head on over, and pledge today!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, and Professor Awesome's University Explains Why

I love fantasy. However, as any genre fan can attest, there are a lot of shitty fantasy books out there. In fact, sometimes it might seem like for every one great fantasy novel, there's a dozen that should never have seen the light of day. The sort of dross you find in the bargain bin tucked under the card table at your weird neighbor's garage sale. And while we all love our own books, and think our ideas are special little rainbows, it seems like we forget the number one rule of good fantasy stories.

No one cares about the world. We're here for the protagonists.

And so are your villains, coincidentally enough.
Professor Awesome's University touched on this in the post Why Your Fantasy Novel Sucks, and I agree with the postmortem report. Nine times out of ten, the chief reason a fantasy novel sucks is because all of the author's attention went to the world, and little to none of it went to the story being told.

You Are Not Tolkien (And You Shouldn't Try To Be)

Tolkien, for better or worse, is held up as the architect of high fantasy as we know it. The Hobbit, the subsequent tales of The Lord of The Rings, and the overly complex history text The Silmarillion, makes up a huge chunk of the genre's modern foundation. Not only that, but Tolkien's work has been hugely influential on roleplaying games, and it's the reason we have Stephen King's Dark Tower, among other tales.

I'm glad for all the things he's influenced. I didn't hear about Tolkien until I was an adult, though.

J.R.R. who?
My introduction to fantasy came from older, stranger tales. I discovered Conan when I was very young, and once I'd devoured the sagas of Hyborea, I moved onto other classic characters. Kull, Solomon Kane, Tarzan, and the other heavyweights of the Weird Tales era. Because of that introduction, my fantasy stories (and really all the fiction I write) tends to be very character-focused. We settle on our protagonist's shoulder, and while they're hacking, slashing, or spellcasting their way through the plot, we are getting invested in them and their struggles.

Just check out my fantasy novel Crier's Knife, and you'll see what I mean.

Professor Awesome's University points out that, for many people whose introduction to fantasy was Tolkien's epic, world-building and linguistic exercise that grudgingly told a story, that is often not the case. They focus almost entirely on the world, and its history, and the vast gulfs of what came before our tale begins. Which is fine, however, we're not reading a history manual about the centuries past; we're here for you to tell us about what's going on now.

What most people forget (or think is simply trivial) was that Tolkien was a scholar first and foremost. He built a massive setting, with a huge history, and filled his work with languages, songs, and poems, not because that makes for good fantasy, but because that was his field of expertise. He'd spent decades learning, and then teaching, about these subjects. Those were the skills he mastered, and they are what made his complex world work. It was what allowed him to create a whole new breed of fantasy.

Chances are you ain't Tolkien, though.

By all means, build a vast, complex world. Create languages, and races, and thousands of years of conflict. Drop some sick verse into your world, and have a sing-a-long in chapter 33. But before you try to tell anyone about your book, ask yourself these two questions.

- Who is my protagonist?
- What are they doing that will get the reader's attention?

Fantasy worlds are a dime a dozen, and ones with longbow-wielding elves, and dwarves who speak with a brogue are five for a penny. Worlds are the canvas you're painting on. They're the background on your stage. It's the play that people are here to watch, though, so don't spend so much time getting the scenery perfect. You can work on that once you know what the show is.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. If you'd like to stay up to date on all my posts, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay plugged-in. Lastly, if you want to support me and my work so I can keep bringing posts like this right to your door, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet, sweet swag.