Making the Most of What You Have

Selling your writing in 13 weeks, week 12

You can't have everything you want.  Learn to make the most of what you have.

You can’t have everything you want. Learn to make the most of what you have.

My grandmother was a great one for making the most of what you had.  Things got mended and sewn, and made to serve another turn.  In another sense, too, she was one for making the most of what you have.  One of her sayings was “when you lose heart, run on your gut.”

Recently on my blog, I got accused of being Irish for essentially saying the equivalent of “the food is terrible in this establishment, but I keep coming back because the portions are so large.”

The weird thing is that in the world of indie publishing these are good things.

I recently took a marketing class with WGM publishing.  Did it tell me much that I didn’t know?  No.  But sometimes it’s important to get a confirmation of what you know to be true through someone else’s eyes.

We’ll return to this again because there is another point there – that the field is shifting so fast that sometimes you see things changing and you can’t be sure if it’s changing just for you or for everyone else.  And you can’t tell if it’s a trend or a bleep like the ridiculously low sales figures over summer.

So you take classes, or you get together with friends to talk how sales are going, or you throw out an SOS on indie publisher boards – to see how it’s going and what’s worked for other people.

The main thing I learned is that the old ways don’t seem to work.  I was talking to a friend about this and I pointed out that from what I’ve seen, unless you have the kind of money that can blanket the airwaves and tv stations with advertisements; unless you can put an ad up on Time Square, unless you can give your book the send off party to end all send off parties… don’t bother.

It used to be that you could give your book a relatively solid send off by having parties at a few of the larger conventions, or by going to BEA and charming the book sellers.  You still can, to an extent, if you have a publisher behind you, pushing all the way.  (Though I’m not sure how effective that is – and neither is anyone else, because the metrics are slippery.)

To an extent publicity has always bedeviled authors.  Readers approach reading as a personal relationship to the author, and it’s very hard to create those with any sort of one-size-fits-all campaign.

Some people I knew back in the nineties hired publicists.  I tried to hire one.  But even the expensive ones didn’t seem to have any clue how to promote my books.  I remember one in particular who, three years after the Shakespeare Series crashed and burned and just before the last of them was taken off print designed this entire proposed marketing campaign based on… my writing about Shakespeare for Academic journals to promote these books.  Forget that writing for academic journals was a career in itself, and one I didn’t want, I couldn’t seem to get these people to understand the books were out of print, a death more final than that of any mortal body.

Most publicists didn't know what to do to promote you even in the traditional market, much less now.

Most publicists didn’t know what to do to promote you even in the traditional market, much less now.

Another publicist advertised a “unique” approach but when I read the details of it, it amounted to spamming a lot of people.  Having been on the receiving end of spam campaigns… er… no.

But the most important thing I realized, having talked to publicists, including those recommended by friends, is that the metrics to tell if it was working in traditional publishing were nearly impossible.  You might not get your statement for a year (the first year, for one of my publishers) and you certainly won’t get it for three months.   Even when you get them, how can you tell which of the things you did that year/trimester worked?

I guess this was the temptation that led the publishers to the push model.  If you can control what books are shelved and in what numbers, you’ll control sales to an extent, and you can make your purchase choices look good.

But that system also put all print runs in a death spiral, so that the normal print runs of the seventies (circa fifty thousand for science fiction) are now bestseller levels. And that system hushered in ebooks, and Amazon and the death of the push model.

When books that aren’t stocked catch fire on Amazon, the publishers have to notice.  Also, Amazon ate the lunch of the bookstore chains that were stocking what publishers “pushed.”

And so we have the present changing (one would almost say transitioning) system.

The indie system has the advantage that you can usually tell what publicity worked and didn’t work.  It has the disadvantage that what works for an author might not work for another.

One of the things my friend said was bound to work was “if a well-known writer went all out and publicized your book or even gave you a quote.”  Does it work?  (Waggles hand.)  My friend Larry Correia does “book bombs” that do tend to work.  You will sell some books when he “book bombs” you – i.e. features you on his blog and tells his fans to buy you – but it will not make you sell at his level. Other big-authors promoting you might work or not. As for cover quotes… They help give your book a professional appearance.  But should you go for death or glory in getting one from a big name author?  In my experience, no.  It might sell you ten-twenty books but it won’t make that much difference.

See, cover quotes used to be important because bookstore chain managers believed in them.  Get a cover quote from Robert Jordan and they’d order another 100 or your books per store.  Now…  Like Robert Jordan, that’s a thing of the past.

So, how do people actually shop, in the great big world of indie publishing?

Take me, for instance.  I’m a fairly normal reader, both on average age – being in my middle years – gender, and in being mid-transition to primarily electronic buying.

When you're selling in a worldwide diverse market, the best you can do is offer the best product you can, and lots of it.

When you’re selling in a worldwide diverse market, the best you can do is offer the best product you can, and lots of it.

If I’m in the mood to read something (often) and I’m not committed to reading something else for research (unfortunately also often) I’ll go to Amazon and browse the authors I know and love.  If none of them have anything out, or if what they have out is not what I want at that moment (I love and adore F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series, but I will NOT read it when I’m feeling even mildly depressed) I will then browse on key word.

Say I want to read a cozy mystery.  I will browse on murder or death, or look at the categories for amateur sleuths.  Say I was crazy for craft mysteries (I’m actually not) I could go to the women sleuths category, then browse for crochet or knitting.

Alternately I pick a book I know I like – say Starman Jones – and then see what else the “also recommends” kicks up.

Do I pay any attention to the reviews?

I stopped buying a book on reviews once. The reviews uniformly said the book was riddled with spelling mistakes.

I will even tell you right now that most of the time that would not have stopped me.  It only did because it was that kind of night and I didn’t feel up to dealing with bad spelling.

Reviews have, in the past, made me download the sample chapters and read through them before I bought. However, I find a lot of books with low star ratings and low number of reviews are not nearly as bad as they are painted. If you have a low number of reviews most of the time your star average is going to trend low, because frankly one in a thousand people bestir themselves to review and it’s more likely to be someone who is affronted by your novel than someone that loved it.  It’s just the way it is.

But online, particularly electronic, you shop less by cover quotes, product placement or reviews and more by “let me download the sample and see if it grabs me.”

I’ll also tell you that once a sample grabs me, I will read everything else I can find of that author.

The one thing I’m atypical in is that I read practically any genre, including inspirational and Christian Romance.  But I read by moods. Three years ago, for the first time in my life, I read regency romances, and then I read them for six months.  I haven’t felt a need to read them since.

The thing is, if I stumble on a new author I like while in the mood for the kind of thing he or she writes, then I’ll read everything of theirs while in that mood.

I might not remember them again, until I’m looking for that kind of thing once more, though.

So, I took the WGM workshop and mostly it confirmed to me what didn’t work.  Cover quotes are iffy.  Having someone push you might help, but it’s no magical carpet ride. Signings and appearances seem to have practically no effect on indie sales. Having a blog might work for you or it might not.  (It seems to work for me.)  Facebook presence might sell your books.  Twitter might sell your books.

The way is long, and sometimes it will feel like you're progressing by strength of your fingernails.  There are not guarantees.  But if you keep trying, there's a good chance you'll get where you want to go.

The way is long, and sometimes it will feel like you’re progressing by strength of your fingernails. There are not guarantees. But if you keep trying, there’s a good chance you’ll get where you want to go.

All of these are might – but what WILL sell your books is more books. I, myself, have confirmed this, as every one of my books I put up sells all the rest.

And this is because when shopping on line the selection is so huge, the market you’re selling to so vast, that your best shot at holding the ADHD-cat-like customer is to keep their attention focused on you. This means, when they discover you, you should have a bunch of books already out, so they can buy them all when the mood lasts. And so they read enough of you they remember you, when the mood comes around again.

So, if you are a book-a-year person, write some short stories in the same universe/time-line and fling them up there, once every couple of months. In my experience short stories sell way less, but they DO keep the reader’s attention focused on you until the next novel is ready.

Conversely, if you have say ten short stories to go up, don’t just put out a collection.  (Actually for me short stories sell better than collections, which is odd.) Put the short stories out one at a time and then as a collection (making sure to list all the stories in the collection listing) at a reasonable enough price break from buying the stories individually that people are tempted to buy it.

Concentrate your work in one area/genre/series. I know, I know. I should do what I preach. As is, partly through the follies of traditional publishing I find myself with readers clamoring for me to finish “the other” series, no matter which series I’m writing, because I have seven or eight started.

Make the most of what you have.

This might mean work at an unusual pace for you, or in an unusual pattern. But it’s more likely to get you launched than anything else.

Most of all the best way to get your book noticed in Indie is to get word of mouth going. This means having as much as possible out there, so people have more chance of stumbling on it.

So – how do you get word of mouth started?

I don’t know.  My friends and I have debated this.  When you throw something up there, into the big wide sea of publishing – how do you get the word of mouth started?

Well, reviews help.  And getting your friends with good blogs to mention you helps, and Charlie Martin and I keep hearing that Friday Book Plug helps ([email protected]) Having more than one book out helps.  Decent cover helps.

The most important thing to remember though is that word of mouth takes time.  In fact, part of what was ruining print-run numbers in traditional was that they fell in the habit of taking a book out of print on the year. It has been estimated it takes about three years for word of mouth to hit its full stride. (Book plug Friday will take your book once a month, as a reminder.)

Another thing to remember is that people need to see something mentioned three times before they actually act on it.

The advantage of taking so long to take off, is that you have time to write more books. And then you can make more money.  (Yes, the food might be terrible, but, man, look at the size of those portions.)

Make the most of it.  Make do.  When you run out of heart, run on your gut.  Keep working.  And good luck.


 All pictures courtesy of shutterstock.  1  Copyright: val lawless     2 Copyright: Jakub Zak     3 Copyright: Dudarev Mikhail   4 Copyright: Dudarev Mikhail