This blog has been quieter than usual lately and I thought I should let you know what I’ve been doing.
I’m going to prattle on for quite a while; you might want to get comfortable (or head off to Tumblr).
It’s good to do a bit of soul searching now and then, to look at what you have achieved, where your career is headed, and to decide if you are on the right track.
My goals and dreams have changed a lot since I started self-publishing in 2011. I haven’t been a big success, but I’ve been able to tick off little career milestones along the way. Some months my sales are wonderful, some months they are terrible – generally a function of how long it is since I released or promoted something. Overall, the good months more than outweigh the bad and I’ve been scratching out a living for a while now.
But the sales maw, as all writers know, is insatiable. So I’ve been noodling ways to take my career to the next level.
I feel like I’ve got a good handle on the publishing/marketing side of things, but I’m still serving my apprenticeship as a writer – especially as a writer of fiction. Non-fiction comes naturally to me. I find it quicker and easier and (much) less of a brain-melting puzzle. Whereas, fiction is much more of a challenge – probably why I find it ultimately more satisfying.
My goals tend to focus on aspects of the craft, rather than some notional sales number. There is always something particular I want to achieve (that’s a euphemism for “work on”) with each book, aside from the general desire to make it better than the last one – and I think that’s something most writers do.
But, perhaps partly because of the above, I wasn’t necessarily selecting my projects with my “career” hat on. I gave an interview to Simon Whistler at Rocking Self-Publishing last September, during the launch of Digital 2 (disclosure: he subsequently became my narrator for the audio edition).
Simon asked why I wrote all over the map: short stories, science fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, and asked if that was something I would recommend to others.
I believe my reply was something like “Ahahahahahahahahahahahaha… no” before comparing it to fighting with one hand behind your back.
If you look at my output since I started self-publishing it’s, eh, a bit of a mess. I first published a pair of short stories which could be classified as literary fiction, or weird fiction, or slipstream, or whatever. Next was a meatier SF short. Then a book for writers. That was followed by a historical novel more towards the “literary” end of the spectrum. Then another book for writers. Next, I spent quite a bit of time on a dystopian project that ultimately got shelved. After that, another historical novel, but this one was more towards the “action/adventure” end of the spectrum. And so on.
The problem (aside from relatively meager output, which I’ll get to) is pretty obvious. None of these projects are linked in any way, aside from the two writers’ books. And, as everybody knows, it’s much, much easier to make money and build an audience through a series. There are plenty of authors who do write across different genres and make a success of it, but they don’t take such a scattergun approach.
I know this is all pretty obvious to most of you. The advice from Day 1 has been: write a series, write in a popular genre, and write as fast as you can. And I’m fully aware this is advice I have given! There’s an element of “Physician, heal thyself” here.
But I think this is a phase a lot of writers go through – maybe it’s something they need to get out of their system. Most seem to do it at the start, before they find their groove, but we’ve all seen successful authors walk away from a cash cow to write something totally unrelated, and then return to the series/genre that was making them money (when the side-project – as is often the case – generates underwhelming sales).
It has taken me a while to reach this point because (a) I’m stupid, (b) I’m stubborn, and (c) I’m a very slow writer. Or was a very slow writer. I’ve been focusing on my process over the last year or so, trying to identify what is slowing me down, and what I can do about it.
And I’m making progress. I published two books last year – which is a snail’s pace for many of you… but let’s just say my first book took me something like four years, on and off. (I’m pretty sure I’ve put the requisite 10,000 hours into procrastination at this point, and I can cry-eat cake like a pro.)
One aspect I focused on last year was the speed I produced a first draft – the major blockage at the time. Two resources helped me greatly:
- From 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron; and,
- Write. Publish. Repeat (specifically the section on Story Beats).
(Disclosure: I was in a box set with the WRP guys, but that’s no longer on sale, and my recommendation of that book predates that arrangement because it’s fab).
After digesting those two books (which went a little like this), I cracked out a first draft of Mercenary – around 75k words in 24 days, and writing by hand too. I think it was ready for the editor a month or two later, and I was very happy with the finished product.
One of the reasons I wanted to speed up my writing process (aside from all the obvious ones) is that having more titles enables you to take bigger risks with your marketing, and I think fortune very much favors the brave in the current environment, something I spoke about here.
Back to Mercenary. As I’d produced it (relatively!) quickly, I decided to take a risk with its launch and release it at 99c. My mailing list was something of a FrankenList (see scattered output above) and I wanted to make the prospect of trying my historicals as frictionless as possible.
That part went really well – off the top of my head I think I sold 500 copies in the first four days, which had me salivating about a Scrooge McDuck pile of cash, but it ended up a little more like this.
Sales of Mercenary stopped dead as soon as my readers/platform had bought it, and Amazon’s algorithms never pitched in as expected to help sell the book for me. It took me a while to figure out why, especially as I was somewhat confident regarding its quality.
In short, my idea of getting non-HF readers to try my stuff was a little too successful – the Also Boughts for Mercenary were filled with non-HF books. Because Also Boughts are central to the whole recommendation engine, when Amazon’s system began suggested my book to prospective purchasers, it was the wrong readers (i.e. non-HF readers).
After I released Digital 2 in September, I traveled to a writing conference in York and another in Italy, and took some time to plot my next move. I had already started a historical called Rubber Soldiers but I was wondering if it was the smartest move commercially, given that it was another standalone, and not even linked by setting or time period to any existing… [snip].
At least I was aware I had a problem, right?
It was time for a wake-up call, which came in the form of a speech Bella Andre delivered at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, where she explained how she went from kind of treading water in traditional publishing to being a multi-million selling self-publisher.
The fascinating part was that she actually sat down and analyzed the market and concluded that (a) most mega-selling authors had a long-running series, (b) often didn’t hit that crazy breakout level of success until as late as the fifth book in a series, and (c) publishers didn"t like offering longer than two- or three-book deals (and, obviously, cut authors loose if the numbers weren"t amazing, or asked them to start a new series, or new pen-name, or whatever).
Bella Andre concluded, if memory serves, that she was going to write a five-book series and self-publish it. Or maybe it was eight books. Either way, the rest is history.
Her new series was an astonishing success and I think it’s up to ten or eleven books now. Bella also has several other series on the go, has signed all sorts of interesting hybrid, foreign, and print-only deals, and she has probably sold more than 5m books at this point (a conservative estimate). She also happens to be very nice and friendly, always willing to give advice to others, and you get the somewhat scary sense that she is only getting started.
Anyway, I’ve heard uber-successful people speak before, and I’ve read all sorts of books on writing and publishing, as well as lots of biographies of famous authors – like any other writer. And it’s my natural disposition to poke and prod and query and question, before taking bits of the advice that I like, in quite a piecemeal fashion, and then cobble it together into… something else.
This time I decided to try a different approach. For once, I wanted to be the person who just says, “Okay, I’m going to try all of that.”
A light bulb went off (on?) in my head, especially when Bella advised finding the overlap between what you like to write, and what sells. I decided to try sketching out a series that was a little more commercial but still satisfied me creatively. I don’t really mean that in an overly arty sense – it’s more that I can lose focus if I’m not engaged with the idea (see: any number of abandoned WIPs on my hard drive).
I hadn’t been avoiding writing a series based on some high-falutin’ notions – I’d just never actually sat down to try and sketch one out. I’m not sure why, exactly. Perhaps I felt I couldn’t come up with an idea I could sustain over several books.
Anyway, I got over that and started planning. I knew what I wanted to write: a historical adventure with a little more commercial appeal than my output to date. I decided that, over a number of books, I could literally bring readers to my favorite setting (Latin America) by having the hero start in one that’s more familiar (Ireland, Napoleonic-era).
I read (and re-read) plenty of classics and big-sellers in the genre, watched a whole bunch of movies, and, for the first time, tried to break them down in a structured way and find the common elements. I came up with a sparse outline of something that could work over five books, or more if it’goes well. And then once I had a general idea of the series arc, I wrote a loose outline for the first book and started researching.
That period took longer than expected. Irish history can be… somewhat contentious. I also had a couple of false starts. Even though I was only halfway through research and didn’t have a proper outline, I decided to give Nanowrimo a whirl.
I wrote my 2k or so on the first day, and then didn’t get very much further than that. More experienced writers will spot the problem right away: the outline. I had an inkling myself, and had a few more stabs at it while completing the research, and wasted lots of time with things like moving the timeline back and forward, and so on.
And had a few more false starts.
Then I read a wonderful book called Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker and I finally learned how to properly outline a story. Note: as this is often a hilariously controversial issue, I’m not saying the way you work is wrong, but that I found a method that worked for me for the first time.
Take Off Your Pants! is a great little read and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I could fill a whole blog post on why I loved it, but let’s just say this:
I read it in a day or two, taking some notes as I went. A couple of days later, I read through it again in one sitting, and did what she told me to do at each point, and by the end I had a functioning outline. A couple of days later I turned that into my Story Beats, and then a few days later (i.e. this Monday) I started the first book, and it has been going along at a very nice clip indeed all week. I have no real moments where I’m staring at the blank page wondering what to write, and no real panic about where the book is going. I like this strange new feeling!
While struggling with all of that, I’ve also been looking ahead to the eventual launch. I’m currently planning to write the first two or three back-to-back before releasing the first, with the hope of building more momentum. I’ll work out the details closer to the launch, and there are plenty of options now with pre-orders etc.
At the same time, I’m trying to ensure there are readers waiting for this.
I zipped through Reader Magnets by Nick Stephenson back in November or December and decided to implement his mailing list strategy. Again, I’ll post about this in more detail further down the line, but the short version is:
- I redesigned my reader website and then made Mercenary permafree everywhere.
- Mercenary opens and closes with an ad for A Storm Hits Valparaiso, which they also get for free… if they go to my site and sign up to my mailing list. The book is still full price otherwise.
- This new separate mailing list, hopefully readers in my target market, is up to around ~850 names (over four months or so), and that should be a lot more by the time I launch this series – especially if I throw a BookBub at it. And that"s separate from the FrankenList which has north of 2,000 names (new list is growing at 9x the rate, if you are curious).
There’s more to Nick’s strategy and you should check out the book. I can’t say for sure what proportion of these guys will be buyers until I launch something, but Mercenary wasn’t pulling in huge money at the time, so it wasn’t much of a gamble for me, and others have had great results with this strategy.
So… that’s where I am right now.
I’m not saying I’ve invented this cool new thing called The Wheel. I’m sure this is all second nature to most of you, but I hope that breaking down my own struggle with this stuff brings a little clarity to someone else who is fumbling around blindly. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to grasp, or begin to grasp, all this without others sharing what they did and how they did it.
I’m also not assuming this new series will be a success. Not at all. I still have to write the bloody thing, and I’ve only just started Book 1. But it feels like I’m moving in the right direction, like I have a genuine career plan for the first time, and that the creative and wonga-hungry bits of my brain are finally working together.
And that feels great.