Category Archives for Writing

Writing a Page Turner – Part 3

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Most of the early readers of Post Traumatic Stress have called it a real page turner. Page turners are good. They’re fun to read. It’s a great complement from your readers.

But most of all, page turners sell.

People enjoy books that they don’t want to put down. And – here’s the real magic – page turners make them want to buy the sequel, too. This is how binge readers are born, and binge readers are where the money is.

One thing to keep in mind is that no one of these techniques is essential. You can write page turning novels by breaking any (and maybe even all) of these “rules.” This is just one approach, but it’s an approach that works pretty well.

Believe it or not, the “page turner” aspect of Post Traumatic Stress is mostly intentional. It’s technique that you can learn, and today I want to teach some of that to you.

I’ve already mentioned that chapters are a key element of page turners, and shown two different techniques that you can use to make your chapters more captivating. Today I’d like to take a step back from the trees and look at the forest as a whole.

Secret #3 – Plot Structure

Your plot structure will have a huge influence on how well your story reads. Good plot structure is intentional, not accidental. Throwing a mishmash of a plot together will usually yield very poor results.

Now, I’m not one to get hung up on rules. However, I do believe very strongly in a few things.

  1. Before you break the rules, you should understand what the rules are and why they work.
  2. The rules describe what your target audience is used to. If you break them, you need a good reason.

If you read this blog, I assume that you write for western audiences, as I do. At the very highest level, there are really only two story structures that western audiences will accept.

  1. A single act. You can really only get away with this in short fiction. For anything longer than about 10,000 words, your audience will expect more than this. Even above 6,000 words, you’re pushing it. And frankly, even most short fiction does better if you stick with one of the other structures.
  2. The classic three-act structure. This is by far the most common structure in western fiction. You have a beginning, or introductory period. You have the second act, where all the fun stuff happens. And then act three presents the climax, resolution, and wraps everything up. This is, generally, what your audience will expect.

This is basically it. You’ll see people out there describing two-act structures, but they’re not common. And you’ll see a few variations, such as four-act structures (which are usually just the three-act structure with act two split in half). Shakespeare, of course, is famous for his five-act plays. From a modern standpoint, however, these can largely be viewed as a three-act structure with act two broken into three.

Don’t get me wrong – there are big benefits to breaking act two apart. Most writers find act two to be the big stumbling block. In a traditional breakdown, it’s half or more of the story, all in one act. Breaking it down into smaller pieces is an excellent tool for getting you through it.

If you want to write a page turner, though, I highly recommend looking at two plot “formulas” that will help you keep things going.

First, I recommend a somewhat famous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. It presents a finer grade plot structure with 15 plot “beats” for breaking down a story. Now, I will put a few caveats on this:

  • The book focuses on screenplays, not novels. You’ll have to adjust a bit to fit the formula to something of novel length.
  • The author is a bit anal, bordering on autistic, about putting the plot beats in exact places. He even puts exact page numbers on them. I think this is slightly too strict.

With that said, I find this to be a very useful framework to hang the skeleton of an outline on. I’ve also used it as a tool to drastically improve pacing issues, both on my own works and on those of authors I’ve published.

The last thing I would add on this book is that the “beat sheet” is useful, and the chapter on the ten basic story archetypes is useful, but the rest of the book is basically boilerplate.

Second, I also recommend looking at Lester Dent’s Master Formula. Dent is most famous for his Doc Savage stories, but he wrote extremely prolifically in the pulp era. His “master formula” is explicitly written for 6,000 word short stories. However, it’s easy to translate the concepts of the formula into longer works. The formula also dovetails nicely with the Save the Cat beat sheet. You don’t have to choose between them.

Bonus tip: The items above lay out “the rules.” But as I noted above, you should also know when to break them. To that end, I’m definitely looking forward to Drown the Cat by Dario Cirello, due out (amusingly enough) this Independence Day. I have not yet read it myself, but my friend Jon Del Arroz recommends it highly.

This Is What A Complete Leadership Failure Looks Like

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Sarah Hoyt’s leadership of the Sad Puppies V campaign is a classic case study in leadership failure. If you ever want the absolute pitch perfect example of what not to do in a leadership position, look no further. This tale has everything: incompetence, insanity, bullying, harassment, technical difficulties, lack of vision, and just plain bitchiness. If I tried to create an example of bad leadership from scratch, I couldn’t make one this complete. If she were trying to destroy the Sad Puppies campaign and help the other side, she couldn’t have done a better job of it.

This, my friends, is a tail of abject, utter fail.

Sad Puppies V (SPV from here out) failed in literally every conceivable way, so this may take a bit. Bear with me.

Failure #1 – Stupid, Pointless Goals

Step one in leadership is setting goals that are actually a) worth achieving and b) achievable. SPVs supposed goals are neither.

To be fair, Sad Puppies IV dropped the ball pretty badly and started the descent. The Hugo Awards allow five nominees per category, and the nature of the old rules meant that an organized campaign around exactly five titles per category could achieve useful results. So what did they do with Sad Puppies IV?

They nominated ten works per category, completely diffusing all of their voting power. As a result, they completely failed to get anything nominated for a Hugo that wasn’t also on Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies list.

GG guys. GG.

Think that’s bad? SPV got even stupider. Rather than promoting a confined ballot of books that could focus their firepower, they diffused it further. What is SPV? “Oh, we’ll just create a list of indefinite size of recommended books. For any award, not just the Hugos.”

Epic. Fail.

Look, guys, this is a core martial arts principal:

If I apply a given amount of force over a small area, I create more pressure than if I apply the same amount of force over a large area.

This is easily expressed in a simple and common law of physics: Pressure = Force / Area (P = F / A).

By diffusing the force of SPV basically infinitely, Hoyt doomed the campaign to epic failure before she even began.

But that’s just the beginning.

Failure #2 – Doing nothing to achieve your stupid, pointless goals

After defining some dumbass goals that she could never possibly achieve, Hoyt went on to… do nothing.

Literally nothing.

Hugo Award nominations were due on January 31st. Hoyt made a Hugo post announcing her leadership stupidity… er, I mean, “plan,” in September. And then posted nothing – literally nothing – on the topic again until January 7, less than four weeks before ballots were due.

Of course, she made noisy, stupid excuses pretended that this was the plan all along, because SPV wasn’t about the Hugos anymore. Because nobody would see through that bullshit. And how they had a web site coming real soon now, guys, really, I just haven’t had time to do it.

Look, I run five separate web sites. All of them use WordPress. You can set up a WordPress site in three minutes. You can make it look acceptable and flesh out some basic content in about ten. I know. I’ve done it a dozen times.

But, of course, she’s behind on her paying writing. Well, of course she is. Because she’s moved on to…

Failure #3 – Shooting at your own team

Did I mention that she wrote a post about SPV on January 7? Did I also mention that the post didn’t do anything to actually advance SPV? Ok, let’s talk about that. Because instead of doing anything useful, Hoyt decided to make a very personal attack on one of my authors.

Of course, she’s used to playing by Mean Girls rules, so she wouldn’t actually name Declan Finn. That and she’s a fucking coward. Call him out by name or STFU, Sarah.

Finn’s crime, of course, was volunteering to help but not being cool enough to actually be leadership. It’s horrible, I know.

Meanwhile, Finn had actually managed to, you know, actually get a recommendation list up. Which is still more than Hoyt has managed.

Failure #4 – Not stepping down when her failure became clear

Apparently Hoyt has had some serious health issues for a while. For that, I am truly sorry. I don’t wish that on anyone.

But do you know what an actual leader does when it becomes clear that she’s too sick to, you know, lead?

She steps down and finds a new leader. She would’ve had plenty of volunteers.

Failure #5 – Projecting her own failures onto others

Meanwhile, while she’s going about abject failure at every level, she’s projecting all of her own incompetence, greed, and narcissistic attention whoring onto other people. She accused Mr. Finn of volunteering for Sad Puppies just to help market his book, and went on at length about how much it didn’t help and he should let it go.

Meanwhile, of course, the sole reason she’s holding onto “leadership” of SPV, despite running the Titanic straight into the iceberg, is so that she can use it to market her books. The reason it hasn’t helped her isn’t because it’s a bad marketing tool. It’s because she’s totally incompetent at it.

There is no question that earlier Sad Puppies rounds resulted in beneficial publicity for Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, and Vox Day. None. Larry and Brad kind of rode the wave a little bit. Vox Day masterfully turned the whole thing into a publicity coup d’etat.

Sarah Hoyt crashed the wave into a brick wall. A wet noodle could’ve reaped more benefit from it than she has. But due to her own narcissism, she refuses to let go of it.

Failure #6 – Refusing to let it go

Given all of this, you’d think that somebody who spent months literally doing nothing would have an easy time just… letting it go. But now, that play would require at least some competence, and Hoyt has demonstrated that she has absolutely none. So instead, she’s penning more posts about the subject as recently as yesterday.

But is she actually accomplishing anything? Nope, she’s just out playing Mean Girls again. She’s hitting hard on Mr. Finn (while still lacking any courage and refusing to name him out loud), and also hitting on everyone around him.

In a word, an author of mediocre success is trying to bully a less successful author in order to feel better about her own failure. She’s admitted herself that she’s several books behind, and no wonder. She’s too busy writing several-thousand-word-long insanity-fests.

Here’s a tip, Sarah: lay off my authors and get back to work, before your publishers call and demand their advances back – as they have every legal and moral right to do if you’re that far behind.

Writing a Page Turner – Part 2

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Most of the early readers of Post Traumatic Stress have called it a real page turner. Page turners are good. They’re fun to read. It’s a great complement from your readers.

But most of all, page turners sell.

People enjoy books that they don’t want to put down. And – here’s the real magic – page turners make them want to buy the sequel, too. This is how binge readers are born, and binge readers are where the money is.

One thing to keep in mind is that no one of these techniques is essential. You can write page turning novels by breaking any (and maybe even all) of these “rules.” This is just one approach, but it’s an approach that works pretty well.

Believe it or not, the “page turner” aspect of Post Traumatic Stress is mostly intentional. It’s technique that you can learn, and today I want to teach some of that to you.

Yesterday I mentioned that chapters are a key element of page turners. This should be pretty obvious. After all, chapters form one of the foundational building blocks of any novel. We’ve already discussed that short chapters can be helpful. Today, we’ll move on to a second chapter-related technique.

Secret #2 – End Each Chapter On A Hook

Having short chapters helps keep someone from deciding not to read the next one. But you also want to hit them on the other side. Give your readers a reason to keep reading.

The best way to do this is with a “hook” at the end of each chapter. A good hook consists of the following elements:

  • A hint of what’s coming next. Think about what’s next for the characters in the chapter you just finished. Provide a taste – but just a taste – of that, right at the end of the chapter.
  • A little bit of mystery. Don’t tell them everything. People like mysteries (indeed, its one of the better selling fiction genres).
  • A touch of danger, scandal, or intrigue. There’s a reason cliffhangers are called cliffhangers. You want to get the adrenaline going a bit here. In an action or horror oriented story, this can be easy. Just provide a bit of a hint about the next opponent your heroes will face. But you can pull this off in a drama just as well. Think more of obstacles rather than opponents, and give a clue about what challenge is coming next.
  • Make sure each challenge is successively harder than the previous one. That’s how you keep ramping up the intensity. Don’t blow all your big guns early. Save them for the climax.

Here are a few examples of final sentences from chapters of Post Traumatic Stress.

  • Then the dream came again. Note that at this point in the book, one nightmare has already been vividly recounted for the reader. That leaves a good impression that the dream coming is bad. This sentence leaves unresolved tension. The reader doesn’t want to end here, because it’s not a good feeling. He wants to keep reading until he can release that tension. Of course, you’re not going to let that happen.
  • “Heya, Mikey!” His nose glowed yellow as he growled, “can I come in and play?” This is an example of moving the first line of the next chapter to be the ending of the current chapter. A “new” opponent arrives. In this case, he’s actually already known to the hero, which increases the tension. The next chapter begins the true altercation.
  • But tonight he’d have to deal with something far worse: politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats. This ending takes the dramatic route rather than foreshadowing action. Note that the previous paragraph gives a quick recap of life challenges the protagonist has already faced – rather serious challenges. This single sentence accomplishes several things at once. It provides a tantalizing hint of what’s coming next. The reader gets just a taste of scandal thanks to the job descriptions. It provides a character point – our hero clearly doesn’t like dealing with these kinds of people. It’s highly relatable – most of the rest of us don’t like it, either. And it’s a little funny. We all know that those things aren’t actually worse than fighting in a war (one of the challenges listed in the recap; our hero is an ex-soldier).
  • The lights went out. Then all hell broke loose. This one, on the other hand, is very action oriented. The chapter that follows is one of the truly major action set pieces of the book. In this case, it’s also pretty unexpected. The prior scene has built a decent amount of dramatic tension in a very different direction. Now, bam, the reader gets hit from the other side with physical tension. Standing on its own, this line seems moderately interesting. Together with the misdirection, it’s far more effective.

Bonus tip: One easy way to end your chapter on a hook is to take the first sentence of your next chapter and move it to the end of your current chapter.

Writing a Page Turner – Part 1

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About a dozen people have now read Post Traumatic Stress and reported back to me. The early reviews fall neatly into three categories:

  1. Sorry, it’s not my genre.
  2. It’s not my genre, but I really liked it anyway.
  3. Man, that was a real page turner!

I’m not losing sleep over the first group. In fact, I use the word group loosely here – that was one person! The second group is great to hear, and that included several people. But most of my beta readers, book blurbers, and editors are genre fans. Their response has been overwhelmingly the last answer.

Page turners are good. They’re fun to read. It’s a great complement from your readers.

But most of all, page turners sell.

People enjoy books that they don’t want to put down. And – here’s the real magic – page turners make them want to buy the sequel, too. This is how binge readers are born, and binge readers are where the money is.

Believe it or not, the “page turner” aspect of Post Traumatic Stress is mostly intentional. It’s technique that you can learn, and today I want to teach some of that to you.

Secret #1 – Keep your chapters short

Chapters are half the secret to a page turner. Since you were probably an avid reader before you became a writer, think about it from your own perspective. How many nights have you lay in bed reading and thought, “I’ll just read one more chapter?” As a writer, this is exactly the thought you want to convey to your reader.

Chapters are the natural “break” point for a book. That’s where your reader will put it down – if you let him. So don’t.

It’s easier for your reader to accept that one last (OK, it’s really for real the absolute last one this time!) chapter… and then to do it again, and again. This is especially true for Kindle readers. You can adjust the display on your e-reader device. Mine is set to tell me how many minutes (at my reading speed, calculated by the device) I have left in the current chapter. When I’m reading at 1AM (which happens rather a lot), it’s easy for me to look at a five minute chapter and say, “OK, I’ll just read that one.” But when I’m reading after midnight and I see a twenty minute chapter? That’s when I put the book down and go to sleep.

Be the page turner. Keep your chapters short. My average chapter length for Post Traumatic Stress is 1450 words. That’s only two manuscript pages, and only about a half dozen book pages.

Bonus tip: Try to keep each chapter to one “scene.” This will help you keep the chapters shorter and more tightly focused. But don’t slave yourself to this rule too tightly. Some scenes won’t be long enough to flesh out even a short chapter. Even so, try to keep them related.

My first draft of Post Traumatic Stress had one scene per chapter. In the second draft, I ended up cutting several chapters in half and merging them together. So now I have about 2-3 chapters that have two scenes rather than one. Still, the scenes tie very closely together, which is why I did it (that, and individually each scene was longer than it needed to be).

Tomorrow: how to ensure your reader desperately wants to start the next chapter.

Don’t Blindly Follow Your Competition

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Never, ever blindly follow your competition. I see people do this all the time – both in the writing world and the martial arts world. It’s a huge mistake, for multiple reasons.

First of all, successful marketing is very personal. A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine once – a local gun store owner. I’ll never forget what he told me:

You and I could be marketing the exact same product at the exact same price with the exact same marketing – down to the same wording, phrasing, and imagery. And it might work for you, but not for me. Or the reverse, it might work for me but not for you.

My experience since has proven this statement to be 100% correct. When you’re not Disney or Coke or Microsoft, one of the gigantic brands of the world, successful marketing is personal. And if your marketing doesn’t connect your customers with you on a personal level, it won’t work.

Blindly copying your competition is highly impersonal. You’re not being you anymore. You’re being them.

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Of course it’s worth keeping an eye on your competition. If they start doing something interesting, take a look at it. Just don’t blindly copy it.

Because it may not be working for them, either.

To illustrate the point, I want to return to yesterday’s story about the early years of my dojo.

I did something I didn’t want to do: I opened a class for 4 and 5 year old students. I resisted it. I’d taught this age group before, and the reality is that most kids at this age just aren’t ready for this kind of class. But my wife and I sat down, thought about it long and hard, and decided to give it a go. We put a ton of effort into it. We developed a special curriculum just for that age group, structured the class differently than we’d ever done before, altered our expectations, and altered the belt promotion timeline. If we were going to do it, we decided that we’d do it right.

We only had one teacher available for that class: my wife Morgon. Due to the times we scheduled the classes for, I couldn’t get out of my day job to teach it. And preschoolers require tons of attention. So to ensure that we maintained a good class, we capped that age group at six students per class. Also, because we only ran it once per week (vs two sessions a week for our normal classes) and also for a shorter duration (45 minutes instead of an hour), we basically charged half what we did for our normal classes.

Read that second paragraph again. From both a business perspective and a martial arts perspective, the class was a failure. It never really made enough money to be worth the time. And we never managed to get the class quality up to our standards. The latter reason, more than anything, is why we eventually shut it down. I didn’t feel good about offering a class that I didn’t believe in 100%.

But there’s more to the story. Right before I opened my dojo, another dojo opened just up the street. And when I say right before, I mean right before. In fact, I originally wanted to get their space. They beat me to it. When I inquired about the location, they’d already signed a contract. No worries for me – I just found another space and made do.

But I did keep a close eye on them, and I’m dead certain they kept a close eye on me. And when I started advertising my “full” preschool classes, lo and behold, they started pushing their own preschool classes. Hard.

The school’s owner made a classic mistake: he assumed that because I pushed this so hard, it must work for me. In reality, it was never working very well at all. I just made the best of the situation I’d found myself in.

That dojo closed down more than a year ago, and I’m still running. This single decision, obviously, isn’t why – nor should it be taken as a slam against them. This is a tough business, and I salute them for their time in the ring. But it was definitely a mistake – one that you and I can, and should, learn from.

Whatever latest thing your competition is trying may be working really well. Or it may not be working at all. It may be brilliant. But it’s just as likely that your competition is moronic. When you see your competition try something new on the marketing front, the very first question you should always ask is, “is it working?” If it is, the second question must be, “why?”

If you can’t definitively answer both questions, then be wary of it. That doesn’t mean don’t do it at all. Maybe it’s worth experimentation. But keep your experimentation cheap until you get good data of your own.

Even then, before you try it you need to ask one final question: “Is this compatible with my own brand?” It’s very difficult to repair damage to your brand once it’s done. So you want to work to keep your brand solid in the first place.

Marketing 101: Fake It Until You Make It

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When you’re first beginning any business endeavor you face a serious chicken-and-egg problem. People want to buy proven, successful products and services. But how can you create a proven, successful product or service when nobody will buy from you? You have to fake it until you make it.

I’d like to share a little story from the very early days of my dojo. Like all new businesses, we struggled in our early months. We had a non-trivial monthly overhead (mainly rent and utilities). And since we had very few students (because hey, we’d just opened the doors), those payments came straight out of my own pocket.

I did something I didn’t want to do: I opened a class for 4 and 5 year old students. I resisted it. I’d taught this age group before, and the reality is that most kids at this age just aren’t ready for this kind of class. But my wife and I sat down, thought about it long and hard, and decided to give it a go. We put a ton of effort into it. We developed a special curriculum just for that age group, structured the class differently than we’d ever done before, altered our expectations, and altered the belt promotion timeline. If we were going to do it, we decided that we’d do it right.

We only had one teacher available for that class: my wife Morgon. Due to the times we scheduled the classes for, I couldn’t get out of my day job to teach it. And preschoolers require tons of attention. So to ensure that we maintained a good class, we capped that age group at six students per class. Also, because we only ran it once per week (vs two sessions a week for our normal classes) and also for a shorter duration (45 minutes instead of an hour), we basically charged half what we did for our normal classes.

Put those two factors together and it’s easy to see that we never really made a lot of money off the class. But it did have two major benefits. First, it didn’t bring much money, but we desperately needed every dollar of it in those early days. If we hadn’t run that class, we probably would’ve had to close the doors. We came close enough to that as it was.

But more importantly, the class was always full. Always. Over a few years of running it, we only had two kids stay with it past that age group – and one of them was my own son. Kids rarely lasted more than three months. But we had a regular influx of new students joining the class, and that made up for it.

So we advertised that. We put that out everywhere we could: these classes are full. And it had the effect of elevating the status and prestige of our entire dojo. I mean, if our classes are full, we must be awesome, right?

Well, not entirely. It took six months before we had our first regular adult students. And our classes for older children grew steadily, but we had plenty of room for more. But it was still true: our preschool classes stayed full.

We faked it until we made it.

Now, I will put an important caveat on this: never, ever lie. It will come back to haunt you. But one of the secrets of marketing is that you don’t have to tell people everything. Tell them the good parts – and emphasize the best parts. No product is perfect. Your customers know that.

A second caveat: your product doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be good. If your product sucks, then people will be unhappy with their purchase. But if your product is good, and its priced reasonably, your customers will stay happy even if it’s not a perfect product.

Tomorrow: why you should never, ever blindly follow your competition.

Marketing Tip: Stop Whining

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Here’s a pro marketing tip that far too many indie authors desperately need to hear: stop whining.

Let’s recall one of our lessons from a few posts ago:

Nobody will ever read your book if they don’t know it exists. Nobody. Ever.

Stop thinking of marketing as a dastardly activity and think of it as precisely two things:

  1. Letting people know that your book exists.
  2. Letting them know why they should read it.

Forget making people want to read your book (step two on our list). Before you can do that, you have to stop actively turning off potential readers. Making somebody want to read your book is hard. But making people not want to read your book? That’s so easy an idiot can do it – and a great many of them do exactly that.

You’ve probably already heard all kinds of great marketing advice: make sure your description makes the book sound interesting, etc, etc. But today I want to focus on one very specific aspect: your public presence. Not your books, yours.

So you’ve started a blog. You’ve started social media: Facebook, Twitter, etc. You’ve written hundreds of blog posts, thousands of social media posts, but nobody’s buying. Why not?

Here’s my absolute first question: how much do you whine on your blog and/or social media? Because I see a lot of it. A lot of it.

Remember, your public platforms are there to help you sell books. How are they going to do that? You want to look like the kind of person who writes interesting books. To do that, you have to actually look interesting yourself. And do you know what isn’t interesting to most readers?

Whining.

I’m not even saying you’re wrong. Whatever you’re whining about is probably legit: book piracy, having to charge too little in order for your book to sell, someone in the industry treated you unfairly. It all happens. Readers don’t care.

I’m going to take it one step further, though: stop self-deprecating yourself. It doesn’t sound humble. It sounds like you’re really not interesting. If you can’t even find a reason to think of yourself and your books as interesting, I can guarantee you that nobody else will, either.

Every single time you say something negative about yourself, every single time you whine, imagine that you’ve just lost two book sales. That’s money rushing out of your bank account. Is it really that bad? No, it’s actually far worse. Because the effects aren’t additive, they’re multiplicative. The more you do this, the worse it gets over time.

So stop it. Be yourself – that’s great and fine advice. But be the best version of yourself – or at least present that version in public. Stop killing your own book sales.

Marketing: Always Have a Plan

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Brian picks up our discussion of marketing with another fantastic post in the series. Read the whole thing, because I’m only going to excerpt part of it.

Not to step on Russell’s toes, but I’ve got lots of experience with book giveaways. The result is that I’m much less bullish on giving books away for free than Russell is.

The best advice, as always, comes from Larry Correia: only do free if you have a plan.

Here are some pointers to help you make that plan:

  • If you only have one book, don’t give it away for free.
  • Most authors will tell you to make the first book in a series free. Consider giving away the second or third book in a series. I’ve found that people are more likely to go back and buy previous books in a series than they are to buy later installments after getting book one for free, but your mileage may vary.
  • Give away free copies of your books through your web site/mailing list. Kindle Unlimited requires a 90 day commitment, and it sucks. Seriously, getting paid based on number of KENPs read amounts to a pay cut from Amazon to tradpub royalty rates.

The moral of the story? Always. Be. Closing!

I should have included some of these caveats in the original post. But I made an assumption – an assumption I know to be erroneous. I assumed that you always have a plan. I assumed this because proceeding into something like this without a plan is fundamentally foreign to me. On the other hand, I’ve known enough indie authors by now to fully understand how bad of an assumption this is.

I’ve witnessed lots of indie authors “try their hand” at marketing. For the vast majority of them, it goes something like this:

  1. My friend did The Thing and it worked.
  2. I need to sell more books.
  3. I’m going to try The Thing.
  4. It didn’t work.
  5. Marketing sucks.

The Thing changes constantly, but you can see several consistent threads: book giveaways, Kindle Unlimited, popup ads to join the e-mail list, Facebook ads, Amazon ads, Google AdWords ads, etc.

Now, all of those things are fine. Any of them can work for you. But here’s the issue: over and over and over again, I see authors essentially just throwing these at the wall hoping something will stick.

That’s not how marketing works.

The thing to keep in mind is that any one of these techniques, on its own, will almost never work. If you run one ad – of any kind – and then don’t do anything else for three months, you will get terrible results. If you want success, you need several things.

  1. Be consistent. You should engage in marketing activities regularly. The best thing you can do is set a simple goal for yourself: Every day I will do at least one thing to help sell my product.” It doesn’t matter how big it is. If you do something every day, it will eventually add up.
    1. Bonus tip: on average, a customer must see your product seven times before they purchase it. One ad campaign won’t do that for you, so you must maintain consistent marketing.
  2. Track everything. And I mean everything. Record the results and compare them. If something works for you, put more time, energy, and money into it. If it doesn’t work for you stop.
    1. Important caveat: you need to collect enough data to be sure it doesn’t work. Any data set with less than a thousand data points is useless. It’s noise, not information. For example: I’m running a pay-per-click ad. Until that ad has had one thousand impressions, the reported click-through-rates for that ad aren’t worth much. After that point, you have enough data to know: are my click through rates good enough or not?
  3. Experiment. There’s throwing things at the wall to see what sticks and then there’s honest experimentation. What’s the difference? With honest experimentation, you tracking everything (see above). You make sure to collect enough data to make your records useful. And then you tweak it, slowly, one thing at a time, to see if you can improve it. If you leave out any one of these three steps, it’s not experimentation – it’s just throwing things at the wall.
    1. Pro tip: failed experiments can still be useful. I’ve found specific advertising methods that work but don’t give me a high enough return on investment… yet. But when I have multiple books in a series, they’ll be worth revisiting.
  4. Coordinate. Don’t do one marketing action in isolation. Do multiple things at the same time. Got a lot of free publicity from somewhere? Great – do a sale at the same time so you can capture as much of it as possible. Or time a new book release to match it. Run your own ads at the same time. If your book is already ranking high on Amazon from the success of one marketing technique, people who see it as a result of other techniques will be more likely to buy it. So plan everything together.
    1. Bonus tip: consistency is good, but coordination is better. If you have limited funds, you’re better off running fewer, strong, coordinated campaigns spaced out throughout the year rather than running something constantly.
  5. Create urgency. As an extension of the last bonus tip, you don’t want to run your specials all the time anyway. You want to create a sense of urgency. Make your customer want to get your product right now. That’s why sales work. They create the sense of urgency for you: buy this product now or you’ll lose out on this great deal. A customer who believes they can get your product at any time is a customer who most likely won’t get it at any time.
  6. Plan ahead. I’m getting ready to launch a novel, and as part of the marketing campaign I’m already considering the launch of my next book.
  7. Start early. I started laying groundwork to sell this book when I started writing it – three years ago. That work is already starting to pay off.

Above all, always have a plan. I’m launching a novel in August. I have an e-mail chain with 1400 words of notes about my marketing plans for the book launch. I have similar notes about Declan Finn’s new novel that we’re re-releasing next month. I’ve got a plan for consistent marketing. I already know how I’m going to track everything. I’ve got experiments I want to run. I’ve coordinated about a dozen separate marketing methods (and I’m still adding more). I’m planning sales to create urgency. And I’m already planning how I’m going to leverage this to launch the next book.

Because I always have a plan.

Marketing vs Advertising

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Earlier this week I noted that marketing is an intrinsic part of business. You can’t escape it if you want to make money. But I also laid out some rather stark math about how bad certain types of advertising can be. The math is real – advertising your book can be a poor return on investment. But you can’t let that stop you from marketing your book.

First of all, you have to understand that marketing and advertising are two separate but related things. Any business you run (and remember, selling your own books is a business!) must do both!

Marketing is everything you do – everything – related to letting people know that your product (book) exists and why they should purchase (and read) it.

Advertising is when you pay somebody to include some kind of ad for your product – a video, a little image, a blurb, a text segment, whatever. It’s a subset of marketing.

Advertising almost always costs money. Sometimes you can work out a trade with someone, but usually you’re going to have to pay for it. With other forms of marketing, on the other hand, you can very often trade hard work for money. And you must keep doing it.

You hate marketing? Suck it up, buttercup – or go get a day job. If you want your books to sell, you have to market them.

You’re probably used to thinking of marketing as a dirty word, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time to rethink the word. Look at it this way:

Nobody will ever read your book if they don’t know it exists. Nobody. Ever.

Stop thinking of marketing as a dastardly activity and think of it as precisely two things:

  1. Letting people know that your book exists.
  2. Letting them know why they should read it.

The first part is actually the easy part. It’s the second part that’s hard. And that’s the part you probably associate with sleazy used car salesmen.

But it doesn’t have to be slimy. Is there a good reason why people should read your book? Great! Then your marketing step 2 is just to communicate that to them. If there’s not a good reason why they should read your book, then it’s time to go back to your desk, sit down, and write a new one. Or rewrite the old one.

And if you can’t articulate a reason why someone should read your book, then it’s time to think pretty hard about whether or not there is a reason that they should.

Despite the bad math of advertising, you should keep marketing your book, even if you only have one – especially with free, cheap, or easy marketing methods.

Here are some cheap or even free things you should start early and keep at to market your book:

  • Start a blog and write interesting posts about interesting topics!
    • Bonus points if the blog’s topic relates to your book topic!
  • Create profiles on various social media and participate!
  • Get as many of your friends and family to read and review your book as possible!
  • Talk about your book to anyone who will listen!

Here are a few other things that you should consider spending some money on, even if you only have one book:

A good cover. It’s not so much that good covers sell books (although they do). The bigger issue is that bad covers kill books. You don’t have to spring for the best cover ever. But a bad cover is worse than “not worth the money.” It will actually work against you. There are some good places you can get decent covers done for under $200. They’re worth it. This is also the gift that keeps on giving. You pay for the cover now for book one… but when book two comes out, book one still has that excellent cover you paid for. So book one’s sales boost from book two’s release will be better. And so on.

A good web site. Did you read what I said above about bad covers killing books? Ditto for bad web sites. The good news is, it’s pretty easy to build a not-terrible web site these days. But you want more than that. You don’t just want a web site that looks good. You want a web site that’s built to sell your book. If you’re not technically inclined, or if you’re no good at marketing, save yourself a lot of headaches. Pay someone to build a web site for you. You can find some not terrible web designers for a few hundred dollars. Like your book’s cover, this is the gift that keeps on giving. A good web site will keep selling book one… and then take only a little modification to start selling book two. Invest your time and energy here and, if necessary, your money.

Some sales artwork. The internet is a fantastic place and you can find artwork pretty inexpensively if you look. For $10-30 a piece you can buy very high quality stock images to use. For $30-200 a piece you can pay for some pretty good quality artwork. This is especially worth the money if your book is the first of the series. You can reuse that character art for every single book in that line – and add to it with each book. Eventually you’ll have a really huge collection of art you can choose from for flyers, posters, ads, etc. But you can also start small and cheap and build this collection as you have money.

Give away books. Yes, you heard me. Give them away. Give away as many books as you possibly can, especially book one in a series. Ebooks are best for this, of course, because they’re free to you. But give away print books, too, if you have to. The more the better. My experience is that about one out of every one hundred readers will actually review a book (maybe fewer). But you need those reviews. So get those books out the door to anyone who will read them. Remember: this is helpful for getting reviews and selling books now. But even more importantly, you’re laying a foundation of fans who will buy your future books. So give them away like candy.

Parting thought:

If you’re still on book one, then check your focus. Making a fortune on book sales now is unrealistic for most people. You want to lay the best foundation you can for your next book release. In fact, no matter how many books you have out, you should look at every book release as a chance to grow your base for future releases. Always plan at least one book ahead. “If I do this, I can build up more fans for next time!” Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

It Takes Money To Make Money

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There’s an old saying: it takes money to make money. I hate to tell you this, but there’s no way around that.

But let me back up for a minute. My wife tagged me further down the thread in this Twitter discussion earlier today.

Note 1: I am not picking on Oghma in anything I’m about to write. He asked some fantastic questions today and exhibited the mindset of one truly willing and ready to learn. That’s where all of us started.

Note 2: The thread itself is pretty good. It’s worth a read if you want to sell books.

Now back to the meat of the post.

Self publishing a book means going into business for yourself. Congratulations! I love small business. Welcome to the lifeblood of America! You’re foreign? That’s fine, too – way to go helping to make you’re country great!

But going into business for yourself means that you want to make money. And if you want to make money – real money – in business, you have to do marketing. It is not optional.

Now, some forms of marketing are cheap. I run this blog for an annual price tag lower than what it would cost me to take my family out for a single nice dinner – and even that is a cost that I mostly share with two small businesses. It’s cheap. But cheap marketing brings two issues.

  1. Spending less money means working harder. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You’ll pay one way or another. Less money means more time and sweat equity.
  2. Spending less money often (but not always) means the marketing is less effective.

Now, rule 2 isn’t magic. You can’t just drop a million dollars on advertising and expect to just get it back. You still have to work at it, be smart about it, and choose the right kind of marketing. But if you want to make money, you have to spend money.

So Oghma is asking the exact right questions. He knows he needs to spend money. He’s trying to figure out how to spend it intelligently.

Here’s the thing about the publishing market: spending a lot of money marketing one, single, solitary book is almost always a waste of money. If you only have one book, it’s very difficult to get a good return on investment. It can be done – especially if you’re very good at marketing, or if you’ve written a very good book. But it ain’t easy.

Let’s run through some math as an example. I’m not the best Facebook marketer, but neither am I the worst. And I don’t have the best web sites for my businesses, but again, neither do I have the worst. I’m in the somewhat typical range. So this is actually a pretty reasonable example.

On my typical Facebook ads these days, I can usually achieve a click through rate between 4% and 8%, discounting the occasional outliers in either direction. That means that out of every 100 people who see my ad, 4 to 8 of them will click through to my web site. This is a pretty decent rate in the marketing world.

Depending on the ads, the targeting options I’ve selected, the product I’m marketing, etc, those ads usually cost me between $0.50 per click and $2.00 per click. That’s not really terrible, either.

The next step of the funnel is conversions. For every 100 people who click through my ads, typically somewhere between 4 and 8 will actually buy a product afterward. That’s also pretty typical.

But it’s also the problem.

Let’s assume the best case scenario on both fronts.

  • 1250 people see my ads.
  • 8% (100 people) of them click through to my web site.
  • 8% of those (8 people) buy my product.
  • My ads cost $0.50 per click.

I’ve now spent $50 on ads to get 8 sales.

Now first of all, this is a best case scenario. I, personally, rarely have a marketing campaign do this well. If I could pull it off every time, I’d be quitting my day job and working at the dojo full time.

Second, this is fantastic… for my dojo. A typical new customer at the dojo nets me either $95 (ish) or $250 (ish). Let’s take the worst case number here: $90 per sale, or $450. I spent $50 for that. That’s $400 in revenue increase, and that’s fantastic! Seriously, if I could do this reliably I’d quit my day job.

Now, let’s talk books. Say I’ve sold 8 e-books for this at a cost of $4.99. Amazon gives me 70% royalties, so that’s $3.493 per book. For 8 sales, I’ve made $27.94 – well less than the $50 I spent to get it. At this rate, the more I advertise the more I’m losing money.

And, remember, this is a good ad campaign.

The secret (It’s not really a secret – you can find this all over the internet) to making money off of this in the book world is to have lots of books – preferably in the same series. Then, some portion (but not all) of the customers who pick up one book will buy all of your books, or at least all of the series.

So let’s add one more assumption: let’s assume that 12.5% of the people who buy book one in my series will end up buying the entire series, and let’s assume that I have 10 books. Note: I don’t have many books out yet, and I don’t have good figures for this rate. I’ve completely made this number up for my example.

Now I’ve sold 8 books at $3.493 per book, for $27.94. And I’ve sold one of those people (12.5%) another nine books ($31.44), for a total return of $59.377.

My return isn’t great in this example, but at least I’ve made a profit. Multiple books change everything. And in this example, now I’m at a point where I can start tweaking every step of my process in the hopes of improving my return.

  • I can try to make better ads. If I can raise my click-through-rate to 10% instead of 8%, I’ll sell more books – and because of how click-ads work, I’ll probably pay less per click.
  • I can try to raise my conversion rate. If 10% of ad-clickers buy instead of 8, I’ll make 25% more money overall – and now the return on my ad money is starting to look pretty decent.
  • I can try and convert more “first book” readers to “series readers.” This might mean writing a better book. Or it might mean putting better ads or better sample chapters in the back of book one.

The point is, once my return on investment is positive, I can start tweaking it to make money.

But if I’ve only got 1 book, then just about the best I’m going to do is spend $2 on ads for every $1 I make back (my general experience is more like $5 in ads for every $1 I make back, on a single book).

The moral of the story: writing 10 books won’t necessarily make you rich. But if you want to get rich from writing, you pretty much have to write 10 good books. Unless your name is J.K. Rowling.