Is Everyone an Author Now?

This will likely come off as whining, but I suspect it’s going to be a bit cathartic for me to get it written out and move on. So here goes.

I’m more obsessed with my Amazon rank than I should be. I check how my book is doing pretty much every day, both the paperback and the Kindle versions, and since the sale I put up last month, it’s pretty much dropping like a rock. I have seven reviews–all of them quite good, 4 and 5 stars. The people who have read my book appear to enjoy it. Which I suppose I hoped would turn into more sales, more reviews and more happy people. Sort of organically, like a flower getting sunshine and water.

But that’s not the case. 

Partly that’s my fault. Other than having a Facebook page and showering people with tweets to go “buy my book” I’m not really investing in marketing. And so my Facebook page goes into the morass of author pages and my tweets get swept off the page by millions of similar tweets. Seriously. Millions.

Partly this is because the notion of independent publishing has simply exploded. The ranking of my paperback for my book sits in the 3 million range on Amazon, and the Kindle version near 700,000. I have no idea where the basement is, quite frankly, but the market has simply been flooded with books and authors to the point where I have no idea how readers are actually finding things to read. 

So I asked one of my friends who is also an independent author. She gave me some advice to join forums on Goodreads and engage with the community. I do that already on NeoGAF and that’s been more successful for me than anything else, so I’m giving it a shot. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places on Goodreads, but it appears to be filled with authors talking with each other, friending each other on Facebook, following each other on Twitter. It feels like gaming the system a bit, honestly, or preaching to the choir. 

The other path for marketing is to actually pry open my wallet and spend some money on advertising. I’ve been extremely wary about this, because I have no idea how successful this is. I see ads pop up on my browser all the time and I’m annoyed by them, as they slow down the loading process. I can’t remember the last time I clicked on an ad. 

Which leads me back to the ultimate question: where do readers go to find good books and, more specifically, my book? I dare you to do a Google search on that question, because you’ll get sites that boast “the 7 things you must do” or “the 20 ways to succeed as an independent author” or “the 51 things to do to sell your book”, etc. Apparently the independent publishing world has grown so large that it has spawned a whole set of other activities focused on assisting those authors. 

One of the other suggestions is “write more books.” Apparently by having more books out there you’re somehow proving that the first one wasn’t a fluke or something. Interesting concept. The truth of the matter is the quality of the first book will never change no matter how many other books I write. Are readers wary of picking up a book by someone who’s only written one book? But yes, I’m writing more books. And I’m going to do what I did with the first one.

  1. Take my time in the writing process. I’m not just slapping words together and throwing it up on Amazon. And yes, there are indies who are doing that and it’s likely one of the reasons people steer clear of all indies.
  2. Engage with a local community group to review and provide feedback (i.e., beta readers).
  3. Edit, re-write, edit, re-write, edit, re-write… etc.
  4. At some point, stop the editing and re-writing process because you could do it forever.
  5. Go through all the publishing hullabaloo.

Those five steps take time, if you’re serious about producing a quality piece of literature. And for someone who has a full time job and a family, the amount of time to do step 1 is pretty small. It’s not like book 2 will be out in 2014 (hopefully 2015).

The other thing I plan to do is get to my local library and local independent bookstores and do what I can to promote my existing book. I’m hoping word of mouth directly face-to-face with people will drive more attention and focus than having those same people see my tweet go flinging off the page. There’s no doubt that the Internet is good for a lot of things, but perhaps selling someone on taking a gamble with an independent author isn’t one of them. Time to get out there and meet my readers face-to-face. 

 

Book Wars

By now anyone either writing or reading books has heard about the contract talks between Amazon and Hachette. And just about everyone has taken sides, weighing in with opinions measured as fact and hurling various levels of insults at the other side. 

So, far be it from me to go without sharing my opinion.

First off, a tangent. I’m a gamer. I have or have had a Gamecube, Wii, PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One and more than 60 games on Steam (PC). I’ll likely pick up a PS4 at some point. I’m a frequent poster on NeoGAF, a forum where people spend a lot of time talking about games (and other things). One of the things gamers like to do is argue about which platform is better. These threads typically escalate into the same kind of behavior we’re seeing now in the Amazon/Hachette situation.

Therefore, I’m taking Console Wars and changing it to Book Wars.

And my opinion on the matter really boils down to my opinion on the consoles. Essentially, if you’ve developed a great game I want to play, I’m going to pick up the console it’s available on and play it there. I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion of “which console is ‘better'” or the number of frames per second a game can be played at. Is it a good game? Then I’ll play it.

For books this boils down to the same thing. Have you written a good book? I’ll read it. I don’t care about the cover (I know a lot of people do, but the cover doesn’t change the words inside). I don’t care whether it’s been professionally edited. If an indie author hasn’t taken the care to get feedback and correct basic writing problems, then it’s not a good book. And therefore I’ll steer away. On the other hand, there are plenty of books that have gone through the whole shebang and I’ve wondered: did anyone edit this? 

Here are a couple of things I do consider. Number one, publishers cannot possibly publish all the good books that have been written. There are very good books in slush piles. It’s simply not possible to pick up every single author who has written a good book, spend real money on them, and send it out to market & sell. The publishers would go out of business. So Amazon’s digital platform provides a fantastic opportunity for authors to make their work available. I applaud them for it. I appreciate the opportunity it has given me. 

Number two, the price of a Kindle book is going to be a battleground. I can get a good indie book for anywhere between $1 and $6. Most of the Hachette Kindle books on my wish list are $10 and up. I firmly believe that Hachette is losing money by not shifting their Kindle prices down. But that’s Hachette’s problem to deal with, not Amazon’s. If Hachette wants to leave money on the table, then by all means the indies (me included) will be happy to scoop it up. 

There are hundreds of thousands of good books available to be read, with more coming every day. The number of books with four star ratings and up on various sites is simply beyond anyone’s ability to read in a lifetime. Now, if you really really want that new Brandon Sanderson book, then you’re gonna pay that $10+ for it. But if you’re just looking for something amazing to read, then you may decide “I can pick up these three indie books for the price of one Brandon Sanderson book.”

The world of publishing is changing. It’s also changing in games, where indies produce some fantastic titles and sell them for less than $10. What it comes down to is the market. This is where the market will decide the pricing structure. What price will be the market bear for Kindle books? From a business standpoint, neither Amazon nor Hachette should be trying to set that price. The market will set it… and then we can go back to fighting about whether iOS or Android is the better phone.

Graduation Speeches: “Dream Big. Sweat Hard.”

Last weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Albany, NY to see my niece graduate from high school. Congrats again, Aly! 

As with every graduation since the dawn of time, the agenda is pretty well set. The graduates walk in to a standing O, the principal welcomes everyone, then they rattle off three or four speeches, then the long walk of–in this case, 342–students to receive their diploma, then the wrap-up and exit. 

Most folks will dread the inevitable time spent listening to the speeches and watching the other–in this case, 341–students walk up for their diploma.

But graduation speeches can actually be quite inspiring. Underneath all of the quotes from famous people and cliches, there’s a fundamentally uplifting message being delivered. And when you think about it, in thousands of towns across the US over the past month, that same message was being delivered. And while many will forget that message, or come to realize it only through facing challenges and grabbing opportunities over time, one day they will all hopefully sit at a graduation and understand what that message means. 

What’s the message? It boils down to this: “Dream Big. Sweat Hard.”

That’s not exactly Mark Twain, I know. And by the way, based on what I heard of the speeches, I envision Twain sitting on his front porch all day, reeling off memorable quotes to a small bespectacled man scratching Twain’s words onto parchment. The graduates no doubt see the ceremony as the end of something momentous, and in truth it is. Graduating high school is a turnkey moment, and so the graduates may be forgiven if their focus tends toward the past, their last four years together, rather than on a future where many of them will only hear from each other through Facebook or Twitter. There’s quite a bit of fear involved in graduating high school, because there’s quite a bit unknown. 

And so listening to people stand up and sprout inspirational sayings is likely not the first thing on their minds. 

Yet there I was, listening and admiring the speeches. In fact, being inspired by them. Thirty years beyond high school at this point, and yet so much of what was meant to inspire the graduates was motivating me instead. 

When it comes to writing, I have worked a great deal on my craft. Ahvarra took me a long time to write, a long time to edit, a long time to receive and incorporate feedback. But my dream, even as far back as high school, was to be a published author. To fascinate and entertain people with characters and worlds that were born in my imagination. But the road to fulfilling a dream is full of challenges, potholes, twists and turns, dead ends and U-turns. 

But in the end, I always thought “Dream Big.” And what I heard last weekend, the “sweat hard” part, really hit home. Because making your dreams come true shouldn’t be easy. The best dreams are the most difficult to achieve, because the reward is the greater for having achieved them.

Crafting a Series

In one of my first blogs I wrote that I enjoyed writing a fantasy novel that was stand-alone. The story was completely encapsulated. In Ahvarra the mystery at the center of the story is resolved, and each of the characters finds resolution. I have always been fond of Guy Gavriel Kay’s works, because most of his works are also stand-alone.

However.

Several of the first handful of reviews on Amazon indicated liking the world I’d created so much that they hope for sequels that will explore more of it. And so I indulged my imagination and started down the path of what that would mean. Should I write a direct sequel? What would the conflict be? Which of the key characters would it involve? Would it require going back through the Heart again?

And I came to various conclusions. The first is that, yes, the world on the other side of the Heart can support additional stories. The second is that, no, those stories do not require all the same characters. 

What I have, therefore, is an idea that will span four books. The first, obviously, was Ahvarra. I am busy writing the second, which will not involve characters that were in Ahvarra. The third book won’t involve characters from the first two either. But, like Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere universe, the world-building, magic systems and terminology inherent in Ahvarra will stretch across the series. The fourth book will, in my mind, bring characters from the first three together for one epic conclusion. 

So, three separate books, separate stories, separate characters, all in the same world with that world’s rules. With a fourth that brings matters to a head, as it were. 

One of the more interesting trends these days is major writers using self-publishing to bridge major books in their series via novellas. Brian McClellan is doing this successfully with the Powder Mage series and Patrick Rothfuss has also gotten into the mix with a novella in the Kingkiller Chronicles. Which of course gets my imagination flowing. Because certainly how each of the story threads–and the characters who will retain importance in the world–will need to get from their point of origin to where book four finds them, may be of interest to fans. And so telling those stories might also involve novellas. 

For those of you who think “ugh, another series” fret not. Like Ahvarra, book two will be stand-alone. And so will book three. You could read them by themselves and be entertained. Book four will likely be a challenge, as familiar faces from the first three will return. 

All in all it’s been a fun challenge over the past couple of months, seeing how readers have responded positively to Ahvarra and setting my imagination to how to craft more stories from its world. I hope each of the books entertains the readers as much as imagining them–and writing them–entertains me.

Making and/or Finding Time To Write – It’s Called Prioritizing

Some of the best novels ever imagined were never written. The would-be author had a fantastic idea, a vivid set of characters, interactions, conflicts, worlds to explore … and the would-be author never found the time to write. One of the keys to writing, of course, is the actual writing. Yes, interaction is key, living is key. People who tend to closet themselves in a, well, closet, don’t tend to write the most believable characters nor do they write stories most of us can relate to. Why? Because they aren’t out there interacting with the rest of the human race to determine what interests us.

And so the challenge, of course, is finding the time or making the time. Almost every author you run across will tell you this simple recipe: “Write.” They will follow that up with “Write write write write write write” because, quite simply, to get from that blank page staring at you to the last period on the last page takes quite a bit of energy. You can do it, but it’s going to be like the caterpillar turning into a butterfly. There’s a transformation that takes place when the images in your head become words on a page, and when those words begin to flow of their own volition and begin to create new images you hadn’t originally imagined, it’s something that will transform you. 

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first shot at it or your nth, the process begins anew each time you start with that blank page one.

One of the biggest challenges is time. The magic words will be “find the time to write” or “make the time to write.” While we could work with Neil deGrasse Tyson to try and slow the Earth’s rotation to add a couple hours to each day, what this boils down to is “stop doing something else you’re doing and write instead.” Because, let’s face it, life is busy.

For instance: I have a job. A full-time-get-up-at-6:30-don’t-get-home-til-after-5pm job. And it can be exhausting. I’ve had days where I’ll have 14 or 15 meetings strung together like Christmas lights: a green meeting where everything is good followed by a red one where everything is in the ditch. I also have a renewed interest in getting back into shape. I have two teenage boys who regularly need homework attention. We like to have dinner together. We like to do all sorts of things together. My wife and I like to watch a little TV to unwind before we go to bed.

By the time Friday morning’s alarm wakes me, I’m pretty much toast.

So, let’s pull out the recipe book and make some time. Or don our Indiana Jones hat and whip and find some.

Bottom line: there’s no magic pill to take to find or make time. There’s no amount of preaching a writer can do to you or you can do to yourself to “just write.” It comes down to prioritizing. 

Do you want to write?

Then do less of something else. 

There are writers who carve out the same schedule every week to write. Three hours every Saturday morning is writing time. That won’t work for everyone, because there will be times when you stare at the screen for three hours and it stares back. Not everyone can schedule inspiration. But you do need to determine what works best for you and then stick to it. 

Trust me: getting your novel written is just step one. You need to get feedback on it. You need to incorporate feedback. There will be moments when you’ll want to drag the entire thing to the trash bin, hit the empty button and go watch Game of Thrones. There might be tears. There will undoubtedly be arguments. 

But what this comes down to is you. Not making time, but making the decision to write. I can promise you this: the journey from blank page to last period is a daunting one, a quest that will push you, break you, build you back up again, and ultimately fulfill you. But only you can make that journey. 

If you prioritize it as part of your life.

Now, I could write tonight… but I’m going to watch Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals with my family. And that’s my decision, my choice on how to prioritize my time tonight.

Fitbit One – The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is Not A Line

This review has some back story to it. A few years ago, I had gotten quite … what’s the word… chunky. Chubby. Pudgy. Definitely thick around the middle. My wife and I both went into overdrive to get healthy, using a site called SparkPeople to log our calorie intake and making a concerted effort at exercise. At the time, I was working from home and the boys were being home-schooled. So no commute to work meant I had about 70 minutes every day that I wasn’t stuck in a car. I got into running and, during the winter, made it to the gym.

The pants went from a size 38″ to a 36″ to a 34″. Had to go to the jeweler to re-size my wedding band because it was falling off my finger. Long story short: I lost almost 30 pounds.

And then life changed. 

I changed jobs and needed to go back to the office. I figured, “All I need to do is maintain my weight, so how hard can that be?” In other words, I stopped using SparkPeople to log what I was eating. Here’s a quick formula for you: Stop exercising + Stop counting calories = Weight Gain.

The 34″s are in the back of the closet. Didn’t quite need to take out the 38″s thankfully, and while the ring is a bit snug I didn’t need a trip to the jeweler’s. But both of those things lurked if I didn’t change something.

So …. ugh. Enter Back on the Program Take II. 

Definitely went right back to SparkPeople. Great site for logging everything you eat. Just about everything and anything you can eat can be found there. And now they have a handy “scan the barcode” portion of their mobile app that makes it even easier. Other members of the site share their foods as well, so there’s a massive database of food. Once you get your favorites going over a period of time, they’re right there for you to click on and add as you’re eating. 

The bigger challenge was exercise. The new job doesn’t leave a ton of time for getting to the gym, especially during the week, so how to ensure I was burning more than I was eating? 

Enter the Fitbit One . As usual I hemmed and hawed over which fitness tracker to use. And with so many new ones about to hit the market, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to jump in or wait it out. But my wife, who is the Queen of Research, finally took the plunge on a Fitbit One. And like the iPad and the laptop she also brought into the house, I oooh’d and awwww’d over it and bought myself one a week later. 🙂

The Fitbit tracks a lot of stuff. Your steps, your active minutes, the number of floors you walk up (it has an altimeter), and works that out to calorie burn. It syncs with SparkPeople so that you can see whether what you’re burning is more than what you’re taking in. And it allows you to change all the settings for each one of these for daily goals. It also has a sleep mode to tell you how long and how well you’re sleeping, which I find very interesting. And then, to boot, it sends you a weekly view of all of this data in an email or you can pull it up directly from their site or the mobile app. 

All of which makes it a great little device. But how do you make sure you’re getting your steps every day? How do you get from Point A (your current weight) to Point B (your goal weight) when you have to commute to work every day and sit in meetings?

This is where the title of this little blog comes in. This is how the Fitbit motivates. Need to make a Mother Nature stop? Don’t visit the nearest bathroom. Need to have a 1 on 1 meeting with an employee? Ask if they’d like to walk (either outside or inside) for the discussion. Need to carry groceries in from the car? Make two trips instead of one. The son’s breakfast is in the toaster? Don’t stand there and wait for it, make a couple trips around the island while you wait for it to pop.

You get the picture. This is where the Fitbit really makes you work for your steps. Unless I’m really in a hurry, I’m taking a meandering path to where I’m going. I actually don’t mind having to go back upstairs for something if I’ve forgotten it on the way down. 

The Fitbit has made me cognizant of how much I’m moving, and it’s making me aware that I can take those extra few minutes to put a few extra steps in between where I am and where I’m headed. And that’s helping me get from where I was weight-wise to where I want to be. After three weeks I’m down more than eight pounds, thanks to both Fitbit and SparkPeople.

And it’s also working for our dogs, because my wife and I get a few extra steps in after dinner walking them around the neighborhood. 🙂