Saturday, March 28, 2015

#EthicalAuthor : The perils of pseudonyms

It’s funny, but when you start writing about author ethics the book world provides you with concrete examples with startling regularity. Today’s post is about this revelation on the hugely popular romance fiction blog Dear Author, by one of the blog’s founders. The quick summary is that the writer, Jane Litte, is involved in a lawsuit that necessitates all kinds of disclosures, and is pre-empting one of those disclosures by revealing to her readers that she has for some time been publishing fiction under another name. The reason she gives for not using her blog name (Jane Litte is, apparently, also a pseudonym) is that she didn’t want to use her considerable influence as a blogger to boost her sales as a novelist.

I was one of the first wave of commenters who congratulated Jane on her success as a fiction writer and thought she was perfectly capable of being a fiction writer and reviewing/blogging with integrity—and I still think that. I didn’t really think about the pseudonym angle, as pseudonyms/pen names are rife in the book world for all kinds of reasons:
  • the author’s real name is just plain fugly
  • the author’s real name just doesn’t fit their genre (e.g. your name is Happy Flower and you write dark, sadistic thrillers)
  • the author writes erotica (I’m not sure exactly what percentage of erotica authors use pen names, but it’s high)
  • the author doesn’t want family/co-workers/church friends to know that s/he writes (for reasons ranging from shyness/embarrassment (see erotica, above) to a stalker ex to preserving a professional image in his/her real-life job)
  • the author had a previous career using his/her real name, but sales figures weren’t great. It’s not uncommon in the traditional publishing world for authors to start afresh under a pen name so that a potential publisher won’t find those damning sales figures, since a publisher’s more likely to take on a new author than an author with a poor sales record.
  • also from traditional publishing, the author writes more books per year than their publisher will accept (that seems pretty weird from a self-publisher’s viewpoint, but that’s the way it is). So the author uses three or four names to sell more books.
  • the author just fancies using a pen name. It’s a bit like stepping into a fantasy life where you can shed your past and be the person you always wanted to be.

Going back to Jane Litte, I realized a couple of days and several time zones later that the congratulatory comments had stopped and things were getting fraught. I’m not a romance aficionada and only visit Dear Author for its excellent articles on general issues such as book pricing and, yes, author ethics, so I may not know every nuance of this story—also, I’m neither trying to defend or condemn Jane Litte or even draw attention to her particular issue. She’s simply provided an example for me to talk about the provision in the Ethical Author Code that says:


I do not hide behind an alias to boost my own sales or damage the sales or reputation of another person. If I adopt a pen name for legitimate reasons, I use it consistently and carefully.

And let’s not forget, in this context, that the guiding principle of the Code is:

When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline…

My original draft contained a lot more specifics about the use of aliases, but like the rest of the Code the final version was broadly written as a kind of baseline standard that the vast majority of authors could agree on. As with pretty much all of the Code, there’s an extensive gray area around the words themselves, and writers being writers they can, and will, debate those gray areas over time.

As far as I can see (and yes, I wrote the Code but these aren’t MY rules—they’re distilled from many sources) the first sentence in the clause about aliases is pretty clear. We all know about the use of sock puppet accounts to place strategically positive or negative reviews around book sites, and I think it’s hard to defend the use of any kind of alias as a weapon to claw your way to the top, knocking others down as you go.

In my opinion, the banana-peel-strewn slippery surface of aliases lies in how you use them (the second sentence.) The reason why I’ve never used an alias (and practically never comment anonymously) is that I can’t get my head round being more than one person. I tried opening a second Twitter account so my regular followers didn’t have to put up with a flood of tweets every time I participated in a chat, but that lasted five minutes. I constantly forget to use my Facebook author page, because to me my author-persona and real-life persona are so intimately fused I can’t separate them out. It’s taken me years to consistently use one email account to sign up to merchant sites (to reduce spam) but I still screw that up all the time.

So I guess Jane Litte’s way smarter than I am, because she successfully used her author name and her blog name separately for over two years. And here’s where the main objection that’s being raised seems to lie: using her author name, she joined private author loops that would not have accepted her under her blog name.

Moreover, as a blogger Litte has always (quite rightly) insisted on full disclosure of any circumstances that might influence a reviewer’s opinion. Literature is one of those areas where there are few boundaries between roles, and many of us wear several hats. I’m an author, a publisher (in that I self publish), a blogger, a reader and a reviewer, and even my reviewer role can be split into reviews that I write for the Historical Novel Society (which are polite) and reviews that I write for myself (which can be snarky). The ethical questions around being an author who reviews weigh heavily on my mind, the more so the closer I get to my own specific niches, as the beginning of this review shows. And—full disclosure—such questions are becoming ever more ponderous as I take the initial steps toward becoming a book blogger in a carefully defined niche which intersects with what I’m writing (more about that very soon). Much has been made of the undeniable fact that Litte, while insisting on disclosure as an ethical principle, did not herself disclose—and the possible damage that this might cause to her own image is even spreading to another major romance blog whose founder knew of the pen name situation but didn’t disclose it out of loyalty to Litte.

Ay chihuahua. My sympathies are all over the place in this case—I feel for the readers, for Litte herself, and for the other bloggers. I kind of resent the book world atmosphere that makes writers feel it’s necessary to use pseudonyms in the first place, and cry out inside against the irony that the boundary between reading and writing is utterly porous—I started out my online life in the book world as a reader before the hankering to write settled upon me. Reading is what makes a good writer a good writer, and writing down your thoughts about what you read—i.e. reviewing—makes you a better writer so I think every writer who wants to review should be able to do so. Having to start reviews with a disclosure is a pain, too, because you know such revelations can be offputting to readers and negate the impact of your carefully considered words. Being human, I’m statistically bound to forget to disclose something at some time or the other, leaving myself open to even greater ridicule than usual because of my authorship of the Ethical Author Code. And I kind of hope I die before I become a Celebrity Author and people start digging for the juicy bits of my personal life.

But I offer this latest kerfuffle up as an example of just how slippery pseudonyms are. Given that I’m currently working on registration for a writer’s conference, I can also testify that pen names are hellishly confusing from a practical standpoint. Personally, if I ever adopt a pen name I will do so kicking and screaming, and only under (as yet unforeseen) circumstances of dire necessity. And maybe I’ll call myself Happy Flower and write dark sadistic thrillers just for the irony of it.

Monday, March 9, 2015

#EthicalAuthor : intelligent discourse, outrage and your author storefront

The opportunities to (over)react are legion

This post isn’t, strictly speaking, about ethics but in my opinion it belongs under the #EthicalAuthor banner. It’s about how you, the author, responded to that news item/blog post/Facebook status/tweet that just came across your computer screen. That news item/blog post etc. that contained something you weren’t entirely happy about, or didn’t agree with.

Oh, you’ve had several of those in the last hour? Yep, me too. One of the handicaps of being a writer is that whole imagination/empathy thing—our minds instantly put ourselves in the shoes of the victim of whatever wrong we’ve just read about and imagine just how terrible the consequences can be. It may surprise you to know that other people aren’t like that; quite a percentage of the population only ever get mad about things that directly affect their own wellbeing, pocket or present circumstances. They honestly couldn’t care less about what happens to the rest of the world.

But writers have imagination, empathy and the ability to express their feelings—and now that the social media are just a click away, we have the means to make known our opinions on everything under the sun.

Your reactions are part of your author storefront

Remember my post on marketing last week, where I said everything counts? Think about the image you want to project to the world. You want to be real, yes, authentic of course, a human being and all the rest. But don’t you also want to project a professional image? To use the storefront analogy, you want to be consistent, welcoming, and appropriate to your audience. Hold that image in your head while I tell you what prompted this post.

The Ryan Boudinot MFA article, and why I shouldn’t be on Facebook on a Sunday evening

Recently this article crossed my blog reader. I read it, smiled, thought “that guy’s got to be glad to be out of teaching” and tweeted the link because I thought a few more people might find Ryan Boudinot’s views stimulating. I didn’t agree with what he wrote by any means—a lot of it was clearly refutable—but I could feel the frustration of a former MFA teacher who’d come across THOSE writers once too often.

Not everyone responded with a wry smile and a quick dismissal. If you search Twitter for Boudinot’s name, you can watch the outrage start. Where I got involved again with the kerfuffle of the day was when another writer posted, on Facebook, a link to this post by Chuck Wendig, an author known for the colorful language he uses on his blog. I followed that blog for a while, but got tired of it pretty quick. Not because of the language, but because of the overreacting.

True to form, Chuck had overreacted to Boudinot’s article. He’d also gone very quickly from the specific object of Boudinot’s remarks—his former MFA students—to the general, acting as if Boudinot was talking about everyone who ever aspired to be a writer. Within moments Chuck was peeing bees, had flames on the side of his face and could not believe Boudinot was suggesting writers should have been abused more as children (he wasn’t.)*

In my comment on the link, I was just trying to make the point that Boudinot’s remarks had to be read in their context, but people started getting angry at me pretty fast, almost as angry as if I’d written the article itself. After a bit I gave up, linked to the longest list of writer affirmations I could find as a peace offering, and left the arena. They’re probably still shouting at me—how I love that little feature that allows you to turn off post notifications.

Do you really want to be part of the Culture of Outrage?

We live in a society where expressing your outrage appears to have become a field sport. The bigger the website, the more vocal the commenters, to the point where many major sites have logins as a way to control the worst offenders or have shut off comments altogether. Outrage is related to unethical author behavior in that it often starts with pretty good motives—you want to defend someone or correct an incorrect assumption.

Unfortunately, outrage seems to feed on itself, and the madder you get, the closer you get to being a troll or griefer—someone who delights in provoking arguments, who thrives on the opportunity to attract attention to their outrage because it’s the outrage itself that has become part of their identity. You might even find yourself banding together to form an Outrage Pack, like the tens of thousands of self-appointed vigilantes who waited gleefully for a tweeter to realize just what her crass, stupid tweet had brought down on her head.

Outrage and your author storefront

Once you’re an author, you’re a public persona, however much of an unknown you are. Just as you need to keep your fury about that one-star review to yourself, you’d be better off expressing your outrage to your spouse or best friend than to the world. Some authors use outrage as a storefront, which might work if you write dark, edgy pieces about injustice—but you’ve got to think very hard before you go there.

Outrage attracts the Outraged but repels the rest of us, so if the rest of us are your target readership, you might have a problem. My own opinion of a certain writer with a happy, smiley image and novels on the fluffy side really changed when she first posted an item very offensive to a religious grouping not her own, and then got pretty nasty with a commenter who objected (quite mildly) to said item.

How to respond without outrage

If you really want to speak your mind on certain subjects, here are my suggestions:

  • First, pick your fights. It’s pretty normal for us to have strong feelings on one or two subjects, but being angry about everything says more about you than about the topic under consideration.
  • Next, make sure you really have something to contribute to the discussion. If you’re going to say something, it really helps if you actually have some knowledge of the subject you’re talking about. Anne R. Allen, herself the target of much outrage (which makes no sense at all if you read her blog) talks in this post about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Apparently it’s been proven—by scientists!—that “the loudest complaints usually come from the least-informed people.” Any regular blog reader could have told you that anecdatally, no need for a research grant.
  • Third, read through all the comments. Social media is supposed to be a conversation. Don’t just fire your outrage into the comment stream or onto social media and ignore those who’ve contributed to the original conversation, because the comment thread often contains nuggets of information that may clarify the OP’s intentions or otherwise calm you down.
  • Fourth, address your remarks to what was actually said. Read through the original article again, including the title and sub-headings. What was the writer’s ACTUAL argument? Are you about to object to a line or two of the article that’s been taken out of context? You could end up looking silly at best, trollish at worst.
  • Fifth, carefully read through your reply (and proofread it!) before you hit the Submit button. It’s SO embarrassing to have to correct yourself in a later comment.
  • Sixth, consider your language. Look, I use swear words in private life, when provoked. But I don’t do it online, because I don’t use them in my books. I also don’t make graphic sexual references, because I don’t do that in my writing. If I’m so angry about something I want to start swearing a blue streak, I limit my audience. As I used to say to my kids, posting something online is like nailing it up on a big noticeboard in the middle of town. It’s way more visible than you think. So I’m not saying don’t swear, but think about how your storefront’s going to look with F***ING DOUCHECANOE plastered across it.

How to engage in intelligent discourse rather than peeing bees

So to get back to the Boudinot article, I’m going to leave you with a rebuttal where I thought the writer got it just right:

  • She establishes straightaway that she has some knowledge about the matter under discussion (she has TWO MBAs, one of them from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she teaches);
  • She deals with each point Boudinot makes, noting where she agrees and disagrees with his statements;
  • She confines her comments to what Boudinot’s actually saying, restricting her arguments to MFA students rather than jumping to the defense of all writers everywhere;
  • She offers positive ways forward in response to Boudinot’s negativity;
  • She sounds professional, knowledgeable and gracious.

I found myself nodding in agreement with Laura Valeri, even though I’d originally sympathized with Boudinot’s frustration. In that sense she’s a way better person than I am—I’d faintly sniggered at THOSE writers, while she’d reminded me that however wrong a writer might be about his or her level of talent, however lazy s/he might be about reading and, you know, actually writing, time and patience (and the right advice) might just birth a real writer out of a poor student. HER storefront has “Intelligent Writer, Wise Person and Probably Pretty Good Teacher” in bright red lights.

Do you find yourself reacting to news and opinions with outrage, or with reasoned thought? Are you picking your fights, or filling up your Facebook page with negative reactions to matters that are out of your control? What does your online persona—your storefront—look like?

* Although, to give Wendig his due, he tends to attract a fairly diverse audience and lets people who disagree with him have their say. Despite the tone of outrage in this particular post, the comments make good reading.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Marketing lessons from the street

I’m not, on the whole, great at getting on with marketing, as I said a couple of weeks ago. I’m pretty sure this has more to do with my reluctance to just get started rather than any lack of ability—I’ve had several jobs that involve marketing skills and had no difficulty getting good results when I applied myself to what I was doing. And above all, I’m very aware of the marketing efforts that go on all around me. Today and yesterday brought two marketing lessons to my mind, and I want to share them with you (and solidify them in my own mind by writing them down).

Lesson One: Think through your marketing strategies

Yesterday I went to the post office to pick up a registered parcel that hadn’t been delivered because there was no-one there to sign for it at my house. It turned out to be some “goodies” from an app developer I’d mentioned in a tweet or blog post, to wit: one branded versatile headband, and a whole bunch of stickers. It had been sent from overseas, so it must have cost them a bit.

Immediate problem: they’d sent it registered, which was expensive for them and also forced me to go get it. I could have been pretty annoyed about that, if I’d been having a bad day. Then their brand would be forever associated with that feeling of annoyance.

Second problem: they’d packaged it badly so that the package was torn in the sorting machine. The bubble wrap had stopped the contents falling out, but still, my impression was that these people didn’t really think about what they were doing.

Third problem: the headband/scarf thing was actually quite useful, and I wore it today. But it was branded only with the name of the app, without any indication that it IS an app or what it does. So they’ve spent a lot of money on this nice gift, but they’ll get nothing from it.

Fourth problem: what am I going to do with a hundred or so stickers? I’ll just throw them away, because I can’t use them for anything.

The moral of the story for writers: most marketing costs money, and unless you’re backed up by huge amounts of venture capital you really don’t want to throw that good money away. (Actually, even if you’re backed up by huge amounts of venture capital, it’s still going to run out and before it does, you need to make your marketing efforts pay.) You’ve got to think through where you’re going to put your marketing efforts, and study what the ROI has been for other writers. Self-publishers are very good at nitpicking even the smallest expense, and one of the things that has emerged from the collective wisdom is that for most self-published authors, materials such as bookmarks and postcards don’t result in enough sales to be worth while until you’ve built up a certain amount of brand recognition (and you know what your brand is, which most writers don’t, at first). Neither does traveling miles to bookstore signings and the like, if you’re a fiction author (if you write non-fiction and have a hook that will draw people in, getting gigs is a good idea). Writing the next book, finding and connecting with the right readers and using pricing to pull in sales are better uses of your time.

Lesson Two: Everything counts

Today’s lesson came from two places I visited today. The first was a popular upmarket (please note, upmarket) fast-food chain, the second an upmarket household retail store.

I went to the restaurant because I like their food, which of course is a restaurant’s main selling point. We walked in at the end of the lunch hour, and the place was practically empty—but we could only sit at one of two small tables.

Why? The others were covered in dirty dishes or they were just plain dirty. While we were eating, the one employee who bothered emerged, looked at the tables, tutted, and went back to stocking the drinks cabinet. After a bit she cleared three tables, then went and did some other things, including making a phone call to tell (presumably) her manager she was “dying.” Was she sick? Overwhelmed? After quite a while she cleared the other tables, and eventually wiped them.

Now, I’ve noticed problems like that with this chain before, particularly this restaurant—although a restaurant from the same chain in another nearby town is always clean. I’m not actually blaming the employee, because I think the problem resides in the upper echelons of the company. They’ve forgotten that a restaurant’s second biggest marketing advantage, far bigger than the marketing materials it hangs on its walls, is its APPEARANCE. Another similarly-priced chain in our same area has wonderful, friendly staff who are always clearing and cleaning tables. The food isn’t as good, but more people eat there.

So I’m deducing that the top levels of management aren’t doing enough to make sure that they get the right people working for them, train them well, and ensure that staffing levels are sufficiently high that you’re not relying on one discouraged employee to do all the work. Their brand is based on quality eating, they serve their food on china with real silverware, they emphasize how good their ingredients are—and then they drop the ball as the patrons move from the counter to the eating areas. Everything counts.

And then we went to The Container Store, where I once worked for three holiday seasons and a full year. It’s still one of my favorite places to shop—even though its prices are a little higher than those of big box stores, the quality and design they deliver makes buying a pleasure. Everything they do, and in particular the way the store looks, reflects their brand. They’re all about organization, so the store is organized to the nth degree. It ALWAYS looks good, and I can tell you why—the decision to make it look that way extends all the way down from the CEO.

I’m not going to give away any of their secrets but let me tell you, working there was like taking an advanced course in marketing and customer service for any employee who kept their eyes and ears open. Every bit of training and everything the employees are told to do results in boosting the store’s brand. Furthermore, they employ adequate numbers of people, but never too many, and they are set up so that every employee knows what to do if they have a spare moment (so that lone employee in the restaurant wouldn’t have been left to clean up while there were people standing around talking in the kitchen). The layout of the store, the way the shelves are organized, the branding, the way the catalogs look, the way the employees are dressed, the state of the bathrooms (clean, because the employees clean them. Yep. I actually used to choose that job over vacuuming because I hate vacuuming) reflects the company brand.

The moral of the story for writers: it’s about everything. Your attitude toward your job and your customers (that’s your readers, in case you’re wondering) is paramount. Nobody expects you to be witty, well-groomed, and in a perfectly good temper all the time, but your readers expect you to attempt the most professional and welcoming behavior you can manage under any given circumstances. Be welcoming, like a neat, tidy and colorful store is welcome. Make an effort to look like those readers have come to the right place.

Have you thought about the overall impression you’re giving people as a writer? How do we go about improving? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Death and rebirth of a blogger

I began this blog on January 1, 2009, in the way many neophytes do: I signed up for a Blogger account, grabbed a theme (it was green) and wrote a post. At the time the longest thing I’d ever written was my master’s thesis, and if you’d told me that six years hence I’d be working hard on a new career as a novelist, I’d probably have looked at you with that weird squinty-face I make when I think you’re nuts. Back then, the notion of writing fiction was a vague dream I never thought would take practical shape.

If your math’s good you’ll realize this is the seventh year of Keep Going You Fool!, which began as an obscure blog and is ending as an obscure blog. It’s not ending tomorrow, or the next day; I’m probably going to keep posting till the end of 2015 as I like things nice and squared off.

The good news

But I’m not abandoning blogging, far from it. You’ll be hearing over the next few months about a new blog that will be focused on books from and about the nineteenth century. I’ve been dreaming about it for over a year, and believe me it’s going to be AWESOME. If the very idea of the blog has reduced you to a trembling jelly of excitement, you can go right now to sign up for emails that’ll ensure you won’t miss a thing.

Why am I doing this? Well, I’ve found several wonderful book sites for other genres or for historical fiction in other eras, and some sites cover nineteenth century books well, but never have I found the niche I want to write for. Many blogs run by HF writers are more about the history than the books and there’s a whole constellation of resource sites for people interested in the era, but they don’t focus on what historical fiction readers interested in the nineteenth century are looking for—the books themselves. There’s a whole approach that readers are completely missing out on, and I know EXACTLY what needs to be done. It’s time to act.

Why not keep this blog going?

OK, there are a couple of reasons for this.

1. Commenting on this blog sucks. I am so done with Google’s constant attempts to keep commenters firmly tied into its Google+ ecosystem, and there was a point (while they were transitioning into Google+, and without informing us) when they pretty much made it impossible to comment at all. Once a reader’s tried to comment a few times and failed, they give up, and I’m sure I lost a lot of my original followers that way. Also, when I look at the blog from the front end I don’t see the comments, and have to go into individual posts to find them. The setting that’s supposed to send comments to my email has. never. worked, and the back end of the blog really doesn’t like that I use a Mac. I’m going to be basing the new blog on a much more robust platform, with properly threaded and far more user-friendly comments, and this time I’m going to do my homework before I choose!

2. This blog’s never really known what it wants to be. It started out as a lifeblog with quirky little posts about stuff that was on my mind. Then I started writing posts about writing, as I completed my first novel and started trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be when I grew up. In 2011-2012 the blog veered toward book blogging, which I enjoyed but I started to get lots of submissions from writers who didn’t thrill me because they just didn’t match my reading interests, so I pulled back. It was a time when I was trying to read much more widely, so I don’t blame the writers! 2013 brought a big slowdown in posting; my life was going through a few transitions as life does, and the blog became a mix of posts about self-publishing, productivity and book reviews, with the odd life post mixed in. 2014 saw a continuation of that trend, but I also began writing about general publishing industry topics such as ethics. So I’ve ended up with a blog that looks like minestrone soup: full of good stuff but not necessarily everyone’s first choice at the food counter.

I can still blog about self-publishing, ethics, productivity and writing issues elsewhere through guest posts on bigger blogs, and that’s something I definitely want to develop over the next few months. But I’ve learned enough about myself in the last six years to know that I don’t want to be a writing or self-publishing guru and as for the ethics, while of course I’m delighted to talk or write about such things any time it’s necessary I’d rather be a writer than a campaigner. It’s time to focus on what I DO want to do, which is write fiction and write about books and my favorite hundred years in history.

What this blog has done for me

I don’t regret one single moment I’ve worked on this blog. It was my first experience of putting my own words out for just anyone to read, rather than the corporate or specialist readers I spent years catering to. It was my first experience of just writing as me, rather than being the mouthpiece of someone else’s enterprise. When the comments were working I had a little community that began gathering around the blog, and I loved connecting with these people I’d never met (for the most part) but who were reading and interacting with what I’d written. I made friends with other bloggers and have even met a couple in real life.

I wonder whether, if I hadn’t had this blog, I would have started writing that first novel. It’s hard to break through that barrier of knowing that potentially the whole world can read what you’ve just written, so putting up blog posts and finding that it wasn’t all that painful made me think that publication might be a possibility for me.

It’s been wonderful to have a space that’s entirely my own, not like social media sites where things can change without notice. The only thing that DID change without my involvement was the commenting; the rest was entirely under my control. Incidentally, once I’ve got the Dream Blog up and running I do intend to build a proper website for my fiction, and it will be built on the same platform as the Dream Blog (but totally separate from it) that will give me the option to write blog posts when I feel like it. So I’ll still have a more general blogging space for random musings.

Help me out?

I’ll keep you guys informed about what’s going on. In the meanwhile, you could be a huge help to me by emailing me and letting me know what you liked about the Keep Going You Fool! blog, and any aspects you’d like to see me carry on into 2016. keepgoingyoufool(AT)gmail(DOT)com will find me.

Monday, February 9, 2015

How I'm learning to love marketing

Biting the lemon...

I hate marketing.

There, I’ve said it. Actually, I typed “I hate marketing” into Google and found I’m not the only one. Why do I love to write, am deeply motivated to get my writing in front of as many readers as possible, and yet am reluctant to take the necessary steps to achieve that goal?

I can think of a few reasons:

Marketing feels sleazy. Let’s face it, marketing has a bad rap. We live in a world where commercial messages are pushed into our faces non-stop, usually in the most crass way possible. A few days ago I actually watched the Superbowl (possibly the first time EVER I’ve sat in front of the whole event, and in my defense I had two books on my lap and was reading much of the time) and I noticed that they’re now selling cars and beer and insurance using messages of affirmation and human interest stories. YUCK. I don’t watch much broadcast TV, so I don’t see advertising often and the change in tactics really hit me. SERIOUSLY, you use a voiceover about children dying to sell people on an insurance company?

Everything than can possibly be done has been done. Especially when it comes to indie publishing—I can tell ya, indie authors will do ANYTHING to sell a copy or two of their books. There is nothing you can think of—ethical or unethical—that they haven’t tried. Readers aren’t stupid, and these tactics generally fail. So why bother?

Marketing takes time that could be spent writing. I have a couple of lists of book marketing ideas, stuff I collect from all over the internet, from blog posts, Facebook groups, suggestions from friends, etc. These are LONG lists, and every single one involves some effort on my part. It’s overwhelming. I want to write books, not learn how to run an A/B split email campaign (actually, I know about A/B splits from my fundraising days, but applying them to readers is another matter) or gain expertise with Google Analytics.

Marketing could be really expensive. The one really solid marketing action that’s been talked about among indie authors over the last 2-3 years has been Bookbub, and Bookbub’s prices have now gone WAY up (largely because Big Publishing have noticed that it works for them too). I need my dollars to finance the next book, right?

Bottom line: I just don’t feel comfortable pimping myself all over the internet. Sure, I have no problem going on Twitter to join in chats or post links to articles I find interesting (some of which may be about marketing—ironic much?) but I have big problems going on Twitter to ask people to buy my book. I follow a lot of writers on Twitter, and that’s pretty much all they do. It’s horrible. I don’t want to be part of that.

Mom, do I have to? (and we all know what the answer ALWAYS is)

These are pretty major reasons not to market, right? And that’s fine—I’m an indie and that means I’m CEO of my own publishing company and can decide just how much time and effort to put into marketing.

Wait . . . .
If I never market . . . .
That makes me a . . . Eeeeek!

The harsh reality of the book world is that however good a writer you are, the likelihood is that you’re never going to sell all that many books. In today’s glutted market (where wonderful services like Project Gutenberg have made just about every book ever written available to us) even the cream of the writing talent, supported by major publishing houses, has trouble selling in amounts large enough to make writing a viable career. There are a few outliers whose books take off right from the beginning and keep selling well, but they’re a tiny proportion. Most of us are in the middle range where we’re good enough to possibly make a halfway decent living IF we can find ways of bringing our books to enough readers’ attention.

How I've started making that lemon into lemonade

For the last couple of years I’ve been busy with other things, including wrestling with the sequel to The House of Closed Doors, and happy to take the business side of being an author at a relaxed pace. I’ve racked up a good selection of reviews, most of them favorable, which is a pretty good reason for waiting a while before I started marketing—it’s much harder to market a book with no reviews! In 2014 I learned to write on a daily schedule, which was an important step for me, so my writing output is now at the low end of career levels (and I’m working hard to build it up).

For 2015, my goal is to keep writing at the same pace (or better) than I learned last year, but also to kick my business up to the entrepreneurial level where I want to be. This involves striking a much better balance between the tasks of creation, production, curation, administration and, yes, marketing than I’ve managed in the past.

So how do I make lemonade out of the large, sour lemon that marketing has always represented to me?

Well, the first thing I usually do when I’m contemplating action is to research what other people have done. I’ve been looking for role models and reading their accounts of their own methods. And you know what? I’m seeing that a change has happened since 2012, when I published The House of Closed Doors. The most successful authorpreneurs are a thoughtful lot who approach marketing from the mindset of how they can form relationships with their readers and give back/pay forward to them, rather than seeing their task in terms of Twitter numbers and the size of their email lists. They use freebies mindfully (instead of the scattershot approach that was being advocated a couple of years ago) and base their success on sheer hard work, getting product to market regularly and thinking of marketing as a progressive arc that moves forward into a growing relationship between writer and reader.

Well, THAT I can do. I’ve grown tired of listening to the original bad boy/outlaw self-publishers who STILL spend much of their time telling us why traditional publishing is a bad deal for authors. But I like this reader-centric approach I’m finding now—so that takes care of finding marketing sleazy. There IS a way that doesn’t feel like that.

As for everything having been done—well, actually, there’s nothing wrong with that either. The best approach appears to employ methods that have been around for decades, backed up by, as I said, good old-fashioned hard work. When I started seeing how much the best role models have in common, I also started seeing how I can evaluate the huge list of marketing opportunities I’ve been building over the last couple of years and get a good idea of where best to spend my time and money (and which opportunities to eliminate).

And talking of time and money, these tried-and-trusted methods I’m talking about are less about paying other people to provide you with the magic bullet than you’d think. I’m paying attention to where my favorite authorpreneurs put down their money, and it’s more about providing a quality product and ensuring good communications with the audience than pushing their books up the charts (although that’s the ultimate aim, of course).

I’m getting more enthused about this marketing business by the day. I’ve started a newsletter that’s about communicating with people who love my writing far more than it’s about selling my books—you can sign up for it here. I’ve been putting off this task for YEARS, but now I’ve started it, I’m excited about it.

The other thing I’ve realized is that I can learn marketing in small bites. My upcoming task is to gather together all the information I’ve been tracking since forever, come up with an overall strategy, and then figure out what to do first. Each task can be broken down into steps I can accomplish day by day, which makes the whole business much less overwhelming for me. Yes, it’s still going to involve learning techie stuff I don’t really want to learn. Even getting my head around MailChimp (which is one of the easier steps!) seemed daunting until I actually did it.

I’m not getting too specific in this post because it’s too early in the game. I like to report anything useful I find on this blog for the benefit of other writers (and because it gives me something to write about) so there’ll definitely be some more task-specific stuff coming up.

So OK, fellow writers: do you market? What works for you? Or are you like me, hiding behind a rock waiting for something magical to happen and your books to begin selling themselves? What do YOU most want to know about the process?

*There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing a book for reasons that have nothing to do with money—to honor an ancestor, to support a cause, or simply because you’ve always wanted to see your name on just one book cover. But I’m assuming that the overwhelming majority of writers produce books because they want to make writing their career. Because they’d rather be doing this than whatever other day jobs are available to them. Am I right?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Counter-intuitive productivity boosts for my (and your) writing life

Every so often I return to the topic of productivity, because like most writers I never feel I’m productive enough. I know that the most successful indie writers—those who make a full-time living from their writing—have an unbelievable work ethic, producing books at the rate of four or more a year (some go WAY faster than that) as well as blogging, podcasting, speaking gigs and online courses.

I’m not sure I can ever equal that kind of output. For one thing I’m in the wrong genre—historical fiction needs a certain amount of research and is hard to just dash off at a fast rate. For another, my experiment last year in tracking my time using toggl has shown me that what I’ve been guesstimating is true—I spend roughly half my working day doing things that are NOT writing, and which fall into the category of “unavoidables”—things that are just part of my life as a human being, houseowner and caregiver to Orangina. Some of these things could, theoretically, be shifted into evening hours or abandoned, but that wouldn’t give me or my family the life we want. And I’m prepared to make some compromise on the material gains from writing to stop it from being a tyrant that ruins my family life!

But I’ve been convinced, somewhere deep down inside, that I can acquire new habits that will make me more productive and way less overwhelmed during the time that I DO have. This past month (with much of the prep work having been done last year) has been all about acquiring those basic habits, and I’d love to share what I’ve been doing with you. The overall plan is simple:

Move from reactive to proactive—from coping with the urgent stuff to planning and being a CLOSER (one of my words for 2015)

So what’s been working? Here’s the list.

1. My Daybook

Counter intuitive because: I spent time writing stuff down instead of getting on with it. BUT IT WORKS.

This was an idea I got from Barbara Sher’s Refuse To Choose, a book I read over Christmas. I think my Daybook has departed radically from Barbara’s already, but it’s possibly the single best thing I have ever done to boost my productivity. I gave up journaling a while ago because my journal kept trying to turn into pages of to-do lists and accounts of what I got done during the day, and that wasn’t what I wanted it for—but the moment I started the Daybook I realized something. My brain NEEDS to write down the things that are on my mind. 

Duh—that’s why I started writing, right? To download the stories that kept telling themselves in my head. If I don’t write, stuff starts chasing around in my brain like a ferret on crack and really gets in the way of clear thinking, as well as important things like sleeping, paying attention to what other people are saying, and watching the road while driving.

My Daybook is the place where I give myself permission—and what’s more, actively encourage myself—to write those to-do lists and talk to myself about what I achieved, what I DIDN’T get done (and why) and what my long-term plans are. 

The current Daybook’s a notebook a friend gave me for Christmas, but the format doesn’t matter—in fact the point is that it’s completely unstructured so I can do what I like in it. I only write on the facing pages so that I can go back and make comments to myself, and I number my pages so I can refer back to them. I’m already halfway through the book and I’m finding it way easier to stay on track and plan ahead by just taking a few minutes out of every day to write down my productivity thoughts, plans and recaps.

2. The countdown calendar

Counter-intuitive because: I’m deliberately overwhelming myself. BUT IT WORKS.

That’s what’s in the picture above. It’s another idea I adapted from Barbara Sher’s book. It occupies an area of my whiteboard (I LOVE my whiteboard, but have also realized I can reproduce my whiteboard in my Daybook when I’m away from home which solves another problem). It’s simply a list of work-related things that have deadlines (either ones I impose or ones that happen externally) and the number of days left till each deadline. And here’s the kicker: EVERY MORNING I REDUCE EACH COUNT BY ONE.

Now that’s scary. Watching my days get eaten up makes me feel very uncomfortable—but it’s that sense of discomfort, I’m discovering, that makes me take action on an issue. If I feel comfortable about it, I procrastinate because I have a Ph.D. in procrastination and like to use it.

3. My morning catch-up and clean-up routine

Counter-intuitive because: These are things I thought I needed to leave till later. BUT IT WORKS.

One of my biggest problems, I’d noticed, was the way my desk would get messy when I was really busy—and I’m really busy pretty much all the time. Similarly, my email inbox would be piled high with non-urgent emails I needed to get round to but not right now. 

I kept trying to get round to those things later in the day, because I felt they were reactive matters—things I was doing just because they were THERE and not because they were moving me forward in my work. But my Daybook has helped me see that I needed to get my desk and email inbox as clear as possible as early as possible in the day, which of course means dealing with matters like opening the mail, paying bills and either dealing with the email or scheduling a task for later. 

Weirdly, this works because it means I give myself permission to NOT deal with such tasks during the day.

4. The short list

Counter-intuitive because: it’s short. BUT IT WORKS.

The one thing I DO do at the end of the day is to write a short list for the next day. I’m getting pretty good at realistically estimating how much I can do in my working day. That list goes on my whiteboard AND in my Daybook (Daybook only if I’m away) and I check tasks off as I do them. 

Naturally my list includes writing, exercise (for me AND Orangina), and chores (see below). If I haven’t done something, I note that in my Daybook along with my excuse. Sometimes I write “I forgive myself,” which sounds sappy but it really helps me to just shed that feeling of overwhelmed helplessness and guilt when my day just hasn’t gone the way I planned.

I start each day with a new list, ruthlessly erasing the day’s list whether I’ve done the tasks or not. The counter-intuitive thing is, it’s short—usually about five items—whereas my actual to-do list is a gazillion long. But you know what? I actually get more done in the week that way. Don’t ask me how it works, but it does—I can see the progress because I’m recording it in my Daybook.

5. Giving myself time off

Counter-intuitive because: well, it’s time off. BUT IT WORKS.

I’ve noticed that some of the most productive people I know don’t actually work the long hours I think they’d have to. So I’ve started trying to stop work at 7 pm; and, what’s more, there’s no list on my whiteboard or in my Daybook at the weekend. Those days are for exercising, reading, writing of a different kind (usually blog posts or book reviews) and social/family time. Or just goofing off! Some weekends I’m just plain tired, and then I allow myself to not do a whole lot. I find that a goofing-off break can result in much greater productivity on Monday morning.

6. Get chores done during the week

Counter-intuitive because I feel I should be doing ‘real’ work. BUT IT WORKS.

Again, a very counter-intuitive idea. Aren’t chores a waste of writing/working time? OK, I do leave really big chores like deep cleaning or sorting things out for the weekend. But I’ve drawn up a schedule of the essentials—laundry, cleaning bathrooms and kitchen, watering the plants—that go right into my weekday routine (delegating what I can to Orangina, who’s very helpful). 

The chores plan takes my productivity patterns into account—for example, I schedule cleaning the bathrooms (which I hate, but I hate a dirty bathroom MORE so I do it really well) for Friday afternoons, when, if I’m being honest, I’ve wound down on the productivity quite a bit. I used to do this chore on the weekends, but now—woohoo, no weekend chores! 

And if I’m not doing chores at the weekend, I’m much more likely to just start planning or get a lot of reading done or something that actually advances my life, like writing this blog post and blowing up my word count.

7. Natural sleep patterns

Counter-intuitive because I feel like I should be setting an alarm for 5. BUT IT WORKS.

I work from home and my family members’ work patterns are such that I don’t have to get up early any more. If you’re groaning over this, I served my time—I spent years as a skate mom getting up at 4:30 most days to drive Wasabi to the rink as well as all those school and summer camp routines (at one point I was driving 250 miles A DAY for camp and summer skating, and that’s not an exaggeration).

But now, I work from home etc. so for some time I’ve been experimenting with letting myself find my natural sleep patterns. I find I tend to wake with the light, which is not really surprising—at the time of writing that’s about 7:15, because sunrise is at 7:05. As an aside, Felsted has, for practially all his working life, managed to persuade his employers that he’s more productive on a “shifted” 9-5, so he gets into work later, works through lunch most days and leaves later. So getting up at 7:15 still means I get up first, so I WIN (and he has to make the bed).

I go to bed when I’m tired, which is anything from 9:30 to 11:30. Oddly enough, I find that respecting my natural sleep patterns means I’m less tired even on the days when I’ve had a late night due to activities or doing dumb things like playing computer games (I only allow myself to do this on weekends). 

Some days—due to those lovely woman-of-a-certain-age hormones—I find myself awake at 3 am, and you know what? I don’t lie there feeling sorry for myself. Once I’m sure I’m really, truly awake (usually around 4) I get up and rejoice in having those extra hours to get my stuff done. I find I catch up with the sleep deficit quite naturally, usually by wanting some early nights for two or three days.

I’ve tried at other times to set an alarm for 5, or 6, or whatever, in order to get more done. Inevitably I’ve found that after about three days I get up completely brain-dead, and sit there with my eyes watering with tiredness and barely able to string two words together. If I respect my natural sleep rhythms, when I get up I’m fully productive within about fifteen minutes.

So there you have it—my completely counter-intuitive ways of being more productive. And they work. Does any of this strike a chord with you? What do you do that works for you and possibly for no-one else?

And by the way, I’m doing the 365K Challenge again in 2015—only now it’s as part of a team challenge run by the 10 Minute Novelists’ group, who took over my idea and expanded it. My own daily word count has increased to around 1,300 words a day, and I’m gradually trying to increase that. But more about that later.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#EthicalAuthor discussion: reviewing other people's books

One question I’m always coming up against is whether, once you make the transition from just-reader to author-who-reads, you should continue reviewing other people’s books. I’ve seen many different answers to this question, so I thought I’d write down my own thoughts and hopefully get a discussion going.

First, I want to make a couple of things clear. This isn’t going to be a discussion about how reviewers should behave in general. It’s my thoughts on how authors who are also reviewers should approach reviewing. Once you become an author, it becomes tricky to voice your thoughts on reader (or book blogger) etiquette without sounding adversarial, and in my opinion the day I became an author I forfeited my right to tell readers what to do. (OK, that’s conjuring up a picture of my reader-self refusing to do what my author-self tells her because I’m not the boss of me, but you get my drift.)

Next, if you’re an author and the very thought of reviewing books makes you curl up in a little fetal ball of fear and loathing, don’t do it despite anything you may hear about the benefits of reviewing. That oft-repeated (by me) advice that you should get on Goodreads and similar sites as a reader is no use to you if you hate writing about other people’s books, and if that’s your case then I’d advise you to blog or do Pinterest or Instagram or Quora or whatever you like doing. Or none of them if you just flat out can’t stand social media. (Of course if your publisher’s insisting you go on social media, you may need to hire someone to do the nasty job for you. You’re not going to be successful on Facebook if you fear and despise Facebook and all it stands for.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure I’ve made almost all the mistakes I’m outlining below at some time or the other. Sorry about that, and this post is about what I’ve learned by screwing up from time to time. I didn’t spring onto the scene completely formed as Saint Jane The Ethical or anything like that. I’m far from being the shiniest Girl Scout on the planet. I just think ethics are something authors need to discuss, and I’m willing to engage in that discussion.

Truthful reviewing doesn’t have to be all sharp pointy bits

Many, many years ago I was an editor in a large European law firm where all the young lawyers had English as their second or third language. As English was our working language, this meant that a lot of editing had to be done to make the documents we were producing readable. Also, these were baby lawyers still making basic mistakes like mixing up the party of the first part with the party of the third part.

In my job as editor, I found it was more productive to go easier on the newest lawyers, acting in a sense more like a writing coach and mentor. The more experienced attornies could withstand a tougher approach, although they usually didn’t need it because they’d learned from their mistakes and grown in expertise and confidence. After I left, I was told by slightly distraught former colleagues that my replacement was a brash New Yorker who reacted to the badly-written newbie documents by throwing them back with a snarl of “This is crap! Rewrite it!” I’m not at all sure this approach was helpful in ensuring the clients got their legal writings in good time.

Nowadays, I only make sure my teeth and claws are well-sharpened when dealing with authors who’ve been around long enough to know better and whose publishers should also know better. And even then, I do recognize the dilemmas that crop up in the book world—a publisher can’t, as a business, pass up on an author who guarantees them a hefty profit, no matter how bad the book, and authors are frequently rushed into deadlines that don’t allow them to do all the work they’d like to do.

When it comes to debut authors, I remember reading that back in the days when reviewers were an elite body of literary critics who really could make or break careers, they had a tradition of going easier on debuts—possibly because they were mostly authors themselves who went just a little cold all over when they thought of their own first efforts. The “tsunami of crap” that’s flooded the market due to the boom in self-publishing is composed largely of debut authors, and it’s quite possible that these aren’t just the first books those authors have ever published—they’re the first novels THEY EVER WROTE. If they’re debut authors who’ve made it into traditional publishing, they’re almost certainly not getting anything like the editorial support and mentoring they might have received twenty years ago.

There’s a way to be truthful and incisive as a reviewer (and remember, I’m talking to author-reviewers) without overdoing the snark. I’m not saying don’t criticize—I firmly believe that the literary world is healthier when we can critique each other’s writing without fear of the critiquee (does that word exist? If not, I just coined it) throwing a wobbly about it, and I do believe that if you put your writing into the public sphere, you have to grow a thick enough skin to withstand public criticism. What I’m saying is, don’t use your reviewing platform as a space from which to launch large ballistic missiles of unkind jeering and sneering at your fellow authors. Don’t be the “This is crap!” lady. It’s unproductive and professionally discourteous.

If you find you’re selecting novels to review BECAUSE they’re crap, consider your motives. Why are you reading crap? Are you trying to make yourself feel/look better as an author by laughing at what else is out there? Or are you trying to save the literary world?

You can’t save the literary world

This is very closely related to what I just said, but I think it’s worth making it a separate thought. You’re not going to be the author who single-handedly saves Literature from the Tsunami of Crap. However many craft books you’ve studied, however much blood you’ve expended in mastering your craft, and however many creative writing degrees and MFAs and heaven knows what else you’ve paid thousands of $$$ to acquire, the only writing all those wonderful achievements are going to improve is yours. Laying down the law about what makes good writing doesn’t result in a good review. You might, on the other hand, consider teaching writing courses or critiquing unpublished work, and thus make your hard work pay off AND help other writers grow. Or simply put all that knowledge and wisdom into your own books (but learn enough about marketing and business to ensure you can achieve some visibility for that wonderful writing).

Reviews aren’t essays or lectures—they’re not there to showcase your brilliance or put other people right. You’re offering up your own subjective reaction to a book in the hope that it’ll persuade other readers to try it (if it was good) or tell them the good and the bad that you found in the book so they can decide for themselves. If you find you’re getting really prescriptive in your reviews, you might consider writing craft books. Perhaps you’re just a born teacher rather than a reviewer.

And never—ever—EVER—

OK, those were my warmup remarks. What I’ve been discussing above is more a matter of common sense and courtesy than ethics. The real problem, ethically speaking, with reviewing as an author is that you might end up rating or reviewing a book as a means to an end. Examples:

  • You give a friend’s book five stars to boost their ratings.
  • You give an author’s book one star because you think she’s a bitch.
  • You give an author’s book five stars because a reader unfairly gave him one star and this “evens things up.”
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give each other’s books five stars.
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give another author’s book one star to teach her a lesson.
  • You get your fans to go give an author-friend’s book five stars.
  • You get your fans to go write negative reviews about someone else’s book because she’s said something nasty about yours.
  • You write a glowing review about your friend’s book even though you didn’t like it all that much because hey, he’s a friend.
  • You rate an author’s book five stars because that blog you like says she’s being bullied and bullying is bad.
  • You rate an author’s book one star because that blog you like says he’s a bully.
  • You know your spouse/best friend/writing group are doing any of the above on your behalf and you do nothing to stop it.

And I could go on . . . . Look, it doesn’t matter what readers or bloggers or other authors are doing. You’re a professional and you’re not going to do any of these things, right? Don’t review with an ulterior motive. And for crying out loud, if you’re reviewing a book because you’ve been asked to, disclose the fact. If the other author’s a friend, disclose the fact. Don’t write a review as if you’re just another reader, because the day you put your name on a book as its author, you’re representing more than yourself. You’re representing your brand, your publisher, your genre and the organizations you belong to.

So what do you think? What other advice can you give? Do you agree with my thoughts, or do you think I’m wrong in any way? I’m prepared to listen and to learn.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

#EthicalAuthor case study 1: Reviewers, be nicer to me

Every few weeks (sometimes, every few days) the internet hands me a reminder of why I started talking about ethics in the first place. Today’s example is pretty typical of a blog post I’ve seen more times than I can count.

Update: the author of the original post has taken it down, although I still have it on file if you need it for serious journalistic purposes (hey The Guardian Books Section, I'm right here!)  In any case I never wanted to aim this post at this particular author—she’s representative of a certain kind of author who’s likely to post a variant of this lament within the first six months of publishing (traditionally or indie) for the first time.

She’s had her first negative reviews, and it hurts. Most authors who’ve been out there for a while are hardened to the inevitable one- or two-star reviews (a three-star review is POSITIVE, people) and have done sufficient research to find out that negative reviews don’t have much of an impact on sales. (If you’re an author who’s been on the block for more than five years and you’re still getting upset about your reviews, you’ve got a problem.) Seasoned authors either learn not to read their reviews, to read the negative ones and learn from them, or to cry on their best friend’s shoulder if they’re having a bad day.

In case the linked post disappears, I’ll just summarize the gist of her lament:

- writing is hard work
- reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author
- telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review
- reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

You might remember that the Ethical Author Code is based on the principle of putting the reader first. So let’s look through a reader’s eyes at these statements:

Writing is hard work

Yes, writing is hard work. You know what else is hard work? Work. Jobs like the ones your readers have, which may involve more difficulty, danger, responsibility or drudgery than you have ever known. Many of your readers would love the time and the opportunity to write books instead of doing whatever it is they do. Having the time, the space and the education to write a novel puts you in a relatively small and privileged category, for all it feels like the world and its grandmother is writing a novel right now. I’m not saying that writing isn’t hard or that it’s not a real job or anything like that—just that in the scheme of things, you could be doing a worse one.

Reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author

When a reader posts a review, she isn’t thinking about the author. She’s thinking about the book. Most of the time she doesn’t know if it’s your first book or your fiftieth; she doesn’t know or care if you’re self-published or with a Big Publishing imprint; she may well not know the rules of your genre or is trying something completely new. How you feel about her review is not her concern, and rightly so.

Telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review

The reader is not your editor or beta reader or critique partner or best friend. Those are the people who give you private opinions of your work. Publication implies that you have placed your work in the public sphere, to be critiqued publicly. You must be prepared for that. Plus, given the number of authors who’ve moved on from complaining to verbally abusing, stalking and even physically injuring their reviewers, readers are becoming wary of making that private contact.

Reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

Yes, there are reviewers who enjoy reviewing badly-written books, and sadistic reviewers existed long before the current reader-reviewer system. Only way back then, there were fewer reviewers and the mean ones had way more power to make or break an author—now, reviews are aggregated so the more reviews you get, the less the impact of any individual review. It’s not the reviewer’s fault if their negative review is the only one—it’s your job, dear author, to get as many reviews as you can. The reader-reviewer system is an incredible boon to authors because it frees them from depending on just a few review sources and, over time, gives potential buyers the most balanced view possible of your books. Love it, use it well, and repeat after me: a review is just an opinion.

These are all fairly standard rebuttals to the everlasting complaints of those newbie authors (and, alas, a few seasoned ones who should know better.) Now let’s look at this from the point of view of the Ethical Author Code again. Granted, it’s not strictly unethical to moan about negative reviews. My problem with the thinking illustrated above is that it sends a hostile message to readers (your customers, in case you’ve forgotten) and that believing you’re somehow entitled to four- and five-star reviews is the first step toward finding those ever-helpful people who’ll cheerfully provide you with a five-star review in return for a small payment or a reciprocal arrangement—and those ARE unethical when, as is customary, they are posted with no mention of the arrangement made.

Moreover, the belief that reviewers are mean bullies out to get you and any other author—and this is a notion I very often see being discussed, on Facebook in particular—is not only insulting to readers who simply want to express their opinions, it’s a step away from intimidating the reviewer by commenting aggressively on their negative review—and yes, it IS intimidating to many readers when the author does that. Even some long-term book bloggers express their doubts about continuing to review under the constant barrage of abuse from authors. I recommend not commenting on reviews at all until you’ve built up some real trust with your readers, and even then only sparingly.

However nicely expressed—this author doesn’t come over as aggressive and was polite to her commenters—these blog posts are like throwing gasoline on a fire in the reader community. Not only has the author antagonized her potential readers, she’s given reviewers another reason to avoid certain categories of authors—YA authors, for example, or self-published authors, or all living authors (no kidding).

These are completely avoidable mistakes, if only the authors did a little research on how to behave online BEFORE they write these posts. My advice is, stop following your friends’ blogs and look for the better writer advice out there (my Twitter feed @janesteen has plenty of links); get on Goodreads or Booklikes as a reader, and spend some time getting to know your readership; and take a good look at the Ethical Author Code, which is there primarily to help new or newer authors with a few simple principles to get your writing career off to a good start. An understanding of author ethics and etiquette should be part of your writer’s toolbox just like those craft books you’re reading (I hope) or the advice you’re seeking on book covers, pricing, and editing.

And if you do make a mistake, just apologize. Say you got it wrong and ask for forgiveness. We’ve all learned from the dumb things we did in the first flush of Being An Author. If people are telling you you’re wrong, give their advice careful consideration instead of arguing with them and then telling everyone you’re being bullied. One of the odder features of this particular case is the fact that the author’s blog uses the same template as the infamous and discredited Stop The Goodreads Bullies site, which is sending shivers up quite a few spines—an indication of how beaten up many long-term reviewers are feeling. And they’re telling her she should change her template—they’re giving her good advice on this, as well as on several other points. At the time of writing she seems to be starting to listen and I really hope she can turn this situation around.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Asking too much: Is crowdfunding a viable replacement for the publishing advance, and do we even need one?

The latest in a seemingly never-ending series of online rows involving fiction writers, bloggers and readers isn’t just about one writer’s expectation that her readers should be prepared to pay her mortgage. Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter disaster—the YA writer attracted a storm of criticism and a huge number of tweets both for and against her when she asked for living expenses as part of a Kickstarter campaign—is a textbook example of how the fragmentation of the book market brought about by online bookselling, one-step self-publishing and POD has caused a shift away from the way authors have earned their money for the last half-century without providing a replacement with which everyone’s comfortable. Unless, that is, you’re one of the increasing number of author-entrepreneurs who use business models rather than imitate the older idea that artists need patrons.

One of the perceived advantages that traditional publishing’s had over self-publishing—and, come to that, an advantage that big publishing’s had over publishing via a small press—is the arrangement known as the advance. This is a sum of money that, in theory, allows the author to pay the mortgage and feed the family while writing their book or, if a finished manuscript already exists, while it’s being edited and produced for the market. The practice originates, I imagine, in the much older tradition of artists receiving handouts from rich patrons—a social institution that conferred high status on the patrons themselves and allowed them a certain amount of influence over the artist.

If you’re a traditionally published writer and you just read “allows the author to pay the mortgage,” you’re probably indulging in a hollow laugh or an extra sip of whiskey. But I did say, “in theory.” The reality is that most advances don’t even get close to what a writer needs to live on for three months, let alone the year it might take to research, write and edit a book. In addition, advances are typically paid in stages—you might get half on signing the contract and the other half when the manuscript is submitted and approved, or the advance might be split into smaller increments paid when you reach different milestones. So unless your advance is particularly large, it might buy you some time to write but will certainly not replace your day job.

As a very rough measure of what “replacing your day job” entails, the US Census Bureau’s report on income and poverty in the United States reveals that the median income for a man with a job is currently around $50,000, while a working woman will on average earn $39,000 (yes, ladies, I noted that too.) The same report puts the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 at around $12,000, so theoretically an advance of that size would allow you to live for a year. I’m not sure in which part of the United States you could live on $12,000, but it’s certainly not in my neighborhood.

The ever-reliable Jane Friedman, while crunching numbers for a gender-based study of advances, informs us that 46 percent of male and 42 percent of female debut authors  receive advances in the range known in the US publishing world as a “nice deal,” which means anything up to $49,000. That’s rather slippery of the publishing world, since “up to” includes no advance at all, and from what I’ve heard, amounts in the $5,000-$10,000 range are not that uncommon for a debut author. Even award-winning authors struggle to earn a wage, and most authors live in dread of falling sales figures—the result of that increasingly fragmented market—which could doom them in the eyes of their publisher, who won’t (can’t, if they’re to stay in business) agree to a new contract for an author who’s not bringing in sufficient revenue.

By her own admission that was the experience of YA author Stacey Jay, who found herself “fired from New York publishing” in early 2014. Like many traditional midlisters faced with unemployment because of falling sales she apparently first turned to self-publishing, bringing out “ten romance novels under yet ANOTHER pen name, all of which have sold well and have been well-received by reviewers.” Whatever “selling well” means, Jay has undoubtedly found that self-publishing is hard work in all respects, and that the upfront costs of bringing out books on your own are a serious investment.

A self-confessed hack writer who makes no bones about money being a driving motive behind her 2,000-4,000 word a day output, Jay then decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to support the self-publication of the sequel to her novel Princess of Thorns, shortly after its December 2014 publication by Delacorte Press. And it was the thinking behind her “ask” that led to the social media kerfuffle.

Crowdfunding is one of the latest trends to filter down through the indie author community, where typically a few brave pioneers try out a new idea, followed by a massive rush when it’s successful, followed by, usually, a change in platform rules either to fight off the screaming hordes or to profit from them—followed, eventually, by a stream of reports from latecomers that the idea’s no longer a good idea. The general practice in crowdfunding books is that writers ask for money specifically to pay for production costs, although their requests are rarely backed up by figures showing that they’ve done their research. Writers who five years ago would perhaps have been content with self-editing and a Photoshopped cover now feel the pressure to hire a professional editor, cover designer and ebook formatter, a process for which I’ve seen estimates of $2,000-4,000.

The cost of producing my own book broke down to approximately:

$1,000 for cover and interior design
$600 for editing
$200 for ebook formatting
$250 for a block of 10 ISBNs, not all used for this book
$50 for setting up the POD files and distribution
$250 for cover photography

and I should disclose for completeness that the designer, editor and photographer are all friends who charged me less than they’d have charged most clients. That money came partly from savings and partly from sales of the ebook; I estimate that producing the next book in ebook, print and audio editions at once—my preference—will set me back a good $3,000.

A couple of examples of successful Kickstarter campaigns run by members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), of which I’m also a member, illustrate how authors have been making use of the best-known crowdfunding platform (Pubslush, Indiegogo and Patreon—which all have distinctly different funding models—are also popular with ALLi members.) Sandy Osborne funded Girl Cop in Trouble to the tune of £2,186 (about $3,500) for professional editing, typesetting, ISBN/barcode and cover design through Silverwood Press, an assisted self-publishing company. Marisha Pink got £5,821 (around $7,500) to launch her debut novel Finding Arun, expanding her ask to cover marketing costs and, apparently, a “swanky” launch party in London (which some might see as an unnecessary extra, but it seems none of her backers minded.) I asked Pink about her claim that she’d quit her job to write the novel, and she confirmed that she’d also sold her home and, at the age of 30, moved back in with her very supportive parents.

So why did Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter campaign kick up such a cloud of tweets and blog posts?

On the face of it, Jay did nothing wrong or unethical or underhand. I can’t fault her in light of the Ethical Author Code. She was completely honest about why she wanted the money, estimating the usual $2,000-3,000 to cover “editorial expenses and cover design.” Where she stepped over the edge of the cliff was the next sentence: “The remaining 7 thousand will be enough to cover mortgage, groceries, and gas for my family during the three months it will take me to write the book.” She immediately defended herself by explaining that she was asking “less than half” of what she received for Princess of Thorns from Delacorte (for which, presumably, her advance was around $25,000) as if, somehow, the fact that she was taking a pay cut was a point in her favor.

Commenters and bloggers were quick to point out that Jay wasn’t comparing like to like. An advance is a business proposition in which the publisher in effect buys the rights to a piece of intellectual property and assumes the risks and, with a bit of luck and a good sense for the market, the benefits of the deal. Nobody minds an author spending their advance on anything they like, because they’ve sold something to get it.

But crowdfunding is, essentially, free money. Even the rewards that the author promises will be funded out of the money the campaign generates, leaving, the author hopes, a substantial profit which is spent at the author’s discretion. It’s an honor system: in the words of Kickstarter’s FAQ, “Backers should look for creators who share a clear plan for how their project will be completed and who have a history of doing so . . . If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn't share key information, backers should take that into consideration.” (Given the number of 23-page “books” composed of articles lifted from Wikipedia the self-publishing gold rush has spawned, I shudder to think what’s going to happen once the spammers and scammers apply their brand of entrepreneurship to crowdfunding.)

A debut or newer author with a vaguely-worded statement about how the money they raise will be used seems to be precisely the kind of creator targeted by Kickstarter’s gently-worded warning, and yet authors Osborne and Pink had no trouble finding supporters—helped, I’m sure, by their underlying authenticity, professionalism and creativity on social media and elsewhere. Yet when you begin thinking about it—as potential backers in the book world surely will as the crowdfunding craze escalates and the inevitable doubts begin to creep in—the handing over of money on faith is a far cry from the business arrangement represented by an advance. There the advantage is ultimately on the side of the publisher, who invariably insists on a strenuously-worded contract that ensures the house wins should the book in question do as well or better than they expect. With crowdfunding the advantage is firmly on the side of the author, with little or no risk to them—and if Stacey Jay had succeeded in turning her request for support into a partial replacement of her lost advance, the entire midlist might have immediately defected from traditional publishing with cries of a new Golden Age for authors.

So where does this leave self-funded authors like me? I’ll admit I’ve been casting an envious glance or two in the direction of authors who’ve simply asked for and received injections of cash when they needed them. But like many of my generation I’m uneasy about asking people for money, even though I spent some time in fundraising and know that an ask can be viewed as giving people an opportunity to be generous when they’re both able and willing. Yet there seems to be a huge gulf between asking for money on behalf of a non-profit and, say, the young couple on my Facebook who financed their trip home for Christmas via a crowdfunding platform. A self-published author seeking cash to publish a work of fiction seems far more like the latter example than the former, and I honestly think I’d only whip out my credit card if the author in question was such an unexampled genius that I felt it would be a crime against mankind not to support them.

As ALLi member A.W. Exley pointed out to me during a lively Facebook discussion on the organization’s group page, most self-published authors (which Stacey Jay now is, if not by choice) regard the cost of producing a book as a business expense and expect to bear it themselves, waiting and saving up if they don’t have the cash at hand. A business that’s expanding faster than its cashflow has, furthermore, the traditional options of applying for a bank loan or seeking an investor, although I’ve read many a tale in writers’ memoirs of furniture being sold to keep going for just one more month until that book’s finished. The crowdfunding model appears to propel the risk and sacrifice away from the author; British writer Jane Turley’s feeling was that “some people don't like taking risks - so they're basically putting that risk elsewhere. I do wonder if any of these folks who are trying to raise funds have made real personal sacrifices to fund their work. I bet a lot of them still go on holidays etc etc.” Will the generous impulse that has made crowdfunding possible for authors sour if a writer who’s asked for living expenses is seen buying designer coffee?

I’m grateful in a way to Stacey Jay, for raising some questions that need to be asked as more authors, of necessity, make the transition from the traditional publishing world to the independent side. They bring with them expectations of nurturing creativity that used to work well—could still work well—but are increasingly being challenged by the new breed of author-entrepreneur who draws on business rules rather than the older publishing model for inspiration. I’m grateful to her for pushing the envelope a little too far—for asking too much, or asking in the wrong way at the wrong time—and giving us a better understanding of what our readers want of us. I hope she’ll recover from her misstep and not let bitterness about the experience dampen her entrepreneurial spirit.

In this new publishing world we’re all on shifting sands, trying to find ways to make a living doing what we love. I might still crowdfund my next book, but I’ll be looking for ways to make it a solid business proposition for my backers rather than an ask to support the starving artist. All in all, I believe that the better way forward for a self-published author is to be a small business—find seed money, produce the product, market the product, take your business to the next step once you’re able, and work very, very hard. It’s quite likely that the crowdfunding model will sour once it becomes packed with authors anyway, and becoming dependent on waiting for people to give me money to write is not something I want to do.

Note: at the time of writing, Stacey Jay has deleted her social media accounts and closed her blog for comments. I would welcome her thoughts on the above, but I respect her wish to avoid any more attention and did not try to contact her.

Some nice points about crowd funding and author income are made in the following posts:

Don’t Do This…Ever?: (an advice column for writers): “Crowd Funding” edition by Jenny Trout
Stacey Jay And The Question No One Has Asked by Mahala
Stacey Jay, Crowdfunding, and the Business of Publishing by Livia Blackburne
Stacey Jay, Kickstarter & Jayne Cobb from Firefly by Dawn Metcalf
Suffering for (and with) Our Art by Justina Ireland
In Defense of Stacey Jay at WiseInk
Stacey Jay and Kickstarter at Reading With A Vengeance
Stacey Jay, Veronica Mars and the Kickstarter Controversy by Marni Bates
Publishing Isn’t a “Real Job” by Karen Kincy