Myths ignore facts. Myths are often beliefs built from fear or past actions.
In this series, and in the previous series of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing, I call the myths that control writers “Sacred Cows.”
Writers hold onto myths like lifelines that are keeping them from drowning in a raging river of information. Sometimes sane people in the normal world will follow a publishing myth that makes no sense at all because it has something to do with the publishing business. And they follow the myth without thought.
So this new series is an attempt to help the new world of indie publishing with the growing list of myths that plague it.
And the sixth myth to hit indie writers is this: I CAN PUT A BOOK UP FOR SALE AND LEAVE IT FOREVER
…or conversely IF I PUT A BOOK UP FOR SALE, I HAVE TO CHANGE IT EVERY WEEK.
This double-headed myth is a real killer to income and books.
A paraphrased conversation I had with a friend sort of sums up this myth.
A friend of mine said, “Joe Konrath say that as indie writers, we must tend our gardens.”
I agreed, but added, “And we need to learn when to leave the garden alone to grow as well.”
I have heard both sides of this myth a lot, and I’m sure early on in this new indie world, I advocated one side or the other a few times myself, more than likely far more than a few times.
Now I advocate walking a line on balance.
For a century and more, books had no staying power, for the most part. There were always books that survived in the used and rare world. Sure. But rarely did a book outside that world survive in any fashion, with a few exceptions.
The exceptions were the very, very unusual books that found new readers generation after generation and that publishers kept them in print.
In modern publishing, those books tended to be classics, or young adult books. In fact, for a few decades, the backlist (older books) in young adult sold better than the front list (new books put out that year).
Sadly, very, very few genre books were kept in print for very long. Even classics and major award winners are lost and out of print, unless brought back into print by a small press.
But the publishers of those books that had a long life were doing what indie writers need to learn to do. Every four or five years, they would put on an updated new cover, or reissue the book with some sort of fanfare, or some other new promotion. (Note: I said every few years, not every other month.)
But for the majority of all books published in the last century, the print runs were either limited, or the book was considered disposable.
The disposable aspect of books came from two major places. First came World War Two, where paperbacks were included as supplies to the soldiers to be read and passed around and then tossed away. Second, publishers started to just ask for covers back of many books in the returns system to save on shipping, so the bookstores would strip the covers and get credit for the unsold books.
After decades, books to traditional publishers became like bananas on a fruit stand. If they didn’t sell quickly, they spoiled and thus were destroyed, put out of print, and forgotten.
Books became produce. (And sadly, to traditional publishers, they still are. Plus they have become assets of a corporate balance sheet even if they are out of print or only for sale in a bad and expensive electronic edition.)
Up until the last five years or so, and the rise of the electronic book, this was the feelings for books and how authors felt about them as well.
I can’t believe how many times I heard from authors in traditional publishing that you were only as good as your last book. (I’m sure I said that myself a few times along the way, and I believed it because I worked in traditional publishing.)
So this idea that indie writers now have books they can publish and keep in print for a long time is great. But they publish it and then what do they do? And here comes this duel-sided myth.
Indie writers tend to fall into two crazy camps.
Camp One: They put the book up and change the price weekly and the cover monthly.
Camp Two: They put the book up and forget it.
There is a balance point in the center of the two camps, which is where the analogy of tending a garden comes in perfectly.
Indie writers, in this case, must learn from the way that traditional publishers treated classics and bestselling young adult books. The traditional publishers kept those books alive and selling for decades.
Indie writers can do the same thing if they know what they are doing.
The Silliness of Both Sides
To start off, you must learn to look at books with a long view into the future. Very few writers do this.
Very, very few.
Almost no writer I know looks at books as an investment that could pay off over decades.
So let me use the “tend the garden” analogy to show the two extremes.
The Care-Too-Much problem.
You plant some corn seeds in your garden. (That’s publishing your book to be clear.)
Come back the next day, nothing is happening to the seeds in your garden, so you give them more water, sit in the window watching, nothing happens, water it more, watch more.
On day three, since there is nothing happening yet, you decide you must have planted the seeds in the wrong place, so you dig up the seeds and move them, give them more water, plant them again.
Sit and watch for something to happen. Maybe you put the seeds too deep, so you dig them up again and bring them right to the surface.
Watch. Two days later nothing.
So you dig the seeds up again and bury them deeper because you read on a blog somewhere that’s what you should do.
And on and on and on.
You get the picture I hope. Books are like corn. They are not magic, they take time to find an audience. Books take time to grow an audience.
So what about the other side of this? The Put The Book Up and Forget Problem.
You decide to plant corn in your garden. You plant the seeds. (Again this is publishing a book.)
You walk away from your garden and go back to work and don’t even bother to water anything or weed anything. In six months or a year or two you look at it again and the corn is dead, buried under weeds.
Note that neither extreme works well.
Most indie writers I have met are the first example, not giving anything time to grow or live, messing with it all the time.
I tend to fall in the second camp far too much because of my training that books are written and then gone. So I plant seeds and forget them and do nothing to help anything along.
Both sides of this myth do not produce good LONG TERM product year after year.
A Way Out of the Two-Sided Myth
Perspective is the way to the center from both sides of this myth.
And continuing to learn about how book buyers find books helps as well.
So using Kris and myself as an example here, and what I did when electronic books got started, let me show you some aspects of both sides, and the problems of both sides.
Way back when Kindle first opened the KDP program, a friend taught a number of other writers and me how to get books onto Kindle and Smashwords. (I have detailed in other places how I slowly came to realize how my backlist, with this new system, was a gold mine waiting to be tapped.)
So as with most things I do, I jumped in and went to work. My attitude back then was I needed to get as many titles up as I could as fast as I could.
It was just me doing all the work, and I was putting up my own stories and Kris’s short stories and then eventually we started putting up some backlist novels.
And one and a half years later, I had over 200 titles up on Kindle, Smashwords, and B&N.
I had not gone back and looked at a one of them. Just put the book or story up and moved to the next one.
After a year and a half, the books were making enough money that we could hire some fulltime help. Since we had started a major publishing company once before (Pulphouse Publishing in 1987), we knew where this was heading, so we created a corporation and found the best person to run the business.
All paid for because I had pushed over 200 plus titles up and left them alone.
Allyson Longueira came on board and after looking at everything for a month and getting herself up to speed, she came to me and Kris and said simply, “We need to change everything, every cover, everything we have up so far. And we need to reproof everything and redo all the blurbs.”
In other words, I had paid no attention to the garden and it was covered in weeds and the income was about to be choked off if we didn’t do some weeding and new planting and repairing.
You see, my covers sucked. I had done them in Powerpoint quickly. And the blurbs I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to, and proofing was lax on those early books. We often used the traditional publisher printed versions of our stories and those, as are most traditional published books, were riddled with mistakes.
Allyson was right. At the two-year mark after I started putting stuff up as fast as I could, we needed to tend that garden.
She started fixing things, and we put up some new books as well, and we started working on the old blurbs and took off the worst offending covers fairly quickly. By the time she had been with us for six months, our title count was up to 250 titles, and she wasn’t a quarter of the way through fixing the old stuff.
But the garden was starting to look better at least.
And the income was increasing, especially since the new work we put up was much better in look, blurbs, and proofing.
And readers of indie books were starting to expect better at this point in indie publishing and we were shifting to give it to them.
The extra money coming in allowed us to hire more help in WMG Publishing. About a year after hiring Allyson, we had enough to start the audio department as well.
After one year, we had managed to fix all but a few of those early titles I had done quickly, and our title count was over 300 titles.
That’s a very large garden, let me tell you.
Now, another year plus has past, we are over 400 titles and climbing, and almost all but a very few have been touched and fixed from those early days. And many of the first changes Allyson did when she started have also been changed out again.
We have branded the covers and books on the major series and are in the process of branding to series and to genre the minor series as well.
We have a proofreader on staff, a full-time promotions person coming on board in a month, and a second and third sales team members coming on board this fall.
Now understand, when I say the word “we” in that above story, it’s not me anymore doing much besides writing checks. Sure, I do Smith’s Monthly covers and layout and I help edit Fiction River and that’s it.
In fact, right now I spend most of my daylight time working on online workshops, which I love and which keep me learning.
Kris and I do not run WMG Publishing and haven’t now for more than a year. Allyson is the publisher and CEO, we call her the boss, and she runs the business and the seven or eight employees and works with the authors in Fiction River and so on.
Kris and I created an indie/traditional publisher hybrid.
Honestly, many bestselling authors who are leaving traditional publishing are doing the same sorts of things in various forms, hiring help for many aspects that are needed in this new indie world.
Kris and I let the money coming from the indie publishing build the business. We plowed every cent back into the growth. And we still are.
In other words, we are investing our income in our future.
So now our garden is well-tended, unlike what it was back three years ago. It is expanding every month as Kris and I continue to add in new backlist and keep writing new front list books and stories as well. I would imagine our title count will be past five hundred by the end of 2014.
And Fiction River has brought in many other authors and editors and WMG has plans to expand into many new projects as time and money allow.
How did we do this? Honestly, we found a balance between leaving the garden alone and spending too much time on every title.
At four hundred plus titles, we can’t pay attention to every title, and yes, some get forgotten for a time, so we still lean a little too much to the put-up-and-forget side of things. But that will be changing a lot as 2014 goes on.
Suggestions to Find a Balance.
The WIBBOW test was coined by professional writer Scott William Carter. WIBBOW stands for:
Would I Be Better Off Writing?
For indie writers, the answer is almost always yes. As I discovered as I pounded up over 200 different backlist titles from Kris and my decades of writing, new product sells old product.
The best promotion is always the next book.
But covers must be tended to and as your knowledge grows about covers, you must fix covers every three or four years. Sometimes genre trends just move in looks. You need to stay abreast of the changes. (That takes research time as well.)
As you get better at writing active sales copy instead of dull, passive plot summaries, your blurbs need to be fixed.
To get the book in the right place, you also need to keep learning genre. That’s critical to sales.
And then there is that ugly topic of pricing, which I will talk about in the 9th Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing coming up shortly.
So here are my suggestions to find a balance, since I have been in this since the beginning of this crazy movement, and also spent decades in traditional publishing.
1) Publish the book with the best modern-looking cover to genre you can do, with the best blurb, and with luck in the right spot in the bookstores.
2) Get the book into as many places as you can, from Kindle to Kobo to B&N to iBooks to Smashwords to audio to paper editions. Everywhere. You must try to find as many readers as you can.
3) Tell your social media, your friends, your family, get it to a few bloggers, and other minor promotions you may do, and that’s it. WIBBOW test.
4) Go back to writing. Write the next book. DO NOT TOUCH THE PREVIOUS BOOK.
5) Check your sales every month at the end of the month. Not sales numbers, but income from that book. Let me say that again. Track INCOME. You need to track what each book (title) is making you per month total from all the sites. (TrackerBox program can do this for you.)
6) After one year, look at the sales figures for each of your titles. If one title is not selling hardly at all, time to take a look at it. Check first the location on the shelf, the genre. Have a friend read it and see if your idea of the genre matches your friend’s. If it does, then look at the blurb. If it is full of plot and passive verbs, learn how to rewrite that into sales language. Then have someone look at your cover and tell you the truth about it. Somehow who knows commercial book covers.
7) Fix what needs to be fixed on all under performing titles, and go back to writing. In other words, tend the garden and let things continue to grow.
8) With every title, novel, short story, or collection, check the sales after one year to see if they are on track.
In the next Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing, I talk about the myth of small sales numbers. So that will help you understand how to judge when a book is selling well and when it is under performing and needs tending.
This myth can really kill sales and entire writer’s careers.
On one side, the example of waiting for growth every few days in a garden, the myth can cause extreme disappointment. And frustration. And it can kill writing of new projects and titles.
The other side of putting up and ignoring doesn’t allow your books to change with the times, doesn’t allow you to follow and fix under-performing titles, and flat isn’t good business when you have a valuable property.
Each title is a property. Remember that. Putting the title up and ignoring it for too long would be like building a house and then just letting it sit, not doing anything to it to keep it up. It might be fine for a time, but eventually it will need work and repair.
So find a balance between too much change on a title and too little change.
But my biggest suggestion to everyone is think of publishing as a long-term business.
Think in units of years, not units of days.
Give readers time to find your work, to read your work, to enjoy your work.
Tend your garden. But don’t overwater it on one side, or let the weeds and lack of care choke it out on the other.
Find a balance.
And have fun.