On Writing,  publishing

The New World: Publishing: Killing Your Sales One Shot at a Time: The Second Foot

In the last post I quickly detailed out how I saw indie writer after indie writer shoot themselves in the foot with their publishing when it came to sales of their books. (Read it first if you have not. It is right under this post. I deleted all other posts between the two.)

So I’m now going to torture this metaphor until it’s dead. Or at least shoot it a few times. (Add in your own joke here, but please don’t send them to me. (grin))

— And, of course, on the first five toes article, I got many of the types of comments I expected.

— And almost all the comments ignored the toe I expected indie writers to ignore. (I sometimes hate being right.)

— And, of course, all indie writers claim they write across genre, ignoring completely that I said most writers I have met, beginner and professional alike, don’t know what genre they write in, let alone if they write across genre.

Of course, as readers first and foremost, we think we know a genre. But alas, that has nothing to do with writing inside the structures of a genre so that other readers will be satisfied.

I know most of you don’t like this thought, but reader satisfaction is why you must get genre right. Besides sales. You flat say something is a romance and it is not, (because you wouldn’t recognize a romance structure if it slapped you) then a reader of romance reads your work and goes, “Worst romance ever.” And never buys another book from you. In any genre.

But alas, as many of you pointed out in comments and private letters to me, you like to blow off that toe book after book because you KNOW you KNOW and you write across genres, so you don’t have to pay attention to this small little problem. Yup. Pull the trigger.

— And by the way, I NEVER SAID to write in series all the time. Heck, I write all over the place, and so does my wife. I seldom write in a series except for sort-of-linked Poker Boy stories. So some of you, please quote me correctly if you are going to quote me. (sigh)

— And the toe that got no comment at all really was the 5th and most important toe. Ah, well, not much to say about it, I suppose. If your book looks like an indie book and you can’t tell because you never hold it up beside a professional cover in the same genre, and understand that most professional bestseller covers tend to have four or five print elements, then the gun just isn’t pointed at that toe, it’s tied to it.

So moving on to the next foot. (You didn’t think I could leave an indie writer just hopping around on one foot, did you? Oh, no, there are more things indie writers do to cause bad sales. Many more.)

Shot #6

Spend all your time promoting your first book instead of writing your second and/or third book.

I see this all the time and it flat stuns me. The best way to sell more books is become a better storyteller, to have more product to sell, to work on craft and pacing and cliffhanging and all the thousands of things a professional writer needs. But for some reason the availability of social media and myths that you MUST promote force otherwise perfectly sane humans into spending all their time annoying a few hundred followers on Twitter and Facebook and doing blog tours and other silly things like that.

This toe is blown clear off of all “authors.” (Authors are people who have written and are always looking backward at what they wrote. Writers are people who write and look forward at what they are writing and what they want to write next.) Writers tend to get past this much faster, or only graze the toe with the shot.

Six toes now gone. (If you are an author.)

Shot #7

Too much ego or bad thinking to use a pen name.

Wow, I see comments from all sorts of beginning writers who are exploring around genres (which is normal and cool) stating they didn’t want to put a pen name on something in a very different genre than they already had their real name on.

Yup, that will kill sales faster than anything I have seen. Why? Because of reader expectations, that’s why. A reader picks up and likes a romance under “Real Name Writer” and then sees another book from the same author name and buys it and it’s a horror novel with ugly guts and blood. Reader says, “I’m not buying anything by that author again.”  And then tells their friends to avoid you.

And you know the biggest reason I hear beginning writers saying they didn’t want to put pen names on books different from what they already have under a certain name? “It will take too long to develop the name.”

Seriously? You are saying that to someone who sold his first short story in 1975 and didn’t sell a first novel until 1987.  And who has pen names far more popular than this name. Seriously?

If you cross genres, be polite to your readers and use a name for each major genre. In the long run, you will not hurt your sales and sell a ton more books.

That seventh toe is gone.

Shot #8

Underpricing your work for the wrong reasons.

There are times for smart writers and publishers to use the free or heavily discounted price to bring in more customers. No argument from me on that.

But if you discount your first or second or third novel down to 99 cents, without having a bunch of other novels at $5.99 or higher, you will lose customers. Period.

Sorry, folks, but the 99 cent and $1.99 is a price ghetto now. It makes you look like a beginner if it’s your first or second novel. It makes your work look cheap. And you might get a few more readers of the discount type, but unless you plan on writing completely to the discount bins your entire life, devaluing your work is not the way to start to gain readers.

If you have to discount something after a year or two, discount it DOWN TO $2.99. That way, compared to your other work, it will look like a deal.

Yeah, I know, write me your letters about how you personally made more sales at 99 cents. I expect them.

But folks, to be even more blunt than I normally am here, when I am looking for a quality bottle of wine for a celebration, my first stop is not the Dollar Store. If I’m looking for a quality piece of writing in a bookstore to entertain me for a night, my first stop is not the discount bin on the sidewalk.

Some people shop those bins to the exclusion of going inside the bookstore. Those are not my main audience for my books I’m afraid. But every writer is different. Just understand that if you discount your only book, or only your third novel, your audience has just moved from the shelves of the bookstore to the discount bin on the sidewalk.

So if you want to build a long-term career, with fans finding you slowly, over time, who are willing to pay a respectable price for your work, have some respect in your own time and craft. Price your book in the same range as traditional publishers price their works. ($4.99 to $8.99 for most for e-books)

I got an idea. Pretend you sold your book to a traditional publisher and price it exactly like they would price it.

That’s eight toes gone. Just two more left before you need new shoes.

Shot #9

Ignoring 65-70% of your market. Or worse, going exclusive and ignoring 90% plus of your market.

Indie publisher after indie publisher ignore paper books, even though survey after survey show that print books are holding strong among all readers, even those with electronic devices. And indie bookstores are growing in numbers every year. In fact, the new study out today shows that electronic books across all trades are just under 20% of books sold. Slightly higher or lower depending on genre and type.

So by ignoring paper editions, not having them available at least, you ignore 80% of all readers. And also kill a great price comparison on your own books. (I did an entire post on this topic, but say your print book is $15.99, it makes your $7.99 electronic edition look like a deal.)

And then there are the writers who go only with one electronic publisher. Sure, write me letters about your wonderful experience with Kindle Select. But I’m also talking to writers who feel it isn’t worth their time to go to Smashwords, thus cutting out huge areas of the entire world as an audience. Any form of being exclusive, unless used correctly, is just a killer to sales. And most indie writers I know don’t know how to use an exclusive sale correctly.

The ninth toe is gone. Just one left.

Shot #10

Getting in a hurry.

This tendency of all new writers kills more sales and writing careers than any I have observed over thirty years of paying attention.

Sorry to tell you, but writers like me and Kris and other long-term professional writers did not spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus (as my wife says). It took us years and years and often decades to get to where we are at. And millions and millions and millions of words.

And for me, those millions of words and years came at a pace of about 750 words per hour starting at typewriters and then moving to computers. I have thousands and thousands of rejections, 250 alone from just Asimov’s Magazine.

So why some writer who has written a novel or two or a few short stories thinks they should be famous and sell millions of copies is beyond me. That attitude shows a complete lack in the ability to understand storytelling and the complete lack of common sense or business sense.

So how does that kill sales? Did you read the four shots above this one? Getting in a hurry is a major cause for all of those mistakes and a number of the first five in the last post as well.

(The one I love the most is the “Oh, no, sales have declined in the last two weeks! I had better lower my price!)

I know this advice will get ignored, but if you follow any piece of advice in these two articles, follow this one.

Slow down. Focus on learning how to become a better storyteller, learn how to do professional covers, learn how to set up a business, travel and talk with writers farther down the road than you are.

Make a business plan that covers years, not months.

Warning #1… I don’t mean slow down in the writing process itself. If anything, speed that up. Write faster, do fewer drafts, mail more work. Follow Heinlein’s Rules. Combine that with constant learning and study of craft and you will get better. (It’s called “practice” for those of you not afraid of that word.)

I’m saying slow down in the worrying about (and the focus on) sales.

Warning #2… I am not saying you shouldn’t mail your stuff to editors or put your work up electronically and try to make sales. Do put it up, do mail it to editors. I mailed my very first short story to a magazine that bought it. And my second. And after that I got hundreds of rejections before a magazine bought another story from me. If I had been in a hurry, if I didn’t understand at a deep level that learning how to be an internationally-selling fiction writer took time and years, I would have stopped somewhere between 1975 and 1982.

But I didn’t stop. I kept writing and learning and working on becoming a better storyteller. And I kept learning the business, even as it changed.

And now, thirty-seven years later, I’m still writing and still learning and still working to become a better storyteller.

So slow down the worrying about sales, focus on learning, focus on the next story and the next story, and have fun. The sales will come if you put your work out there and keep learning.

The last toe is gone. And more than likely, if you shot your very short-lived publishing career in the foot ten times, so is your career.

But it is possible in this new world to stop firing at your feet. It’s magic, I know, but true.

Focus on the writing, focus on learning, do the best you can with every book and story and then move on to the next one and the next one. Mail your work or put it up indie or do both. And never stop doing that either.

Nothing will kill a writing career except for a writer stopping writing. But if you metaphorically blow off enough toes, this career you are trying to start will just not be fun anymore.

Trust me, it’s a ton more fun to focus on learning and writing the next story than it is worrying about sales.

Have fun. The sales will come.

(Now I have officially tortured this poor metaphor to death. Someone please bury it on the way out the door.)


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

I’m now getting back to writing fiction, so every word I write here takes time from that. And I have to justify this somehow in how I make a living.

So, if you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal