Monday, March 31, 2014

What If Everyone in the World Wrote a Novel?

Independent publishing has created an ironic duality. On one hand, the good news about self-publishing in the 21st century is that anyone can publish a book. The bad news about modern self-publishing is, of course, that anyone can publish a book.

The backlash against this state of affairs has been aggressive on both sides of the argument. Proponents of traditional publishing point to the tsunami of poorly written books as proof of self-publishing’s inferiority (See Is the Self Published Novel Inherently Inferior?). Supporters of independent publishing have a more nuanced reaction. Some will admit that the new publishing freedom might produce a lot of substandard product (where the definition of “substandard” itself is often a moving target). But they will also say that many quality books are self-published (and we always find a way to put our own work in the category of quality books for some unknown reason).

Advocates on both sides will also point out that even if all self-published work was great, there is too much of it for the market to support. The industry produces too many books for people to find, pay for and read. I get the sense that many of these writers want everyone else to get out of self-publishing so they can remain and sell more books.

I agree and disagree with each side of this debate. I also feel that everyone can benefit from both writing and trying to sell their own book.

The Sales Sabotage Problem

First, let me address the obvious flaw with my premise. It is easy to see that if seven billion people each decided to write one book, the chances of any book being financially successful dwindle down to zero. My book, no matter how good it is, could never compete in a marketplace that big. I get that. That doesn’t change my central premise. It’s not because I’m some altruistic soul who believes in universal equality and fair play, and it’s not because I believe that my book is so much better than everyone else’s that I welcome that kind of competition. I just believe the filtering and selection processes that we have can solve the sales problem.

According to, there were about forty billion websites worldwide in March of 2014. That’s about six websites for every living person on the planet. The vast majority of those sites have little or no traffic, but in spite of the glut of sites, we all still know where to find our cute cat videos, personality quizzes, pornography and e-books. I’m not saying that search engines, SEO and website management is perfect. I am saying that if we can find a way to catalog and manage billions of websites, we can do the same things with books. There is no guarantee that my book or yours would become the next Google or Amazon of books, but there are other benefits that still make universal authorship an attractive utopia.

Looking Beyond the Competition

Writing, like any business, is a competitive endeavor. Each seller in the market attempts to sell as many of their goods or services as possible. Because the number of buyers is almost always finite, the attempt of each seller to maximize their sales puts them in direct competition with all other sellers of the same goods. This concept applies to cars, candy bars and cocaine. But does it apply to books?

On a certain level, it does. There are only so many readers out there and each one has a limited capacity in the number of books they can read. Some writers will sell infinitely more books than others. Not every writer can be a James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. But that doesn’t mean that writing is futile.

Not everyone can be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t benefit from exercise. Not everyone can open a chain of restaurants, that doesn’t mean knowing how to cook is a useless skill. Not everyone can dominate the stock market, but it is still helpful to understand the concepts of economics, investing and money. By the same logic, not everyone can be a New York Times bestseller, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write a book. (See How Your Writing Projects Are Like Your Gym Membership). Many of the things you achieve as a writer will come to you even if never sell anything.

Looking Beyond the Numbers

From the beginning of my experience as a writer, I realized that what I gained from writing went far beyond how many books I sold (See Great Expectations). The benefits are less tangible in many ways, but no less important. Writing gives me a vehicle to:
  • Have fun
  • Be inspired
  • Solve problems
  • Meet new people
  • Learn more about myself
  • Learn more about the world around me
  • Get better at what I’m doing
  • Find out more about the people I already know
  • Become more comfortable with myself

The positive things that I get from writing aren’t unique to me. I’m sure seven billion other people might want each of these things, in one way or another. If each one of us developed our craft in an attempt to become better writers, how could that be a negative thing?

Looking Beyond the Rose Colored Glasses

I understand that writing for some authors is not an idealistic, philosophical endeavor. I know that many of us are using our craft to put food on the table, advance our careers or escape jobs that we hate. To these writers, any discussion about flooding the market with product for the sake of learning or inspiration is misguided and irrelevant. Some of us are writing simply to make money. I understand that, but even this group of writers would benefit if everyone tried their hand at writing a book, if only for the impact it would have on the reading population.

Writers understand that writing isn’t easy. No matter how many barriers are broken down with e-books and self-publishing technology, we still have to lock ourselves away and write. We still have to struggle with putting words together and deal with the dark emotional journey those words can create. (See The Benefits of Rejection, Indifference, and Insecurity). And that is just the writing side of the equation. Independents also have to concern themselves with post production, design, marketing, sales and customer service, in addition to writing and their day jobs. (See The Four Stages of Novel Development). Writers know what goes into releasing a book. If more people attempted to be writers, perhaps they would have more understanding of the process. If more people wrote a novel, maybe they would appreciate and be more willing to pay for the work that other writers do.

Have fun.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Advanced Review Request for The Screams of Passion

I'm currently looking for advanced reviewers for my novella, The Screams of Passion from March 26th, 2014 to April 20, 2014.

If you're not familiar with the advance review process, don't worry. All that means is that you get an early copy of the book in exchange for an honest review that you post on Amazon or Good Reads. It doesn’t have to be a five star review. An honest assessment of your reaction is better for other readers and the author.

Advanced reviewers for this book will receive a free copy of A Taste of Honey as a thank you for your support.

If you enjoy crime thrillers or spy stories, consider this premise:

The Screams of Passion: A Taste of Honey Book Three

Nikki Sirene is a spy who uses her sexual charms to steal secrets. She has lied and manipulated her way into the bed of her latest target, the Argentinean shipping magnate named Manuel Cruz. Nikki has also fallen in love with Manuel’s wife Dominique. 

As the two women become more desperate for each other, their world begins to unravel. Nikki's jealous superior pushes her to complete the mission and sacrifice Dominique in the process. The Russian mafia behind the arms smuggling threatens to expose her and kill her entire team. Can Nikki find a way to protect her lover and finish the job or will they both be destroyed by a dark and explosive secret?

Note: This book is Book Three of A Taste of Honey. It concludes the story that began in Book One: Anything for Love and continued in Book Two: The Art of Seduction.

If you’re interested, just send an email to and I’ll take care of the rest.

Have fun.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nine Good Reasons (and One Bad One) Why Independent Novelists Should Write Short Stories

Most authors I know (both independent and traditional) see the novel as their main creative outlet. It has the substance, gravitas and size to mark it as a major achievement. Few of them focus on shorter works as a beneficial aspect of their craft. (I include both short stories and novellas into this discussion See Just How Long is a Novel and How Much Should it Cost?)  I feel that independents, even more than traditional authors can get enormous benefits from writing short fiction. I've identified ten virtues of writing shorter stories that cover the business, craft and lifestyle of writing.

Business Virtues

1) Production benefits: Independents have several aspects of the production process that they have to be comfortable with in order to get their work out into the world. The best way to understand the nuances of pre-production, production, post production and launch is to get in there and do it. (See The Four Stages of Novel Production) There is a natural discomfort that comes from trying to understand all these moving parts when the 'test study' for your publishing education is the 120,000 word manuscript that you've worked on for two years. That hesitation is reduced when the “test subject” is a 15,000 word short story that you wrote in a month. You would still try to produce the best book possible, of course. But the emotional cost of each inevitable mistake would be less damaging to your psyche.

2) Cost benefits: One of the major costs in independent publishing is editing (See How to Find an Editor without Going Insane). The editing cost for a 120,000 word book can easily be $2,000 or more. The price is often based on word count, so a 15,000 word story might only cost $240 under a similar pricing model. This lower price offers flexibility on two fronts. First, you're more likely to try different editors if you know the cost associated with each one isn't that much. Second, the release of each book won't take such a huge chunk out of your limited personal budget. There is an increased cover cost for multiple books (See the Mystery of Cover Design) but there are ways to keep those costs substantially lower than your editing costs.

3) Sales benefits: The popular wisdom about independent publishing is that the more products you have in the market, the easier it is for readers to find you and the more success you'll have in the long term. The problem with that is that it might not be feasible to get 10-15 novels out in a reasonable period of time. Releasing 10-15 novellas on the other hand is a more manageable production plan (See What's Your Publishing Plan?)

Craft Virtues

4) Playground for Ideas: If you're playing with a certain characters or scenarios for a larger work, but you're not sure if you want to tell that story over an entire novel, then a short story can help you explore the narrative potential. If you get to the end of the short story and you're itching to write more, go ahead. If the idea fizzles after 10,000 words, then you can avoid wrestling with the concept for 30,000 to 40,000 words before you realize you've written yourself into a space that you can't get out of.

5) "Extra" ideas: I often come to points in my novels where minor characters suggest stories that won't fit into the main narrative. At other points they hint at something in their backstory that deserves to be explored. Instead of trying to cram it into the story where it might not fit or forgetting the idea altogether, I often use that idea as a separate short story to satisfy my creative detour without derailing me from the main plot.

6) Building blocks: I work under the concept that the chapter of a book is a mini story in its own right that includes a beginning, turning point and end (See Analysis of Story Structure Part 1: The Chapter). The only difference between short stories and chapters is that the chapter needs an internal consistency that also serves the broader book. Writing short stories is great practice for manipulating the individual elements of a novel that can be strung together to complete the story in the same way a season of a TV series is made up of discrete episodes.

Lifestyle virtues

7) Project management: Cooking dinner for two is less intimidating than cooking for twenty. A 15,000 word project is less intimidating than a 150,000 word project. Breaking your creative work into smaller chunks might get you to a place mentally where you are more productive. This is even more beneficial if you use your short stories to build a larger novel.

8) Greater sense of accomplishment: When I look on my author page on Amazon, I feel better when I have more titles up there. The bigger catalog gives me a sense of progress and productivity that inspires me to write more. I don't know if I would get the same sense of accomplishment if I only saw my novels.

9) Creative freedom: When you know all your writing isn't tied up in one project, you can take risks. You can explore different genres, perspectives and ideas. You can push concepts farther than you normally would without sacrificing your main books. These might be stories that you never even release, but the creative freedom that they give you will come back and make your main stories even better.

The Vice of Short Stories

If there is a downside for releasing short stories, it is their length in relation to their price. With many independents selling full novels for $2.00 less, some readers and writers might reject the idea of selling 15,000 words for $.99. While I might disagree with the $.99 novel concept, I understand the economic problem it creates. 

My solution is to release a series of short stories in an anthology that is cheaper than the cost of all the individual stories. For example, I released an anthology of related short stories called Smooth Operator in 2013. The book contained five short stories and one novella for a total of 65,000 words. If I released each one individually, the price of the set would have been $7.99. I released Smooth Operator for $4.99 or 40% off the individual story cost. It's still more than the $.99 novel, but I don't believe in selling full novels for a buck.

Your turn

Do you write short stories in addition to or instead of writing longer novels? Do you do it for some or all of the reasons I listed, or do you have another rationale? Please share in the comments below. 

Have fun

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Creating Your Own Niche: Developing Your Own Sub Genre

When I wrote about the opportunities and pitfalls of writing genre fiction last week, I suggested that we as independent authors have the chance to distinguish ourselves by pushing the boundaries of our chosen genre. (See Genre Conventions, Clichés and Evolution) Now, I'd like to focus on the specific I work with to help illustrate this idea.

Genre Combinations

It’s common in modern fiction for stories to blend more than one genre together. The tension or interaction between the different conventions gives the narrative a particular flavor that can work very well. Historical romance, military science fiction and dystopian YA have been and continue to be popular combinations.

I combine crime thrillers and spy fiction into a sub-genre that I refer to as criminal espionage. The connection between the two base overlaps to the point of almost being seamless. Intelligence officers often deal with smugglers, assassins, thieves and other criminal elements to carry out their missions. Espionage itself is often defined as breaking the laws of a foreign government to acquire information. Many of the major historical events that revolve around spies including Watergate, the Iran Contra Affair, and even Madame Butterfly also have a distinct criminal component.

The Why and the How

So if there is a basic link between crime fiction and spy fiction, what makes mine unique? The two aspects that I try to focus on are process and motivation.

Motivation: Unlike the standard spy fiction tropes, my stories are not about terrorists trying to kill the President, finding secret nuclear facilities or recovering the list of every undercover agent that always happens to be lying around waiting for someone to steal. (See How to Write Spy Fiction) The goals of my characters are much more sordid. They're driven by things like greed, lust, revenge and hate. Of course these negative drives find their way into spy thrillers of all types, but in my work they are not subsumed by concepts of avoiding war or saving the world. I feel the scope and reach of their actions and consequences is much closer to the reader's perspective. Hopefully that makes the characters and the story easier to relate to.

Process: Unlike a lot of crime fiction that I've read, my characters commit their crimes with the skills and tactics normally reserved for elite spies and Special Forces. My criminals are not desperate degenerates. They are skilled specialists. They don't rush blindly into an action. They study, evaluate, prepare and execute their operations with precision. They plan for not only the violent action but the legal, medical and social consequences of their actions. There are many real and imagined criminals that approach their craft with the same rigor. By combining high training with low motives, I try to capture a flavor in my work that will set me apart from other thriller writers.

Pioneers of the Craft

While I may or may not have coined the term criminal espionage, I certainly did not come up with the idea first. There is a significant body of work in this subgenre that spans across several types of media including:
  • Books: 100 Bullets, A Lonely Resurrection, Thick as Thieves, The Killer, Silence and Co.
  • Film: The American, Bad Company, Driver, The Professional, The Usual Suspects, Way of the Gun
  • Television: Burn Notice, Leverage
  • Video games: Hitman, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs

All these stories provide more than just inspiration. They provide a road map that other criminal espionage writers can follow by introducing the concepts that can become conventions over time.

Your Turn

So what subgenre are you working in? What major works define your space and what have you learned from them? How do you make your work stand apart? Please leave a comment and let me know. We can all learn something by both finding our own space and watching others build their own genres too.

Have fun.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Genre Fiction: Conventions, Clichés and Evolution

Fiction writers balance their work on a creative tightrope. On one hand, we create books that fit within one or more categories defined by the public and the creators who came before us. At the same time, we are expected to create stories that transcend the limits of previous tales and break new ground with our craft. If we stray too much on one side, our work becomes derivative. Too far the other way and we run the risk that no one will understand what we are talking about. How do we deal with this balancing act and produce art? I have a theory, but before I explain that, it might be helpful to start with some definitions.

Genre Definitions and Examples
Genre: Broadly speaking, genre is a category of art formed by specific conventions. Fictional genres include traditional categories like mystery and romance and newer concepts like YA and slasher horror.  There are also sub-genres within most of the major genres. For example, thriller is a very large genre that includes legal thrillers, spy thrillers, medical thrillers and many others.

Convention: The conventions in genre fiction are certain standards of storytelling. They can be defined by location (westerns), levels of activity (action adventure vs. cozy mystery), expected emotional impact (romance or horror), type of protagonist (crime or YA), or definition of reality itself within the story (fantasy and science fiction). Within each genre, the interpretation of the conventions can vary wildly. For example, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Tom Clancy are all pillars of the spy thriller genre, but each one approached the conventions from very different perspectives with very different results.

Cliché:  is an expression, idea, or element which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning to become trite or irritating. You are probably all too familiar with the clichés within your genre. The unearthly beauty of the vampire, the maverick FBI/ CIA/ former SEAL of the thriller and the naïve young girl of the historical romance can all fall into cliché because some writers have abused the convention and robbed it of its vitality.

From my perspective, the dilemma lies in how we play with and manipulate the conventions of genre without slipping into cliché. It would be hard to set a western story in modern day Manhattan or have a vampire story where no one sucked blood (or anything else), but how do we differentiate our work from all the other books, TV shows, movies and other stories in our genre that came before us?

I have two ideas. They aren’t really original, but I believe they can help us create work that is.

Creative Combinations
The idea behind creative combinations is that unique concepts can come from the blending of different genres. The resulting work contains more of a unique flavor because the conventions of one genre play off and against the conventions of the other. Examples that I’m familiar with include the criminal fantasy of Thieves World, alternative historical psychological thrillers like The Alienist, criminal horror like Grendel and sci-fi cop stories like Blade Runner and Alien Nation. My latest novel A Taste of Honey is an attempt to combine the crime and spy genres in the tradition of The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun and Miami Vice.

The good news about this method is that it allows the writer to combine whichever genres appeal to her, so she doesn’t have to sacrifice her interests for her craft. The bad news is that even with the broad number of combinations that are possible, most of them have already been explored in one form or another, so creative combinations serve as a stop gap measure at best.

Evolution of the Art
The best use of genre is to transcend the conventions to bring the craft into a new era. Writers who understand their genre completely have the chance to redefine the conventions and the genre itself.

Star Wars is the example that comes to mind first. The film at its heart is a monomyth that blends elements of fantasy and science fiction. I’m sure that has already been done before, but I don’t think it’s been done to a level this potent. Star Wars played on standard tropes to become synonymous with space opera. The knights of fantasy stories became Jedi and Sith. The science fiction trope of lasers became lightsabers. The fantasy concept of good and evil itself became personified in the Force.  If you want an idea of how successful genre manipulation can be, look no further than Darth Vader and his friends.

Robert McKee said that genres are useful to writers because they help shape and define our creations into “knowable worlds”. A story that tries to contain too many concepts, too many characters and too many conventions is quickly overcome by cliché. Our job then is to know our genre conventions through research and practice. Our goal can then be breaking from the convention to take our genres into unexplored territory or to create a new genre altogether.
So how do you use genre in your work? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

How and Why to Watch the Sales Numbers for Your Books

Watching the sales numbers for your book is a normal part of the publishing process. Any publisher, independent or traditional, wants to know how their product is performing in the market. If you just threw your book onto Amazon and then never checked to see if it made money, you might exist at the height of artistic freedom. But you would be ignoring the corporate manager and salesman functions of the independent publisher, (See What is the Difference between Self-Publishing and Independent Publishing?).

At the same time, obsessing your sales numbers can be an emotional rollercoaster that does little to improve your craft or your business. While I am often guilty of paying too much attention to the numbers, I think there is a benefit to looking at them the right way. I'll try to explore both the right way and the wrong way here.

Why We Look at the Numbers

JP Morgan once said “A man has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and a real reason.” That has direct application for independent sales numbers. The good reason we check the sales page for our books is for financial feedback. High sales are the most basic indicator of the positive performance of our product.  Reaching the top of the bestseller list is an indirect comparison between our work and that of our peers. Good sales indicate a successful marketing campaign, and possibly, a positive revenue stream (See Profit and Loss Statements for Independents).

But the real reason I look my sales numbers has little to do with business related issues. My primary motivation is ego gratification. I see high sales as a validation of my work. I equate open emails and FB likes as social proof and recognition. I react to reviews of my books and comments on my articles as people giving me attention and support. It might be narcissistic. It might not have anything to do with sales really, but I would be lying if I didn't admit to the emotional component of watching my sales charts. This reality creates a potential problem, but the first step in solving a problem is to admit that it exists.

How to Look at Your Sales Numbers

Whether your sales are high or low, the second most important benefit to looking at them (after seeing how much money you made) comes from viewing them in relation to the other metrics of your book.

If you have an e-mail list, social media activity, an advertising campaign or some other marketing vehicle, you can look at the relationships between those activities and your sales. As you develop your brand over time, you can try to manipulate the other metrics to try and increase sales. Do you get a bump in sales when you have a blog tour? Is the bump higher when you run an ad campaign? Which one offers a better return on investment? Looking at sales in comparison to your other efforts is an aspect of social experimentation that is a fundamental part of independent publishing. (See What is the Difference between Self-Publishing and Independent Publishing?).

When we look at sales numbers in this context, we only need to look at them periodically, such as when we are trying to measure the impact of a particular activity. When we're trying to track our sales over time, a monthly review of sales makes perfect sense. If we are using our sales numbers as a financial feedback system, we're doing our jobs.

How Not to Look at Sales Numbers

Whether your sales are high or low, they should not affect your writing schedule or your outlook on writing in general. Looking at your sales numbers as you sit down for a writing session can be counterproductive no matter how many books you sold. Checking your sales numbers several times a day for a book that you just released is not a good use of your time. Comparing your sales to another author in the abstract can be self-destructive. Any rumination about sales that keep you from writing should be avoided at all costs. I feel all of these statements are accurate because I have been guilty of each and every one of them in multiple occasions.

Keep Writing

Sales are an important indication of your commercial success as an independent. But it is not the only measure of success (See How Do You Define a Successful Writer?). Even celebrated authors have not achieved the financial success that frees them from their daily routine (See Do You Really Need to Quit Your Day Job?). Writers, like all artists, are driven at least in part by ego. It is a natural expression of the ego to seek validation in things like sales numbers. As long as the hunger for validation doesn't eat the desire to create, obsessing over sales numbers isn't a big problem. Just remember to write in those moments between refreshing the screen to see how many more copies you sold in the last ten minutes.

Have fun.