Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chasing the Rabbit of Success

Believe me, he's faster than he looks.
Yesterday, I had conversations with three writer friends of mine. We discussed pricing, promotions, writing our product descriptions, cover art and design, tracking sales, royalties, and other writing business minutia. Some good discussions with nice guys, talented writers all of them.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized, the one thing we didn't really discuss was the writing itself. We didn't talk about plot hooks, or character concepts, or cool scenes we were working out in our heads. We didn't bounce ideas for new stories off each other, or ask questions about the progress of current projects. In short, all we focused on was the business side of writing, and we all but ignored the writing itself.

In the movie Pacific Rim, a new Jaeger pilot can find themselves caught up in the memories that flood their minds when they enter "the drift" and join consciousnesses with their co-pilot. The pilot "chases the rabbit" and pursues a fleeting memory, getting lost in the conjoined memories and becoming distracted, disoriented, helpless, or even a danger to themselves and others. When I realized this morning how much time and energy I spend on scrutinizing and micro-managing the business side of writing and publishing, I know part of it is because I can see that rabbit ahead of me, that dream of becoming financially self-sufficient off of my royalties, quitting my day job (which, by the way, I loathe) and becoming a Full-Time Writer. I want to catch that rabbit more than I care to admit, and there are times when that feeling of wanting becomes akin to desperation.

When a new title goes live, I'm checking the sales page fifty times a day. When it starts to sell, I'm still checking the page while thinking of what I can do to spread the word and all but click the "buy" button for people. When a title flops, I look at it like a houseplant that's slowly withering and dying, no matter how much water and light and plant food I give it. Tweaking the cover, re-writing the description, playing with pricing, hitting the social media marketing pavement, launching promos - I'll do anything I can think of to get the word out there and sell sell sell. The only thing that keeps my promotional drum-beating in check is the fear of being "that guy" - the jerk on Twitter or Facebook who does nothing but spam followers with links to buy their books over and over again.

And the problem is, of course, that the rabbit is real. Becoming a financially successful author isn't some fantasy no one achieves except the luckiest of a lucky few. This post over at the Passive Voice Blog is filled with people who've either gone full-time or are anticipating doing so in the foreseeable future. The new publishing paradigms of the last few years have made it possible for more people than ever before to make a living - or at least, create an appreciable second income stream - from their writing. And the harsh reality of it is, you do have to pay attention to things like your cover design, your pricing strategies, your marketing, your product description, and so forth. If you don't, even the best book will languish in the doldrums, and you'll get discouraged, perhaps giving up the idea that you're any good, that you should keep at it despite a poor start.

What makes matters worse, of course, is seeing the real A-listers crushing it time and time again, and hearing the "Coffee is for Closers Only!" speeches they throw around. This Passive Voice Blog post discussing an article by powerhouse author Russell Blake became so incendiary, the blog owner had to turn off comments, because once Blake showed up and began kicking people in the junk over their own wishy-washy definitions of "effectiveness" and 'success", the knives came out. That's not the only example of such advice, of course - plenty of the more successful indie authors have thrown down the gauntlet, inadvertently or not, and made less successful writers question everything they're doing. Can't write for two hours every single day? You're a slacker. Can't get a new "book" out every month? Slacker. Your book can't stay above the "dreaded" 10,000 marker on the Amazon best-sellers list? It's a failure. Not willing to pay out $500+ for a book cover? You're just not taking this seriously, go wade in the kiddie pool with the other wannabes. And, oh, by the way - this business is only getting more cut-throat by the minute as the "tsunami of swill" covers the world, so if you're not selling a hundred copies a day right now, just give up, because the next new dino-porn craze will mean your novel will go unnoticed forever.

Chuckle at that last paragraph if you will, but I've seen all of those statements, and many more, over the last year or two, and no matter how hard you try to ignore the negativity, it's going to eat into your soul a little bit every day. You're going to start thinking to yourself, "Hmmm...maybe writing Bigfoot erotica isn't that hard...I can just use another pen name...", or paying out to professional marketers in the hopes that your poorly-selling book will finally find its audience, and some journalist will be interviewing you to ask about the secret of your success, and your story will cause other writers to furiously jot down notes, because hey - you caught that rabbit! That means it's possible after all!

Ultimately, I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never become a Full-Time Writer. Right now, my royalty stream is roughly equivalent to working a part-time job for 20 or so hours a week at a coffee shop or grocery store. It is definitely a solid, substantial source of income, and I appreciate every dollar. Over time, as I write and publish more, I hope that income stream grows, but there's no guarantee. My latest book has pretty much performed a face-plant a yard from the starting line, And I can already feel the first twinges of despair over it joining the pile of "failures" in my portfolio. That despair, of course, fuels the drive to figure out what I can do next to write something more profitable - the rabbit has gained more of a lead, and I'm pushing myself harder trying to catch up.

But what about the joys of writing? I actually love writing my Commando novels. Hanging out with Lynch, Bowen, McTeague, and the rest is a blast for me. I had a great deal of fun writing Renegade's Revenge, as well, and despite its abysmal performance over the years, I do want to write another Nanok short because I had a ton of fun writing the first story, and I want to get back to that goofy pastiche-y world I created. And of course, there's the sequel to Killer Instincts, which I do, in fact, want to write, but so many other projects come along and push themselves to the front of the line because I've decided to put success first.

This article on writing has gone on so long, it's becoming a book in its own right, so I'll conclude by saying that although someday I hope to write for a living, I never want to care more about promotions and marketing and price points than I do about my characters and their stories. Those two forces - the urge to create something I love to write, and the urge to create something I hope will make me money - will need to find a point of balance if I'm going to continue down this road without driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy.


Justin Aucoin said...

"Hmmm...maybe writing Bigfoot erotica isn't that hard...I can just use another pen name..."

I lol'd. :)

englishteacherx said...

One thing is VERY clear -- a lot of self-published writers clearly like marketing, advertising and sales a LOT more than they like writing.

Getting a sudden massive unexpected bestseller -- like the 50 SHADES OF GREY woman -- is about on par with the odds of winning the lottery. Journeyman authors, moderately successful and otherwise, come and go -- the libraries and used book stores are full of forgotten names, right?

But the fact that anybody has read my books at all is to me a source of great pleasure. Obviously success isn't earned based on hard work or talent, but both of those things are rewards in and of themselves. People have read your stories and enjoyed them, and you've made a few bucks. That's a good thing, right?

Dan Eldredge said...

I don't know that self-published writers like marketing more than writing, rather I think that marketing is an issue that all writers must contend with, and so they discuss it with each other more often. The act of writing itself is a solo activity, so it gets talked about less.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think about the marketing thing quite a lot myself. But most days I totally ignore it and just write. I don't like thinking about it. It's not fun. I don't generally do much talking about it. when I talk writing with other writers I want to talk about plot and characters and that sort of thing. I'd probably benefit from more working on marketing and my wife tries to help me, but there's only so much time in any day and if I can I want to do what I love, not what I loathe.

Indyguy said...

Bigfoot erotica? Justin, I smell a beastseller in the works. Please submit a 4000 word outline by Monday and I'll start talking with the folks down in marketing.

Jack Badelaire said...

I think the focus for many on marketing is that, for the first time, the writer has real control over the fate of their "baby". And, of course, you're seduced by folks like John Locke who come right out and say "I sold a million ebooks and it was all due to my Twitter account" or "If you leverage promotions right, you can find your niche market".

And to defend most of these people, they really are NOT looking to become the next million-dollar success story. They just want to be able to do what they love and get paid for it. I don't think that is a bad thing, or feel that "hey, someone bought it, warm fuzzies all around!" should be the end game. It's when the concept of desperately trying to game the system undercuts your enjoyment of creating stories that the problem arises.

englishteacherx said...

Well you can also move in baby steps towards writing full time. Look for a part time job that would give you more time to write and promote. I don't know if you'd say I'm "fortunate" that my career consists of temporary contracts and 20-25 hour work weeks, but it does mesh well with trying to write.

Justin Aucoin said...

Indyguy, you got it! haha

And I agree with Dan. It's not that marketing is more fun than writing (if it was, I'd be a marketing manager and not a writer), but I like the control I have over my product. But it's also a challenging and important part of the self-publishing model if you have any aspirations to write full-time.

Sean McLachlan said...

Don't despair, I love your novels!
I'm of the "write more, market less" school. My books don't sell all that well, but I don't have very many up yet. That will change in the next six months. Right now I have three books in edits and I'm about to start writing a fourth.
Once I have a sizable fiction list I'll start ramping up the marketing. Don't sell until you have something to sell! Especially if you are doing series like I am. People generally don't want to take a risk on a series until there's at least a couple of books out.
So for now, I make my living off of my nonfiction writing. The dream is to make half my income or more off of fiction. It will take time.

Tim Mayer said...

Big foot erotica is so last-year. The next big thing will be robot keiju erotica.

Eccentric Cowboy said...

I sympathize with you sir. I've not yet published my own work on the indy ticket, but I've thrown a good bit of thought into both writing and into marketing.

As a comparative noob, I do believe that it is reasonable and even expected for indy authors to research marketing and do what they can to promote their work. Unlike huge publishers, we don't have a giant team dedicated to spreading word of a new hot author or fun book that has been released. We've got to compete with them and all of the other indy authors just to get our stuff heard of, let alone purchased.

So I'd say that discussing promotion is a critical part of indy work. There are reams of info dedicated to helping people hone their writing craft, but not as much in regards to individual self promotion. Don't get me wrong, few things are more enjoyable than discussing the nuances of writing with fellow writers and trying to improve your craft. That's just plain fun!

Indies however have to work that much harder to get their stuff noticed and expanded. Although I have far less experience in publishing than you do, I would encourage you to keep hammering away. Keep making more good books and steadily increase your fan base.

Over time you'll get more and more readers, and for each one who likes just one of your books, they'll more than likely buy the others you have racked up. It's a difficult climb from all that I've seen, but you seem to be doing decent and can keep going upwards. :)

I wish you luck sir and hope that you catch that rabbit by the tail soon!

Anonymous said...

Your novels are nice.

sandhya said...

Your novels are very nice.