Analyzing a really bad at-bat

Here’s a tidbit: The PG13 edition of The Awful Mess: A Love Story — which is the only one up there — has 22 sample downloads at Smashwords and zero sales. This means that 22 people who probably didn’t know me at all (since I’ve never mentioned or linked to that version) were interested enough to try it, but not interested enough to buy.

Now, this little data point doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. Smashwords readers may be an odd subset of people. There’s an awful lot of erotica there, for example. (But would those readers click on PG13 in the first place?) There’s also an awful lot of Christian romance (they might try PG13, but they’d probably be turned off by this book pretty quickly).

I could also try lowering the price and seeing if that makes any difference. Believe it or not, $3.99 is on the high side for indie-published e-books these days.

Still, batting 0 for 22 sucks.

Can I get anything out of this tidbit?

For one, it suggests that the cover and sales blurb can’t be too awful, but what these folks read just isn’t grabbing them.

I wish Amazon would let me know how many people have clicked “Preview this book,” but it doesn’t. Of course, at Amazon it’s unlikely anyone would ever see it in the first place, unless they’re browsing Episcopal fiction, the one category tiny enough that my book sometimes appears on the first page.

I’m beginning to realize exactly why so many agents felt this was a good book but a hard sell.

Because it IS a hard sell. (Doh!)

Even some of my kindest reviews point out that the first chapter suggests Mary’s life is going to be about nothing but cats and isolation.

To me that’s a clear signal that it will be anything but — which obviously doesn’t work as well I’d hoped. I’m still not sure how I could avoid that and still set up what I want to set up there.

(You can be sure I’m thinking a lot harder about how to make sure the first chapter of the NEXT book grabs any reader I can get in a choke-hold.)

So my expectations for this novel have been usefully lowered even further than they were when I started this experiment.

But onward and upward. Maybe one of these books one of these days will break out, and then the others might find their audiences, too. Or maybe the next novel will offend enough people that it will attract more attention. (I’m afraid I’m not joking about that.) Or maybe I’ll just continue to sell to a very, very small group.

And that’s fine, too.

Thank you for being part of my very, very small group!

Escape from the tyranny of social media marketing

Not really … but I am going to loosen the bonds a little. I’ve decided to cut back to once-a week blogging (on Mondays). I’m not getting enough new fiction writing done. It also turns out that I will have at least three courses next semester after all, so I’m going to be busier in the fall than I expected. This is GOOD news, but it means I’ll have less time for this.



Escape from the island of the author’s ego

How do writers keep their perspective?

Because I believe that all writers – all creative people of any kind, really — have egos that are about eight years old and prone to jealousy and heartache. Some just keep theirs better tucked away than others.

And in my experience, ego does not correlate in any way to talent. The least capable fanfic writer I know seldom fails to suggest that whoever he is reviewing got the best thing in his or her story from something he wrote in one of his. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling obviously felt the need to prove she could get a contract and good reviews, if not her usual stellar sales, under a pseudonym. And slurs, real or perceived, have inspired quite a number of famous  literary feuds.

You would think self-publishing has a certain built-in antidote to the author’s ego – after all, I’m putting this stuff out myself. It’s not exactly worth strutting about. I don’t tend to read self-published stuff myself. Why would I expect other people to?

(Because it’s mine, of course. Mine, mine, mine! And I’m brilliant!)

So this little exercise in self-publishing, still in the shakedown cruise, has been a real test of my ability to remain neutral in regard to my own work.

It has also taught me why I must.

Because for every nice comment I’ve gotten from someone, or nice review, or note passed along by a supportive friend, there are also the constant sobering notes which I could interpret as cruel, heartless slaps in the face. When in fact they are simply, you know, reality.

Like when I realize I’m totally boring some people with this stuff.

Or when I do the math and realize that of the many friends who have expressed some interest or even intent to buy, a fair number could not actually have spent the four bucks to do so. In other cases I’ve been surprised by some who haven’t left a review anywhere it would help me. (Let me interrupt here to express my eternal gratitude to those who have.)

On this last matter of missing reviews my eight-year-old ego (okay, five years old) is seriously prone to brooding. Is it because 1) they never began it 2) they never finished it, 3) they didn’t really like it all that much, 4) they think it has issues I won’t want to hear about 5) they think it’s awful, 6) I haven’t asked for it often or specifically enough, 7) they remember liking it but not enough specifics about it to write a review,  8) they have never left a review before and don’t know how, 9) they think it’s ethically dodgy to do, or 10) they just didn’t get around to it?

See what I mean about brooding? (Meanwhile, that last reason I should be able to relate to, because God knows I’m guilty of it myself. I have little good karma built up in this matter.)

There’s only one way to survive this: breathe deeply and let it go.

So I rub my tender ego on the back, say “There, there” in the most soothing way I can (maybe offer it some chocolate), and then turn to the next project for at least as long as it takes to get excited about it. Distraction is our friend.

How about you? If you’re a writer or put yourself out there creatively in other ways, what do you do to keep your perspective?


How my heroine shamed me into volunteer work

Those of you who’ve read The Awful Mess: A Love Story know that my protagonist, Mary, takes up volunteering in a food pantry and finds much satisfaction in doing so, even as she fears she may have to take advantage of the services herself one day.

I’m not sure where that idea came from, exactly, when I was writing. I don’t write with an outline, and in any case I started writing that novel over ten years ago. No doubt in my mind it had something to do with Mary making connections in her new  town, something that would become necessary to her happiness and possibly even her survival later on.

I had participated in one or two food drives and a Habitat build at various churches we’d belonged to, but I didn’t have any significant experience as a volunteer outside of church and my son’s school.

We were still fairly new to our new home outside of Albany, New York, and I was freelancing instead of working full time. For the first time in my life, I had real time to volunteer. But if someone asked me where I’d gotten my information about volunteering in a food pantry, I’d really have nothing to say. I’d just guessed at how it would work.

It was an embarrassing realization that my heroine was doing more for her community than I was.

Not long after a small piece in the local advertiser caught my eye. The local food pantry, Doors of Hope, was hosting an open house, and needed regular workers.

And so, years later (I honestly can’t remember when I started), I’m still a weekly volunteer with a morning shift at this thrift shop/food pantry operation in West Sand Lake, New York.
Like most volunteers, I know that I actually get more out of it than I give – in this case, rather literally, because it’s allowed me to clothe my family very cheaply during my years of part-time adjunct work. Instead of paying retail I’ve learned to simply wait. Sooner or later almost anything we need shows up in the thrift shop during my shift, at ridiculously low prices.

I’ve also made friends, and become more embedded in our community, and learned that people of every political and religious stripe really can come together to do good work, which was kind of the point of the novel in the first place.

So … thank you, Mary. I needed that.

And my top two reasons to indie-publish are…

#2. Low expectations

Anything I get from this enterprise feels like gravy. I don’t have to invest many thousands in this, or feel like a great big public failure if my writing brings me less than twenty bucks a month. Anything I get is something I might not have had otherwise. I can wait years for sales to grow (or not). In the meantime, see #10. So hoorah!

But the very best reason to do this right now is…

#1. I’m having more trouble finding my car in parking lots.

There comes a time when you realize maybe you’d better start crossing things off your list if you really want to get them accomplished.

I’ve been pretty absent-minded all my life, so losing my car doesn’t actually worry me as much as it should, but it does remind me that I’m not getting any younger.

Indie publishing allows me to seize the day while there’s still some daylight out there.

Top ten reasons to indie-publish: #5, #4, #3

#5. Fewer rejections.

After working in advertising, I’m pretty thick-skinned, but even for me a big pile of rejections – even kind ones – took on a certain critical mass after awhile. Not being able to publish sapped my desire to write original fiction (after some sad flailing about with attempts at more “marketable” revisions that I ultimately ended up discarding). This was perhaps especially true since I didn’t have any conviction that finally succeeding in publishing the first book would translate into a thriving career.

I have to applaud those who persist, like my friend Jenny Milchman, who doggedly wrote a number of novels before her official debut suspense novel, Cover of Snow, made it to print this year. It perhaps helped that she encountered some interest early on. Even when publication got THIS close and then nothing happened, she somehow drew strength from that and plowed ahead to develop what strikes me as quite possibly the best-crafted debut novelist’s platform in the entire history of publishing. Jenny is amazing!

Strangely enough, though, watching her and a number of other well-published authors at a lively, well-attended writer’s panel at The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza this last spring helped clarify for me that I just didn’t want to do things that way. (That’s assuming I even could, of course, but this is called Sheer Hubris Press for a reason.)

#4. Now I have a reason to keep writing!

See above. Sales would be very nice, but the truth is that simply getting some thoughtful reviews from total strangers would be enough to keep me happily writing. But without any reasonable hope of ever finding an audience during my lifetime,? Writing is really a conversation with the readers you hope are out there. Here’s my chance — I hope — to find some and hear something back once in awhile.

#3. I don’t have to hide my (shhhh!) fanfic habit.

The success of Shades of Grey has perhaps made it more acceptable for writers to have a fanfic background, and in science fiction there has long been a tradition of moving from fanfic to publication. In my genre it’s far more likely to generate pitying smiles. Therefore I’ve generally tried to keep my fanfic habit separate from my professional life.

But the thing is, I’ve had tremendous fun with fanfic. It’s allowed me to ‘publish’ at will, earn reviews, gain loyal readers from around the world, and make some wonderful friends. As an indie-published author, I don’t need to worry about being ‘outed.’ The folks who are likely to sneer at such things will already be sneering at me for self-publishing.

Instead I can out myself and hope it will gain me a few sales … and in fact it already has. In fact, I suspect that writing more fanfic in other fandoms, especially larger ones, or those more closely related to my novel genre, might actually be the single most productive way to market my original work. Or it might be if I had unlimited time, anyway.

The last two reasons come Monday. (I’m going to try to stick to a Monday and Wednesday publishing schedule here.) How about you? If you’re a self-published writer, what are your reasons for doing this?

My top ten reasons to indie-publish: #8, #7, #6

#8. My stuff will never go out of print unless I want it to.

This is why even many traditionally published authors welcome self-publishing. Author Laura Resnick explains it beautifully here. For many traditionally published authors, there is only the certainty that somewhere someone on Amazon is selling their older books for a penny plus shipping.Self-publishing allows the author some continued control – and hopefully some continued income.

#7. I can offer a PG-13 version.

This appeals on two levels. One, it keeps me from blushing at the thought of certain readers coming upon my novel, especially church ladies and children. Two, I enjoy experimenting. Which version will work better? (So far, sex wins hands down.) A bookstore could never waste space on this sort of thing, but what’s space in the digital world?
Of course, the very act of testing will cannibalize my own sales, but since I don’t have to please anyone else, I can just do the math. It’s also information that might come in useful before I publish the next novel, which is called The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

#6. Look at this speed to market!

My first novel features a heroine coping with unemployment in a crummy economy, even though it’s set during the aftermath of the tech bubble bursting rather than the Great Recession. It also has a gay couple who’d marry if they could. I’d say those particular themes are pretty current right now, but by the time I am lucky enough to get someone in publishing to say yes and actually get it into bookstores, that might no longer be the case. (In fact, I sincerely hope it will no longer be the case.)
Of course, this hardly matters if my book gets out to about 20 friends and nobody else, but it’s up to me to try to spread the word further. Just as it would be in traditional publishing.

More reasons Wednesday.

My top ten reasons to indie-publish ebooks: #10 and #9

Reason #10. I’m forced to learn new skills.

This is not a bad thing for a woman in her fifties. I’m not a complete stranger to html, but widgets and plugins? Or Twitter? Or simply blogging? Oh my. With the possible exception of now juggling multiple Facebook accounts, managing this web site is the most consistently confounding task I face as an indie author, and I can’t help fearing that some really bored hacker could hijack it all with a flick of a finger. It’s fun in the meantime, though.

Reason #9. Traditional publishing owes me nothing … and vice versa.

My husband has a steady job as a state employee, but that’s a modest living, and I’ve earned nothing but a freelance or adjunct salary for the last eleven years since the last publishing division I worked in was shut down and sold off in pieces by its corporate owner. Today I mostly buy books out of thrift stores, and occasionally Amazon because it’s cheap. More than anything else, I borrow them from the library (and I’m a library trustee, so I walk the walk on that one).

M.J. Rose and other authors can tell me I should always buy other writers’ books, and, yes, I’m sure it’s good karma. However, they don’t have to pay my mortgage, or buy the gas to get there, or find a way to store or somehow redistribute all those physical books. Yes, I do buy books full retail occasionally. It’s either a gift or a rare splurge or the writer is standing right there to be offended if I don’t.

I do feel some loyalty to bookstores, but that’s more nostalgia than anything else. That’s even though I owe a debt of gratitude to the Borders across the river, now shut, and to the Barnes and Noble now, for housing my writing group. I always do buy something, but I’m afraid it’s usually just a latte.

Still, the fundamental truth is that bookstores, like traditional publishers, are businesses … as this is. I’d like to think there’s room for all of us.


(To be continued)