“Discoverability” — a problem for writers AND readers

I’m sure that most new indie authors — assuming they lack a back list or name recognition  — have noticed, as I do, that in the absence of ongoing promotion our titles sink into oblivion pretty quickly. We don’t get bookstore sales of any significance, and once sales drop below a certain threshold, people browsing Amazon or other sites aren’t likely to ever see them.

Mind you, this is often true of traditional authors once their initial release period in bookstores is over, too. And then they’re pretty much stuck, unless their publishers have gotten savvy about goosing sales online (I notice that more are doing just that).

Of course, readers are also in a tight spot. Many of them would like to find good new indie authors. They know there’s good stuff to be had, and pretty cheaply, too. It’s just that there’s also a lot of crap, and sometimes it’s hard to know which is which. Not every amateur writer also has an amateur cover and amateur sales copy to warn us off, and some do mysteriously well at garnering five-star reviews. Conversely, many fine indie books suffer from an author’s lack of experience as publisher, with uninspiring or poorly targeted covers or copy. And pretty much by definition, new authors will lack reviews.

One site that I admire as both reader and writer — I suppose mostly because it is particularly rigorous and specific about its requirements — is Awesome Indies, which requires that indie authors obtain authorized reviews from people with literary credentials. I was pleased that The Awful Mess was included there recently. This site doesn’t get as much traffic as it deserves (not that I should talk, given how little this site gets). It could definitely benefit from more marketing mojo, and I hope to contribute to that effort in the future. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for solid offerings by indie authors, it’s a great place to browse.

Amazon’s own solution for indie authors is to offer (for Kindle Select authors only, of course), free days or Kindle Countdown Deals as options that can get Amazon’s own promotional algorithms working in an author’s favor. I’ve had pretty good luck with these myself, but I’ve also never counted on them to operate on their own. I’ve always done at least a little paid advertising (and free social promotion, too) to get the process going.

Of course, many indie authors don’t operate exclusively on Amazon, so those promotions aren’t quite as effective for them (it is still possible to do free and price promotions, but it’s a lot more complicated).

That’s part of the reason why a plethora of for-profit and non-profit sites and email list operators have popped up to help indie authors make connections with readers and vice versa. BookBub is the best known and most effective in my experience (and also the most expensive), partly because their lists are incredibly responsive, they have standards about what they will accept, and they are geniuses at writing sales copy (aided by their own brilliant use of A/B testing).

Others include Kindle Nation Daily, BookGorilla.com, The eReader Cafe, One Hundred Free Books, and many, many more (some of which I can’t use because my book has graphic details in it). Pretty good proof that they are effective: traditional publishers are beginning to take advantage of some of these operations, too.

Some sites or lists will accept your title even without an associated promotion. For example, Great Books Great Deals generously offers “new release” promos and/or “Less than a Latte” promotions for indie books that average over four stars. The Fussy Librarian and eBookSoda try to match readers with new books that are like other books they enjoy and these are currently either very affordable or free while they build up their lists. And there are many other similar efforts, some specific to certain genres, like Awesome Romance Novels, a site run by author Donna Fasano.

Book bloggers — often but not always fellow authors — also offer indies a way to reach an audience, although it’s a rather labor-intensive way.

Where do you find good indie authors, if you do? Share your sources! Or do you even notice the difference when you’re looking for books? I’d love to hear your take on this.

Life imitating art?

When I shared with some friends that my husband and I were planning to divorce this spring after 23 years of marriage, one asked me whether I was now fantasizing about the flowers on the table of my future kitchen the way Mary did in The Awful Mess.

I was taken aback. In fact, I don’t think I ever answered her, possibly because it hadn’t really occurred to me until then how much my situation was like my heroine’s.

For one thing, I first drafted Mary’s story over a decade ago, and I didn’t consider her to have that much in common with me — other than getting laid off from a publishing company, similar fertility issues, and a certain degree of native snarkiness. Perhaps most of all, I felt that I had much better taste in first husbands.

I guess we have a little more in common now, though I’m still quite certain I have better taste in first husbands.

Anyway, like Mary, I now need to downsize pretty radically in order to continue to lead the kind of life I want — in my case, one that will allow me to still teach part-time and write part-time instead of going back to a full-time job. But that’s about it. I don’t suffer from Mary’s traumatized desire for solitude … just my normal introverted writer’s desire for healthy dollops of solitude on a regular basis.

Unlike Mary, I have a college-age son who will be downsizing with me, at least until he goes off on his own. There’s no scandalous pregnancy in my future (at least not one of my own).

Like Mary, I will be coping with an immediate drastic drop in income, but that’s fine as long as I can live within my means, and that’s something I’ve been pretty good at over the years. I started saving for retirement quite young, and at this point I believe I can afford to value flexibility over income while I try to launch my fiction career.

Unlike Mary, I know that if disaster strikes, my parents would be happy to take us in and wouldn’t spend the duration criticizing me, although I can anticipate some tension with my mom. Let’s just say she keeps a much cleaner house than I do.

Mary was married for eight years. Jaime and I were getting close to a quarter century. No one can regard our divorce as the result of some impulsive, youthful mistake, a starter marriage that didn’t work out. And there’s really no point in having regrets about it. We’ve  had a pretty good life together. We’re still friends who can share a good laugh. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on our son, or my grandchildren and my lovely stepdaughter. I’ve also felt very much enriched by Jaime’s Puerto Rican culture. Just not so much that I would want to spend the rest of my days in Puerto Rico, if he even wanted me there, which he doesn’t (well, except to visit — I already have an invitation).

At this point I am less sad than I am relieved. I suppose I’m a bit like Mary in that, though I think Mary is actually much more traumatized than she realizes. I don’t believe that’s true of me, if only because this has been a long, slow marriage-death, the kind that lets you get used to the idea and finally start to poke at it with your foot because, well, it’s beginning to smell.

Unlike Mary, I don’t have to worry about my ex being a jerk. Jaime’s ex-wife Jenny has been a part of our extended family throughout our marriage because that was what it took to remain close with his daughter. I know that he is capable of being civilized with an ex, and a responsible divorced parent, and those are two of the things I most respect about him.

So as I consider my friend’s original question now, I realize that no — I’m not fantasizing about flowers on my table (frankly, I’ll be lucky to get a kitchen large enough to fit a table). But I am definitely fantasizing about the luxury of putting my own happiness first.

This is part of the reason I can sympathize with what Jaime is doing. At middle age, we can’t help but realize that there’s no longer an unlimited amount of time to achieve what we want. He’s 60 and he wants to go back to his homeland. I sincerely hope it will make him happy.

Starting Sheer Hubris Press was certainly a decision made in the pursuit of my own happiness, and although the financial rewards I hope to reap from it are still years away, I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to give it a go, and that I will have the opportunity to keep at it. It’s already brought me great joy simply by connecting me with readers and other writers.

So here’s the plan: Adapt to the changes that are coming, and have fun doing it.

The fundamental truth is that whatever changes I try to make at this point are temporary at best. My aging parents could begin to require more attention from me at any moment. My son is still growing up. And judging from this winter, there’s at least an outside chance that a new ice age is underway.

As someone who writes novels with strong romantic elements, I can tell you this isn’t the plot I had in mind back in 1989 when I got engaged. But there’s a reason most romances end with a wedding. That’s the luxury of being fictional. You can stop while you’re ahead.

Of course, the luxury of NOT being a fictional character is that you still exist afterwards. So here’s to my new life. I am looking forward to it.


Depending on the kindness of strangers (and friends)

This is just a short post to point you to a new page I’ve put up to keep track of the various blogs where my book has been reviewed or I’ve either been interviewed or given a chance to guest post or get some very affordable exposure, or whatever.

These things mean a lot for a new author. Success in indie publishing often depends on the kindness of fellow authors and dedicated reviewers or bloggers. (Traditional publishing success often depends on this, too.)

I’ll have another short post this week about some recent nice developments.

Here’s the link again: Blog hopping.

Photo: Jumping Frog - for Blog Hopping

—From “Life Around a Lily Pad,” January 1980, National Geographic magazine

Photograph by Bianca Lavies

A struggle to the end (of the story)

This last week as I buckled down to some actual writing again, I rediscovered a story I’d started and abandoned a couple of years ago, before I ever figured out how to end it — or even decided whether it was a short story, and not something longer. (It’s already at over 5,000 words.)

Here’s how it (currently) begins:

Photographs don’t lie, I was a beautiful baby.  Of course, there are plenty of beautiful babies, but they don’t all get entered into baby beauty contests.  Especially not boys.  But not only did I win the award, my achievement made it up on the sign in front of both our stores: JOHN BLUETT, 6 MOS. OLD, WINNER, MOST BEAUTIFUL BABY.

The way I figure it, Mom got a taste of fame in her high school production of Pygmalion and never adjusted to the way it didn’t bring her money and success for the rest of her life. Or maybe she thought it actually did, since it wasn’t long after that she married my dad, Harry Bluett, heir of the Bluett Furniture Warehouse home furnishings empire.  In a city like ours Harry must have been considered quite the catch – not handsome or smart, but rich. Famous, too.

That’s because the Bluett family always appeared in their own commercials.  Especially the kids.  “You might not be able to show a lady the exact piece she wants in her dining room,” Grandpa Bluett often said, “But you can always win her heart with your cute kids!”

So I spent my childhood as a minor celebrity.  I was the oldest son, and the only kid in the family to win the Most Beautiful Baby Award (not that the others didn’t get entered).  So I was in every commercial they ever made except for that time I had the chicken pox.

“Come schee what my daddy has on special this week!” I’d say.  It was the same line every time.  People watched me grow up saying it at the beginning or the end of some new commercial every month or so.  Some people thought my sibilant s’s were really cute.  Not the other boys at school, who liked to say, “Hey, Johnny, what you got on schpecial this week?”  When I finally got old enough to demand that I not have to say the word “daddy” on television, they got my sister Gloria to do it.  But I still had to stand around and point at furniture.

Now, I like this guy. I like his voice. I also like the problem he soon encounters with a young lady named Palmyra, who has a unique approach to men.

But damned if I know how to get him through it all in a way that satisfies in less than 12,000 words. Maybe even 60,000 words. Do I really have to write a whole novel just to find out how these guys are going to end up? I’m not sure I like him THAT much.

Ending short stories has got to be the single most difficult task I ever face as a writer. Most of the “complete” stories I have just sit around on my hard drive, where I periodically read them and think, “Yeah, okay… but that ending isn’t quite right yet.”

I don’t have that issue with the novels, so far. Even the third one, which is not finished, already has an ending I love. I just haven’t written the novel all the way to it yet. (Yes, I usually skip ahead and write endings when I’m about three quarters of the way through. At that point I need reassurance that I know where I’m going. Then when I really get there I have to rewrite it, of course, but at least I’m confident in the meantime.)

Why is it so much easier to end a novel than a story?

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this. I’m an English major who studied fiction writing in both college and grad school, so I’ve read plenty of classic short stories. In my classes at HVCC I have taught short stories that have lovely, perfect endings. Through Media Bistro I took an online course with John Rowell, whose stories in The Music of Your Life really impressed me. My friend Lucia Nevai is a real master at ending short stories well (and everything else about them, too — and I’m not just saying this; she won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize). Anyway, Lucia’s been kind enough to read my stuff and give me feedback.

Feedback like, on one of my stories, “you haven’t quite earned that ending yet.” (Though she probably put it more diplomatically than that.)

Damn it.

I’m thinking about this because I’d like to clean out the hard drive of all that work and put a volume of stories out. So I’m just kind of whining, now, about how hard it is to write good short stories, and how there’s also no market for them, really, outside of literary journals that almost no one reads except people who somehow managed to get published in them, which they have only done after collecting hundreds of little rejection slips or rejection emails, or knowing somebody, or somehow being so incredibly talented or awesomely cool that the potential of bright literary notoriety rises off their prose in little clouds.

Even when you’re a real author who has arrived and won awards and such, publishers tend to think of publishing a volume of short stories as a vanity move, something to win some good notices for an author (and publishing house) rather than something they expect to generate serious revenue.

I doubt there’s a single author in the US today who makes a good living purely from writing literary short stories. (Maybe Alice Munro manages, but she’s Canadian.)

But short stories as a genre are experiencing a bit of a revival thanks to ebooks and indie publishing. And the reason I’m interested in putting together a collection is that on Amazon I could give them away, or charge 99 cents (which is still more than I’d get in a literary journal) and then people who like them might actually buy my other books.

(Also, it’s a way of putting off The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire just a tad, because I expect that one to encounter some push back. Traditionally published writers are a little more insulated from controversy than indie writers, for whom a few ill-timed one-star reviews can spell disaster.)

Anyway, this week I decided I’d share a little work in progress with you. I thought it would be an economical solution to the time writing this blog takes, but of course it took just as long to write as it ever does, or maybe even longer.

If you’d like to hear more about John Bluett, let me know. I could use a little motivation to help me finish his story!

Speaking of problems with endings…

This weekend a firestorm has erupted over J.K. Rowling saying that she thinks she should have had Hermione Granger end up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. I happen to totally agree with her, but oh my there’s a lot of condemnation going on out there among Potter fans.

Apparently authors need to just learn to live with whatever we’ve published, and leave any regrets for journals or autobiographies published after we’re dead.

For indies, this offers advantages and benefits.

Advantage: So few people read our early books at first that we can often go in and fix them without anyone ever really knowing.

Disadvantage: We don’t have an experienced publishing team guiding us in the first place, especially pulling us back when we head straight for a cliff.

Then again, experienced publishing professionals can and do push pretty hard for what they think the market wants rather than what the author wants. They are often particularly interested in slotting us into just the slice of the market they think we have the best potential to claim, rather than allowing us to explore the questions that most interest us.

And if you ask me, that’s another good reason to go indie.