Tag Archive | mixed messages

What Just Happened?

© savoia | istockphoto.com

© savoia | istockphoto.com

Okay, not gonna lie. Something weird happened with book sales this past summer. I had, without a doubt, the worst three months of my entire book-selling life this summer. And I know, I know, I haven’t had any substantial new releases since April, which could have something to do with it. The thing is, it’s not just me. I’ve heard just about ALL of my writer friends say that their sales dropped severely over this past summer. Like, to panic-inducing levels for some people.

And just recently I started hearing all about what’s going on with Ellora’s Cave being in big trouble. For those who just went “Huh?”, Ellora’s Cave is one of the publishing industry pioneers in erotic romance. They are in serious crisis mode right now, though, with executives resigning and problems brewing all around. Part of this was inexplicably low Amazon sales this summer. Now, part of that is due to the change in how Amazon is listing erotica and how they’ve changed the “parental controls”, for lack of a better word, that makes erotica searchable. (This is a huge sore spot for a lot of people, btw, and I don’t feel qualified to get into a discussion about the ethical implications, but that’s worth considering too) The bottom line is that books sales have taken a hit.

I know a lot of authors who are blaming Kindle Unlimited. That could be one answer. Amazon inaugurated its Kindle Unlimited program at the end of July. The program is basically Netflix for books. You buy a subscription, and then you can download an unlimited amount of books. For authors, only books that are part of the KDP Select program are eligible for this service. Some of my author friends who ARE in Select have been saying that they’ve seen their sales and borrows go way, way up in the last month. Some author friends who are NOT in Select say they have seen a big drop-off in sales. But I also have a lot of author friends who have not seen a significant change one way or another in the sales of their Select and Non-Select books.

So is Kindle Unlimited to blame for the pathetic sales across the board this summer? One theory on that front is that KU may be seeing an upswing in activity because the first month has been offered for free on a trial basis. This is just what I’ve heard, btw. I haven’t looked into it or signed up for anything myself. The theory is that we’re seeing the novelty surge at the beginning and that that will drop off soon. I also heard somewhere that sign-ups for KU weren’t what Amazon had hoped they would be. I know a lot of people who think that KU isn’t a factor in the weirdness of this summer too.

The other thing to note, for me, at least, is that my sales started tanking a month BEFORE Kindle Unlimited started. So for me, it wasn’t a matter of KU killing my sales.

Okay, so what could it be, then, if not KU?

Maybe it’s the ongoing battle royale between Amazon and Hachette and all of the authors getting involved? I don’t really think that’s it at all. Frankly, I think that most readers have no clue what’s going on there and don’t really care.

Maybe it was the weather? You have to admit, this was one freakin’ awesome summer, as far as weather goes. A good portion of the country experienced balmy, pleasant weather. Great for going outside to play. I mean, you can stay outside without being fried and you don’t have to hide out indoors in the AC reading to stay cool. But to me that doesn’t make sense on one level, because I always read MORE books in the summer, not less. So back in July, when I first began to have trouble, I did an informal poll of a lot of friends who read, asking them if they read in the summer. The long and short of that was that, yes, people do read a lot in the summer, but a lot of the people I talked to were reading all the books they bought before and hadn’t gotten around to reading yet.

I'm not a fan of blaming Amazon for everything...which seems to be really popular these days.

I’m not a fan of blaming Amazon for everything…which seems to be really popular these days.

Hmm. Could that be it? Was everyone reading their back-stock? Clearing out all those Kindle books they had purchased through the spring but hadn’t had time to read yet?

I really want to know, but I also recognize that I’m missing a few key pieces of information. In fact, I think all of us who are scrambling to try to figure out what happened this summer and who may be jumping to conclusions about Kindle Unlimited and other causes are missing vital information to determine what’s what.

First of all, the majority of the information I’ve gathered comes from indie authors who publish primarily in digital form. But here’s what I would like to know: Were sales slow for eBooks only or were print book sales down too? Is it only indie authors who took a hit or were trad pubbed authors struggling as well? Was it just the Romance genre that ran into trouble or were other genres having problems too? For the people that actually did do well, what did they do differently that the rest of us didn’t? And most importantly, have sales bounced back now that we’re in the months of pumpkin spice everything?

My sales HAVE rebounded, I’m happy to say. I have high hopes for them increasing even more with the release of the first book of my new series next month too. I’ve heard other authors say that their sales are beginning to inch back up to normal too. But what about you? Authors, how was your summer and how is your fall beginning? Readers, how many books did you buy this summer and have you signed up for Kindle Unlimited? I’d love to know!

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About-Face

The following story is a cautionary tale. It’s a cringe-worthy true story that is basically me offering advice about writing couched in telling tales on myself. There are a few morals to this story. One is “Do your research before you start writing.” The other is “Follow your writer’s heart.” Here it is.

11-26-13 © vsurkov | istockphoto.com

11-26-13 © vsurkov | istockphoto.com

So. Historical Romance and Science Fiction, right? Those are the things I write. I love all of it. I particularly love the stories that have been rolling around in my mind for years now. This summer I finally published the first two books in my Grace’s Moon sci-fi series. Yay! I’ve had those stories in me for years. I actually have a major portion of the entire history of that world in my head. Fun stuff.

This month I’ve been writing the third book in the series. It involves the children of the main characters from the first two books, particularly Grace’s son, Grayson (see what I did there?). A major focal point of the third book—in fact, the central object and plot device that provides the core of the action, the climax of the book, and all of the intent from the beginning of the story through to the last word—is the discovery and rescue of a massive spaceship that has sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Okay, so giant spaceship (capable of transporting a thousand people), a great big lake, and people trapped but still alive in the ship eighteen years after it sank. Very cool, right?

Aaaaand this is why you should do your research before you start writing a book. When I got to about 65,000 words of what was shaping up to be a 75,000 first draft, while Grayson and his buddies were devising and carrying out all sorts of plans to dive to the ship and discover the keys to a lot of plot threads and motivators, it dawned on me that I should probably Google the question “How deep can you dive without any equipment?”

The answer? Your average human who has not trained as a diver can only go down about 15 feet before the pressure becomes painful. (Although the record for free diving is about 600 feet, which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it) Translation? There is no way my characters could dive deep enough to reach, let alone rescue, a submerged spaceship. And there is no way I could place the ship in a shallow location without bringing up questions of why its inhabitants haven’t tried to get out on their own.

So basically, I have to not only rewrite almost the entire book, I have to reconceptualize just about everything about the external plot in order to make it work. I’m working on it. I’ve got a few vague ideas, but this opened a giant can of worms for me.

Research is one of the most fun parts of writing, but as I’ve just learned, the time to research technical questions that you know you’re going to run into is before you start. Now, I knew that you can’t dive particularly deep without equipment. The thing is, I didn’t realize it was THAT hard to dive. But when you’re researching, sometimes it’s hard to grasp what you don’t know that you don’t know. I’m beginning to think I (you?) need to create a spreadsheet or a list of possible technical questions that I have before I start the drafting process.

And now we come to the second moral of the story.

Now, I hate it when things that people have told me for years turn out to be true. I want to be iconoclastic and buck the system so badly. Maybe it’s hubris, but there’s that part of me that wants to be the exception to the rule. In this case, it’s all about the challenges and pitfalls of writing outside of your genre.

10-25-11 © John_Brueske | istockphoto.com

10-25-11 © John_Brueske | istockphoto.com

So as I finished publishing Saving Grace and Fallen from Grace and geared up to write book three, something unexpected and wonderful happened to me. I met a bunch of really great fellow western historical romance writers. Not just met them, I was accepted into the fold of both writers and superfans of the subgenre. I’m actually going to be part of a box set called Wild Western Women this fall! (You heard it first here!) I am totally in the western historical romance zone right now. And I had a miraculous brain-flash for a series set along the Oregon Trail in the midst of all this. We’re talking a half dozen specific romance stories and subsequent characters showing up in my head at the same time singing halleluiah.

At the same time that my sci-fi story was experiencing utter breakdown.

My heart said, “Hey, let’s set the sci-fi aside for a few months and work on this really cool western historical idea!” My head replied, “Dude, that sounds a little too much like quitting for my comfort.” But then my heart said, “You’re supposed to write what you love, though, right?” And my stubborn head said, “I love Grace’s Moon too.” And my heart countered with, “Yes, but your fans are primarily in historical romance, you are hot in historical romance right now, and odds are that you’ll sell more historical romance than you will sci-fi.”

I asked some friends, writers and non-writers. The response was pretty much unanimous. Set the sci-fi aside and work on the western historical romance. Listen to your heart.”

So what have I learned from this nails-on-the-chalkboard painful reversal of the momentum I’ve been trying to build all summer? What advice can I share coming out of the situation? Write the books you want to write, but put things into perspective as you write. If your goal is to publish the books you’ve always wanted to publish without any care for reception or income, then work on whatever feels right. If you want to write for both yourself and the readers you already have and/or if you’re hoping to generate income from your writing, consider directing your efforts to the tastes of the fans you’ve developed.

And above all else, strike while the iron is hot. If someone hands you a hot iron, you’d be a fool not to strike it.

So write on! (But research first) And don’t make the same mistakes I did.

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“Self”-Publishing is a Misnomer

writer memeI was sitting in a workshop at the Romance Writers of America national conference this morning, listening to a panel of very funny, very successful authors, when one of them said something that came at me out of left field and hit me with a flash of insight. I’m not sure if the author in question was trying to be disparaging or if she just wasn’t aware of how her words sounded, but she strongly implied that self-published authors produce and publish (subpar) books all on their own from beginning to end.

Her words struck me because they made me realize that, in fact, there is very little “self” in self-publishing. The idea that a self-published author writes a book, edits it, formats it, designs the cover, uploads it, and clicks “publish” all by themselves as a solitary operation isn’t just inaccurate, it’s a little baffling. I’m a tad surprised that this author may (or may not) think that that’s how this whole thing works.

Here’s the reality. It takes a village to “self”-publish a book. For those who aren’t super clear on how the process works, I write a book. The first draft usually takes me about a month and a half on average. Then I go back and read through that first draft and take all of the really bad suck out of it. Once that initial suckage is removed, I send it off to at least three beta-readers. (Starts counting: ONE, TWO, THREE)

I personally need to let the book sit for a while before I look at it again. Ideally I don’t look at it for about a month. Sometimes I don’t have time to let it ferment that long. But while it’s cooking, I have my cover designed (FOUR). I know some authors design their own covers, but I don’t have that kind of talent and I find it much easier just to let someone else handle that end of things. Leave the art to the artists.

Once the beta-readers get back to me, I start my hardcore editing. That means another couple of weeks of third and fourth drafting. When I’m satisfied, I send it to my editor (FIVE). My editor is super awesome. She does a thorough developmental edit with a bit of line editing, then sends it back to me. I bow humbly to her skillz, then make the changes she suggests (or not if I can really and truly justify doing things my original way). Then she likes to do a thorough copy edit before I publish it. Some authors hire a separate proofreader (SIX).

Yep, I hired someone else to design this. And what a fine job he did!

Yep, I hired someone else to design this. And what a fine job he did!

Then and only then do I format the book (I do it myself because I’m a nerd and like that sort of thing, but many people hire a formatter, SEVEN) and upload it across all the various sites. Voila! Published!

But that’s not the end. I have a publicist, Badass Marketing – BAM! (EIGHT). Actually, I have my publicist, but she has two assistants who work with my various lines (NINE, TEN) and book blog appearances, reviews, and all sorts of other fun stuff for me. I really couldn’t do what I do without them.

So wait a minute. What’s this self-publishing thing again? Don’t self-published authors do everything on their own? Huh-uh. As you can see, any given self-published author could have as many as ten other people working on their book before it hits the magic land of book retailing. So many people are needed to produce an effective piece of published work! So many! And that’s not even counting the fabulous fans and readers who breathe new life into a work by reading it, loving it, reviewing it, and sharing it.

All of this makes me think that the term “self-publishing” is inaccurate at best and misleading, nay, even insulting at worst. We don’t just blithely take things into our own hands and ours alone to publish books that haven’t been through any sort of vetting process. We work as hard as anyone and involve as many people in the process before a book hits the virtual shelves. We’re all in this together.

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Tiger Writers and Dolphin Writers

© Caan2gobelow | Dreamstime.com

© Caan2gobelow | Dreamstime.com

There are days when I swear that I’m far too insecure to be a writer. I mean, if there was a World Cup for stressing out about things, I would beat all y’all the way Germany beat Brazil! I may not give off those vibes all the time, but believe me, they’re there. I think they’re there with all of us creative types. My particular anxiety lately has been over what type of a writer I am.

As far as I see it (as determined by observation of my peers, particularly in the Romance world), writers are either tigers or dolphins.

Dolphins swim in packs (well, pods, to be precise). They are swift and beautiful and daring. They leap out of the water and do fabulous tricks, sunlight glittering off of the trail of water droplets they leave behind them. They are social animals and enjoy talking to each other, making noise, and entertaining crowds. Dolphins are awesome.

Tigers are loners. They pad through the jungle on silent feet, going after the things they want intensely. They hunt alone, preferring to stay hidden in the underbrush. But when they move in for the kill, boy do they get what they’re after! Tigers are beautiful animals, colorful and glorious, but they are solitary, maybe a little temperamental, and passionate. They don’t play well with others.

I, Merry Farmer, am a tiger writer. I absolutely thrive doing things on my own. This is the main reason I chose to self-publish instead of going the traditional route. I prefer to write on my own, edit with the help of a very few trusted professionals, and market through my brilliantly talented publicist. I enjoy writers conferences, but they sap every last ounce of my energy. I am not the writer you will find staying out late at the bar every night of a conference and whooping it up with other writers.

The thing is, I have a lot of writer friends who are dolphins. They excel at networking. They have formed author co-ops and pitched in together to create multi-author blogs. They cross-promote each other with their whole hearts. I love following the Facebook conversations they have with each other and seeing how well they get along. It’s so awesome!

I am completely incapable of having that kind of professional relationship with that many people. I am extraordinary wistful about the awesome bonds they have created. I totally want that…and I totally don’t.

Ah, the life of the contradictory artist! My big, stripy, tiger writer heart sighs with envy while at the same time being grateful I don’t have to expend that sort of energy being social. Where I start to stress out about the whole thing, though, is when I stop to wonder if the dolphins have the right idea.

© Lukyslukys | Dreamstime.com

© Lukyslukys | Dreamstime.com

Writer co-ops and author conglomerates are very in right now. With all the uncertainty in the publishing world, it can be comforting to band together with a group of like-minded peers. I have seen these groups accomplish some really snazzy stuff. They are able to position each other in strategic ways that solitary writers don’t have. I am a great admirer of the writer peer group.

So does this mean that writers should all join together in groups? Does it mean that we won’t find success unless we are dolphins?

That is exactly the question that stresses me out so much. Should I be making a bigger effort to go against my nature and become a part of one of these groups? Should all writers?

Ah, but here’s the thing. I also have a lot of writer friends who have found great deals of success going it on their own. In fact, a few of my fellow tiger writers are the ones who have hit the top of the Amazon charts, have garnered the most fans, and have landed on the USA Today Bestseller list. They didn’t do it through fostering connections with other writers, they did it by working hard on their own for the goals that matter to them.

So which type of a writer should any given writer try to be? Are tigers more successful than dolphins or vice versa?

Honestly, I think that comes down to the style of working that fits best with the individual writer in question. As for me, I think I need to learn to embrace my tiger-ass self. That’s the working style I feel most comfortable with and that allows me to do my best work. Another writer might feel exactly the opposite. They might work best with the accountability and support of their own pod. It really depends on who you are.

And so here is my advice to myself and to the other writers out there wondering if they’re “doing it right.” Stop stressing out about it. If you’re a tiger, embrace your tiger. If you’re a dolphin, live it up with the dolphins. A tiger wouldn’t survive for three seconds in a dolphin’s habitat and a dolphin couldn’t live a tiger’s life. There’s no need to spend energy wishing you were the other kind of writer when that energy could be put to better use WRITING. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you got the words on the page, it matters THAT you got them there.

But just out of curiosity, which kind of writer are you?

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2014 Book #5 – Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb

Okay, I’ve wanted to post more about this book for a long time and to recount some of the history lessons I’ve learned from it, but I’ve just been so busy lately! So what better way to talk about the history behind my inspiration for Somebody to Love than to do a book report on Strangers. And yes, you’ll notice it’s book #5, even though I’m currently reading book #23 of 2014 right now. I started this way back in January and only recently had time to finish it.

Strangers

The thing that struck me the most about Strangers is how different the landscape looked to 19th century gays and lesbians than we would think that it looked. Judging by today’s standards, I’m sure the first reaction one might have is to assume that life was haunted, fragile, and tense for 19th century homosexuals and that they were badly persecuted. Ah, but the very first lesson people should learn about history of any kind is that you can never view it with the standards and commonalities of modern life.

In today’s world, homosexuality is a hot topic. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, everyone knows what it is and has an opinion about it. It’s in the news, in pop culture, and a solid part of life in 2014. Not so in the 19th century! In fact, there was a great deal of ambiguity in the minds of your average 18th and 19th century person as to how to define someone who was outside of the norm. The 19th century was all about classifying and naming things scientifically, and it wasn’t really until this time that homosexuality was even defined. In fact, the term “homosexual” was coined in 1868.

Think about that for a second. 1868. There were other words in use in various languages to describe men who had a passion for other men—Uranian, invert, sodomite (which was a pejorative, whereas the other two were merely descriptive)—but the label came much later. Sure, sodomy was considered a crime, and (if I’m remembering this correctly) from The Buggery Act of 1533 until the first half of the 19th century it was a crime punishable by death, but that was the act, not the state of being homosexual.

Robb does an incredible job of piecing together the story of a state of being that was barely classified and certainly never spoken of openly through what historians call primary source material. He studied diaries, letters, journals, and other private communications to piece together the lives of men and women who didn’t fit into the traditional 19th century definition of masculine and feminine. It’s fascinating stuff! Even he admits that it’s incredibly difficult to state anything definitively, because the record of all of these lives isn’t necessarily there.

What was there, once you dig beneath the surface of genuine lack of knowledge on the part of most people and angst on the part of the men and women who knew they were different, was a rich tapestry of relationships existing without the umbrella of a label. There are cases that were hugely public, like Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and James Pratt and John Smith (the last two men hung for sodomy in England in 1835), but far, far more common were men and women living their unusual lives under the hush of obscurity and the fear of being caught out.

Now that’s not to say that their lives were a big secret. Some people, like Emily Dickenson, for example, were known to have “extremely close” relationships with a member of the same sex, but in this time before people had a firm handle on what exactly that meant and entailed, these known relationships sailed right over people’s heads. I got the feeling that Robb was saying if people in the 19th century knew more about what was going on, they would have disapproved. This was not an age of acceptance and tolerance by any stretch of the imagination. But a lot of things could be swept under the carpet and kept behind closed doors in the name of Victorian morality (no one talked about ANY kind of sexuality in public) or in the spirit of a deeper masculine camaraderie than we generally have today.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about this subject, and I would really like to learn more about it. The gist of Strangers is that there was, in fact, a thriving LGBT subculture in the 19th century that looked far different than we would imagine it to look. People lived happy lives outside of the scrutiny of “normal” folks simply because their passions weren’t on the radar of your average 19th century citizen. Which makes me all the more adamant about my character Phin’s solid place as one of Cold Springs, Montana’s finest citizens, in spite of everyone knowing he’s a little “off”.

I would love to take what I learned from Strangers and write more m/m romances with it.

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