Living From Writing III: Brand New Day
This is post number three. It follows, naturally enough, from two previous posts, here and here. You should read those first, to understand where I’m coming from with this one. They’re slightly speculative, in that they’re my thoughts on what’s happening in publishing now, and what might happen next. They present grim reading for new authors, I’ll be the first to admit, but without understanding the situation and extrapolating what might be coming next, those new authors are going to become a generation of talented hobbyists. There are always going to be the handful who are hit by lightning and shoot upwards at short notice, making the rest of us weep with jealousy, but if you actually hope for a career in writing fiction (and that’s what I’m talking about – you can be a reasonably successful part time writer, if you’ve other ways to draw an income), then you can’t sit back and wait for that to be you.
Because it won’t ever be.
Instead, you have to treat your writing as a business, I think (and bear in mind, these three little articles are me thinking things through, to try to help myself – they’re not some guaranteed ‘how to guide’ based on my incipient genius, and I may well have got everything wrong, with much disillusionment to follow). This is counter-intuitive for most writers, who have always considered themselves artists rather than businessmen. You can’t really do that anymore, at least not if you really want to progress. The very suggestion that you might be best off treating yourself as a small business that you want to grow is a huge mental leap. A lot of people won’t be able to get it. That’s what agents are for! That’s what publishers are for! For my own view on where that leaves you in the coming years, see previous articles. In summary, it leaves you screwed.
As this whole thing is about setting out my own stall, I should get on with it.
One thing I’ll repeat from the previous entries, which is the single biggest thing an author needs to deal with these days. From the reader’s point of view, and for the first time in publishing history, everything is competing with everything else, with the same ease of availability, all of the time. Somebody interested in horror fiction can pick up their Kindle and download my novel Cuckoo, sure. Equally, they could choose to download Carrie, or Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, or Rosemary’s Baby, or The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde... etc. Quibblers can point to titles you can’t yet get for your electronic reader, but give it a year or two. Everything. All of the time.
I’m not going to try to tell anybody that my horror novel is going to hit the spot more sweetly than the best of King, Shelly, Levin, or Stevenson. People will laugh at me, and I’ll be completely discredited in a heartbeat. Bang goes my chance of selling anything at all. That doesn’t mean the right people might not like to try my work though. My job is to give them the opportunity and motive to find out.
This is what I’m going to try, over the next couple of years. A lot of it updates old advice for a new environment. Some it is, at the moment, horribly vague – a placeholder, to come back to. Your mileage may vary, but feel free to discuss.
1. Write Lots Of Words
More than ever, in fact. In order to achieve half of the below, I need lots and lots of new words. And they need to be consistently good ones. While all of these thoughts are more about how the business of being a writer is changing, it remains the fact that it’s all irrelevant if you can’t write good stories that people will enjoy reading. I’m not the person to tell you how to become a good writer. There are far better sources of advice than me. All I can tell you is that the work needs to be done. Until you’re a good writer (and nobody is, right at the start, although they might have the potential to become one), none of this matters to you. Worse, if you’re premature in making your work available before it’s ready, you risk fundamentally discrediting yourself and your future work. Readers have all the power, and the Internet is eternal. A bunch of awful reader reviews online, pointing out error heaped upon error in self-published works, is something that will live with you for the rest of your career. Google, and its successors, will ensure it. The Interweb gives you no second chances. Every author gets badly reviewed, but if you get dozens of people decrying your name, for stupid stuff that should never have hit the market, hell mend you. See above for what you’re competing against. All of the time.
2. Accept That Readers Control The Market
Per previous articles, they really do. Publishers are at the mercy of readers, and in my view, only those in a relationship or partnership with their readers have much of a future. Retailers have power as well, but they’re in the business of making readers happy, and bend with the prevailing winds.
3. Find Your Readers
This is the mission statement. The author’s job, after writing something that some readers will enjoy, is to find those readers. This used to be the job of the publisher and agent, while the writer got on with the creative stuff. That’s less the case than ever. See previous posts. So how do you find new readers? Given that shouting at people about how good you are is unlikely to engender much in the way of respect (and, of course, sales), you need to earn them.
- Write Short Stories – This is going to make my long suffering lady groan. Whenever I proudly announce that I’ve sold a short story, she asks how much for. Short stories are the loss leader of the writer’s repertoire. Even at ‘professional rates’, I get paid a pittance for them. That’s not the point though. Short stories, especially for somebody like myself who doesn’t have a large and enthusiastic fan base already, are a first step to growing one. This is one reason I need to write an awful lot words. To get the most of having a novel published, I need people who are already going to be interested enough to go and grab that novel. This, in the first instance, is why I need to make a lot of words happen. I need not only novels and other work under my own name for people to dive into, but I need to throw out enough ‘samples’ to readers who might be interested in my stuff. Of course, from the writing point of view, a short story is a beautiful and self-contained challenge in its own right. We’re talking business here, though. In a ‘business model’ of writing, short stories are there to attract a reader’s attention. For that reason, I’d better trust that I can stay good at writing them.
- Place Short Stories Intelligently – Unless you’re incredibly prolific, a scattergun approach isn’t a good idea. If you can, and if your work is good enough to give you the option, I think it’s better to target your readers quite specifically. From my point of view, much of what I write is horror. That’s not enough though – the genre is big, and there’s a maxim in advertising that you need to put something in front of people at least three times before anybody takes notice. That includes my name, as an author. Think of how many author names you’ve discovered because you’ve read two or three separate things they’ve written, until finally their name clicks as somebody you start to trust to write the things you like. That’s when you might actively start looking for other things they’ve written to check out. An example from my own history, that I’m modelling this on. A while ago, I sold a short story to Shroud Publishing’s Beneath the Surface anthology. This led indirectly to Shroud publishing my novella Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow, and serialising my novel Craven Place in their digital edition. Shroud is a publisher with its own cultivated readership – people who enjoy and trust the publisher, and come back for more of what they do. I’ve sold another (I think cracking) short story to them for an upcoming edition of their magazine. Some of their readers are going to start registering my name as an author that they enjoy, and maybe grab a copy of Cuckoo. I can’t make them, but some of them are going to start to trust me of their own accord. See my previous post for the heightened role trust and relationships have in the new publishing. You can’t fake it, but you can put yourself in a position where you can facilitate it, if it’s going to happen at all. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if Tim and other editors at Shroud didn’t like my fiction, but every relationship starts with an introduction, and I can choose to send what I write to publishers who readers are already excited about, and give myself the best chance.
- Place Novels Intelligently – For me, this means avoiding massive publishers who are going to throw my work into a crowded market in the hope that I sink or swim. Publishers who are trusted by their readers are far more valuable to me, because of the opportunity they provide to develop that much discussed level of trust. If a publisher has built a base of readers who trust them, those readers are more likely than anybody else to give my fiction a go, if the publisher has invested in me. The old maxim in publishing is that, to give yourself the best chance, you should be submitting your novels to the biggest publishers in the business, and working your way down until somebody says yes. It’s always been a reasonable bit of advice. For the reasons I gave yesterday, I no longer think it counts. When The December Book is finished next month (finally!), the publishers I’ll be looking for are independents with their own reader bases. As an author, per the above, I hope I’ll bring my own readers to that book too. This approach will not net me a massive advance, but I want to grow, remember? Finding readers, and letting them find me, is a slow business. So is building trust. Once you’ve got it though, it doesn’t go away unless you yourself forget it’s there. If you have readers who trust you, and you fail to value that by driving them to buy something substandard, then you’ve earned their disloyalty. Remember your competition? Everything. All of the time.
- Diversify – For somebody like me, a genre author, there’s no future in one corner of the ghetto. If I can’t introduce my work to an increasingly broad range of readers, there’s no way to grow (this drives me back to step 1.). I don’t just want to develop a relationship with people who call themselves horror fans though. I want to grow more than that. Writing is writing. Stories are stories. Most people who read Stephen King books don’t call themselves horror fans either, though they know are enjoying horror fiction in that moment of reading one of his books. They’re just readers, who like his stories. To achieve the same, I have to go and find readers who won’t otherwise find me. A recent example from my own career, that I intend to use as a model going forward. I had an Iris Wildthyme story published last year by Obverse Books. Obverse is another independent publisher with a growing dedicated fanbase that’s distinct (but connected to and drawn from) the fanbase of the authors they publish and the properties they develop. Some of those readers really enjoyed my tale ‘The Story Eater’ in Iris: Abroad. I have another Iris story coming out later this year, in Wildthyme in Purple. A few of the people who enjoyed ‘The Story Eater’ might also find themselves liking ‘The Many Lives of Zorro’. That’s the point where a handful of Obverse readers might also become, separately, my readers too, because they’re starting to trust me. They’re not readers who will have had much experience of the places where my darker fictions are usually published, but they might start checking them out. The small group of readers who trust me to write things they’ll enjoy reading might grow, by a handful, and that’s how growth works.
- Diversify More – It’s not enough to write novels and short stories, not if I want to one day live off my writing. I have to find other outlets. Theatre, radio, TV, film, who knows? Right now, I have no idea where to start, but I’m going to learn, and then I’m going to try it. Without additional sources of income for things I can enjoy writing, I’ll never get to call this my job. Scary, but true. I’m starting from scratch on this one. I’m too long in the tooth to write ‘anything as long as there’s money involved’. I’m going to have to explore avenues that interest me from scratch. I’ve nothing else to say about this right now, because I don’t know how to do it yet. I’ll work something out, and soon.
- Innovate – This plan, such as it is, requires that I leave room for innovation and new things to come along. The business of publishing fiction is only just starting to evolve – the Kindle is only part of the process, not the end. There’s going to be a lot of industry watching from here on in, trying to work out how to make the most of new opportunities. I’ve got some ideas, but they’ll change with the landscape, so nothing more on them here.
- Avoid Preaching – Eight tweets a day about my latest endeavour is going to turn people off. So is jumping up and down on a message board shouting about how good my book is. I’ll continue to politely let people know about my books through these venues, because if people don’t know then they can’t buy. However, nobody is going to be bullied or cajoled into buying Cuckoo, because everything else is also available to them, all of the time, and they know what they like. Only when they already trust me will my announcement make them want to buy a book. As with everybody else these days, I’m on FB, Twitter, Google+, etc. However, while I’ll let people there know what I’m up to, I’m going to have to concentrate on building that trust in the first place, rather than waste my efforts mindless yelling. Everybody knows that social networks can help sell a book. A lot of people forget that only when people other than the author are the ones sharing a book and talking about it does anybody prick up their ears. If you enjoy my work, share it with your friends and contacts. That works. If I do it with my own stuff though, I look like a tool.
That’s it. All I’ve got. In a publishing landscape that’s controlled by the reader, who can choose to buy anything all of the time, all an author can build on is trust. Basic ‘money where your mouth is’ stuff. I can do my best to make sure I don’t put out stories that are going to disappoint the people who like my work. I can value any trust that people place in me. I can try to put my work in places where more readers might begin developing that trust.
I’m not a fan of Ryan Star. I’ve only ever heard his track ‘Brand New Day’ (because it’s the opening theme of the brilliant, sadly cancelled, Lie To Me). I wrote this whole thing while listening to it. It’s incredibly appropriate.
I’ve written one last article, to finish things off, and I hope you check it out.
Tagged diversify, publishing, readers, relationships, trust, words, writing