Growing Pains (of an indie author)

In early May 2016, I published my first book Nameless and Other Stories. While I may only have shifted five copies, despite running a few days of paid promotion on Facebook-more of that later on- I can finally say I am a published author. This, however, has left me wondering whether it has been worth it. Some of you may think it has, while others, looking at my slim sales, may disagree.

The book I published is a collection of short stories, which I already knew didn’t sell nearly as well as novels, but the venture was done as more of a learning experience, a chance to make some mistakes which I could hopefully learn from before embarking on the serious business of publishing my novel.

So far, I’ve made plenty of errors which I’d like to think I’ve learnt from, but it was a lot of effort and the time and money it took were, in the case of the former, substantial. I can’t say for sure how long the process took, but it was more than a month, perhaps two, and in all that time I hadn’t written a single word of original prose, so consumed with editing, purchasing software and domain names.

Once I had done the editing and proofreading, which was relatively easy, the next step was formatting the text and building the front of the book. This was particularly time consuming as I found myself messing about with the likes of Scrivener, which is supposed to be easy to use, well maybe if you are familiar with, and are willing to learn how to write code, which I’m not. Although having said that, perhaps this is another skill which the indie author will have to acquire in the future? Never the less, I quickly abandoned this approach and in the end decided to use Kindle’s own software which was what I should have done in the first place.

Next, came the challenge of designing the artwork, for this I found myself using, or should I say floundering about with Photoshop. I managed to cobble together a simple, but I think suitable, cover for the book. It was when I tried using it to design the cover of my novel I realised how desperately out of my depth I was. I quickly became discouraged with this and gave up trying to do something I am no expert in.

Then came the promotion, the posts, and tweets all about how my book was firstly available to pre-order and then out there in the world to buy. I will admit that I’m far from the best when it comes to blowing my own trumpet, but one of the things I do like about the internet is how it can enable anyone to be an actor in the digital domain. So, harnessing my alter-ego, I found myself becoming more and more confident with each post and tweet, even though I still feel a little like a second-hand car salesman when I venture out to bang my own drum. This generated a few likes on Facebook, but virtually no likes or RT’s on Twitter, which I had previously seen as the more writer -friendly tool.

Around this time I met up with an Annie Jai, a successful Amazon author who told me how I should be promoting my book using paid ads if I wanted to generate “organic” sales. So, I tried this out for myself; it took several attempts until I had my own campaign up and running. This was another aspect where I felt as if I had to act like an expert, only this time in marketing and demographics. So I tried my best; I entered that the ad should be targeted at both sexes between the ages of 18-65+. It’s not as if I’m writing YA or a murder series, and therefore would have a clearer idea of the sort of person who would read my work which is hard to pin down. As for the other sections; behaviours(?), politics, etc. I opted, instead, for interests, and that coming under the umbrella of entertainment. I remembered Annie saying it is good to target E-book readers (obviously), so I went with that. Then I added other criteria such as short stories and fiction which I saw gave me a very broad reach, which is good, but also can stop you from more accurately finding your audience. The thing is you don’t want to target an audience which is too wide to pin down, while, at the same time, you don’t want to end up with a niche audience which is going to limit your appeal. Having said that, it would be great just to have any kind of “organic” audience. This, people, is the art of getting complete strangers to pay money for your work. Easier said than done, of course.

So, after a couple of days, I shut the campaign down: I’d had 71 clicks to my website in total. What was I doing wrong? I wondered. Was the cover putting them off, the blurb, or was the link not working? I mean, after all, the book is selling at the lowest price possible ($0.99), and it’s hard to imagine none of those people clicking on my website decided not to purchase it.

So, all is not well in the self-publishing paradise. It was a couple of days after pulling the campaign that I watched a YouTube video hosted by a group of self-published authors, One of them stated the worst thing an aspiring writer could do in terms of promotion is to endlessly post and tweet about their book, especially if they don’t already have some kind of following who know about their upcoming releases. This advice also applied to paid ads. It would seem these are basically useless if no one knows you beforehand. And for all those Facebook friends and Twitter followers you’ve collected in the thousands? They don’t care about your book. Let’s face it, where are they going to find the time to read a book by an author who may well be terrible? I understand where they’re coming from; when I first started on Twitter, I had followers tweeting me about their latest book, or offering it to me for free. Did I attempt to read any of these? Of course not. Sitting down to read a book is a huge commitment. If it’s self-published, it’s less likely to be of high quality, especially if the author decided to forego beta readers and hiring a professional editor and proofreader (yes, despite what people may say, there still persists a stigma when it comes to going down the DIY route). Also, the books sent my way were not the kind I was interested in i.e. Lee Child, E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, etc. genre heavy, commercial wannabes.

Also, there is so much contradictory advice out there: on one hand there are writers who extoll the virtues of marketing and Ad campaigns, as I’ve briefly experimented with. While others such as Hugh Howey say word of mouth worked best for them i.e. giving their work to friends and family to grow an initial fan base (this I’ve tried myself, and while many of them expressed an interest in my writing, few of them ultimately got round to reading/purchasing it.)

I even thought at one point of going down the traditional publishing route. I reasoned to myself at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for editing, proofreading, and cover design, while someone else could concentrate on the marketing side which would free up more writing time. But this, of course, is a fallacy, as I’m sure we all know. It could take years to get an agent and a publisher, and even then one would have to compromise on artistic control, while still having to self-promote online like a Kardashian, and all for a measly 5-15% cut on royalties.

While the tone of this post may be in danger of sounding bitter and self-pitying, what I’m trying to get across is the, at times, frustrating nature of self-publishing and publishing in general. I’m aware of the learning curve required for anything which is worthwhile, and with a novel almost ready to publish, I’m not about to give up and skulk away feeling sorry for myself.

 

 

 

The Art and Value of Constructive Criticism

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless.

So, you’ve just finished the first, second, or even fifth draft of your short story, novel, or play, etc. You’re feeling very proud of yourself: your masterpiece, your baby, the thing which you have toiled over is ready to be pushed out into the world. You’re ready to share your genius with everyone. You send it out to friends and family, and so the ego stroking begins: sure, not everyone reads it, but the ones who do have nothing but praise for it: they’re so impressed you wrote a story, they say things along the lines of,  “I really liked it.- Well done,” and “I wish I could write.”

The “feedback” you’ve received is so positive the next step surely is to post it online to a site such YouWriteOn, or Writer’s Café. You may even have the confidence to join a writer’s group where you can blow everyone away with the story your parents loved so much. And so you do, but it doesn’t go as planned, in fact it comes as a great shock when some random person you’ve never met before says something along the lines of, “I didn’t like the ending-I didn’t care much for the characters-there’s too much telling and not enough showing.” This feels like a hard slap in the face from a cold, wet fish. None of it is a personal attack on you (or it shouldn’t be), but you can’t help feeling like it is. Yes, they pointed out the positive aspects of your work, but it’s the negative one(s) which stay with you.

So, with your bubble burst you slink back from this experience to lick your creative wounds. You may find you never get over this, or perhaps, after a short while has passed you may want to go back to your work and take another look at what the person in the writer’s group or on the site said, maybe begin to see the story from another perspective and why a particular character or scene didn’t ring true. You might even find referring to these critical points helps to make the story better. So you get over the experience and grow from it.

A few weeks or months down the line, you finish another piece of work and are again eager to let friends and family see the fruits of your labour. Again you are rewarded with nothing but positive reviews. So again you let strangers read it, but once more there is criticism about certain elements of the story. You wonder why these people are so quick to point out the less than perfect elements of your work. What do they see that your friends and family don’t? It’s not as if they don’t like you, they just don’t seem to think everything you put out is a hundred percent wonderful for some reason. Then it hits you: they are being honest. Something your friends and family are far too polite to be.

And this is where so many writers go wrong. Through well meaning, yet ultimately damaging kindness, friends and family end up constructing a monster. A huge beast held up by the scaffold of their ego which, despite its size will crumble with just one critical prod. If you are this kind of writer, or any other kind of artist then you will probably end up as the deluded pop star wannabe who springs into the audition room of X Factor or American Idol expecting to blow the judges away with their unique rendition of My Heart Will Go On, only to leave the stage in tears when they are told they just haven’t got it: Rejection hurts, reality bites, yet honesty has a refreshing sting to it.

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless. And it is also something you should never stop seeking out. I believe the best education you can get in writing is to do it every day and to always seek the opinion of others. I’m not saying you have to slavishly follow their every opinion, as it’s ultimately you who knows what is best, but you will know when their opinion is right.

I remember posting a story online which I was quite pleased with, I received three pieces of critique: one said my sentences were ridiculously long, while another said I went into too much detail which they felt was holding the story back. Where once my ego would have been wounded by this, instead I made notes of the points they made and systematically used them to improve my second draft. If I hadn’t the story would not have reached its potential and I would have carried on wrapped up in a deluded bubble, thinking no one in the outer world recognised my literary genius.

I’ll say it again: constructive criticism is invaluable and harder to come by than one might think. This isn’t to say you should take on board any and all criticism of your work. I have been unfortunate enough to be on the end of one particularly barbed review of my work which was nothing more than a bullying and arrogant attack which failed to point out any positives and seemed to revel in its criticism. This is where the art of constructive criticism comes in: if you are critiquing a piece of writing what you should be hoping to do is provide helpful insight and pointers into how the work could be improved, not turn it into some kind of personal attack which is used to pump up one’s own ego while at the same time destroying the ego of the writer, who for all you know may have only just started out on their journey. I find the best way to critique a piece of work without destroying the artist in the process is by using The Sandwich Technique512px-Sandwich in which you start off by acknowledging the positives in the writing (believe me, there’s always something good to be found in even the worst writing) and then go on to helpfully show where you feel improvements could be made. It also doesn’t hurt to display some empathy by pointing out how you may have made some of the same mistakes yourself and how common this can be. Then you finish off by reiterating the positives of their writing and expressing how you hope you were of some help.

So, the next time a relative waxes lyrical about your latest offering, or a complete stranger points out a glaring plot hole, put your ego to one side (easy than it sounds, I know), take a step back and try taking in the fuller picture.