The Business Rusch: Readers

The Business Rusch: Readers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

As we came into the new year, I evaluated—as I always do—the things I do as part of my business. My business, for those of you who don’t know, is writing. I have been a published writer since I was sixteen years old. I have made a living at writing since I was in my early twenties, first with nonfiction and then with fiction.

Along the way, I’ve also owned two publishing companies, been an advisor to several more, and worked for half a dozen of them in some non-writing capacity. That doesn’t count the hundreds of publishing companies I have worked with as a writer.

My writing is my career. I have made the majority of my living in traditional publishing. But I have also seen the value of publishing non-traditionally, since I helped start my first publishing company back in 1988. (Hell, if you want honesty, I had my first publishing venture 20 years before that when little old grade school me published both the school newspaper (which I started from scratch, designed [ick!], edited and wrote 90% of), and a little newspaper for my neighborhood (which I did 99% of—and which told my neighbors waaaay more than they needed to know about my family’s politics and our dog.))

I have always seen writing as a career, a way to make a living.  Yes, I express myself. I work in an extremely creative profession, and because I’m good at both the creativity and the business side, I am free to write what I want, when I want, and where I want.

So I write this blog from the perspective of a professional writer, for other professional writers and/or people who want to be professional writers.  I define professional writer as someone who makes her living as a writer.  And by make a living, I mean someone who makes $50,000 to $100,000 per year or more at writing alone. Not writing combined with a high tech day job or writing combined with the salary from the university.

On the writing alone.

When I started, it wasn’t possible to make a living as a self-published writer. It is now. In fact, weirdly, you can make more money as a self-published writer than you ever could as a midlist writer—and in some cases, more than you could make as a bestselling writer.

Honestly, I find that astounding. This change has happened in just the past few years. A number of readers of this blog have commented on how fun it’s been to watch my attitudes change toward self- and indie-publishing. I’m still educating myself on all of this, and I’m still astonished by some things that I learn.

Of course, I’m still astounded by things I’ve seen in traditional publishing too. But I have come to expect illogic there. I’ve steeped myself in that side of the profession since I got my first issue of Writers Digest at the age of 12. Traditional publishing makes no sense on a number of levels.

And now, writers seemed determined to bring the same illogic to indie publishing.

I’ve focused on a lot of this illogic before from the use of agents in this modern world (makes no sense) to the use of a service to upload your book to ebookstores for a percentage of that book for the lifetime of the book (again, makes no sense). If you want to see what I have to say about that, look at some of the past blogs from the list here.

But here’s an aspect I’ve never talked about before, an aspect both sides—traditional publishing and indie writers alike—seem to ignore.

Readers.

Traditional publishing gave up on readers long ago. When traditional publishers take books in a series out of print before the next book comes out, those publishers aren’t thinking about readers. Those publishers are looking at books as widgets.

Look, they say to themselves, here’s a bunch of widgets in different colors. We released the yellow one first, and it’s doing all right. The green one, which we released second, isn’t doing as well. And the purple one, which we released third, is doing just a bit better. We’ll release the blue one—we think people will like blue widgets—but as we do, let’s remove the green one from the shelf. Green is a similar color to blue, right? And no one will know the difference.

Which might be true of widgets (if there were such a thing outside of website design).  I know it’s true of coats, because I looked at a rack of them today—brand new on the shelf, in many colors, and yes, while I preferred the blue and pink ones, the woman next to me liked the white and black ones. But coats are very different from books. Readers don’t get tired of books, and books don’t wear out.

If readers like an author’s work, they want to read everything that writer has done. If readers like a series, they want to read the entire series. And if it’s a series that has a continuing storyline (like a fantasy series), readers don’t want to skip an episode in that storyline.

It seems simple, it seems logical, and yet time after time after time, traditional publishing screws this one up.

I could list a million other things traditional publishing screws up, but that would take this entire post plus every post for the rest of the year. Honestly, most traditional publishers succeed in spite of their business practices.

What that tells me, a person who has written about business for more than thirty years, is that there is so much money to be made in publishing that even the most inept people on the planet can blunder their way into enough successes to keep the lights on in the office year after year.

We all know how traditional publishing ignores readers. But how do indie writers ignore readers?

By focusing on sales and “promotion” and “discoverability” and downloads and free to the exclusion of everything else.

Many indie writers have one book and they promote the hell of out that thing. They give it away for free, they join Kindle Select to “maximize discoverability” (ignoring Nook & IBook readers), and they sell it for 99 cents, thinking that will increase their sales.

So…let’s imagine that these writers are successful. Let’s imagine that they do get millions of people downloading their books. Out of those millions, at least half a million will read that book, and out of that half million, 250,000 will like it.

Then what?

Then nothing. That’s the problem. Nothing happens. Even if those successful indie writers eventually write another book, they have to start all over from scratch, because the readers who like what they did—those 250,000 readers—they will have forgotten the indie writer in six months.

How many of you folks can tell me without looking what you were reading in the last week of January 2011? How many of you can tell me the name of the author who wrote the book? How many of you can tell me the name of an author who wrote one book—and only one book—that you read and liked five years ago?

I’d be surprised if any of you can.

You indie writers treat your readers as badly as traditional publishers do. And you do it in the exact same way. You deny your readers the next book.

If you only have one book and you give it away for free, if you promote it heavily and it sells a lot of copies, and there is no follow-up book, then you have insulted your readers.

Here’s what readers expect: They expect writers to publish one book, then two books, then three books. They expect several books from their favorite writers.

Readers are kind, and they’re willing to wait. But they hate to be duped. Many readers won’t start reading a series with only one book out because they’ve been burned too many times. They don’t want to start something that the writer has no intention of finishing.

In the past, we writers sometimes had no choice about abandoning a series. As a reader pointed out to me last week, I have taken a 13-year hiatus on my Fey series. Which, I can say with all honesty, was not my fault. I wanted to publish the next three books in that series. I know what they will be. I also know about a few other books in that world, side books that I’ve discussed with no one.

But because Bantam Books took the fourth book of the original series out of print in the late 1990s during the distribution collapse, and (gosh, wow, whodathunkit) the series then died, I have been unable to sell rest of the Fey series to traditional publishers. (The same thing happened in Great Britain: that publishing company lost its entire editorial team, including the publisher himself, and the new regime didn’t want anything they did, so Book 4 never even appeared there. And in France, the exact same thing happened as in England, only it happened with Book 5. I feel particularly sad for the French because the French publisher divided the books in two. So Fey fans read eight books only to be told the remaining two would never come out. Burned—oh, yeah.)

Now that I can control when and where my books come out, I find myself in a lovely conundrum. I have several unfinished series that I can put back into print and then finish. However, I need actual physical time to write those books. I feel the pressure from the readers because I  know they’re waiting. And folks, I’m writing as fast as I can.

Unlike so many new writers, I know that I would not be here if it weren’t for the readers. The readers have stuck with me through publisher after publisher, pen name after pen name, all of the various attempts I’ve made to stay ahead of traditional publishers determined to undercut our joint product—the books. I have gotten more letters than I want to think about from readers asking why they couldn’t get a particular book or asking why I had taken that book out of print. (I hadn’t, of course; the publisher had.)

My frustration with traditional publishers ignoring readers is unbelievably high.

So when I see indie writers do the same thing, I get furious. I really do. Folks, when you heavily promote your first book and then don’t write anything else for a year or two or five, you’re insulting your readers. The people who have invested their hard-earned dollars and, more importantly, their time in your book.

I mentioned above that readers are used to writers building a career. Readers know that it might take a year after the first book to get their hands on the second book. But modern readers grew up in the traditional publishing environment like the rest of us—and readers have some important expectations.

1. They expect heavy promotion when a writer’s second book comes out. Or his fifth. Or his twelfth. Not his first.  If a writer gets heavy promotion on his first book, then that first book has to be not just brilliant, but one of the top books of the year.

Traditional publishers only spend a ton of money on first novelists when that book has the chance of winning the National Book Award or is being made into a movie or has five more books in the queue behind it, waiting to be published two months apart.

Readers expect that rhythm. So when you screw it up, when you promote something with no follow-up, no second or fifth or twelfth book, you risk making the reader mad.

Especially if your book is good.

You got that? If the reader likes your book, that reader will get mad when he can’t find another book of yours. Then he’ll move onto writers who have more than one book. Eventually, he will forget you.

2. Experience trains readers. So if readers find a lot of really good free ebooks that are essentially one-shot wonders—no other e-book or paper book to be found by the same author–eventually readers will stop trolling the free catalog and look elsewhere for books. Or the readers will be really cautious and only read a book after the author has published a second or fifth or twelfth book.

Readers might still download that free ebook, but they won’t read it until they know another book is on the way. So that download counts for exactly nothing. You have gotten someone to click a button with your free book, but you haven’t gained a reader.

3. Readers want to stick with their favorite writer(s) for the duration of the writer’s career. So the writer better dang-gum have a career.

In the past twenty years, traditional publishing made this almost impossible. Study after study has shown that it takes a reader several books before she will buy a book based on author-name recognition only. But traditional publishing made it hard for readers to find an author’s second or fifth or twelfth book. So many traditional publishers bailed on writers after a second book that didn’t do as well as the first (even if the failure of the second was the publisher’s fault [which it often was]), that writers didn’t stick around long enough for a reader to build any loyalty to that writer.

For the longest time, RT Book Reviews had a “whatever happened to?” column. If you read it, you’d discover that most writers who “vanished” hadn’t disappeared at all. They’d picked a new pen name and started over. Sometimes they were five names down the road by the time a reader wrote to that RT columnist. It took a dedicated reader to keep up.

4. But readers often are dedicated. That’s what traditional publishing misses with its “velocity” and its focus on selling a thousand books this week instead of five thousand over the next year.

Readers have a relationship with books. Readers love the characters or the world the author built or the author’s voice and point of view.

Traditional publishers call readers “consumers,” and technically that’s true.  Consumers purchase goods. Readers buy books. But that’s where the analogy ends. Because the second definition of consumer is this:

Someone who consumes something by eating it, drinking it, or using it up.

Readers can’t eat or drink a book. Nor do they destroy the book when they read it. They haven’t “used it up,” even though traditional publishing seems to think so. Traditional publishers are based on the consumer model—using the second definition—thinking that readers are done with the book after a few months, because the book will spoil.

Anyone who has visited a library or a used bookstore will tell you that’s not true. Anyone who reads Jane Austen or William Shakespeare or Mark Twain knows that stories can last forever. Books can live much longer than their creators.

Books are not ephemeral. Books, and by extension, the writers of those books, can and should have a longterm relationship with the reader.

Whenever indie writers get all tied up in the number of downloads their only novel has in one day, whenever those writers do everything they can to sell their one book without having another book for the reader, those writers have forgotten what it’s like to be a reader. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to fall in love with a new writer, to read everything that writer has done, to wait breathlessly for the next book, hoping against hope that book will be as good or better than the last.

Indie writers who have only one book and who give it away, or only have two books and constantly promote them, have forgotten what got them into writing in the first place.

Almost every writer I’ve ever met started writing because they loved books. They loved reading books, they loved imaginary worlds, they loved the experience of being somewhere else without leaving the living room.

That experience came from a writer.

The relationship isn’t between a writer and her publisher. Nor is it between the writer and her sales figures.

The relationship is between the writer and her readers.

Does this mean that every writer must write with readers looking over her shoulder? No. I will be writing the next three books of the Fey, but not this week. This week another project has taken precedence.

I write stories because I love to tell stories, and I am grateful that readers want to read them. But the moment I only tell the story that the readers want, then I stop being the best writer I can be. Because I’ll stop stretching and growing and trying new things.

But I’m not going to give up on the things that got me here either, because I love them as much as the readers do. I want to write the next three Fey books, just like I want to write the next Smokey Dalton mystery, and the next Kristine Grayson romance. I want to write the next Diving book and the next Retrieval Artist novel, but that won’t stop me from writing more short stories about Winston and Ruby.

Recently, a number of bloggers have taken me to task for being anti-free books/stories. I’m not anti-free. If those bloggers were paying attention, they’d notice that I post a story for free every Monday on my blog. Without a donate button, like I have here. The story is free.

It’s there as a gift to my fans. It’s also there as a loss leader, to attract new readers.

But I’ve written over 700 short stories (at last count) and more than 100 novels. If the reader likes what I’ve written, she has a variety of other things to choose from. Right now, I’m doing my best to get my entire backlist into print. And it will take years, believe me. But there’s enough available that a reader who likes this week’s free story (and the story is only up for one week) will be able to find something else that might interest her.

I’m hoping that free story will start a new relationship.

But free has its limits. If you’re talking about a career—and on this blog, we are—then the free item must be a short-term thing, a loss leader, and there has to be other products that a reader can find.

This new indie publishing world can correct the mistakes that traditional publishing makes. The new indie world can make books available for a long time. (I’m not saying forever, because I have no idea what the world, let alone publishing, will look like in 2040).

The world of indie publishing is tailor-made for the long-term reader/writer relationship.

And here’s the simple truth of it, folks. The more readers a writer has on all of her books—all, not “both,” or “one,” but all—the more money that writer will make. Because readers are happy to pay for a book. Readers do it all the time.

Some readers will even pay a premium to get a new book right away, before its publication date, before anyone else sees it.

The reason so many writers, like S.M. Stirling or Mike Shepherd or Patricia Briggs, hit the bestseller list with a book from the middle of their series is because readers who have been reading previous books in the series want that next book the moment it comes out. If you look at last week’s post on bestsellers, you’ll see that bestsellers are tied to velocity (the rapidity of sales) in the week of release. Well, what’s better suited to that than the next book in a beloved series?

The writer has earned that velocity, that instant readership for the new book, by writing excellent books in the past and building reader loyalty.

Until two years ago, the writer needed luck as well—the luck that they were with a publisher who was willing to build the book, or a sales force that was willing to promote backlist, or an editor who fought to have earlier titles in the series re-released. The writer also had to gamble that something bad didn’t happen during the week of release. (For example, Sara Paretsky had to recover from her bad numbers on one of her series books, which was released on 9/11/01—yep, that September 11.)

Now the writer has time to build readership. If a traditional publisher has taken books out of print, the writer can get her rights back and issue the book herself (sometimes with a hefty fight, but she can do it). The writer can continue a series that traditional publishing determines isn’t worth their time.  The writer has time.

If she has the patience.

And what’s going on with so many indie writers is that they only look at the short term.

From the perspective of a long-term career, painstakingly built one reader at a time, I believe that the writers who are happy that they’ve had 10,000 downloads of a free book (and that’s their only book or their only mystery novel or their only romance novel) don’t understand what they’re doing.

Not only are they getting nothing for their years of hard work. They’re also pissing off the readers who think of a free book as a promise of more good things to come.

Save your promotions for your tenth book. Better yet, don’t promote at all. Write the eleventh book.

Those of you with backlist, scramble to get it all up for your readers. Do the best you can.

And folks like me, with half a dozen series that all need a new book right now, well, we just have to be patient. We have to write those books one word at a time. (And yes, I’m talking to myself here. I want to write the next book in each series all at once, while writing this really cool new book that I just thought of.)

The new books aren’t not just for me. And they’re not just for the money I’ll make this year.

Because money has never been important to me except as one measure. It measures readers who are willing to part with hard-earned dollars to read my work. I’m grateful for that. When readers ask about the next book, I’m honored.

It means I’m doing something right.

Remember, writers—traditional and indie—your writing career isn’t about kudos for your only book. It’s about building readers, about maintaining the relationship.

Sometimes you have to surprise the reader to keep the relationship fresh. And sometimes you have to write the next book in the series, because it is familiar and it’s what the reader signed on for.

Success isn’t 10,000 downloads in an afternoon. Success is attracting readers and having them come back for years.

Is it hard? Of course it’s hard. In the beginning, no writer has a fan base. Writers earn their fan base, one reader and one book at a time. Fans come back. Writers—and traditional publishers—need to remember that.

Now do you folks see why I say that I have other things I could be writing instead of this blog? I am buried in projects.

Yet I have thousands of readers who show up for the blog every week, and I value you all. I love the dialogue that we’re having.

But the reason I keep the donate button on this blog is that it has to pay its way or I will turn my attention to the stuff that readers will pay for.

So those of you who support the blog with your comments, your links, and your dollars, thank you. You keep this conversation going every week. I appreciate that more than you know.

Click Here to Go To PayPal.

“The Business Rusch: Readers” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

 

 

 

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128 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Great insight.

    Ethan

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ethan.

      Reply
  2. Honestly, Kris, I don’t think I could do a better job of describing the ins, outs, advantages, and disadvantages (so far as I can perceive them, anyway) of Wattpad than David can. So here’s the link to his post: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/whats-up-with-wattpad/

    In the meantime, here’s my briefest nugget of an attempt: Wattpad is like DeviantArt but for stories. Writers (many of them on the younger end of things) post their material chapter by chapter and users can read the material for free either online or on their iPhone app. The author is able to keep track of statistics like who and how many are reading each work, and the users are able to comment and interact with the writers.

    As David points out, some authors are using this as a way to receive feedback on in-progress work. Others are looking at it as another venue for providing free samples to another market, one that’s more accustomed to the nonstop pace brought on by modern technology. A few, like David, have even seen an increase in sales on their free stories directly because of their relationship with Wattpad.

    It’s clearly not for every writer or even every project. But it seems like it could be a more interactive and meaningful platform than the typical “promotion” tools authors are using.

    (Hence why I wanted to hear your thoughts/opinion on the matter.)

    Reply
    • That sounds like a complete nightmare to me, Joshua. And it will make these writers turn out junk. Writers should never, ever, ever, ever have other people in the middle of their work in progress. A writer’s vision is the writer’s vision, for good or ill, not a committee’s vision.

      So you can tell, I think it awful, destructive, and bad for any writer who really wants to have a long-term career. Especially if the writer wants to write something good. Good is usually different, good is often challenging, and this sort of thing will absolutely ruin a book’s chance at being good.

      Sorry to be so vehement, but really. Not a good idea at all.

      Reply
  3. I found the following article yesterday with some numbers from a couple different authors who participated in KDP Select.

    http://www.genreality.net/real-numbers

    The most interesting part, to me, was the second author who removed books from other retailers to participate in Select. The author says, “Over all, when adding in the loss of sales from other venues, as well as a drop in sales at Amazon Author A suffered a loss of income of approx $8,000 by putting three novels that were already selling well into the Kindle Select program.”

    Reply
    • Yeah, yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do more Kindle Select, but Mark slid in at the last minute. Besides, you should see this link he put into his post (thank you, Mark!) The numbers here show exactly what I’ve been saying. Kindle Select is okay for a brand new front list title, but for backlist, for stuff you already have on other sites and must remove to participate in Kindle Select, it hurts, sometimes terribly. So as with any tool, think about how to use it properly if at all.

      Reply
  4. I’d like to politely and partially disagree with your last, Kris. I’ve gotten some useful feedback from ongoing critique of work in progress.

    It does have some fairly severe requirements. The writer has to be self-assured, self-possessed, and in fact downright arrogant enough to slough off the stuff that isn’t useful. It also helps if he/she has internalized what I think of as the First Rule of Critique: the thing being criticized is only rarely what’s actually wrong — if anything at all is actually wrong, of course. If you have the right kind of keyboard, you can program the long version of “stet” (“FOAD, I did that on purpose”) into a function key. That’s handy.

    Since I pretty much exemplify “self-assured, self-possessed, and arrogant”, critique on those terms has been a good thing. Funny, though, I don’t seem to keep critiquers for long –

    Regards,
    Ric

    Reply
    • Go ahead and disagree, Ric. I’ve seen stories written by committee and stories written by writers who trust their own vision, and believe me when I tell you, the stuff written by committee is much, much worse than anything the writer can do. Let me give you an example, which happened many times when I edited. A writer would submit a story to me. I’d ask them to touch up one or two things (put the gun on page 3 since it goes off on page 52 and we had no idea there was a gun until it went off), and then send it back to me. I wouldn’t promise to buy it, but I’d say it was close. I learned that writers couldn’t do simple revisions, so I always hedged my bets. Anyway, nine times out of ten, the writer would then run the story through their workshop, and the workshop would have other suggestions. I could always tell which story got workshopped and which one didn’t. The workshopped story had glimmers, but generally lacked the spark of originality that the one which didn’t go through the workshop had. Usually, I’d ask the writer for the original story back, make the damn changes myself, and ask the writer if they were okay. If the writer said no–and writers did: they wanted the workshopped version–they lost a sale. If they said yes, they had a sale.

      That’s just one example. I have a million others. I’ve been in workshops–and that’s what this is, it’s an online workshop–and I’ve watch writers destroy the one thing they have going for them, the one thing that’s original to them, which is also the one thing they can never see: their voice. No writer can hear her own voice. It’s hers, it sounds “normal” and “plain” to her, but unique to everyone else. And committees remove the voice, every time. So sorry, Ric. You might think it helped. It didn’t. I can guarantee it. And you’ll never see what the story lost, because as the writer, you didn’t know it was there in the first place.

      Reply
  5. That makes sense. I honestly hadn’t thought about that element, despite reading Dean’s posts on the matter (guess I need to go back and brush up, eh?)

    Thanks for the reply.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Joshua. :-) Sorry to be so adamant. I’ve seen too many writers destroy promising careers in this particular rabbit hole.

      Reply
  6. Excellent kick in the perspective! Thank you so much! I used to wait for my agent to tell me what to write next. Now I just let the readers decide with their feedback. They’re so much easier to work for than New York. And they make you want to be a better writer. New York makes you want to be a better suck-up.

    Reply
    • LOL, LL. Exactly. Be a better suck-up. I love that. :-)

      Reply
  7. You’re so right about expecting the next book. I’m still mad that Joanne Bertin took so long writing her third book, for example. I stopped checking for it so long ago that it could have been out already and I wouldn’t have known. In fact, the fact that it’s finally been submitted to Tor is new to me. Now I know it is coming, I’ll be watching for it again more regularly.

    I also know a few people who refuse to read any more of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books until the last one’s come out. (I’m not one of them. I grab them up the day of release, even after waiting six years.)

    My own writing career is too new. I haven’t even sold a short story yet, let alone started a novel. I’ll definitely try to keep this all in mind, however, as I go.

    Reply
    • I know, BJ. I wait with some writers too. And check compulsively. I always keep in mind that I’m a reader first, writer second. And my reader self is one demanding person. I suspect other readers are as well. :-) Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  8. As I was typing my last comment I missed the discussion on workshops. Thanks for that too. I’d been hesitating in joining any because of not being sure whether I could trust the critiques from one, but so many people kept telling me how helpful they are I just recently joined Critters.

    The only story I’ve submitted for critique so far, though, is one already making the rounds at the markets, and one I have no intention of actually changing unless an editor asks me to.

    Reply
    • Good, BJ. Glad you have no intention of making changes unless an editor requests–and if you agree with those editorial requests. :-)

      Reply
  9. I am a little late to this discussion, but I wanted to share an authors horror story I witnessed last week. Where I work there are 4 of us behind a locked door, and we frequently share news stories and reseach throughout the day. I started to share this article, but only got as far as explaining, “you know when an author has one book out or only book one, four and five, of a series, on on the shelves”, when there proceeded almost an hour of my co-workers ranting about authors they “hated”. And by “hated” I mean “loved”, these were authors that my co-worker really enjoyed, but one reason or another they refused to purchase again. I also noticed by the names dropped that many of these were authors they has steared me away from in the past, several were very large names in genre fiction. I was honesty suprised by the level of negative passion.

    For me, as a reader, I avoid authors in the under 3 crowd. I honestly can’t recall the last time I seriously considered buying a book where the author didn’t have 5 or more titles up for sale. Actually I can, it was Stieg Larsson. (and would adivise authors to take that into consideration, I know I am).

    Reply
    • Exactly, Christian. We readers take reading personally–that’s what the widget people miss. The stories become part of us and so when we are denied that part, we get angry. It makes sense to me. Thanks for the post.

      Reply
  10. Me again, dragging us back to the workshop discussion. (Sort of.)
    (Sorry.)
    One thing I’ve noticed consistently about your and Dean’s criticism of workshops (or outside feedback beyond an editor, if I may expand the definition) is that you focus largely on the voice and the mechanical components, as if workshops ONLY critiqued stories on a sentence-by-sentence level.
    What about feedback that looks at the structure of a story? Do you think good things can ever come out of that kind of environment?
    What if you sent a story to a workshop-setting with specific questions, as a tool for gauging reader reaction?
    For example, with the series I’m working on right now I’ve been sending the installments out to a small group of alpha readers (primarily composed of non-writers, i.e. READERS) and I ask them to grade the story on a five-point scale in various categories like “hook,” “conflict,” “setting and mood,” “pacing,” etc. Some, of course, can’t limit themselves to a point-system and/or feel the need to provide some justification for their scores, so they provide a brief explanation of what they thought worked or didn’t work.
    So far, this has shown me two things, quite concretely.
    1. There can be a variety of responses to the same story, even when that story is good. In other words, no story can please all readers. Something I already knew, but it’s given me confidence nonetheless.
    2. If a certain area of the story receives consistently low scores, then it’s an indication that, maybe, I should give it another look. Then, if I agree that I haven’t developed that area enough, I’ll go back in and rewrite the section IN CREATIVE VOICE. Very rarely do I adjust a part of the story on a sentence level unless it’s to correct copyedit.
    The system taps into the idea that “the customer’s always right about what’s going wrong, but they never know how to fix it.” (Howard Tayler at one of the panels last year at WorldCon.) It’s an idea that I agree with, but I’m not sure how much it applies to writing.
    Nevertheless, this seems to be a useful method for me, as it’s identified several places where I have issues with logical progression or character development, as indicated by the scoring system. But I’m by no means an experienced professional at this, so I’d like to hear what others think of such a process.

    Reply
    • Whatever works for you, Joshua. [shrug] But voice isn’t just about sentences. In fact, I never care about sentences at all. Writers are misnamed. We’re not “writers.” We’re storytellers. So when I tell you that workshops ruin your voice, I mean as a storyteller. Let me give you a movie example. I saw The Descendants last night. If I had been critiquing the movie in progress, I would have said the beginning was too slow, the characters unlikeable, and one character in particular unnecessary. Well, there was a reveal about 45 minutes in during which the unnecessary character becomes very necessary and through the reveal, illuminates every other character and makes the front part of that movie just plain brilliant.

      If I had been critiquing in progress, I would have missed all that, the writer might have gotten rid of the “unnecessary” character and tried to friendly up the other characters, and would have ruined the story.

      As readers/viewers, we have no idea where the story is going–and we can’t help because we don’t know. We won’t know until the end. It’s your job as a writer to get us to the end.

      On the other side of things, if I read critically, I can shred anything. Anything at all, from Shakespeare to Faulkner to your manuscript. Because every manuscript and every story has flaws. Every single one of them. Who cares? What matters is if the story works by the end.

      People who read critically aren’t readers. They’re critics. And critics never ever see what readers see, because critics are lost in the bark on the tree, never even realizing that the green leaves above them form a canopy.

      Reply
  11. Thank you, Kris, for another fantastic post. I really appreciate how you take the time to point out faults in both the traditional and indie publishing models. Neither is perfect and both sides are making mistakes, but it’s unique (I’ve discovered) to see someone take the time and point out flaws on both sides, to take them to task and call people out to try and make things better. There a lot of people who will refuse to listen simply because it’s going against what they believe is right. And that’s okay. It’s their choice. Just like there will be some people who will change or do something different the next time. Before anyone can make changes, good or bad, they first need to be aware. And once you’re aware you can take the steps (or not) to make things better for the reader.

    This post, focusing on the readers and not a writer’s downloads, was fantastic. Some writers can go ahead and take offense all they like, but as a reader I’m 100% on board. Like you, I’m a reader first. I’d never have ventured into writing if I didn’t love stories. For example: thank you, Phae, for continuing your Zoe series! I’d have been so disappointed to not see how this story ends if indie publishing wasn’t an option.

    “Success isn’t 10,000 downloads in an afternoon. Success is attracting readers and having them come back for years.

    Is it hard? Of course it’s hard. In the beginning, no writer has a fan base. Writers earn their fan base, one reader and one book at a time.”

    This is so true. And again, thanks for targeting those of us who are working hard to make this a career. But, of course, it takes time and patience to get there. Patience and writing the next book, the next story. I started out with only a few short stories and a few small sales. But I’ve had fun watching the numbers grow – both for how many people are paying for my work (which is truly astounding every time) and also my slow, but growing income. I am grateful for each person who’s read a sample and who’s then taken a chance on me, an unknown writer they’ve never heard of. But I’m also doing my best to show them I’m both serious and dedicated to them – I’m constantly writing and publishing stories, both short and novels. And in return, my writing has improved allowing me to tell even better and better stories to those readers. I can’t help but feel that this has helped readers take that chance on me compared to if I only had that one book.

    Reply
  12. Thanks, Kris. Examples really help me to take principles (things I know or think I know) and turn them into realities. So your film example helps me to keep in mind exactly what bothers me about university writing education. (*sigh* Almost done…)
    It also reminds me of what Dean says about criticism: “Use it to improve the NEXT story.” Hopefully I can keep my perspective on the long tail, and not today’s frustrations.

    Reply
  13. I’m getting to the point where I’m not sure what to post any more in a blog or in comments because everyone’s situation is so different in publishing. Kindle Select seems to be a particularly volatile point. It’s the end of the world as we know it according to some and for others it’s a valuable tool.
    All we can do is educate ourselves, listen to all the information out there, and make our own decisions. I’ll have a free book via Kindle Select every single week this year. It started two weeks ago and I’ve seen a definite upside to it. On the flip side, I basically invented Nook First by offering a title exclusive to Nook in August last year. It hit #2 overall (couldn’t beat out The Help) within 48 hours in September.
    Perhaps the point is that finally authors have more control. That we’re not at the whims of agents and editors and publishers and bookstores that stand between us and the reader.

    Reply
    • Good points, Bob. As I said, Kindle Select is a tool, which, if used correctly, might help a writer. But most writers don’t use it correctly. And now the Kindle Select topic is done. No matter how good the comments are about it.

      I do want to know if you informed B&N when you did that Nook exclusive or if you did it all on your own. :-) That might be a tool for writers to use as well. (I’ve been thinking about it myself.)

      Reply
  14. Critique groups nearly destroyed one of the stories I was working on a couple years back. I couldn’t tell what was wrong when I went to the groups at the time, but I lost all of my joy for telling the story. I ditched the groups and got my passion back. I do all the stuff they told me not to do, and I’ve never been happier. I think critique groups suck the life out of the stories.

    Reply
    • So many writers get destroyed by critique groups, Ruth Ann, that I tell writers to avoid them now. What happened to you is pretty common. Critique groups take the joy out of writing. They also have at least one troll who is more determined to prove he’s right than he is to help the writer. I’ve been in critique groups off and on, and I’ve seen too many writers destroyed. There are other, better ways to learn how to write than peer-to-peer critiques. (Or, rather, the blind leading the blind critique groups.)

      Reply
  15. “If I had been critiquing in progress, I would have missed all that, the writer might have gotten rid of the “unnecessary” character and tried to friendly up the other characters, and would have ruined the story.”

    While I agree with your general point, as a reader if the beginning of a novel is slow and the characters unlikable, I need a very good reason to read more than three pages before putting it back on the shelf. The writer probably wouldn’t get the chance to show me that I was wrong about the story.

    Movies have a little more leeway as other than the trailer you can’t really ‘browse’ before buying a ticket and once you’ve paid you either watch it or waste your money.

    Reply
    • I only used the movie to make a point, Edward. If it had been a book, the characters might have been more sympathetic because we’re in their heads. Oh–yeah! It was a book, good enough to sell well, and to attract a film makers attention. My point remains the same. Critiquing a work in progress destroys the work, plus creates other issues, like the one Ruth Ann mentions below.

      Reply
  16. This is exactly the kind of information my co-author and I need as we begin our journey in self publication. Good to see the positive and negative of traditional and indie. We do not want to go into this blindly and uninformed, or without careful consideration. As always, you’ve given us food for thought.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Robbyn.

      Reply
  17. Ah, critique groups. You can learn things if you don’t focus on deconstruction alone.

    In the end (after studying WHAT WORKS in stories, novels, & movies) you have to STOP critiquing. Just stop.

    Input, input, input (not deconstruction) will lead to creation & flow.

    Critiquing is a separate skill from composing and a critique group is more likely to sharpen critiquing skills. I’ve never been a good critiquer and after years in workshops I’m merely okay at critiquing. More of a reader reaction type. I can’t honestly say critiques helped my stories. Those critiques only added input to provide better new stories.

    Just stop. Trusting your own voice is hell of a lot more fun.

    Reply
  18. I whole hardily agree with Rob about critique groups in a general sense. For work in progress avoid them at all costs or you will be destroyed. I’ve read manuscripts where you can tell the opening has been changed so many times due to critique groups that the life has been sucked out of the story.

    My opinion is write the story starting at page one, until the end (wherever that may be), then have a trusted reader read it. (and by this I mean someone who will be honest with you, not mean-spirited) Then go back and make changes based on the feedback you received that you AGREE with and mail it, or publish it, or whatever else you decide. And lastly start on the next story. This is the only way to become a pro.

    I was very nearly stopped from ever writing again by a brutal critique. Someone in the group actually laughed at me. And I mean me not the work. This cut into me like a knife so I understand what you felt, Ruth Ann.

    I’ve since sold stories to St Martins Press, Pocket Books, and Champagne Books. I have over sixty titles at the e-tailers and just received a very good rejection from Ellery Queen. Don’t give up on your dream. And don’t let others do it for you.

    Reply
  19. “. There are other, better ways to learn how to write than peer-to-peer critiques. (Or, rather, the blind leading the blind critique groups.)”

    Now that begs the question… what are the other, better ways to learn how to write :)

    Reply
    • Thomas, Read. Write a lot. And I do mean a lot. Practice techniques that you see from other writers. Learn from people who are farther down the road you want to walk–not from peers. Learn how to gauge an audience reaction. But you don’t need the help of others (assuming you know the basics of grammar and spelling.) You need to read like a reader–read for enjoyment–and then work very hard, like a concern pianist would. Don’t rewrite. Write new. New words every day. And on and on. The key though: Read a lot and write a lot. Practice, practice, practice–and remember, this should be fun. If it isn’t, do something else.

      Reply
  20. I’ll think about what you said. For a number of reasons, I will also continue to experiment with different genres. I agree that a series should come out with new titles on a regular basis. Time is of the essence, isn’t it? I’ve published nine titles in a year and a half. It shocked me when I published a book and someone bought a copy within a half an hour. Maybe they had a Google alert on me, or maybe they were just browsing. There is something to be learned every day in this business.

    Reply
  21. Kris, thanks for your answer. Interesting stuff.

    Reply

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