Business Musings: The Indie And The Bestseller
A few weeks ago, an indie writer whose work I enjoy a great deal wrote me a conflicted email. It seems she reached out to a bestselling author and asked that person (whom we shall now call B.A.) for recommendations on how to get her books to sell more copies.
Note: I may have some of the early details wrong here, since I’m not double-checking my email; just relying on my memory. And since this indie writer’s experience is not unique, I might be conflating part of her story with a few others that have contacted me in the last six months. Bear with me anyway.
B.A. did his due diligence. He immediately looked up her books on Amazon. Her covers are great, so no problems there. Her blurbs were fine too, so again, no problems.
Then he dove into her sample chapters.
He wrote her back a kind but firm letter essentially telling her she doesn’t know how to write.
Realize that this indie writer has won awards for her fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in prestigious magazines. She has a devoted following for her series. She’s received all kinds of great reviews and accolades in her native country and in the U.S. as well. She’s writing an unusual character in a hard-to-write subgenre, and doing it extremely well.
B.A. told her that her writing was seriously flawed.
He rewrote her opening a little, to show her what he meant.
And then, at the end of his letter, he recommended that she hire a “real editor,” listing a woman I had never heard of before. If the indie writer didn’t feel like hiring the editor he recommended, well, then there were a lot of New York editors who were freelancing now, and the indie writer should hire them.
The indie writer contacted me, and attached his letter. And I went through the roof.
He had rewritten her deep, engaging prose into flat screenplay style. His style.
Which is a valid style for his books. It works for him. It certainly doesn’t work for the indie writer’s book. It would take her highly original character and series, and make it banal.
Form follows content in fiction. If she was writing a standard thriller, then maybe B.A.’s style would work. I doubt she could write a standard thriller, and I certainly don’t think that these books she’s writing are standard anything. They’re sharp, original, and edgy—the exact opposite of what he was doing with her opening.
I have a strong hunch that B.A., whom I’ve known for years but have never worked with, is one of those writers who believes there is only one way to write—his way.
I’ve co-taught with people like that. It’s crazy-making. Sometimes they take a delicate mainstream story about children playing cards, and try to turn it into a slam-bam action adventure story set in space. Sometimes they rewrite every word of a perfectly good story to make it “sound” right. Sometimes they tell the writer to leave their favorite genre behind because “no one” likes it. (By “no one,” they actually mean “I,” as in “I don’t like it.”)
When you encounter one of those teacher-writers, run away. They’re going to try to change who you are, and who you are is the essence of everything you do as a writer. You can’t be a carbon copy of someone else. It just can’t be done.
What happened with B.A. and the indie writer is so common that it really doesn’t merit an entire blog post. Or rather, another set of blog posts. I dealt with this a bit in the perfection blogs I wrote a few years ago and turned into the book The Pursuit of Perfection.
But the letter from the indie writer encapsulated a lot of things that are happening in the field right now, and I thought I’d analyze those. I also figured it was timely, considering this indie writer wasn’t the only writer in the past month who had sent me email about recommendations on their prose from other “more successful” writers.
I don’t know what it is about the beginning of the year that brings out these insecurities. Maybe it’s the fact that many of us use the end of the year for reflection and then try to plan the upcoming year.
What struck me about this indie writer, and the reason I’m using her as an example, is that this incident is ramped up from the usual incidents.
The indie writer is already successful; B.A. is, by most measures, more successful. The indie writer isn’t going traditional at all with her novels; B.A. came out of traditional publishing, and, frankly, all of his bestsellers are traditionally published.
So there’s a clash of culture going on as well.
But buried within this ramped-up example are some things that are object lessons for all of us.
First, the indie writer reached out to a bestselling writer she didn’t know. She also didn’t know his history. I did, because I’ve known him for twenty years now. I know how he became a bestseller, and how he actually makes the bulk of his living. (He makes the bulk of his living writing fiction, but not through his indie books.)
B.A. is a goodhearted guy, who helped her even though he didn’t know her. But he was a bad match for her work and her dreams.
I asked her, after I calmed her down, if his career was the career she wanted for herself. Not the career she had seen from the bestseller lists, but the trajectory, from this to that to where he is at now. If, for example, you looked at his bestselling titles, you could figure out where the bulk of his living was coming from. (And it wasn’t coming from projects he originated.) His indie books sell well, but not as well as the traditionally published books. If I say much more about his history, you’ll figure out who he is, and I don’t want you to figure it out. (And no, he’s not one of my closest friends, so stop thinking of that writer, those of you who know me.)
Once the indie writer became aware of the kind of successful career he had built for himself, she realized his was not a path she ever wanted to walk. She wanted a different kind of career.
So…when the indie writer had asked B.A. for help, she had asked the wrong person—for herself and her career. B.A. might be the right person for some of you out there, but not for her.
Second, B.A. disrespected what she had already achieved. Either she hadn’t told him or he ignored the marketing on her books. (I just went to check to see if she had put some of her accolades on the cover of her books. She had. So I looked at the opening of her latest novel, just because, and wow, that opening is spectacular. I was hooked, and nearly forgot that I was writing this.) He told her that her writing was seriously flawed, when there was evidence right in front of him that this was not the case.
Third, B.A. was determined to find where “the problem” with her sales was, without asking what her sales were. She had told him there was a problem, and he had taken her at her word. Which might or might not have been the right thing to do.
Sometimes the problem we perceive as writers isn’t the problem we actually have.
B.A. has been in the business long enough to know that.
Fourth, B.A. recommended a New York editor who had hung out a shingle to make extra money. I see that as a red flag—not because I believe he’s working with the editor and getting a cut—but because that means, to me at least, he’s not 100% indie in his attitude. He still wants acceptance from traditional publishers, and if you look at his career right now, that’s evident.
The indie writer, who has invested a small fortune in learning her craft, was willing to pay that editor, but something stopped her before she contacted the editor.
I have no idea what stopped her. I was so glad she wrote to me, because B.A. had recommended the wrong kind of help.
And that’s a shame, because B.A. had invested a lot of his time on this writer he had never met. He analyzed her writing; he revised it to show an example of what he thought would help; he gave her problem a lot of thought.
And he tried. B.A. did nothing wrong here.
He did nothing wrong. He offered help, just like many of us do when we reach a certain level.
The problem was that he and the indie writer were a bad fit in a whole bunch of ways, as I mentioned above.
Or rather, that was the problem that made B.A.’s advice not helpful to the indie writer. She hadn’t realized that though, and she really shouldn’t tell him. Just thank him, and maybe do something nice for him in the future.
Because he tried.
But in trying, he undermined her already shaky confidence. He had—unintentionally, I believe—hooked her in the one place writers often get hooked. He had reached in and grabbed that subconscious fear that almost all writers have which says I’m not good enough.
He didn’t do it deliberately. He was actually riffing off what she had written to him.
She had contacted him with a problem—her books weren’t selling well. He assumed that something was causing the poor sales, and if it wasn’t the cover or the blurbs or the genre, well then, it had to be the writing.
That’s not a bad assumption. Because it often is the writing.
He just didn’t know who he was dealing with.
It doesn’t take a mismatch like this to hook a writer in that subconscious fear. On the morning I wrote this blog post, another extremely good indie writer came onto one of my list serves and asked for advice because his first reader strongly disliked his latest novel. The first reader made a list of everything the writer had done wrong with the novel and what he needed to do to fix that book.
He came onto a list of established writers and asked what he should do. Should he put the novel away for a year or should he rewrite it?
He was clearly shaken in his I’m not good enough space.
It happens to all of us. If we’re at all dedicated to our craft, we’re constantly pushing the envelope of our abilities, walking that tightrope between success and failure in our prose, not to mention our lives and livelihoods.
That’s why I tell writers not to read reviews. Because—guaranteed—some citizen reviewer will make an unintentional comment that will hook the writer in their most insecure place. Someone will stick a knife into the one worry the writer had about her book, and twist that knife hard.
It won’t matter if every other review of the book is extremely positive. That single negative will dominate because…well, because we’re writers, and we always worry that someone will figure out that we really don’t know what the hell we’re doing.
So, what am I telling you, exactly? Am I telling you not to seek help?
No, of course not.
But I am telling you to trust yourself and your instincts as a writer. Your voice is what makes you who you are.
Sometimes your voice isn’t suited to a particular subgenre of fiction. That’s okay. Genres and subgenres are marketing categories, nothing more.
Write what you love, and you’ll always do better.
You do need to learn your craft. You need to learn the rules of grammar before you can break them. The same with the rules of storytelling—whatever your culture. (Not every culture appreciates the same storytelling rhythms. Accept that, too.)
You need to keep learning and growing and improving—which is precisely the instinct that caught both of these stupendous indie writers. Because in continuing to learn, they forgot that they already have mastered a certain level of craft.
They also both asked the wrong questions.
Let’s deal with the female indie writer first.
Her sales have gone down recently. If you look at my blog posts, like some of the posts earlier this month or even the post in November, you’ll see that everyone’s sales went down in 2016. As I mentioned recently, Data Guy acknowledged it in his presentation to Digital Book World. Book sales went down between May and October of last year, which caused an industry-wide panic. (Although it shouldn’t have. Sales go up, then they go down, then they go up again—in all retail markets all the time, for a wide variety of reasons.)
So, because this indie writer is always finding ways to improve, she figured her sales were down because of something she did wrong. And she asked someone with excellent sales (as far as she could tell) how to make her work sell better.
She approached B.A. with a problem. B.A. tried to solve that problem.
But what B.A. should have done was ask her what her sales were, and how they had grown or had fallen in the past few years.
For all he knew—for all I know—her sales might be higher than the average indie sales in her subgenre. Her sales might be higher than most traditionally published sales in that subgenre. Her sales might be spot-on for what’s happening in the industry.
Which means that she has done nothing wrong, and doesn’t need to change her writing at all. It might mean that she needs to up her marketing game. Or it might mean that she should hunker down, write the next book, and forget about all this sales nonsense.
Because…and here’s a truism probably worth a blog post…
No one is satisfied with their sales figures.
Not a single soul.
I don’t care if your books outsell everyone else’s this quarter. You’ll be worrying about the next quarter. Or you’ll think that your books might be selling well, but they’re not selling as well as [insert other writer’s name here]. That writer, by the way, is probably worrying that his sales aren’t as good as [insert yet another writer’s name here]. And so on.
A few years back, when he still had a regular column in Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote rather plaintively that he had been the J.K. Rowling of the 1980s. He had dominated the sales charts in the 1980s the way she dominated them in the 2000s.
Really, though, J.K. Rowling was the Stephen King of the 2000s. Proving that everyone’s sales go up and go down. King clearly isn’t the goliath that he was in the 1980s, but he’s still a two-ton gorilla (or maybe more). But that little plaintive note shows that even the bestsellers aren’t immune from that What am I doing wrong? feeling. Or in the case of some of those bestsellers (I’m looking at you two gentlemen, Mr. Turow and Mr. Patterson), they’re blaming some outside force for the drop in their sales (like cough: Amazon) rather than understanding the changing marketplace.
What question should our indie writer have asked? Before she contacted anyone, she should have found out if her drop in sales was particular to her or if it was industry-wide. Or if it was specific to her genre. Because genres do die, you know, and their deaths are often sudden and startling. Readers feel oversaturated and head off to read something else.
(I sense that this has happened with the billionaire BDSM novels riffing off Fifty Shades. Maybe the release of the next movie will revive or improve that subgenre. Or maybe I’m entirely wrong about this, since it’s not a subgenre I actually read.)
And as for the other indie writer? He needs to look at how he presented his novel to his first reader.
If he did what I think he did, then the problem isn’t his writing either.
What do I think he did? I think he labeled the book by genre, as in, “Here, first reader. I know you like vampire romances. Here’s mine.”
The first reader’s response is unusual enough for a book written by a writer with his chops…unless he missed the genre tropes. Which is possible.
When a writer mislabels his work, the readers get testy. Okay, wrong. The readers get angry. They’re expecting a sweet, lovable vampire romance where the fangs only appear (gently) in the sex scenes (or if someone’s really really hungry…okay, wait. Probably not). Instead, the reader gets a vampire “romance” where the lovers are a nasty vampire and the vampire hunter who decides the violent mass murderer isn’t such a bad guy after all, and yeah, the readers will get really mad.
But if the book is marketed as a vampire novel, no romance at all, then the readers might love it.
Again, the question isn’t…what’s wrong with my book or my writing or (by inference) myself? The question is which mark did I miss? Am I mislabeling my book? Did I pick the wrong first reader for this type of novel? Did I forget to write the final scene?
Okay, that last was me. An editor friend had asked me for a short story. This editor is one of the best in the business, and I happily wrote something for her. I knew I had crammed a novel opening into 3,000 words, but I also knew that if I kept writing, I would have a novel, not a short story.
Dean (my first reader) loved the story, which meant I had waved my hands well enough to say, Don’t look at that novel hiding behind the curtains.
Unfortunately, my editor friend travels with her little dog Toto, and Toto pulled back the curtain, and my editor friend said that the story wasn’t finished. She was right.
I figured it needed—oh, maybe—50,000 more words. I said that it was a novel, and she wrote back saying that it clearly was a novel, but the short story just needed a few lines of wrap-up. She even had an idea about how it could be done.
Once she communicated her idea, I realized she was right. I added three paragraphs, and the story was finished.
I had been focused on squeezing that novel into 3,000 words. She had been focused on the short story as it existed, and while she would love to read the novel one day, she wanted the best damn short story she could get her hands on.
Which meant, you know, actually ending it.
Which I had failed to do with all my dithering.
Clarification. Asking the right question in the first place.
As I said, it’s tough for all of us.
But if we’re not careful, we can harm not just our writing, but our writing business.
In the case of the first indie writer, she was considering hiring a New York editor for several thousand dollars to “edit” her book. She would have approached that editor with the idea that the book was flawed, and the editor would have run from there.
Think about it, folks. Whenever someone brings a problem to you, you work at solving the problem. Very few people ever step back and ask if there’s a problem to be solved in the first place.
It didn’t matter if the editor was the best in the business or not. If that editor had approached the indie writer’s book with the idea that it was flawed and needed to be fixed, the editor would have found flaws. And the book would probably have been ruined.
The same with the second indie writer. He needs to trust his voice and his storytelling ability. If he didn’t tell the story he wanted to tell, then he needs to go back to the drawing board.
But if he had finished that book and was satisfied with it, he either needs a different first reader or, more likely, he probably needs help in figuring out what genres he’s actually writing in.
I’m guessing he was satisfied when he finished that book because he gave the book to his first reader in the first place. Most of us don’t let our books out of our hot little hands until we believe we’ve told the story we wanted to tell.
There are a few other take-aways here.
First, have patience, indies. You’re growing a new business. You might be one of the lucky ones (unlucky ones?) who is profitable in your first year. But you might have upped your expenses or that profit might have been a sales blip.
It takes years to grow a business. You learn the ups, the downs, the patterns of sales, and what has an impact on your work and what doesn’t.
I know you don’t want to hear this. I hate hearing it too. But be patient.
The businesses most likely to survive are the ones with a sustainable growth pattern. Growing 100% or 1000% over the previous year, which happened for some indies in 2011/2012/2013 isn’t a sustainable growth pattern. If that happens to you, bank the money, and assume that kind of growth won’t happen the following year.
Sales don’t always go up. As the Stephen King example points out, sales fluctuate. For everyone.
So…be patient. Manage your growth. Your sales might be spot-on for where you are as a business person.
If that’s the case, don’t change anything. Just keep moving on.
Another takeaway is that you should learn from the people whose path you want to follow. If you want to be a college professor, get an M.F.A. If you want to be a bestselling thriller writer, then listen to lectures from bestselling thriller writers. Or even better, read their books.
Because we’re all smarter on the page than we are verbally. That’s what makes us writers.
If you’re going to hire someone to help you with your work, make sure that person can help you. I would never hire a former New York editor to be a developmental editor, unless that editor had become a writer who makes a living at her work. (And if she’s done that, why is she charging $5,000 a pop to edit books…?)
If you hire a cover designer, make sure you like his work. If you want a copy editor or a line editor, test that person first on a few pages to see if your styles are compatible.
Finally, you have to trust yourself as a writer. If you’ve been doing this for a while, like the indie writers I mentioned above, then trust your level of craft. You’re good. You might not be where you want to be, but you’re not that beginning writer who didn’t know what setting was or that semi-colons and commas are different forms of punctuation for a reason.
Sometimes you miss the mark, yes. But your misses are still probably better than 90% of what’s out there.
Often, though, you asked the wrong question or hired the wrong person or didn’t need to hire anyone at all.
Believe in yourself.
And have fun while you’re writing. Because when you’re having fun, you’re doing your best work.
Well, I updated the stupid theme and the italics no longer work. I hate it when they “improve” things. Looks like I’ll need a new theme since everything got broken on the update. Sigh (and grrrr.)
Anyway, what a year this has been so far, and it’s just beginning. I’m having trouble keeping up with the data—not the changes; the data that’s accumulating on publishing. I have a lot of ideas for blog posts, probably because the new world of publishing is maturing and we can actually understand the figures being presented to us.
I’ll work through a lot of those in the upcoming months.
I’m also researching a bunch of new things for my own writing business and I’ll be discussing them here as I learn more about them.
One thing I’m still learning is Patreon. I finally figured out how to make Patreon work for me late last year, and I joined in November. I’ve already gotten quite a bit of support. Thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much that means to me.
This blog does need financial help to keep it alive. I know many of you don’t want to sign up for Patreon, which is why I’ve left the PayPal button on the blog as well. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.
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Thank you all so much for supporting the blog in all ways! It means a great deal to me.
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“Business Musings: The Indie And The Bestseller,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © 2017 by Can Stock Photo / aletia