I feel like I’ve been on a particularly grueling business trip, and am slowly recalibrating back into my office. I worked very hard in the front part of April as I prepared for the science fiction writing workshop I ran here on the Oregon Coast. Then the workshop happened. Lots of great discussions, great questions, great stories, and dedicated work later, we finished…and I got the Mother of All Colds.
I’ve been staggering my way through the past week, trying to rest and trying to do a few non-brainy things. The thing is, my brain, which is weird on a good day, is really weird when I’m sick. It takes all of the stuff that I’ve been thinking about, mixes it all together, and then comes up with connections that my healthy brain would never consider.
I value those connections, because they sometimes help me see things I missed—or missed writing about. In this case, I came up with a list for the Business Musings blog.
Before the workshop, I had been blogging about newsletters, so marketing was on my mind.
At the workshop, I talked to writers about the importance of telling a good story as opposed to writing lovely sentences. And yet we focused on craft too, the importance of the right sort of detail to make stories come alive.
And I’m still negotiating several TV/movie projects, which has been annoyingly distracting, considering 80% of them won’t come to anything. At least two of the deals are for entire series, which got me and Dean to discuss the possibility of trademarking those series, and whether it’s worth our time.
Then, in the middle of the workshop, two books arrived in the mail: Fallout by Sara Paretsky, and The Burial Hour by Jeffrey Deaver. I was reading manuscripts at the time, and so put the books near my reading table as a reward for finishing the workshop. Paretsky has already made my Recommended Reading List and, as I write this, I’m still enjoying the Deaver.
The thing is: I had forgotten I ordered the books. I certainly didn’t know they would arrive during the workshop. That arrival was a very nice surprise.
And yes, this all factors into the soup of thoughts that whirled through my brain this last week.
I have read Paretsky since the 1980s and Deaver since the 1990s. I don’t like all of the books they write equally, but I like the authors enough to preorder, sometimes with only a title attached. It’s never a gamble to order books from either of those writers. Both of them write fascinating stories that take me away from whatever I’m doing, even if the stories don’t always work.
I have maybe a dozen books on preorder at any one time. When I finish a book by one of my favorite authors, I look on Amazon to see if the next book is available to preorder. If it is, I preorder it then so I don’t have to think about it.
If I’m truly anticipating a book, I’ll check that preorder occasionally to make sure I actually paid for the upcoming release because I really, really, really want that book. I did that with Greg Iles’ Mississippi Blood (also in the current Recommended Reading List), because I was strongly anticipating that one.
Generally, though, books just show up in my mailbox. Those books either wait for a moment or a mood—this winter, I couldn’t read anything but Regency romance as friends, family, and cats kept dying around me—or, in some special cases (I’m looking at you, Iles), I read the book immediately upon receipt.
I am a customer—a loyal customer—of those writers whose books are on preorder. Or, in a few cases, I’m a loyal customer of a particular book series, but I don’t care about other things that the author writes.
Amazon, bless them, sends me reminders when an author whose work I’ve ordered a lot writes a new book. I don’t even sign up for the alerts. They arrive. I read them.
I do get a newsletter from a few of my favorites who have gone indie. That helps finding their books. But I’ve unsubscribed from more indie newsletters than I currently subscribe to. Getting an email a day (yes, one indie did that) was truly annoying.
I try not to send too many newsletters, although I sent one a month to two separate lists in the first six months of 2015 as my Retrieval Artist released. That was my big flurry, and it was tiring. It took some writing time.
I try to do newsletters when I’m brain-fogged, which means I wrote a couple this past week. I have promised on that list not to spam these folks, so I only email when I have actual news.
The first newsletter was for the fans of my Diving series to let them know that the newest book is included, in its entirety, in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. That newsletter copy is pretty short, but it is conversational. It gives the readers two pieces of information: The Runabout is available now in a magazine should you want to buy now. Or if you prefer to wait, then the book will be out in three standalone formats in October.
The Diving list is pretty tight. It’s been several days since I sent the newsletter. My open rate (for the emails that can be tracked by the silly algorithms) is steady, and no one has unsubscribed. A lot of folks clicked through the email links (which always surprises me, because I never click an email link. I just open a new window, go to whatever website, and find the page myself). The Diving newsletter had a good result.
Then I wrote my overall newsletter. This newsletter is considerably longer than the Diving newsletter, even though it has some of the same information. I had a lot more to inform readers about than just the release of The Runabout. I also am in a writing Storybundle, along with 9 others. I have even more to say than that, but I felt that if I dealt with much more, I’d be inundating people. Better to save some firepower for May’s newsletter—whenever I get around to it. (If I get around to it. May looks busy on the writing side.)
Again, colloquial language, but more of it. And a weird design, because I have to keep myself amused somehow. Again, good click throughs. A few more unsubscribes than usual—but that was because I told people to unsubscribe.
What? you ask. Why would anyone tell people to unsubscribe?
Because I want the readers of a particular series, who don’t want all the noise, to sign up for the newsletters for those series. That way I don’t spam the readers. So I reminded everyone they could subscribe to a series/pen name newsletter, and then they could unsubscribe from this one.
According to the unsubscribe comments I got, about 8 people took me up on that—and promptly subscribed to the other newsletters.
Yeah, yeah, I know. The newsletter gurus for writers say don’t scatter your newsletter subscribers to more than one list. Because then your readers won’t be focused on you and will have less chance to buy something else from you.
I figure my readers are both smart and know what they want. If they want to try something else I’ve written, they will. If they want a newsletter that tells them all of the publications, then they can subscribe to the big newsletter. And if they don’t want to subscribe to a newsletter at all, they can see what I post on my website when I do a news post.
Which leads to the third thing I wrote in that cold-fogged week. I wrote a news post that appeared on Saturday. The post dealt with The Runabout, the bundle, and three short story publications I’d neglected to mention in the past two months. The post was even longer than the newsletters.
The responses have been great, and mostly in email or on social media. I’ve received questions about the Diving series from the fans, including some very thoughtful long letters filled with guesses about the future of the series. I’ve gotten some questions about other series (which always happens when I send out the big newsletter with only one series mentioned). I also got some great comments about the news post, including a question or two about the short story anthologies.
I love the interactions with the fans, but I also like the way they’re engaging with the series. That means a lot to me personally, since my days are mostly spent sitting alone in a room and making things up. Those things matter to me, but it’s nice to know that they matter to others as well.
I should have known that, because I am a reader and a consumer of stories, and I love series. Last week, I also spent way too much time worrying about the consequences for Our Heroes in the last storyline of the season for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So, yeah. Fans get invested. Readers do too. That’s why I bought the Iles book and kept waiting for it. I had to know how he would wrap things up.
All of this thinking got folded into some other reading I was doing. Courtesy of Randy and J.T. Ellison, I received a copy of Targoz Strategic Marketing’s Reading Pulse Survey. They wanted some comments on it before it went live, and I did a quick dive into the survey before the workshop.
As I read it, I realized I needed to spend a lot of time with this thing, because it’s actual research on reading that’s useful, not wish fulfillment. Here’s how the press release describes it:
Based on six years of survey research, the syndicated study provides book publishers, agents, and sellers with an accurate picture of readers, and delivers actionable data on what readers want and how to influence them to buy.
It does deliver “actionable data.” I got very excited by what I read. I got permission to share bits of this with you, but I can’t share all of it, because the survey isn’t public. It’s designed for larger companies with the resources to buy surveys like this. (That’s how they get funded.) Randy says there will be a different version for indies that won’t be as expensive. But that won’t appear until after the big push for the survey to traditional publishers in the next few weeks or more.
This survey can be tailored to a particular company. If I were running one of the Big Five? Four? Three? Two? (who the hell knows) major publishers, I’d be plunking down the money for a customized version of this thing. Because there’s a lot of information here that could change traditional publishing forever.
It won’t, however. Even if traditional publishers buy this survey, they won’t act on the suggestions inside. The corporate headwinds are too strong. A lot of what’s in here would cost department heads their jobs, and devastate the sales departments. Of course, a lot of what’s here would result in new hires as well, for new jobs that would have a completely different focus.
That kind of sea change is almost impossible in large companies. But in small ones, it’s definitely possible.
I had avoided thinking about much of what’s in the survey until after the workshop, when I thought I would have the brain power to do a deep dive into the numbers. I have only had brain power for a day or two. The deep dive is coming this week.
So what’s been rolling around in my head isn’t the proprietary numbers that I can’t tell you or the changes I’m thinking about for my own business based on these facts. Instead, it’s a section at the end of the survey that essentially has actionable information for Writer Me.
The section at the end talks about Brand Name Authors. There’s a long list of writers by genre that readers identify by name. And the survey found something that I was aware of, but not that I had really thought about.
Almost all of the Brand Name authors that readers are familiar with are traditionally published. And most of those Brand Name authors are baby boomers. Not just baby boomers, but on the upper end of the baby boomer scale. One genre didn’t have a single person in the top ten brand names under the age of 60.
I would normally dismiss that kind of finding as irrelevant. Writing is a career that many people start late. It’s not at all unusual for “new” writers to be in their fifties, so by the time their name is established, they’d be in their sixties.
But I looked at the names more closely, and saw a completely different problem. The survey broke into four rather broad genre categories: Mystery, Thriller & Crime; Romance & Paranormal Romance; Literature & Literary Fiction; and Science Fiction & Fantasy. Then the survey noted the top ten most recognized names in each of those categories, chosen by readers.
Of the forty names on those lists, only three got their start in this century. Those three included two whose books were made into major movies, and one author who (as far as I can tell) jumped on the coat tails of one of those two. (That’s not something to be ashamed of in any way: John Grisham jumped on the coat tails of Scott Turow, and eventually surpassed Turow in numbers of books published and recognizability and a whole bunch of other things.)
The remaining 37 brand names were nurtured in a completely different publishing climate. One I’m not going to count because he’s an actor, not an author, and I have no idea how he got on the list. So that brings us to 36. Two got their start before 1960. Five got their start in the 1960s. Six got their start in the 1970s. The bulk got their start in the 1980s, with only two getting their starts in the 1990s.
(I’m doing this off the top of my head, so I might be wrong on the exact start dates for the previous century. But I do know for a fact that not a one of those 36 names got started in this century.)
That pre-2000 publishing climate allowed series writers to build. It also allowed writers who only wrote standalone titles (and there are several on these lists) to have lower book sales on one title but still buy the next.
In the 1990s, a publisher could let a series author go, and another publisher would pick up that author—and buy the series out from the old publisher, keeping all of the books in print.
From the late 1990s onward, traditional publishing stopped nurturing careers. It stopped trying to grow a brand name, and instead tried to create one. It’s still doing that. As this survey noted, many of the authors on the Brand Name list now write books with co-authors, trying to boost the “younger” writer’s career. (The survey did not count those books in this part of the total.)
Writing with a brand name does not grow a writer’s career the way that nurturing a series does. It increases that writer’s sales, but only for a book or two. If the publisher does not continue to help that writer by sticking with them through a number of books, that writer will disappear like everyone before them.
I studied those lists of names for much too long. I also studied the list of up-and-coming writers, noting that many of them are also over fifty. Many of those writers have had long careers too, but they somehow managed to survive the purges and are now being recognized by readers.
Then I went to my Amazon order screen and looked at my preorders. I currently have sixteen books on preorder. Three are from the same author, a romance writer who is doing a series I love. Two are from the same thriller writer. One is an anthology I’ve been looking forward to.
So… twelve authors on that unscientific list. Four got their start in this century. One started indie, but is doing a trad pub series now (Run! Go back to indie!). All four of the authors who started in this century are romance authors.
All of them.
I read new writers all the time. I read a lot of anthologies and indie books. The preorder field only represents trad pub because I prefer to read in paper, and it’s almost impossible to preorder indies in paper. So my preorder list is 100% trad pub—and very representative of the findings that the survey had.
I have been reading the eight authors since they got their starts way back when. And they’ve held me throughout some ups and downs. I’m a lot more forgiving than traditional publishing is, although I have been known to dump long-time authors after about five books. Two of the brand names on the survey list are writers I no longer read, so I miss themlike you’d miss an old lover. I really want them to write books I love again. But they aren’t. They both are repeating themselves, and I find their work dull now. Sadly.
So, the conclusion my cold-fogged brain served up to me was twofold. First, traditional fiction publishing in at least two genres is in a great deal of trouble. They haven’t nurtured their new voices.
Second, because there’s trouble ahead, there’s going to be a lot of room for indie bestsellers to become brand names as these brand names die off or stop producing. Readers will be looking for something similar.
Not something manufactured. As I mentioned above, Grisham rose on Turow’s coattails, but not because Grisham was trying to be Turow, but because Grisham—a lawyer—already wrote fiction, and Turow was a slow writer. Grisham filled the hole.
That’s how brands used to start. Give me something like…Scott Turow, and I’d get hand-sold a John Grisham novel. This is happening in some bookstores with fantasy novels that are “like” Game of Thrones, because George is so slow.
But there’s more to it than being in the right place at the right time with the right book. It’s how to be in the right place at the right time. And that has nothing to do with names on a newsletter list. It has to do with producing a lot of product.
The two-book writer on my preorder list? That’s John Grisham. He’s been producing two and three books a year for thirty years now. He’s got a lot of backlist. And most of it (all of it?) is still in print.
That’s something indies can do. We can keep our books in print.
But we need to brand them.
And that cold-fogged brain of mine realized that I have never dealt in depth with branding. Because branding is not just making a name big on the cover of a book or making sure all of the books in a series look the same. There’s so much more to branding than that.
This is the introductory post, then, to a longer series on branding. It became clear to me after reading this survey that I needed a refresher. I also needed to give a lot of thought to branding, not just my names, but my series.
The Hollywood negotiations and trademark discussions brought that home, as well as the fan reaction to the newsletters. I gots me a lot of thinkin’ to do, and I do that thinking best by writing.
So why not a series of blogs?
Which is exactly what I’m going to do.
So I guess I’m doing another series. I hope it’ll be short, but it might not. However, if there’s a lot of publishing news, I might vary the series posts with publishing news posts.
For those of you new to the blog, it’s pretty interactive. I also use it to figure some things out for myself. I learn a lot from you folks, so feel free to email me or write comments in the comment section.
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“Business Musings: Ideas of a Cold-Fogged Brain,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / iDesign.