By Lynette M. Burrows
I am an independent author-publisher. I love what I do. But there are things I wish I knew before I published.
I spent years learning how to write a story. Having listened to more than a few science fiction authors, I knew more than the average person about the book publishing industry. I tried the traditional publishing route. My two literary agents were superb at their jobs. They landed me a couple of “close but no thanks” responses from traditional publishers. Then, a friend urged me to go the independent route.
I did a great deal of research about traditional publishing vs. independent published. Finally, I decided independent publishing was best for me and my book. Despite all my research, there are many things I wish I knew before I published my book.
Today, I’ll share the big picture ones with you.
It's A Business
If you want to make money from your books, writing is a business. The choice between traditionally published or indie published is a business decision.
Use the resources of writer organizations like the Authors Guild or Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) to educate yourself on best practices. Here at Writers in the Storm, there are many posts to help you decide.
- John Peragine discusses Six Self-Publishing Considerations.
- Piper Bayard’s three-part series, Indie Publishing 101, is also very helpful.
The Business of Being Traditionally Published
The big 5 traditional publishers are relatively big business. But even traditionally published authors need some business skills.
For most traditional publishers to consider your book, you will need an agent. Here are some questions to ask:
- Which agents are best for you to query?
- Do you sign a contract? Or have a verbal agreement? Know the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Be very clear on what the agent will do for you. Make certain you understand the agent’s commission and charges.
- What if you or your agent decide to end your relationship? How do you do that?
- What happens to your books?
If the agent sells your manuscript, you will sign a contract with the publisher. Not all agents are savvy about contracts. Make sure you understand what contract clauses you should avoid. Know what rights you sign over to the publisher.
Understand what an advance is, what royalties are, and how to read your publisher’s royalty statements. Know what you will and won’t be able to influence during the publishing process. Be certain you can meet the deadlines. Know what your options are if you can’t.
I learned a lot about literary agents in my genre from author friends and from reading articles like What Is a Literary Agent? Pros and Cons of Hiring a Literary Agent by Masterclass.
The Business of Being Independently Published
An independent author-publisher is much more than decisions like: Do you want to make a profit or are purchases by friends and family enough? It's a business. The good news and bad news is that you will be CEO, CFO, COO, and worker bee all in one package. It’s a lot of hats to wear, but you are in control.
What are your business strengths and weaknesses? Does your local, regional, or federal laws require you to have a license? Choose a business model, an accounting method, and a tracking method. I wish I had understood tracking methods better before I published. You can learn as you go. As with most things in life, it will cost you time or money—and sometimes both.
Things I Wish I knew about Business
Among the things I wish I knew before I published is how to write and follow a business plan for authors. Better business skills would have helped me make better decisions. Better decisions may have translated to earlier success.
Investing in Your Business
Writing and publishing books is not a get-rich-quick type of business. A traditional publishing company bears the publishing cost. As an independent author-publisher, you do. The trad published author role is not without its own costs. There are trade-offs. Only you can decide what's best for you and your book.
Investing in Traditional Publishing
A traditional publisher will edit, proofread, and format your book. They will put a professional cover on it. It is rare for trad publishing to give an author a choice in those matters. But no money will come out of your pocket for these services. And you will have a professional-looking book in the end.
Some traditional publishers will advertise. Usually, they spend a lot more advertising dollars on authors who sell well (Steven King or JK Rowling, for example). Unknown or debut authors may wish to augment the advertising by their publisher.
Know if your contract allows you to advertise, go on a book tour, or to sell your books at conferences and conventions. You may get some complimentary author copies. Beyond those few, author copies will cost you. Typically, if a contract allows a debut author to do book tours and conferences, it’s on your dime. What are you willing to spend to help the publisher sell your book?
Investing in Independent Publishing
You can independently publish your book on a tiny investment. There are some authors who do their own formatting, editing, and make their own cover. Your book has a much better chance of selling well with professional level editing, covers, etc. All of those things cost from a little to a lot of money. Research the what type of editor you will need. Learn how to choose which professionals to hire. Know what you’re able to invest.
Know the average cost for editors and cover artists in your genre. Understand that on every platform, on each sale, you get a percentage or royalty. Platforms like Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing) don’t charge you to publish, but will charge a per product fee and potentially a delivery fee against your percentage of each product purchased. Other platforms, like Ingram Spark, charge a modest amount to publish or republish. If your book doesn’t sell, you may be responsible for the cost of returned books.
Things I Wish I Knew About An Indie's Investment
Investing in your author career wisely is another set of business skills. Having that set of skills would have made me feel more confident in my investment decisions. And it might have saved me a few dollars.
Learn about advertising online. You can advertise on almost any social media platform. They each have different costs, and different audiences. Most advertising gurus will advise that you do not advertise your first book. Readers will wait to see if you are more than a one-book-and-done author.
Know your numbers. How much did it cost to create your book? What price will you put on it? How much will you make on each sale?
I might have made a few different decisions if I’d known the details of things like how to track cost vs income and what that meant short term vs long term.
Things I Wish I Knew About Advertising
I was clueless about advertising. I'm learning, but it's a steep learning curve for me. You don't need a degree in advertising to be an indie author. But understanding basic principles of digital and print marketing would be helpful. Hiring someone who is better at it is an option, if you can afford it.
Everything Takes Time
There are hundreds of adages about time. Most of them express at least a modicum of truth. The time things take in the publishing world may shock the uninitiated.
It takes time to find the agent who loves your writing and will attempt to sell it. The agent requires more time to find an editor and publishing house that will buy your book. Contract negotiations can be quick or slow. The publishing house and editor will have other books they are working to publish, so your book may not get much attention for a month or more. Once the editor has thoroughly reviewed your book, they may ask for a revision. Of course, it takes time to revise a novel. Then you wait for the copy edited version. During all this, your editor and publisher will choose a cover artist and cover concept (they rarely give you a choice.) Then, you wait for the printing press to run your book. Next comes distribution and sales and eventually, if you’re lucky, earning out your advance and earning royalties. This can take years.
The independent author-publisher must do all the steps the publishing house and editor do the paragraphs above. It takes time. Some authors can produce a book in weeks as opposed to months or years. Some authors skip steps to speed the process. No matter what publishing decision you make, publishing a book takes time. Period.
A day-job will affect the speed of your process. Life can do that, too. Create deadlines with a cushion of time for those deviations in your plans. Experienced author-publishers may get by with a 10% cushion. The less experienced you are, the bigger the cushion you may need.
Your publisher will have a company wide publishing strategy and a publishing strategy for your book. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a strategy. Part of your strategy is the choice to be published by a traditional publishing company. You will also need a strategy for your brand, appearances, social media, and advertising.
You need a publishing strategy that also includes brand, appearances, social media and advertising. Do you want to go wide (publish on more than one site) or exclusive with Amazon’s reading subscription service? Which is best for your genre?
Waiting until your trilogy is complete is one strategy. Rapid publishing is another. Have a strategic plan.
Decisions about what types of stories you write, cover design and what front and back matter to include are part of your strategy. Learn to write an effective book description. (Hint, it’s not a summary, and it isn’t like writing a book.) Choosing categories and keywords appropriate for your book is another piece of your strategy.
There isn’t a right vs wrong time to publish. Your book will never be perfect. You will never be 100% ready. Your book launch won’t be perfect. So when are you ready to publish? It’s your decision.
Independent author-publishers have advantages traditional publishers do not. You can push your publication date forward or back to a certain degree. Changing front and back matter, covers, even your manuscript are all possible when you are an independent author-publisher.
Things I Wish I Knew About Publishing Strategy
I wish I understood publish strategies better before I published my first book. Perhaps having a cohesive strategy to begin with would have strengthen my business from the beginning.
Delays Will Happen
The one thing you can count on in publishing is that there will be delays and problems. Publishers can’t get paper. Or your editor quits and no one else in house wants it.
Book seller sites don’t always load as quickly as they say they will. Or they’ve changed the rules or image sizes. Often, you will need to learn something you didn’t know you needed to know. Sometimes you’ll need to reload your book more than once. And pay the charges more than once.
An independent author-publisher can keep their book as is or pivot and go another direction. Change covers? Change the price? Change the blurb. All, and more, are possible. It requires knowledge of your genre and current book selling trends in order to choose the best path for your book.
Things I Wish I Knew About Delays
I don't think one can anticipate all delays and problems. I wish I'd known that even though distribution platforms like Draft to Digital charge fees for each sale (on top of the sales platform's fees), sometimes saving time is worth the extra cost.
There are a lot of pieces to being an independent author-publisher. Don’t let being overwhelmed stop you. Remember, everything in publishing takes time. Give yourself realistic expectations and deadlines.
If you are overwhelmed, decide on one thing you’ll do today. Give yourself a time limit for investigating that one thing.
Remember, the number one thing you must do if you want a career as an author is write the next book. You won’t have a business if you don’t have books to sell.
Wrong or Right?
There is not a right or wrong choice between traditional or independent. It’s simply a choice. Make the best decision for you and your books.
These big picture things I wish I knew before publishing my first book don’t make me regret my choice. Believe it or not, there are more things I wish I knew before I published. They are for a future post.
I love being an independent author-publisher. I enjoy being able to make all the decisions. I take ownership of my writing and publishing. Yes, I’m a control-freak. And I will continue to learn and grow, even when it’s hard. Even if I learn some things I will wish I’d known when I started.
There are challenges to both traditional and independent publishing. What do you wish you’d known earlier during your journey to be published?
* * * * * *
About Lynette M. Burrows
Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all show up in her stories. She writes thrilling science fiction about badass heroes and heroines.
Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. In Fellowship, the series companion novel, a desperate young man and his siblings hide in the mountains from the government agents who Took their parents. Book two of the series, If I Should Die, will be published in this spring.
by Angela Ackerman
One worry that can plague writers is whether their characters are original enough or not. After all, readers meet a lot of characters over time, so how can writers make sure their characters are fresh and interesting? How can they make sure their story’s cast has that WOW factor that ensures they stay with readers long after the book closes?
Luckily there’s a myriad of ways to make a character stand out through their personality, belief system, struggles, interests, and more. Characters will also have their own unique backstories, motivations and needs. This is why making time to uncover their inner layers is always worthwhile.
Today, let’s look at a specific area of characterization that can help you individualize your character: Talents & Skills.
In the real world, we all have certain abilities. Maybe we have strong listening skills that help us get to the heart of a matter quickly so we can undo misunderstandings. Or we can haggle well and always manage to get a better price. Whether it’s singing, skiing, welding, or transforming pop cans into an ingenious whirligigs, talents and skills help make us interesting and memorable, and can do the same for characters.
As you can imagine, there’s a cargo ship of possibilities when it comes to special abilities. Some will have a big impact on the story too, so we want to think carefully about what talents our characters might possess. Start by considering…
- A special ability should originate from your character. What fits with their personality, interests, education, or environment?
- Think about what will happen in the story, and the problems the character must navigate. What skills might help them get past hurdles (and hopefully encourage inner growth)?
- Consider their story role. A main character will face a crucible of conflict to reach their goal, and their special ability may influence events and/or be part of their growth arc. A lesser character’s skills, however, may not have the same level of importance.
Bottom line, a character’s giftedness shouldn’t be random. Considering the different types of talents and skills and how they can serve the story can provide lots of ideas, too.
An Unusual Talent or Skill
Some abilities are rarer than others, like the ability to talk to the dead, start fires with the mind, throw one’s voice, or use mentalism to gain information and influence others. When we want a character to really stand out we often think about giving them an unusual talent. And that’s fine as long as we know there’s a trade off: unusual talents generate questions that readers will expect to be answered in the story:
How did this talent come about?
When did the character discover it?
Are they alienated because of this ability, or embraced for it?
And finally, how will their skill impact the story?
This last one leads us to another reader expectation: that this exceptional ability will influence the story in a bigger way. So, if you choose an unusual talent, make sure to follow through on this expectation.
An Ordinary Talent or Skill
Some abilities seem a bit bland, like being skilled at fishing, sewing, or being good with numbers. You might be tempted to skip these and move on to something cooler like being able to hot-wire a car or throw knives.
Spoiler alert: ordinary skills can save the day, too!
A skilled fisherman can be the only thing standing between villagers and starvation during a harsh winter in a lakeside community.
A talented seamstress might save lives on the battlefield.
Having a head for numbers might be how your character helps everyone survive when an Escape Room excursion turns into a psychopath’s maze of puzzles and traps.
Ordinary skills can have a big impact on the story in the right situation. They also resonate and feel realistic to readers. And there’s a message readers connect with, too: that anyone can make a difference, not just the Alphas of the world.
A Useful Talent or Skill
Most often writers choose a skill because it will help their character win. To find the right match, think about what problems the character will face and list out what abilities would help them navigate these situations. Then, challenge yourself to find options that aren’t obvious.
For example, a captive who is a skilled chess player can use strategy and out-of-the-box thinking to escape her captor. A teen who loves parkour might be the group’s only hope of climbing a cavern wall to the surface after a cave-in collapses the tunnel leading out.
“The perfect skill for X situation” can feel contrived to readers, so work to find something that fits the character’s personality, interests, and everyday life.
A Genre-Friendly Talent or Skill
Some talents and qualities show up consistently in certain genres. Billionaire playboys in romances are often charmers with money-making abilities, and tech-thrillers will have someone skilled in computer hacking. Write fantasy? Chances are your band of adventurers will have wilderness navigation, archery, lying, and leadership skills covered.
It’s okay to choose talents and skills common to your genre if you challenge yourself to twist them into something fresh. Maybe your billionaire doesn’t use his charm to bed anyone…instead he smiles his way into securing fat donations for his charitable foundation. Your computer hacker could be a Robin Hood in disguise by taking the paydays of online scammers and returning money to bank accounts of those scammed. Your adventurers can have the perfect skills for a hallmark quest but when they are transported to a foreign landscape full of unknowns, they must adapt their talents to suit.
With a bit of extra thought, there’s always a way to turn a common trope or premise into something fresh.
An Unwanted Talent or Skill
Sometimes a character has an ability they wish they didn’t have. Maybe being a natural peacekeeper means constantly being embroiled in family drama, or good intuition means less mistakes, sparking jealousy among peers. An ability to build explosives could land your character into trouble when a cruel king forces him to make bombs that kill those who stand against the crown.
An unwanted skill can also open the box to internal reflections part of character arc. The unhappiness tied to their ability causes them to think about who they are, who they want to be, and how much this skill controls how they see themselves. This can lead to finding a positive way to use their skill so they gain greater fulfillment.
A Seemingly Useless Talent or Skill
Finally, a great way to subvert expectations is to give your character a talent that seems deceptively useless. Maybe they can solve a Rubix Cube puzzle one-handed, or their steady hands come in handy as a house painter who has to tackle the window trim. Exciting stuff, right?
But what if their dexterity saves them in an emergency? Maybe to help a friend escape wrongful imprisonment they have to they have to pickpocket a key card. Or to undo a curse they must collect magical berries nestled within a thicket of poisonous thorns. Useless talents can transform your story if used the right way!
Ready to Start Brainstorming a Perfect Talent or Skill?
If you need help choosing your character’s special qualities, swing by the Talent and Skill Database at One Stop for Writers.
This database covers everything from A Way with Animals to ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception) to Sharpshooting. In fact, all the bolded examples of skills and talents in this post are part of this show-don’t-tell database!
Do you have a talent or skill that you’ve given to a character? Let me know in the comments!
* * * * * *
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in nine languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold 750,000 copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.
by Julie Glover
“I need to write!” How often do I say that to myself? How often do you say that to yourself?
It can be a challenge to find the time, space, and motivation to write. Let’s tackle each of those and address getting what we need to write regularly.
Your Writing Space
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” – Virginia Woolf
I had that quote pinned up in my old office, right up until my husband moved his own desk in there, followed by my then-children taking up a third desk. Even then, I had the space to myself while they worked and went to school, though it was everyone’s hangout evenings, weekends, and holidays. Then my kids grew up and moved out, but my husband remained…and retired. So much for having weekdays to myself.
Fast forward a couple of years, and we moved. At first, my hubby had planned to share an office with me again, but through a series of events, the second bedroom has ended up being that “room of her own.” And I’m already getting more done. Not because my family had tried to make my life less productive—they were actually pretty good about letting me work. But having a quiet, dedicated space to myself is what I need to write regularly and productively.
Other authors need people around or background noise, perhaps writing in coffee shops or with the quiet murmurs of their local library. Some write reclined on sofas, and others need ergonomic desk furniture. Some want to be outside or with sunlight streaming through windows, and others want no windows so that they can block out the world.
Considerations for Your Writing Space
Whatever you need is fine, but I wish I’d known a few things about a writing space years ago:
- Test out variations and measure work productivity. Some places where I’ve written were delightful experiences, but I didn’t get much done. Other options, I thought I wouldn’t do well with, until I tried them.
- Spend some time and money creating the space you need. Invest in the right seating or monitor stand, or go ahead and pick up a recliner to add to your office if that’s where you brainstorm best. Just put some effort into creating a space conducive to writing.
- Tell those in your circle what helps you write. If you need quiet, ask for quiet times. If you need every inch of your desk smudged before you begin, warn them that the scent of sage is coming. Whatever it is, just ask for others’ respect and help as you put together a productive space.
- Be flexible, because it won’t be perfect. Like me, you may have challenges with space and people around you. Just do your best and learn to write within that space. Adjust what you can, but then embrace the rest.
Your Writing Time
If you want to be a writer—stop talking about it and sit down and write! – Jackie Collins
Easier said than done, Jackie. I typed “finding time to write” into the Google search engine and got back approximately 1,090,000,000 results. That’s over one billion hits! So obviously, finding writing time is a struggle for lots of folks.
For one thing, most authors don’t make a living solely writing books, so they often have work of another kind to complete. Then there are the daily tasks one must take care of, with oneself and significant others, children, etc. On top of that, there’s Life, which can throw fastballs, curveballs, and spitballs at you from time to time.
Not surprisingly, the number one slice of advice I hear about this topic is: Protect Your Writing Time.
But what does that look like? Well, like writing space, it looks different for different writers. Some can write on their phone standing in line at the grocery store while others need large blocks of time set aside to get deep into a scene. How big a fortress you need to protect your writing time is up to you and your personality.
WITS Wisdom on Writing Time
Here on WITS, though, there’s plenty of wisdom about finding time to write. Just a few of those posts are:
- 3 Steps to Make Time to Write by Kris Maze
- Tackling a Writer’s Greatest Challenge—Time Management by Heather Webb
- Time Management Secret: "YES Makes Less" by Jenny Hansen
- How to Use Your Time Personality to Increase Writing Productivity by Colleen Story
- 10 Ways to Keep Your Writing Time & Minimize Interruptions by Kris Maze
- Time Management for Writers Who Hate Time Management by Julie Glover (me!)
Your Writing Motivation
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure. – Samuel Johnson
Everyone who has an idea for a book does not write a book. Everyone who starts a book does not finish a book. Everyone who finishes a book does not edit that book to publication quality.
In summary, it’s hard to write a good book. You have to get motivated and stay motivated.
Personally, I’m great about starting. I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and writing an opening scene delights me to no end. But a writing career is not made of good starts. I have to find ways to keep myself going on the book I’m on, even when I want to say, “Ugh, forget this project. I want to play with that other new, shiny idea!”
Once again, we vary in what motivates us to write. To begin with, some love writing for the process, and others better appreciate the finished product.
Extra Motivation Tips
But here are a few ideas of what might help you find and maintain your motivation to write:
- Inspiration from other authors. Writing quotes, like the ones I used here, can inspire you when you begin to flounder, as well as hearing others’ stories of success or struggle. Jenny Hansen has a wonderful series of Top 10 Success Tips from various inspiring creatives, and WITS has a whole category titled Inspiration with lots of posts to peruse and find what you need.
- Goals and Rewards. My critique partner uses spreadsheets to stay on track, while others use whiteboards, detailed planners, or lists to keep themselves motivated. They feel a sense of satisfaction checking off a task, and they may even have a system of personal rewards for doing so. If that’s your thang, go for it.
- Personal Refreshment. I’m a big fan of taking breaks and doing self-care to keep your mind sharp and your heart engaged. Plenty of writers are more motivated to write after taking a brisk walk, a long hot shower, or a dip in the pool. Make sure to fill your own personal well so that you can pour the words out later.
- Positive Self-Talk. Often, what we need to get past the bumps and humps of writing is to remind ourselves: “I can write this book. I want to write this book. I will write this book!” That often involves telling your inner critic to shut up and your inner cheerleader to speak up. For me, taking time to remind myself how much I love my story and characters gives me fresh motivation to go back and spend time with them.
I originally titled this post What Do You Need to Write? But after a bit of mulling, I added the word “Regularly.” Because that’s what will get books written, edited, and published.
You need space, time, and motivation to write consistently. What each of those entails for you depends on you. But I firmly believe that we won’t get the space, time, and motivation we need unless we consider each intentionally and pursue what helps us produce our best work.
What do you currently lack to be able to write regularly? Do you have any plans to achieve that goal?
* * * * * *
Julie Glover is an award-winning author of mysteries and young adult fiction. She also writes supernatural suspense under the pen name Jules Lynn.
Her most recent release is My Team's Fairy Godmother, the fourth of five YA paranormal short stories.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Photo credit: StartupStockPhotos and kaboompics from Pixabay
by Kathleen Baldwin
How well do you know your readers? If you’re not published, how well do you know your potential readers?
It always surprises me when I ask that question and get blank stares from the writers in my classes. This is a vitally important question. You may think you are writing for whoever will read your books, or readers who like such and such genre—but it is more than that. So much more!
Some writers boldly protest that they are not writing for anyone else—only to please themselves. Cool. If you don’t mind having an audience of one, that’s the way to go. Most of us hope for more than that after having invested six months of our lives writing the book. Not only that, but many of us need to make a living doing this writing thing. Hence, sales are kind of important.
I’m going to lay some equations on you. I love applying math to esoteric concepts. So, hang on to your calculators. Here goes…
Knowing Your Readers = Increased Sales
Knowing + Marketing to Your Readers = 10 x Increased Sales
And here’s a shocker. No, not really. Here’s a reality that authors and writers try to pretend is not true.
Readers are changing. Yep. That’s right, we’re not writing novels for your grandmama’s reader, assuming the dear lady was also an author. (She was in my case. Even my great-grandmother was a writer. Which is why I swore I was going to be a doctor. Look where that landed me. Ha! Right back on the ole writing homestead.)
Big news! Even the grandmas of the world have changed. Readers are motile evolving entities. And wow! They have made some massive changes in the last decade. So even if you think you know who your readers are—they may have changed!
Until 2019 readership was declining, especially among younger readers. From 2005 to 2019, America saw a 26% decrease in reading. Eeeeek! That upsetting data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fear not, my pen-worthy pals. I have great news—during Covid, reading increased 21% and the big demographic to improve was 15 - 44-year-olds. Hooray! (That cheery nugget is from Publisher’s Weekly) I could fling more stats at you, but I’m not going to because readership levels aren’t the important thing here. Finding YOUR readers, despite whatever changes come our way, is the key to writerly contentment.
There are a whopping 1.769 BILLION readers out there in the huge world-wide market. I’m willing to bet the farm that they aren’t all reading your books. I know they all aren’t reading mine. Yet, I’m still very happy with my cherished and devoted readers. It is unreasonable to expect that you will sell to every reader. So, I’ll rephrase my axiom: Finding YOUR readers is the path to contentment and success as a writer.
Let us indulge in more math…
Mystery/Suspense/Thriller readers constitute one of the bigger fiction genres. How many of those readers are there? An estimated 583.7 million. Whoa! Nice.
Let’s dig in. How many of those readers like cozy mystery? About 190 million. And of that subcategory, how many like books with clever cats padding through the crime scene? Close to 30 million. If you sold 30 million books, I think you’d be pretty happy, right? Now speculate on how many of those readers crave recipes served up with their mystery?
I am not saying you should write recipes, or cats, or anything in any of these categories.
I AM saying that if you write cozy mysteries with animals, you ought to find out if your readers love dogs in their novels or cats. Unless you only want to write about cats. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
There are ways to find out…
First, though, do you enjoy writing about metaphorical cats, or do you prefer allegorical dogs? Maybe you prefer penning cleverly cooked up crime.
Here’s the thing, whether you like writing about robots fighting zombie invasions on Mars or empathic witches flying rocket ships back in time to the Victorian era, the key is making a marriage between you and your readers.
Marry what you love to write with readers who love to read what you write.
Except it isn’t simple. Not simple at all. Authors face the same problem anyone does when trying to find a mate. How and where do you run into each other? Bookstores, Book fairs, online dating? Blind dates. How?
How can you get to know your reader?
Apart from judiciously asking questions of fans who email you (while being careful to respect their privacy), one of the easiest ways to evaluate your readership is on Goodreads. I know, I know, lots of authors shy away from Goodreads because the reviewers there are brutal. Except don't look at Goodreads like a popularity contest. Ergh! No, think of it as a free marketing tool. Huzzah! We love free stuff.
Goodreads is the perfect place to study the readers who follow you and have read your books. There are several methods for doing this.
Examine the followers on your author page. I’ll show you how to find them using my author page as an example. Your followers’ list is available here:
Click on one of your books and study the positive reviews. Investigate what the readers who love your stories are saying. Note any repeated terms. Find a common thread. You can learn what type of stories these same readers love by looking at the other books that those same readers have liked and reviewed. Watch for repeated books among your reviewers—you're searching for commonality.
If you are not yet published, study readers of books that closely resemble what you write. Assess their readers’ likes and dislikes by their reviews. Are there prevalent favored themes? Heavily admired character types? What other similarities can you find? Be sure to look at a large enough sample of readers so your data will be a reliable interest gauge. 25 to 50 readers should give you a fairly reliable idea of preferences.
If you find true commonality with some of these other authors, you will want to cross-pollinate with them. Perhaps you know this author and can ask her for a blurb, or offer to do a newsletter swap when your book comes out. Recommend her books on Goodreads and Bookbub, or post/blog about her books, and you may attract like-minded readers.
Another great way to learn what makes your reader tick is to examine your Amazon reviews. Here again, focus on positive reviewers, hunt for what YOUR readers like. Search for repeated terms. As mentioned previously, if you’re not yet published, study reviews of authors whose work is similar to yours. Study what those readers say they love, and you might want to look at what they dislike as well.
PLEASE NOTE: I caution you against looking at your book's negative reviews because most authors cannot handle the level of meanness and pettiness some readers dish out on Goodreads and Amazon. It can easily discourage you. Sometimes it can take hours, days, weeks, or even months to get over a particularly foul review. You need to develop a thick skin in this business, but at the same time, don’t walk in front of the firing squad and expect you won't get wounded.
You have to deal with enough unavoidable criticism without allowing yourself get punched by what I call the 3% bitter petty meanies.
Check it out; look up one of your favorite books. There will be 2-3% haters on almost every book. Even Harry Potter has 2% 1 Star reviews and 1% 2 stars = 3% haters. The popular Bridgerton series hit #3 on the Amazon bestseller lists during its recent streaming video fame, yet it had 2% 1 star and 2% 2 Stars ratings = 4% haters. Tom Sawyer has 5% haters, depending upon which version.
Go ahead, check your favorite book’s ratings. (Not your own) You'll see what I mean.
BookBub is another excellent place to learn about your readers. BookBub offers reviewers the option to select predetermined story aspects that have made them happy. For instance, I noted that while most of my reviewers were pleased with the romance, there were numerous terms relating to funniness, such as the ones I underlined below. Witty. Laughed-out-loud. There were so many humor-related comments that I loosened up when writing the next book in that series and allowed my humorous side free reign. Before this discovery, I’d tried to keep my cheekiness in check. I’d held back.
Here’s how knowing your reader plays out in concrete terms.
I will use my own small experiment as an example
- I discovered that my readers enjoy reading something that I very much enjoy writing.
- Consequently, I relaxed and did more of that in the next book.
- When it came time to market that book, I made a point of mentioning that content in promotional materials.
- I followed through with the promise to make them laugh and cry. And enjoyed every minute of writing it.
- The book launched and hit #1 and #2 in its categories and stayed high for several weeks. It wore a bestseller and hot new seller ribbon for the first month.
- Readership grew, and my newsletter gained many new followers.
Other ways you can learn about your reader:
- Survey your newsletter subscribers.
- Pay attention to your fan mail. Respond when fans write to you and ask questions.
- Examine your Instagram and Facebook page demographics.
- Interact with fans at events and online—ask questions about what they like and don’t like.
The upshot is this: IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR READER. (Did I repeat that enough times?
Stay true to the promise of your brand. Knowing what your readers want allows you to make minor adjustments toward trends as long they are changes that are true to you as a writer and that you genuinely enjoy writing. Do that, and YOUR readers will gobble up your work.
I hope what you’ve garnered from this article is not to write what you think some unknown reader out there wants, but instead to find out what YOUR readers love that you already do and do more of that. This is a super positive thing. It means: be more you!
What is it your readers love about what you write? Do you keep them on the edge of their seat, biting their nails down to a nubbin? Do you challenge their thinking with philosophical metaphors? Are your characters so magical we can’t wait to see what they do next? Tell me. I want to know.
* * * * * *
Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 600,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films.
Kathleen will be discussing more about finding your reader in her upcoming is workshop, The Future of Storytelling, at Margie Lawson Writer’s Academy
by Lisa Norman
The most-read New York Times article in 2021 was, "There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing."
According to the article, languishing is the state between depression and flourishing. While more people have been struggling with languishing since the pandemic, I've watched authors struggle with it for years.
I help authors set up social media platforms, websites, and indie-publish their books. In almost every case, there's a stage in the project where everything seems to stagnate. All the passion of a new project, all the creativity, fades into crickets.
Some authors seem to have more resilience than others, but there's a stage where they all ask me, "Are you sure this will work?"
I am, but only if the author can escape the pull of languishing.
A case study
One of my clients was building his web presence. I'd given him a lot of homework, since he'd said that he wanted to make a living off this website. He had four visits one month and then eight visits the next month.
We were working with a marketing director. She was excited: 100% growth! She'd been through this wringer enough to know that consistency would win, if only we could keep him motivated.
The client kept at his homework, and the next month saw 30 visits. It wasn't a straight line, and we had many discussions about whether this would really work. Currently, he's averaging around 20,000 visits each month. He now has the success and the volume where trying new things can move that needle dramatically.
Before he could succeed, he had to conquer that soul-sucking time when everything seemed to languish. He had to work hard, even when it looked like nothing was working.
I'm often sad when I hand an author their book for the first time, or turn over the keys to a shiny new website. I try to give them a pep talk, but I know the odds are that the initial statistics won't be what they hope for.
I sound like a cheerleader, but mostly I'm begging them not to give up. Not to quit. Not to stop caring.
Because many of them do.
Worse, they get sucked in by every hot new trend, chasing any promise of success, while ignoring the down-and-dirty hard work that is the core of marketing and writing. Eventually, some of them will decide that nothing works and just give up.
When authors are motivated and engaged, I love watching them move through those early phases and into success. Watching them spiral through languishing and into depression is heartbreaking.
How to move from languishing to flourishing
The NYT article recommends getting immersed in a project or other entertainment as a way to move forward. Ironically, the stories we create will help others escape from languishing by leading them to become emotionally invested in our characters, helping them to care about something, anything, in order to escape the doldrums.
But what happens when you are a creative individual who is stuck languishing in the time of COVID?
The goal here is to find things that delight you, things that will pull you further towards a sense of connection and creativity.
Find things that give you joy, and then bring those things into your life at least once a week, more often if you find your muse is refusing to cooperate.
Whatever the creative endeavor is that you are trying to build (website, social media, your latest WIP), try to bring that sense of joy and caring into your project with you. There is a well-known marketing principle: people are attracted to those who are having fun. This is why telemarketers and tech support folks are trained to have a mirror nearby and to smile while on the phone. The customer won't see the smile, but they'll hear it and feel it, and it will make a difference.
The following are suggestions. Take what connects with you; ignore anything that doesn't bring you delight.
Read motivational books, or fun books from your favorite authors. Get caught up in the story.
The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron, is one of my favorites for fighting that sense of not being fully connected with the world. She recommends taking yourself on Artist Dates — dates with your inner creative spirit.
Even in these crazy times, you can explore the world. You don't even need to leave home!
- HeyGo — travel the world without leaving home - this is fantastic because it also includes opportunities to interact with your guide and other tourists!
- VR Adventures — if you have an Oculus or other Virtual Reality headset, consider going on an adventure.
If you can get to a craft store, spending time looking through beads, yarns, or colored pens can be a gift to your muse.
But what if you can't get to a store?
A friend and I went to a Zoom yarn fair where a handmade-yarn artist exhibited her yarns. She interacted with the visitors and told the stories behind each color. It was the most fun I'd ever had yarn shopping.
- Search for "virtual yarn tours."
- Visit Craftsy.com to take a class.
- Watch YouTube videos that feature your favorite hobby.
An artist friend of mine spends hours poring over paint catalogs, picking paint, paper, and other supplies. Each delivery to her doorstep delights her. She'll spend days playing with her new toys, and I can hear the depression leave her voice.
- Go for a walk. Yes, outside. Just look at something different.
- Check out AuthorFitness.com for ideas.
Whether or not related to your story, play can reinvigorate a languishing muse.
- video games
- board games with the family
- even solitaire!
As a bonus, if you play online video games, you're likely to eventually be drawn into things like Discord and Twitch, platforms for meeting other gamers and getting to know them. Social media engagement while playing!
Engage your Senses
You have five senses, plus extras, depending on your approach to life. Stimulate each sense:
- Eat something yummy
- Smell flowers or the sap of a pine tree
- Listen to your favorite music, something classical, or something new
- Look at beautiful things
- Touch things with unusual textures — handmade sweaters, smooth statues, rocks and sand from a beach
Restore your writing passion
These escapes can feel like procrastination, and yes, some authors use them that way. But if you are aware of your mental state and you find yourself languishing, these prescriptions can be just the thing to help you re-engage. Here's how:
On a walk, you may see something that gives you an idea for a plot twist.
Eating, you may discover a recipe or a flavor that you can bring into a story or a blog post.
Music can create a powerful mood that helps you with a story. Bonus points if you create a soundtrack for your story and share it on social media or in your newsletter.
Exploring the world, you may find ideas for new stories or new blog posts.
Share your adventures on social media. Help your fans engage. My daughter frequently meets up with friends in VR chat and they explore imaginary worlds. Imagine offering that level of engagement to your fans!
When you are languishing in your writing career, the ideal escape will be into your writing, into your characters, into the virtual world that you are creating inside your head. The passion and vitality that you connect with as you work to bring yourself out of the slump will fuel your writing business while helping maintain your mental health.
As an advantage, the creations that you bring into existence may help rescue the non-creatives in our world from their own experience of languishing.
Are you languishing or flourishing in your writing life right now? What are some ways that you avoid languishing? We'd love to hear your story down in the comments!
* * * * * *
Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.
Interested in learning more from Lisa? See her teaching schedule below.
- January: Crazy Easy Awesome-Author Websites (a basic, hands-on website building class for authors)
- March: Crazy Easy Social Media for Authors