The Experts

I was thinking this morning — foggily, while getting my first cup of coffee, and I assure you I don’t intend to make it an habit — that you guys starting out now were lucky.

What I mean is, when I started out it would take months or years to make the right connections/meet enough writers/etc to actually know what was going on and what we should do, both in terms of how to write and in terms of how to survive economically.  Oh, sure, some people more endowed with clue than myself would go to cons and get to hear things from the horse’s mouth.  I didn’t even know about cons, or at least I didn’t know “normal” people (not writers, editors, etc) could attend. At any rate even when I found out about Clarion (a magazine editor — small press — offered to pay for my attending it.  I’m forever in his debt, but) I couldn’t attend.  We didn’t have the money for the travel, and I couldn’t leave the house for two weeks.  I just couldn’t.  (Years later I managed it with the Oregon Writers’ Workshop, but it almost broke us.)

You guys, as I kept telling people at Liberty con this weekend, can get free lessons on writing, advice on publishing, just the whole thing, right here. Free.  From the comfort of your own jammies.


So it occurred to me you have a different problem.  All the “experts” who aren’t.  How can you tell the difference.

There is no easy way.  I have a sharply developed BS detector simply through growing up where and when I did, but also through reading every bs booklet on reading faces, palms, handwriting (it wasn’t I wanted to do this precisely.  It was more that I’d read anything and those were cheap) and also through spending a summer reading “Chariot of the Gods” type stuff.

But there are some pointers to look for before you listen to the wisdom of that writer/editor/publicist/cover designer.

1- Actions speak louder than words.  Look at what they have done in their field.  If the stuff doesn’t look/sound like what you want, ignore their advice.

2- If they’ve done nothing that’s its own marker.

3- How recent is their experience?  Look, I hated being put in beginner panels till last year, and a friend mistook what I was saying and said “you’re not a bestseller.  You shouldn’t have such a big head.”  It’s not a big head.  It’s that the pathway I used to get into published status no longer exists and the industry is completely different now indie-Amazon is available.

4-Someone might be an amazing writing/editor/whatever but if his formative experience was more than 10 years ago, I guarantee he has no clue what’s going on in the field now, unless like Kris Rusch and Dean Smith he’s made a point of staying updated. How do you know if they stayed updated?  Well, when they talk and blog they don’t sound like they’re writing in the nineteen nineties.  There is no easy assumption that of course trad publishing is the only way.

5- But Sarah, that doesn’t apply to writing styles.

Trust me it does.  We all wrote to put in the markers that editorial pin-heads in NYC saw as a “big” book.  That is a way of writing I keep finding in trad books, but not in indie.  Sometimes I think that’s why indie does better, at least in certain fields (cozy, space opera) that don’t lend themselves to that treatment.

6- Ignore commenters.  Often writers and/or editors have a cult of personality going and it might seem to you everyone agrees with this person.  That’s not necessarily so.  Pay attention again and again to the actions.  Is this person good, up to date, well informed?

7 – Remember you have to stay up to date, too.  This field changes, I SWEAR, every every three months.  You must study and stay with it.  What was true three months ago, now that indie is here, could destroy your income if you keep doing it.

8 – Trust yourself.  I always try to make clear none of my advice is absolute.  There are things I say “never” or “always” do, but you might violate the rule and surprise me with how good you are.  Now with indie?  Everything is wide open.  If my advice, or any advice sounds fishy don’t use it.  Trust yourself.

9- Write.  Yes, to quote Heinlein, yes, “the game is rigged, but if you don’t bet you can’t win.”

10 – Get out there and place your bets.

40 thoughts on “The Experts

  1. “5- But Sarah, that doesn’t apply to writing styles.

    Trust me it does. We all wrote to put in the markers that editorial pin-heads in NYC saw as a “big” book. That is a way of writing I keep finding in trad books, but not in indie. Sometimes I think that’s why indie does better, at least in certain fields (cozy, space opera) that don’t lend themselves to that treatment.”

    This is very interesting. Could you expand on this?

    (I’m going to write to suit myself regardless, but I think what you just said here may be a lot more important than it seems, especially given all those “agents like this/hate that” advice columns that budding writers take as gospel.)

  2. Damn straight I’m lucky! And I know it, and appreciate it.

    I cannot imagine writing in the days when researching — whether it’s markets or history or technology or whatever — required a trip to the library. For more involved research, it might take a university library hours away. I would have to structure my weekend around that. Now I can do sufficient research for most things from my living room chair — or at 3 a.m., from my bed.

    For some reason, I hate postal mail. Not the post office itself, just the physical process of packaging things, addressing them, weighing, applying postage, sending them out, and waiting. I cannot imagine writing in the days when EVERY market was postal submissions only.

    I can barely find time and budget for conventions now that I’m a pro. I cannot imagine having to do that just to pick up occasional clues to the business.

    So yes, I’m lucky to work in an age when so much information is available at my fingertips. If I have to filter out crap and I have to run to keep up with changes, that’s still less work than what writers used to go through.

    1. I hate postal mail so much ALL my mailings to fans are delayed. I’ve had two books sitting in the outgoing pile for three months. Because I have to plan to lose an afternoon when I go to the post office.

  3. I’ve only been in the game since 2012, and the changes make my eyes water. Audiobooks are a huge thing, with writing styles of their own (see Pam’s post, comments section, last week for details). You can make decent money writing not-tome novels (75-85K words). There are a gazillion people out there offering contracting services to edit, do covers, format, what have you your e-book and print book. E-book formatting is getting better and better, making them more attractive visually on the screen. And writers are growing more and more willing to challenge the pronouncements from certain “experts” about indie publishing, e-publishing, and marketing.

    I was very, very lucky that my first exposure to this world was DWS and KKR, MGC, and PG’s place.

  4. Of course there is the ultimate expert validation. I guess it would be rude to ask “so how much did you make this past year?” but “how have your sales been lately?” is fair game and give much of the same information. The key being, is what they’ve been doing working for them. Doesn’t mean it would work for you, but certainly adds some weight to whatever advice they might offer.
    There was that one gentleman on one of the indie writer panels at LC. His name escapes me at the moment, Doug Dandridge perhaps? He was telling how he tried to break into traditional publication for something like fourteen years with no success. He went indie three years ago with his entire backlist, something like 20 books he’d written and never got published. The rest of the panel were nodding at this rather typical tale. Then he gave out some numbers. Sales of if I remember correctly around 135,000 with earnings upwards of $300k. Every one in the room took notice at that.
    I remember him saying he did all his own covers and spent around 30 dollars on them, that in response to a remark from the audience from someone who was budgeting $3,000 to get their book ready to publish.

    1. I met Doug at Superstars last year. I haven’t read his books yet, and his covers don’t appeal to me, but I’m not surprised by those numbers. He is an astute self-promoter. Not obnoxious, by any means, but not afraid to reach out to an audience wherever he can find one. That’s a “skill” that’s hard to teach.

    2. I used to do my own covers, but I’m not much of an artist (they were all photo based, or photo manipulations). Now I spend about $300 a cover, I have an artist I work with regularly (ebooklaunch) and a second one who has done 2 covers for me. I also pay to have an editor do a copy edit. So it costs me about $500 to launch a book.
      I see a LOT of people doing cover art who charge a fortune for it! It’s almost a scam. The picture of your book is going to be so small online, that paying for all that detail is really just wasting money. When I contacted a bunch of artists on Deviant Art about cover art, the amounts they wanted were just insane. And as I know a lot of artists who do commission work, I have a good understanding of what the rates should be. Now I’m always willing to pay a little extra for quicker turnaround time, but if the cover artist for your book is making more money than you are, you have a problem.
      As for sales, my goal is to hit 60K books sold this year. I’m hoping I can do that.

      1. Out of curiosity how do you actually judge ‘what it should cost’? I know part of the (theoretically) obvious answer is quality, but I’m curious as to specific criteria and price points.

        1. It’s based on several factors, but overall, three hundred dollars is about what an average cover should cost you, for a book priced 2.99 to 3.99. Unless you’re selling a huge number of copies of a book a month (say north of 8K).
          If you have a higher priced book, a more expensive cover is probably worth while, and if you’re selling actual print copies in stores, where people are seeing a larger version of your cover, by all means that’s a much more expensive proposition.

          I also don’t take artists who take more than a week or two to turn around the artwork. Why? Because I’ve had bad experiences with them meeting deadlines and once had a book postponed three months while I waited for an artist.

          And if an artist doesn’t know how to put the title and name on the cover, that’s money off what I’m going to pay them. Because that’s the most important thing on a cover, the art is actually second to that.

          Now this is all just my own personal opinion, and I make no claim for it being right. I just know this has been working for me. Also there are a lot of places out there offering quality work in the under 300 dollar price range. I’m planing on trying out another one for my next series, to see how they do. Remember, the goal of the cover is to make someone stop and read the blurb, and help decide them to download the teaser. I’ve seen fifty dollar covers that did this better than $1000 dollar covers.

          Also, there comes a point in pricing where you are paying extra either because the artist is popular and already has a long line of commissions (which if they’re good, are probably not book covers) or because they have a big ego. I’m finding that ‘commercial’ artists who focus on book covers have quick turnarounds, and an inherent idea of what makes people stop and look. Dane at ebooklaunch, who has done 5 covers for me so far, seems to be really good at that. So why mess with it?

      2. John

        I want to thank you for mentioning ebooklaunch a couple of months ago. I now have the first two covers done, and the first book live on Amazon.

        I’ve found the artist easy to work with, and they meet their schedules. What else can anyone ask for?

  5. When you say to research the field, can you tell us some specific places to start that research? I’m assuming keeping an eye on Amazon and what’s selling there is one, but where else?

    1. go to the writers cafe. There are some very old threads on the amazon authors/pubishers forums, but most of the new stuff there is just worthless, so browse there with caution.
      Those are two places to start.

  6. I tried to get in the game in the 90’s, but couldn’t. So I wrote for a couple of small fanzines (and myself) and just left it at that. I did however go to almost every writing panel at the cons I went to. What was annoying was how few of the people I knew (who were readers) would even look at anything I wrote, they all (with one exception) refused, which was incredibly annoying.

    So I ended up putting stuff online, for free, but there I discovered that people would only read porn, so guess what I ended up writing?
    I used to get these incredible emails from people about how much they liked my porn, because it had a -story-, and well developed characters and dialogue! It was pretty much the only place I could get feedback on my writing. So yes, I did it.

    When the kindle came out, I did quite a few trashy romance novella’s and novels, because again, only place I could get any real feedback out of the readers, because apparently scifi and fantasy fans all seemed to have broken fingers and couldn’t type reviews. But I was getting the George Washington reviews, and that told me I might be on to something.

    Then last year I hit the Benjamen Franklin reviews, and because I actually begged my readers at the end of the book to rate me, I started to get about one out of every sixty or so readers to actually write a review and rate my novels (Instead of one out of four hundred).
    But even though my best seller has now sold 10K copies, I STILL can’t get my friends to read what I write. My beta reviewers are mostly people I’ve NEVER MET, we just talk online when I have a new book for them to review.

    In short, I’ve been told ‘no’ so many times, and gotten almost no help since I started writing, (with only two minor exceptions), that it’s kind of freaky that I’m now making the money I am at it. I keep waiting for the bubble to pop. Other than my sales numbers and the occasional email (I try to avoid reading my reviews) I get no encouragement to keep writing at all.

    I keep hearing about writers who have adoring fans and all that. i just want to know, where can I get me some of those?

    1. Try your beta readers you’ve never met?
      I mean, if you aren’t paying them, they’ve gotta be doing it for *some* reason. Sounds like adoring fans to me–maybe in a civilized, grownup way, rather than a toddler-strawberry-shortcake way (and as a parent of such a child, trust me, not the sort of adoring fan you want, unless you’re really into “I’M NOT GOING TO BED UNTIL YOU FIND MY PUPCAKE!!11!!!” and in which case, you wanna come over and help find that stuffed dog?).

      1. Holly, the dog will be in the last place you look. It never fails, at least around here. *ducks hurled board-book*

        1. You know, it always is, and that probably means one of her brothers ‘put it away’ to annoy her.
          Probably the same brother who ‘I put my shoes away’ last night and they turned up outside this morning.

        2. “[It] will be in the last place you look.”

          There’s one sure way to fix that: keep looking after you’ve found it.

          Oddly, friends to whom I have given that advice have not found it useful…

          1. Takes too much time, and we’re always running late after we find whatever it was. But you’re welcome to come over and keep looking on my behalf 😀

          2. Oddly enough, sometimes I do this. I finally find something I’m looking for, but I’ve been looking for it so long, I still look for it some time after I’ve found it.

            This mostly happens to library books that are lost, and thus two weeks overdue, even though we’ve searched for it this entire time…

      2. Oh I’d put the beta readers in the fan category, but I don’t know if I’d put them in the ‘adoring’ one! And I only have a handful of them.

        I know a guy who sells a lot less than I do, and he literally has hundreds of adoring fans. And they’ll mess you up if they think you’ve said a bad word about him! I could mention his name here, and none of you would even know him. That’s how small his fanbase is, but damn if they don’t follow him like a puppy dog. It’s enough to make you envious!! 😛

    2. Raising hand here John but then again I’ve become a fan of a lot of the authors on MGC.

  7. As an aside, the new kindle unlimited method of paying you based on page counts has been rolled out!
    And how do they determine how many pages your book has?
    Why, it’s based on the NUMBER OF CHAPTERS AND NOT WORDS!!!
    Yup, Amazon screwed the pooch on that one. Guess it’s time to re-edit all my kindle books and double the number of chapters, because books half the size of mine are coming in with the same page counts.
    I have to wonder where they hire their programmers from, oh, that’s right, India. Well you get what you pay for…

    1. [incoming vision]

      A flat grey plain stretches to infinity. On it walks a man dressed in black, wearing a peculiar hat.

      He is laughing.

      [vision ends]

  8. My first indie book went live on Sunday. I’ve used a lot of the advice I got right here. For instance, John Van Stry mentioned where he gets his covers, and I’m getting mine there now.

    Someone else posted a link that led me to a good post on what to do with five or more novels, if you have them ready. As an experiment, I’m following that. I have seven novels, and they’ll be going live every two weeks.

    By the fourteenth week, there might be two more ready, so it’ll go for another four weeks.

    At that time, I had been asked to relate my experiences while doing things this way. I’d like to do that, but I don’t have a blog of my own, and that’s relatively low on my priorities. Maybe this fall.

    Any ideas how I can share experiences? Whether it works for something positive, or is totally bingo.

    1. Congratulations on your book going live. This is just some thoughts from someone with all of three days more experience. In other words, I’m not an indie expert and didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. This is only tossed out for comment.

      Three words: Promotion, promotion, promotion. You can’t sell what folks don’t know is available. The question is how to promote your books. Amazon has something call an Author’s Page, which is free, and lets readers know what else you’ve got out there. But that doesn’t do much good unless they pulled up at least one book to look at and unless you have more for sale.

      If you bother to look up mine, you’ll find one short $2.99 book with limited market, and two 99 cent specials. Those two short stories were near-misses that got favorable editor’s comments, one with a “What else do you have?” so they aren’t trunk cleaning exercises. The purpose wasn’t only to put more items on sale, but to increase exposure. It hasn’t been a spectacular success so far, which means that alone isn’t enough promotion.

      My next step was a blog, which is requiring more tweaking than I like and still needs work. The purpose of that is to attract readers. The more you have out there, the more your name comes up, and the more your name comes up, the more people will know you have books for sale. I think a blog can be a writer’s showcase, a sample of your writing that, hopefully, will encourage a reader to buy a book.

      I went with because at least initially they’re free, and for 18 bucks you can stick a domain name on your blog, though I’d recommend spending an additional 8 dollars for proxy registration. Otherwise, your name, address, phone number and who knows what all will be available to anyone through a whois search. That’s $26, which isn’t bad for starting out.

      There’s a good resource right here. If you’ll look at the top of the Mad Genius page, you’ll see “Navigating from Writing to Publishing.” Click on that and scroll down, and it has past posts about book promotion.

      That’s about it. A check on some authors’ Facebook pages looked a bit seedy, which raises the question of whether one is needed if you have a blog.

      1. Thanks for the thought, Kevin.

        What I want to do is find out what works. What I’m doing is an experiment, following an experiment an established writer did last fall through much of the winter.

        While she was keeping up with her current works, she wrote five novels of a new series, and set them aside. She chose a pen name for this new series. She started an author’s blog for it, but left it alone.

        Then she put the first one live. Over the next few weeks, she would put the next one up, one every two weeks. At the end of that, she had sold three thousand books {it may have been more, I’m confident of three thousand, not so confident of more.}

        At the end of the experiment, she let her blog readers in on what she was doing.

        This way, she found out what triggers certain algorithms on Amazon. What works without any real promotion. Then went from there.

        I’m going to do the first seven without a blog up. Then put the blog up.

        Thank you.

  9. I’m blathering, I know.
    I have to, though, because I just read Ben Bova’s ‘Cyberbook,’ published in 1989, in which he accurately describes what is happening NOW with ebooks & specifically with trad publisher reactions and Amazon and gatekeepers and authors and how the device LOOKS and he did it 25 yeas ago, no wait, longer ago, oh migosh you gotta GET THE BOOK AND READ IT (it’s on and I’m gonna review it.
    Laura Montgomery and John Knapp, sorry, I owe you guys a review for Sleeping Duty and Darwin’s World, and did i rreview ‘One Drink?’ Aahh man, I hate not being able to think…

  10. “Lucky”. Right.

    I spend a decade or so doing my level-best to cultivate connections, meet writers, etc. — *just* in time for self-pub and indie to come along.

    And it isn’t the first time; I spent my high-school years thinking “I can get started in auto racing at 18” — *just* in time for Jeff Gordon to come along and render anyone who didn’t have a decade of racing experience by the time he was old enough to vote “too old to race at the top levels”.

    “Lucky”. Right.

  11. OMG, I stumbled over so much bad advice when I was first starting out 11 years ago, it’s a wonder I didn’t implode.

    Great post. Thanks for writing it. =o)

  12. You kids. You don’t know how good you have it. Why, when I was your age, we had to WALK to the publisher’s. With our manuscript in a box. Handwritten. With the blood of a virgin (Of course, since we were all geeks and none of us got laid, that was actually not a problem.). In the snow. Uphill. Both ways!

    1. Those stone tablets were really heavy! Then the Sumerians started using clay tablets! And then came… papyrus! Nothing like the tablets nowadays!

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