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Posts from the ‘FYNBOSSPRESS’ Category

Comfort Reads

It’s two weeks into the new year – the time when those of us who regularly went to the gym in December can now go back, as the tide of resolutionistas has receded. How are you doing on your resolutions, goals, and milestones? We’re not; we’re sick.

In our house, we’re about three weeks behind schedule. The Tiny Town Medical Outpost (Not just EMTs! We have a NP!) receptionist eyed my husband as he dragged in, and likely had not only his file and his copay pulled up before he got the window, but also the “and it’s ANOTHER flu patient who’s not getting better.” He dragged home, and I went the next day, and got mildly upbraided for not coming in at the same time so we could be seen together, as they’re swamped with folks catching bronchitis, pneumonia, and strep as secondary infections to go with the flu.

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Successful Author

What is your personal benchmark for success? How do you define it?

Larry Correia gave us his alphabetical list of author success (which is just about as off the wall, NSFW, and funny as you’d expect from the guy who came up with the Internet Arguing Checklist.)

Dean Wesley Smith, who’s been in this business for a few decades, has said that he knew a crusty old bookstore owner who figured you weren’t a “pro” until you had ten books out, as he’d seen far too many writers quit before they got that far. So the day Dean slapped that tenth published book on the table, the old gent acknowledged that he was “no longer a neo-pro.” Read more

Working in Another Author’s World

What’s the difference between fan fiction and anthologies or collaboration? Well, one is for free without the author’s express permission, and the other is for pay, with the author’s express permission or active help.

Seems simple, right up until John Ringo starts writing MHI fanfic, and turns it into a 3-book deal. Well, by the time they are officially, formally published, they’ve undergone a thorough edit by Larry to make sure all events stay true to canon, and some extra background checking to make sure all details are correct. So things get a little blurry, right?

(Fun fact: when you are friends with authors and they think you’re an expert on a subject, you’re likely to get random emails out of the blue about completely wild and wacky improbabilities. The best response is: “What is your character trying to accomplish in this scene?” Then you can figure out something slightly more connected to reality. Random questions include, but are not limited to, mass production of holy water, mass evacuation on a primitive planet by helicopter, skydiving from a Cessna 172…)

Then there are anthologies. They’re a chance to play in another author’s world, with permission, and for pay! But they’re also a lot harder than they look, for the following reasons.

1.Worldbuilding: You can’t necessarily invent your way out of a pinch. If your character is going off the map that prior journeys walked, or interacting with the plants and wildlife in depth when the series author at most gave a brief paragraph to describe the entire forest… That requires double-checking to make sure you’re not constraining the original author with your worldbuilding, or that they didn’t stick conflicting description in some other episode, novella, or book you didn’t notice.

2. Characters: Much as you love the main story’s hero and heroine, the author probably has a planned character arc for them. While it seems obvious that you can’t make major changes (marrying them, burying them, or other major life events), there may be other things coming up in future books you didn’t even know you’d have to work around.

3: Timeline: Sometimes, they can’t be in Tiajuana fighting zombie college coeds because they’re going to be in Paris fighting demon-infested anarchists. Or because the zombie plague is cured by then. Or the planet wasn’t founded yet. Or it was blown up by the last emperor.

So, how do you do this? Well, the easiest way is to set a story in another part of the world, with new characters, especially at a different time period. Or to take minor side characters, or barely-mentioned background characters, and tell their story. If you set it in the past, somewhere completely different in the present, or the far future, then it’s not likely to change the current main-series plotline.

The Black Tide Rising anthology contained a lot of stories elsewhere, like Kacey Ezell’s story of cheerleaders and the team moms coming back from a competition when the outbreak hit. The Rogue One movie was spun out of the line “Many Bothans died to give us these plans.”

And then there’s Freehold: Forged in Blood.

Mad Mike opened up his world with the instructions that the story had to be tied to the sword that Kendra receives and uses in the original Freehold novel. This meant people could pick stories from the far distant past in Japan all the way to the far future, well beyond Kendra’s current timeline. He also picked the general time that he wanted each author to write – picking a guy who’s good at Japanese history for the sword’s origin story, picking my husband, who knows vicious predators and wild places to write one set in Grainne’s founding, and so on.

(To paraphrase Mad Mike, “Who do I know that’s dealt with combat vets, guns, and extremely vicious predators with no fear of men? Peter!”)

This was an interesting story for Peter to write, because it was set prior to any of Mike’s Current books in the series… but at the same time, he still had to read the series again on order to pick up the geography, geology, flora and fauna of the world, the arrangement of the solar system, the hints of what was founded where, when, and by whom.

Once he’d written the basic story, he sent it in to Mad Mike for a continuity & editing pass, and started in on typo-hunting as well as line-editing. Given he’s used to working with alpha & beta readers who come back with “your orbital math isn’t quite right here” and “this squad should be able to ambush that one at this point” and so on, it wasn’t that different to get back “this region actually has this and that as major predators and the biome is a little more like this…”, but it was new and amusing to get “and you’ll have to change this due to a book I haven’t written yet actually introducing this other thing instead.”

Still, after a couple passes, both authors were happy, and the story fit in very well with the rest of the anthology. Mad Mike has a good hand with the editing – in fact, one of the refrains in the reviews is that the stories work together so well that it reads like a novel, instead of an anthology. (This is a good thing!)

Here’s a snippet of Peter’s story:

After supper they watched with interest as Tom cleaned his sword, the first opportunity he’d had to do so since his field gear had been released from the secure baggage compartment before they disembarked. He drew a small wooden box from his pack and from it took three squares of paper, a little cloth ball on a short stick, and a bottle of oil. He wiped the sword with a sheet of paper, then dabbed it with the cloth ball up and down both sides of the patterned blade, leaving a faint trace of powder at each spot. This he spread carefully across the blade using a second sheet of paper.

“What’s that?” David asked.

“The paper’s called nuguigami. It’s soft, made of rice pulp for cleaning traditional Japanese swords with their folded-steel blades. In the old days, the powder in the silk ball would have been the residue from sharpening stones. Nowadays it’s a synthetic equivalent. It cleans and polishes the blade. This”—he nodded to the small bottle—“is choji oil—also synthetic; you can’t get the real stuff anymore. It keeps the steel in perfect condition.”

“Seems like you have to go to an awful lot of trouble. Wouldn’t a modern battle steel blade like Mika’s be easier to maintain?”

“Yes, but it wouldn’t have the history this one has.” Tom brushed off the last of the powder, placed a few drops of oil up and down the blade, then took the third sheet of paper and began to spread them. “My father asked an expert about it. He said it’s similar to museum specimens that are over five hundred years old. My grandfather came by it back on Sulawan.”

“I guess that makes it pretty special,” David said wistfully.

“It does to me. I hope I have a kid one day who’ll join the Army and inherit it from me.”

“And if none of your kids do?”

Tom shrugged. “Then I guess I’ll have to find a soldier worthy of it, who’ll agree to carry on the tradition in his own family when the time comes. This is a piece of history. It’s too important to be given to just anybody.”

At 0320 the next morning, Tom was jolted out of a sound sleep by a yell of alarm and a coughing, rasping snarl, seeming to come from right next to his shelter. Three shots sounded, rapid fire, and the snarl changed to a scream as something big and heavy slammed into the thin plasfiber wall, buckling it. As Tom and Mika frantically tried to get out of their sleeping bags, four razor-sharp claws slashed at the wall, tearing it open. A brindled head thrust through the gap.

Only halfway out of his sleeping bag, adrenaline coursing through his body, Tom grabbed the sword from next to his field cot. His left hand pulled the scabbard as his right tugged at the hilt. Flinging the scabbard away, he slashed one-handed at the head as it lunged toward him, jaws open to display a vicious set of teeth, its rank breath like a slap in the face. His blade cut right into the open mouth, severing part of the tongue and carving into the back of the jaw as he sliced across. The creature yowled in pain and tried to bite down on the blade as its mouth spouted blood, but the muscles and tendons that opened and closed its jaws were no longer working properly. More shots sounded from outside. Its body jerked and twitched as they struck home. It tried to back out through the tear in the wall, but Tom rolled onto his knees and thrust his sword two-handed up through the roof of its still-open mouth. With a final shudder, the beast collapsed.

Releasing his sword, Tom kicked off the sleeping bag and grabbed his carbine, lining it as he flicked off the safety; but the weapon wasn’t needed. The animal lay unmoving.

A shout came from outside. “Boss! You okay?” The voice was shrill, almost fearful.

Still shaken, Tom had to concentrate to keep his voice controlled and steady. “I’m all right. I’m coming out.”

He emerged to find his entire security detachment converging on the scene, carrying their weapons. One of the sentries on duty was waiting for him.

“I didn’t see it at all until it peered out from between your shelter and the next one, Boss. I reckon it musta snuck into camp behind the charging station, moving real quiet.” The guard nodded toward the serried ranks of capacitors from the construction vehicles’ power packs, being charged overnight by the camp’s mobile fusion microreactor. “I fired at it, but instead of running it turned and attacked your shelter.”

Tom nodded slowly, looking down at the dead animal in the beams of his team’s flashlights. He could see it was the same breed as the one that had snatched the body of the smaller predator that morning. “It nearly got me. Good shooting. I finished it with my sword.”

Read the rest, and stories by fellow MGC Jason Cordova, as well as Larry Correia, Tom Kratman, Michael Z Williamson, Kacey Ezell, and more by picking it up here on Amazon!
https://www.amazon.com/Forged-Blood-Freehold-Book-8-ebook/dp/B074Q1VF1S/

Reader Demographics via Emotional Beats

**This was posted in April, 2016 – I was going to do a piece on burnout, and preventing same, but the flu is sweeping through Day Job and we’re swamped. Unlike a lot of marketing advice, this is just as relevant as when it was first posted, and worth revisiting.**

If I were selling jewelry at a gaming con or ren faire, the easiest way to figure out my target audience is to note who’s attracted to the displays, and who of that segment has enough money to buy the merchandise. (There’s a secondary market of “attracted to the display, but can’t afford; clearly I need to find a piece that it’s their price range yet still profitable to sell!” But that’s a digression, not quite so applicable to ebooks.) For silver and semiprecious stones, that’s the $20-$80 price range for a good-sized gaming con, with a few pieces/sets up to $250 that may or may not move, but attract the customers to the booth.

The demographic is primarily women and gay men, though if a man walks by with a lady who glances at our booth, he’s the best kind of fair game. “Sir! I have a necklace for your lady that would go perfectly with… your credit card!” Generally, for silver and garnet, you’re looking at the college age, though any older gothy types are even better – they have more money, know what they like, and won’t hesitate to purchase it. We’re especially looking for the people who have similar tastes in jewelry on them. “Shiny things! We have sparkly, shiny things!”

(Okay, maybe that’s more “when I used to” than “if.”) Anyway, it’s pretty easy to suss out your demographic – if they’re not interested, they saunter off. If they are, they stick around for the pitch, or browse and buy. Selling ebooks blind through a vendor makes it a lot harder to figure out who your target market is, especially when you didn’t have one in mind when you started.

Who likes science fiction? Who likes entertaining stories? Who’s willing to put in time and money to getting good stories? Don’t limit yourself artificially here. If you check the demographics of Star Wars fans on Tumblr, you’re going to find demographics… that reflect Tumblr. If you check the demographics of science fiction fans at WorldCon, you’re going to skew old, literary, and heavily social justice compared to DragonCon… neither of which are the same as a ComicCon, and even that won’t reflect the general population that liked The Martian enough to go see it in the movie theater. Most statistics of reader populations are small and self-selecting, reflecting the pool from which they’re drawn. They tend to miss the vast majority of the buying public.

The Martian’s opening-week audience, who went to go see it based on trailers alone, was 54% male, 59% of whom were over 35 years old. Week 2 was 52% male, 72% over 25 years old. The preordered tickets for Star Wars: The Force Awakens were “primarily” male, between 18 and 49, with an average age of 34. Given the Martian’s domestic gross from film run was $228 Million, even if you assumed $20/ticket (it’s $9.50 locally), that’s still a heck of a lot of eyeballs. Neilsen Bookscan, which we know misses a lot of sales, was reporting 62,000 sales per week of The Martian (print format, ebook not included) after the film was released.

Granted, you don’t have a film directed by Ridley Scott backing your book. Nonetheless, you can see there’s a heck of an audience out there the publishers don’t tend to reach. Dream big!

So, you’re now nodding, and saying “Okay, so you’ve proven that men in the 18-49 range like science fiction if it promises to have a good story. And lots of women; 52-54 percent is barely a majority. How do I get any clearer than that?”

Well, now you get to do some research on your particular book. Go to your biggest market (probably Amazon), and start pulling up the first books in your also-boughts for one of your books. (Skip the other ones by you. That just proves that the readers like you, and buy more after one try.) Now, you’re going to break out for each of these some basic dissection.

As you go through the book, which emotional beats does the book contain, and in what proportion? Beats are: wonder, humor, adventure, horror, romance, mystery, and drama.

1. Is your protagonist Male or female? How old are they?
2. Is there romance or romantic subplot in the book? What rough percentage of the book is dedicated to the romance?
2a. Are there explicit sex scenes? (female audience!)
3. On the action to introspection scale, what rough percentage of the book is action, and what percentage internal monologue and introspection?
3a. Is the protagonist whiny? (female audience!)
4. Is there a sidekick? Are they humorous? (kids and male audience!)
5. Is your antagonist nature itself, some faceless group entity / race / corporation, or a villain?
5b. If your antagonist is a villain, What is their age, sex, and occupation?
5c. Is it the cartoon standard of rich old white man or corporate man for evil corporation?
6. Is your scifi hard, cyberpunk, military, space opera, or steampunk? Is your fantasy urban fantasy?
6b. Does your urban fantasy have sexy monsters or ugly monsters that get killed?

People find it easiest to identify with someone like them.** Kids can identify with a protagonist up to about 27 years old, as long as they don’t become parents, but respond best to someone their age or slightly older. (A 14-year-old has been 10. She doesn’t want to be 10 again, but she may want to be 16, or 18.)

In general, statistical strokes:

Kids and Teens respond strongly to wonder, adventure, and humor. Teen girls to romance, teen boys to horror.

Women from Age 20-40 respond strongly to romance, humor, horror, mystery, and drama. (As they approach 40 and the hormone levels drop, mystery and drama statistically become stronger draws, and romance less.)

Men from 20-50 respond strongly to adventure, primarily, followed by wonder, drama, and mystery.

Military, active and vet, like military science fiction, and action/adventure, especially if it doesn’t have navel gazing or anti-military messages. They also tend to like hard(er) scifi, where the challenges against environment and entropy are clear.

Kids, even the ones still in college, respond strongly to coming-of-age, exploration of strange worlds and cultures, fitting in, etc. Parents are often absent or dead in stories, sometimes the restrictions that must be overcome.

Over time, the response shifts strongly and naturally to caring for loved ones, providing for a family, raising children, and makng a relationship stable and lasting. Now the fears are threats to children / family, to relationships / marriages, to jobs.

So look at your story, and the other stories your audience likes. Peter’s Laredo Trilogy books often lack romantic subplot, and by the other books his audience buys, that’s pretty normal for the target audience. This means they’re going to skew military and skew male, looking for adventure, wonder (cool new worlds! Starship battles!), drama (the ship is at stake! So is the empire!), and mystery.

Sabrina Chase’s The Scent of Metal, on the other hand, has adventure, wonder, and romance as its primary emotional beats. And it has kissing (sparks fly!) So her audience demographics is likely to skew much more heavily female than Peter’s books, though the military aspects will draw military of both sexes.

Dave Freer’s Changeling’s Island is a wide-audience-draw marketed as YA. The protagonist is a teen boy of unmentioned age, but there’s a girl sidekick that can provide somebody for preteen and early teen girls to empathize with. The parents are absent, but there’s the boy’s grandmother, and the girl’s parents, to provide adult points of view, with their own challenges and struggles when it comes to taking care of family, of neighbors, fitting in as an adult newcomer, remaining independent as your body fails you and the place you know changes (that’s a post-50 draw for men, post-40 draw for women). The kids’ POVs are heavy on wonder, adventure, mystery, and humor. The parental storylines have horror and drama interleaved in.

If you want more in-depth on this, check out Dave Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines. He has some pretty nifty demographics breakdown that can be applied to marketing, not just outlining.

One final note: all this analysis can be done in outlining, or post-writing, but it’s not prescriptive for how to write any single book, much less your book. Write the book that thrills you, that inspires you, that you love. If you write to a marketing formula, it’s at best formulaic, where if you write to emotion, it’ll have an emotional depth to attract and hold readers.

Wrapping this up now, as I’m crashing for the night. What beats and demographics do you find from one of your stories and its also-boughts?

** “Identify” is greatly abused by identity politics idiots. This does not means Honor Harrington’s audience is limited to heavyworlder-genetically modified female captains with treecats, for goodness’ sakes, nor do you have to be a dragon to enjoy Dog and Dragon. Common sense, please! This means that men tend to like reading stories about men, women about women. People in their 30’s will find more in common with protagonists in their 30’s, cat people with cats and cat-owning protagonists, dog owners with loyal dogs and their owners in the story. And children have a really, really tough time connecting with a character that’s a parent, as opposed to a character that’s a child. (Whod’a thunk most kids don’t see things from a parental point of view!) This is a broad statistical truth, not an ironclad always-in-every-case. (See: demographics of Harry Potter fans.) But that’s just the very start, and it’s far more important to keep reading the rest of this article about emotional beats than to skim until offended!

Why work?

Before you quit your job and just write, let’s look at what work actually does for people besides the money.

Because everyone thinks about the money, but when you look at why retired people decide to go back to work, it’s not usually about the money. What else do you get out of a job?

1. Meaning/Sense of Purpose
2. Identity
3. Status / Prestige
4. Sense of Belonging / Camaraderie / Common Purpose
5. Structure (time)
6. Social Connections / Social Capital

1-2. Now, some of these you can fill with becoming a full-time writer easily. “I’m a writer” can become your new identity, to replace “I’m a sales clerk at XYZ Corp.” And your sense of purpose goes from “I’m an accountant. I make the world make sense and run smoothly.” to “I’m a writer. I entertain people.”

3. Prestige… prestige is harder. This helps explain why so many writers in the trad model are stuck on winning awards, even if it meant logrolling and thereby turning the award from a marker of awesome stories into “stories to avoid.” They’re chasing prestige from their jobs, and unlike working in many businesses, there’s no way to get promoted up the chain unless your book goes viral or your publishers really love you.

As an indie, you’re going to have to find satisfaction in being the head of your publishing house, and possibly in hobbies, volunteer missions, or outside activities, because writing is not a high-prestige job. (Even if we’d love the world to think it’s all black turtlenecks, cafes, and hip coolness. The world really isn’t fooled.)

4. Sense of belonging, camaraderie, and common purpose. This is something everyone who spends a large amount of time alone has to struggle with – and it turns out, slowing down is not what kills retirees, it’s social isolation. The critical difference is whether or not you actually get to spend time in the company of other people – even if it’s just sitting in the café typing away and occasionally ordering another coffee. Introverts, it turns out, still tend to need about 5 hours a day of interaction with people, and extroverts need about 6.

And, it turns out, online interaction doesn’t replace this on a one-to-one basis. Spending 5 hours on facebook is not a replacement for spending 5 hours in the company of people. (This is true across all social media, though I have to wonder if it would hold true if they could control for for chatting, skyping, email, and actual conversation vs. tweet-level philosophy and snippiness, memes, “likes”, and flamewars.)

When Peter and I were looking at places to live, our criteria included favourable regulatory structure, low taxes, and the company of friends. We now live in a tiny town in Texas, where three times a week we have a dinner night that rotates between houses – I cook on Tuesdays. And sometimes the company of friends does, indeed, involve LawDog ignoring all of us and typing with furious purpose on a tablet because the muse struck again…

It doesn’t have to be just friends, though: you can get social interaction while also doing research. Take a glassblowing class, participate in meetup hikes or art gallery walks, join a reenactment group, learn to kayak, volunteer to help build a habitat for humanity house… anything where you’re interacting with other people in the flesh will help. And, you can turn a lot of that into fodder for a novel!

5. Structure. When I am between jobs, this is the one I struggle with the most. It’s a little easier down here in the lower 48 than Alaska, because the whole “it gets dark in summer” thing keeps me from starting on a roadtrip at 11pm at night, or sandblasting aircraft parts at 4am. (And the fact that the sun still rises in the winter makes it easier for me to get up, too.) But honestly, I like having a job that gets me out of the house on a predictable schedule, and forces me to fit everything else around it. It regularizes my life, and creates a predictable weekly cycle.

Peter has found that me having a structure also helps him have a structure – because if I’m home all the time, I’m bouncing off the walls and we’re in each other’s hair. When I’m gone for a shift, he can nap without being woken by me moving around, and then get up and write without any interruptions. (Wifely interruptions. The felines are another story, as they always are.) He can also plan around our gym schedule, and shunt major things we’ll do together to my weekend.

6. Social connections / Social capital. When your social life is built around work, then your connections and the social capital is built around it, and losing your job can be extremely isolating. Unlike social isolation, social media can really help with this. Finding and interacting with other writers, cover designers, artists, scientists, horse trainers, or whatever your common ground may be, will help build connections and friendships. Make sure you have a support network before you lose your last one!

On one level, social connections, this is what MGC is: a group blog to pass on what we know, help each other and help our readers. It’s a place where people learn how to publish indie, how to write, and start meeting and talking with other writers. Connections have been made, hookups between writers and beta readers, writers and cover designers, readers and new writers, and so on – usually down in our active comments. (Thanks for being part of the community, commenters!)

On the tiny town level, if we’re gone to a convention, friends will shamelessly spoil the cats while we’re gone, and the tiny town cops will do a close patrol on the house. When I sprained my shoulder, friends made sure I had food, and came over to help lift and move things. Heck, JL Curtis and LawDog just helped move my new computer desk home. (Yay for them!) And Jim knows he can cat-herd me into writing a blurb for him any time he needs one.

And social capital? Friends pull together – right now, the gunblogger community is holding a gun raffle for one of their own. Andi isn’t a gunblogger herself (she’s a metal artist), but her parents & sis-in-law are, and after she had a stroke they put up a gofundme because she makes too much to qualify for Obamacare assistance and too little for her family to afford health insurance. And then there was plotting. And then there was the announcement by JL Curtis that we’re holding a gun raffle, and a bunch of the guys, including Peter, were offering up their guns as the prizes, all of us authors offering signed copies of their books, and Alma Boykin even helped with a ladies’ package of jewelry. It’s snowballed as more and more people started offering a gun they could spare, gunsmiths started to offer trigger jobs or chrome plating, and so on…

And Andi has gone from staring down medical bills, and trying to work out how she can afford the therapist to over $10K donated. (Even after the IRS takes their cut, because it’s taxed as income, that’s still going to really, really help!) Best of all, she’s now gotten enough therapy that she can get back in the shop – not up to full speed and fine motor control work yet, but with help, completing artwork she has commissions for and making new pieces to keep her business above water and family fed.

…on returning/continuing to work, and unexpected attitudes…

If, as a writer, you find that you can support yourself by writing, but you like the structure, the sense of having a common purpose with a group, and the lack of isolation/camaraderie of work – then congratulations, you’re just like many retirees that picked up a job “to get out of the house.” (Even if you didn’t retire or quit first!)

Be aware that the optional nature of this job means you’re going to be much less likely to suffer fools gladly – where your coworkers are likely to bow their shoulders and not make waves because they really need the job, you’re more likely to call out the boss when he does something unwise (I recommend doing so in private), or remonstrate a coworker or customer. This is a double-edged sword, and it can be a strength just as much as a weakness, as long as you’re aware of it and use it well.

On the other hand, you’re more likely to really enjoy the job, too!

And for something really nifty, Margaret Ball’s third Harmony book, Survivors, is now live! You don’t have to read the other two to enjoy this one, either!

https://www.amazon.com/Survivors-Harmony-Book-Margaret-Ball-ebook/dp/B077KLXQF5/

Reading Reviews Like A Publisher

One of the joys of being indie is that you get to be your own publisher, with all the control on how to bring your stories out to the world and represent them. One of the real drags is that you are your own publisher, with all the responsibilities and priorities therein that do not line up with your artistic priorities.

And one of those priorities, as a publisher, is gathering market feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the currently published catalogue, and what’s doing well and trending in the market right now, in order to make business decisions about future releases. (Unlike trad publishers, though, you’re rather committed to accepting any books that come out of your dedicated on-staff writer – you can’t simply turn down a book and go to the slush pile. Makes it a little trickier, it does.)

Feedback comes in several forms – first, the volume and velocity of sales. For your first couple books, this is going to be a real struggle and a giant mystery to you, because you have no internal sales baseline. You have external ones – kindle rank and the hot new releases / bestseller charts can tell you how you’re doing compared to every other book, and you can track the trajectory of sales on other books by watching their ranks rise and fall, and how long they stick around for visibility (but you can’t see what they’re doing for fanbase or publicity). You also have reviews on similar books in genre / subgenre, and you should be reading those, and developing your ability to look for trends.

The internal sales baseline will come with time and more books. But that’s for another article! Right now, let’s look at those reviews.

When the average reader looks at reviews, they’re looking for two very specific things:
1. Are these reviews trustworthy or fake?
2. Is this a book I’ll enjoy?

The first is why you look for one and two star reviews: they provide that curve that looks “real”, because humans know instinctively that if it’s too good to be true, it ain’t true. The second comes in when you skim through the reviews, discard the ones that don’t have much content or are obviously off the wall, and check to see if the things you like are in there, as well as the things you hate. (Even when a reviewer likes what you hate or hates what you like, the review’s still useful at saying if those things are there.)

But now, as a publisher, you’re asking new questions, with different answers:

1. Who is the intended audience for this book?
2. Did the cover / blurb attract the right audience?
3. Did the book fulfill expectations?
4. What did they like in general and in specific about it?
5. What did they want changed / not like?

Phase 1: Pick at least one subgenre you write in, and start reading through the top 50 bestseller’s reviews like a publisher. You’ll start to notice trends, and audience expectations – and develop the filter for weeding out “this person obviously brought their mental issues to this book, and review reflects same.” Get plenty of practice on the skills and plenty of data on broader trends and audience expectations before you try to apply this to a book where you’ve got skin in the game.

Also, on Amazon, people have the option of marking a review as helpful instead of leaving their own review. Weight reviews accordingly.

You’ll also start seeing trends of authors who have fans that read everything they put out, trends of early reviews (fanbase) versus later ones (word of mouth / browsers, and other non-prior-fans), and so on.

As you read through, you may find yourself strongly drawn to download a sample or buy a book you’re looking at. When that happens, make notes on what attracted you to that book – was it the cover? The blurb? A particular review? If a particular blurb or review made you go “I want this!”, write it down and come back later to study what made it so compelling that you can use in your own ad copy/blurb.

Phase 2: Pick at least 5 books that you really love, and a couple you really hate. Go read all their reviews. Now that you have a broad sense for reading like a publisher, you’re going to sharpen it on books that you know the characters, plot, and worldbuilding – so you can see again how the books draw an audience, what that audience is, how they fulfill reader expectations, and so on. Be aware that books that have been out for several reprintings are not nearly as useful for cover/blurb draw, because they will have gone through several iterations.

Are there any reviews or blurbs that make you go “Yes! This!”? Copy them down, so you can study later what they used to hook you in, and how you can apply that. (In fact, while the main function of a review is for one reader to comment to another reader, if you think of them as amateur ad-copy, there’s a lot you can learn.)

Phase 3: Now, only after several hours spent on learning to practice and hone these skills on other books, turn to your books and read the reviews. Did the cover/blurb attract the right audience for the book? What is the right audience for this book? What did they like / dislike?

Once you have this information, it gives you a way to gauge what covers and blurbs will work, and what won’t. What phrases and keywords, characters and plots, are going to hook the attention of the audience, and you should try to work into your ad copy/blurbs. What audiences are attracted by the book, and if you have it correctly categorized / keyworded to find them. And, also, what they really like, and what they want differently.

As an example, I fell into the classic trap in Scaling the Rim of going “My science fiction hits all the romance beats with a major subplot, so it’s romance-scifi.” But as I read the first wave of reviews, I realized that the audience that really enjoyed it weren’t the romance crowd (it had too much scifi for romance-scifi, and no sex scenes), but the scifi-thriller/action-adventure crowd I hadsn’t even considered due to lack of combat. So, I pulled it from romance and reset with action/adventure keywords to hit that subgenre’s lists instead. Sales them picked up – and the reviews were happier!

***Important Note***
Note that everything above has to do with marketing your book, and possibly with editing your publishing house’s books. It has almost nothing to do with writing your book! Write your books from your heart, from your muse, from your curiousity and wonder and dreams. Don’t try to paint-by-numbers due to what the market wants right now!

Kris Rusch speaks of writing and publishing as wearing two hats – and when she writes, she takes off the publisher hat, with its responsibilities and prioroties, and puts on her writer hat, with its completely seperate, and sometimes completely conflicting, responsibilities and prioroties. She even has seperate computers to help remind her that her creativity is not driven by her publishing – her publishing is a way to monetize her creativity.

There will be things that help with the general writing: in Peter’s earliest books, a number of reviewers complained that Peter’s protagonist was a golden boy, and his writing was too stilted. If you get common points in reviews in your own books, remember that reviewers are readers writing for other readers, they’re not professional authors and gifted teachers writing a personal feedback to the author. They’re not even beta readers. So they will identify that something is a problem to them – but they may not have the right cause, and generally don’t have the right fix.

In Peter’s case, he identified that he was writing a very old-school British hero for a very modern American audience. He was using British English with its more formal structure and style instead of the more informal American English his audience is used to, and they weren’t seeing the modern American ratio of challenge to success they were accustomed to. By changing the language in successive books and adding more metaphors and colloquialisms, focusing more page time on the difficulty of overcoming each challenge, and narrowing the scope of each book to a few challenges or limited time span, he brought the stories more in line with reader expectation and the reviews & reader satisfaction went up.

But he did not sit down and say “I am writing military science fiction. Therefore, I must have a galactic war humans are losing, a near-derelict ship, a rebellious antihero captain on the outs with his/her superiors, and a plucky crew of rejects and oddballs the captain must motivate for the do-or-die long shot that will turn the tide of the war / stop the invasion, because those are the most common current hot tropes.”

That is the difference between using market feedback to improve your writing, and “writing to market.”

As for Scaling the Rim? I noted that a lot of people shared my dislike for infodump and enjoyed building the world from clues and references – but a number of other people missed a few subtle bits of worldbuilding laid in, and were confused because there was no infodump to clearly explain what’s going on up front, who the good guys and who the bad guys were, and the history of the world and the peoples to date.

Because I choke on infodump both as a reader and a writer, I’m not going to start putting in lots of narrative summary. I will, however, clearly have to up my game on building more background in early along with the foreshadowing, so I don’t confuse readers – or they don’t stay confused!

Blurb Writing Example – King’s Champion

Context: Just after 8am, on a rare morning shift. (I don’t work day shifts. So when I do, I need All The Caffeine.) I settle down at my desk, having accomplished the usual flurry of morning tasks, and am contemplating how best to be the best I can be (or braaaaaaaainsssss….), when I get an email from my darling man. This, then, was conducted entirely by email and squeezed in around the edges of the demands for work. It’s not my best blurb, but it works… and it’s an example of how these things get created and changed.

And yes, I still want to rewrite the final version. But there’s a time to shoot the engineer and begin production – and we’ll be re-evaluating blurb and cover as the market changes, in a few years.

8:02am – Peter
Cedar needs the blurb for the book cover. Have you got one yet? If not, can you let me have a draft by 10 a.m.? I’ll work on one, too, and send it to Cedar later this morning after I have your input.

***
8:34 am – Me
I don’t like the blurb I have; please rework it or shoot me your version.

After twenty years of peace, war is coming. Old men can feel it in the wind, as rumors of black wings bearing death in the night grow.

Osiric, the former king’s champion, stumbles into a raiding party on the way back from a friend’s grave. In the rubble, he finds evidence of old foes with a new plan, and an alliance with darker powers.

Now he’s in a race to uncover their plot, before it buries him!

***
8:45am – Peter
How’s this?

The Kingdom has known decades of peace… but time has eroded its will to defend its way of life. Old foes are stirring, with new plans and an alliance with darker powers.

Owain, once King’s Champion, feels the harbingers of a new threat on the wind, as rumors grow of black wings bearing death and torture in the night. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid.

Now he must race against time to uncover the threat and deal with it… before it deals with him!

Love you!

***
9:01am – Me

After decades of peace, the Kingdom of BlahBlah is an unsuspecting prize for an alliance of its old foes and new, darker powers.

Owain, once King’s Champion, feels war in the wind as he hears rumors of black wings bearing death and torture in the night. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he discovers their reality and fights his way through a deadly raid.

Now he must race against time to uncover their plans, and defend his land and king again!

***
9:11am – Peter
My latest:

After decades of peace, the Kingdom has grown lax. Old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers vital information.

The Kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

I think this is close to what we want. If you agree, I’ll fire it off to Cedar.

***
9:28am – Me

What is the name of the kingdom? You really want that in there, because that sets a lot of expectations for worldbuilding. The kingdom of Estarria vs. The principality of Al Andalus, or the Celestial Court of Xongshu… “The kingdom” without a name is too ‘generic mock-medieval European’ and will drive readers off because there’s been a lot of bad fantasy that did that… and I can’t remember it.

What do you think of the other minor tweaks?

After decades of peace, the Kingdom of Blahblah has grown lax. Now, old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers coded orders for a larger plot.

The kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!

***
9:46am – Peter
I like it. We’ll go with it.
***
King’s Champion

After decades of peace, war is threatening the Kingdom of Avranche. Its old foes are stirring, in a new alliance with darker powers. Black wings bring death and torture in the night.

Owain, former King’s Champion, hears rumors of sorcery. Visiting the grave of his sword brother, he stumbles into a deadly raid, and uncovers coded orders for a larger plot.

The kingdom’s enemies know Owain is now their greatest danger. He must race against time to find and deal with them… before they deal with him!