Sunday, November 4, 2018

Whose advice should the new writer take?


For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, in November), I always blog about writing itself, the craft and the business. This year, I’m speaking to other writers about business, about possible roads to success and fulltiming it. My apologies if this bores my fans!

And I'm not going to pussyfoot around what I think. I'm telling it as I see it, and I'm too seasoned (er, old) to bother with prettying up the truth.

Now onto post 1.

"Whose advice should I listen to?" asks the new writer.

There is a good deal of conflicting advice out there for the new writer, or the writer who has put one book out on Amazon and realizes that wasn’t quite enough effort to have a best-seller. They'll often see two other writers disagreeing about some point on a forum or on social media, and they ask, “Which one is right? I hear so many different things!”
 
Let’s focus in on this question: “Who should I listen to about promotions, sales, and gaining readers?” The short answer is, check out the person’s book rankings on Amazon.com. While there are other nations and other vendors, it is Amazon.com that likely sells most copies of a writer’s books.

Ask:
  • Does this expert have more than one book out? The more books the better. 
  • What are their books’ rankings? Look at their best ranking, which would likely be in paperback for trade-published authors and ebook for self-published author (though audio book rankings can be illuminating as well). If someone with a novel ranking of worse than 1,000,000 is giving you business advice, they probably do not have a clue what they are talking about. If they are giving you writing craft advice, they may know, for sometimes a book ranking doesn’t fairly reflect the quality of the content. But bad rankings of recent books almost certainly mean their business knowledge is poor. 
  • How long have they been at it? Is their first book published two months ago? Or are their only books published in 2005-2009? Good heavens, that’s like a different era in the book-selling business! Things have changed drastically since then.  
Admittedly, it’s not possible to see everything about an author by doing these checks. I, for instance, have an invisible 25 years under different names before Lou Cadle was me, so you can’t find that to assess my history. Furthermore, I have a writing acquaintance who appears to be doing quite well--earning in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. But actually, she is three other pen names in that genre too and is earning millions. The level of her expertise is hidden from view unless you know her pens.

So please, CHECK the book pages at Amazon of the writers who are giving you advice before you decide whether or not to take that advice. I’ll post in a few weeks about a more in-depth analysis of author book pages to help you learn even more about a book’s success, so stay tuned for that.

best seller lists--a great resource when hunting for advice


Things not to be impressed by on anyone’s book pages:
  • Awards you’ve never heard of. These are quite possibly their own or cronies’ and total BS, and if real, so what? Nobody else knows of those awards, so they carry no weight. They spent $100 to compete with only 100 other books and won in that tiny group? Readers aren’t impressed and you should not be either
  • The first ten glowing reviews. These are quite possibly by friends and family, and certainly so if they are not “verified sale” reviews. Ignore them. Savvy readers do.
  • A Kirkus review. Authors or publishers buy those. (They are expensive and sell no books, so to those in the know this only shouts “not a great business manager.”)
 
I listen to others who have succeeded far beyond what I have, though sometimes I choose not to do what they have done because it sounds like an unbearable sort of work to me. I don’t listen to people with rankings a million worse than my books. My best advice to you is: also listen to the successful. (Ignore me personally, if you like--I’m not all that successful!--but listen to the ranked leaders of your genre and publication method, self- or trade. Follow their social media. Read their blogs.)

Many factors may have combined to result in someone hitting the best-seller list in their genre, including a dose of luck. Some writers can't tell you exactly why they are highly ranked. Some guess but guess wrong.

I’ve discovered over the past five years that there are, nonetheless, some nearly absolute truths backed up by good data. For instance, blog tours don’t sell books. Even interviews in large papers don’t sell but a few books. A national TV show host mentioning a book may not even sell more than five or ten books! (Oprah was the exception, of course.) Reader reviews don’t sell many books--90% of book buyers never glance at them beyond noting the average rating, and I can’t even see them on my Kindle Fire so how could my buying be influenced by them? When reviews do help, it’s usually because the person buying knows the person reviewing, as happens with the “friends” system at Goodreads.

Why we know these things now is that these days, a lot of indie writers came not from a literature background (where such “truths” like “book signings are necessary and helpful” have the force of a religious myth about elephants and turtle eggs) but from a business background (where figures matter, not myths). Therefore, they know how to track the effect of various promotion methods. They have enough books and pen names they can try different experiments. (Get forty ARC reviews with one pen versus get no ARC reviews for another pen in the same genre, for instance, and compare the results.) With same-day reporting by Amazon immediately showing them what a promotion effort gained them, they have the business of writing sussed as it has never been sussed before. And nearly all of them share what they learn with anyone wise enough to listen.
When they do offer up their expertise, someone else with a single book ranking of #2,480,175 will pop up and yell that they are wrong. And so the new writer asks, “So who do I listen to?” Listen to the one who is selling books. Really, it’s that simple. 
Also, remember the smart consumer warning, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” I’ve seen ridiculous things in this category said on Twitter, occasionally by someone with the blue check mark of a verified account, which lends weight it shouldn’t to anyone with the capacity for critical thinking, for merely proving to Twitter you are who you say you are doesn’t mean you’re anyone worth listening to. For instance: “You don’t have to write every day to succeed. Just write when you want to.” Said by someone whose newest book was ranked #189,000 at Amazon after only a few weeks of being out (that’s not impressive and means an income of less than $100 per month on that book.)

If you’re busy (and who isn’t?) or distracting yourself with wastes of time like social media and/or TV (and who isn’t, me included?), that sort advice comes as a great relief. “Oh, good! It’s easy to make it as a writer! I can just dabble with writing and mosey along when I feel inspired, and I’ll be the next Stephen King!” (Stephen King still writes five hours a day, every day, by the way, even when he doesn’t particularly feel like it.) Of course sometimes emergencies in life will intervene with a regular writing schedule, even happy emergencies like a newborn in the house. But if you want professional status as a novelist one day, you’re going to need to keep professional, serious business hours now to get there, as King tells you in his how-to book on writing.

Or don’t believe his advice on that. You can pay attention to Mr. $100/month income over there instead, and you’ll likely achieve what he has. If $100/month is your top income goal, the dream you are striving for, great! Now you have the advice you need to reach it.

I am always happy to give away my expertise (much of it not actually mine but that of better-selling writers) for free. It’s how I was brought up, by my folks, with a spirit of volunteerism in all of one’s communities. And it’s how I came up as a writer, with many kind people willing to explain how things actually worked to me.

In a sense, it’s better for me if you listen to someone with books ranked 2,000,000, for you’ll likely never be competing with me for readers. But I like new writers, is the truth, and I’d hate to see them lose a chance to win at this difficult game by listening to the wrong advice. So when they fall for vanity publishers or terrible business advice by people who can't sell their own books, and especially when they pay for that bad advice, I feel terrible for them.

Listen to business advice by the winners, not by the losers. It won’t eliminate conflicting advice, but it will cut down on the nonsense you hear. I have, and it worked for me.




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