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Category: Just for Writers

Use natural languages for fiction, not artificial ones

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

Image of 2 babies talking
They don't need the Chicago Manual of Style to communicate

We have to distinguish between the dialect of English called the “formal writing style” which is what the style guides act as prescriptions for, and the actual (various) living versions of the English language.

The formal written language that you are taught in school is not a real living language. If you were well-educated, it may seem to be identical with the language you use every day, but it isn't. It's a status marker for “educated” and appropriate for non-fiction which is intended to be formal, but it's not a proper guide to writing fiction which should capture living languages, not artificial ones. It's not a matter of vocabulary choices (though that plays into formal/informal distinctions) — it's a matter of the actual language itself and its grammatical structures.

The formal written language is, um, written down and its rules change slowly and rarely. The natural language continues to evolve constantly and, as writers, it's the natural language we should be concerned with. (Or none of us would end sentences with prepositions or split an infinitive on the once-fashionable theory that Germanic English is somehow Latin.)

Chart of archaic personal pronounsFor example, just as in circa-Elizabethan times we saw the loss of 2nd person singular personal pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) to the expansion of 2nd person plural (you, yours), we are currently living through a similar evolution in the language with regard to gendered 3rd person singular personal pronouns, where (he, she, him, her, his, hers) are being replaced by the ungendered 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, theirs) in gender-neutral situations, as the clumsiness of using the male 3rd person singular as a stand-in for unknown-gender is being eaten away by a disregard of number to solve the problem.

It now sounds perfectly normal even for the well-educated to say something like, “If anyone comes in early, give them a drink.” That wasn't true a few decades ago.

We are drowned in new vocabulary, slang, and idiom constantly, but it's unusual to be able to actually see a grammatical change this large in a human lifetime. We know this isn't proper for the written language, but we're no longer willing to say “him or her” or just “him” in our natural language use in that situation, even though that's what the formal written language still requires.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying use a style guide for guidance in punctuation (it's the written language, after all) and to convey conventional high-status artificial language for formal writing (or your readers won't respect you), but use the living language for fiction and especially for dialogue.

Marketing systems for books

Posted in Just for Writers, and Marketing

Image of marketing chartI often write a blog post to clarify my own thinking, and that's the case for this one. It's meant to be a spur to my own thinking about what works for me in marketing. A recent marketing workshop excerpt from Larissa Reynolds was the catalyst that finally did it for me (see here to subscribe to her newsletter).

Now, when I say “what works”, I don't mean what marketing ideas, out of the vast array available, work for people, or produce the best results. What I mean is what works for me, as in something I can do comfortably and that I can reasonably have a hope of sticking to, that has measurable and useful results.

It's taken years for me to clarify my understanding of how various marketing ideas work, and which ones I, personally, should concentrate on. I've been groping towards this for a long time.

Premises

I have my own goals and standards that define how I want to run my business, and I have personal limitations and enthusiasms to accommodate. Your situation will be different

  1. I want to sell my books at a reasonable full price (with very occasional discounts), because that's the audience I want to cultivate.
  2. I want to sell my books on the basis of quality — good reading experience, indistinguishable in quality from traditional publishers.
  3. I want my books to be available with the widest possible reach (countries, retailers, formats), with no DRM. If people look for my books, they should be able to find them anywhere, for any device, and my career should not be held hostage to any one retailer or country. This includes direct ecommerce.
  4. I'm not really a people person. I like to help and I can tell funny stories, but I'm lousy at jumping into a social situation as an extrovert. I'm more of a high-functioning introvert.
  5. I want to execute semi-automatic systems as much as possible. I'm an old IT career person, and I'm very comfortable with systems. I don't have the discipline to keep doing ad hoc experiments, but I have no problem going through the detailed (obsessive) concentration necessary to set something automated up.

Image of marketing componentsAnalysis

So, what does this mean for me?

For one thing, it rules out a broad variety of interesting marketing ideas that clutter up my thinking:

  • Wanting to price permafree — wrong audience for me to cultivate.
  • Wanting to focus on Amazon KU — wrong reach (not wide), captive retailer.
  • Discounted sales third-party newsletter marketing — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and a huge distraction.
  • Participating in bundles and similar multi-author promotions for free — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and I mostly write long-form, not stories.
  • Marketing/review swaps with other authors. I'd rather cultivate my own audience and not spam them.
  • Widespread social media platforms, pushing my books — not extroverted enough to make that palatable (banging on about my books).

What do I want to do instead?

Book Catalogues

Posted in Just for Writers

Image of a book catalogueIn this day and age, we generally refer interested buyers to our online catalogues, either on our publisher sites or our reader sites. Some potential buyers, however, still want paper catalogues, and we need to learn to accommodate them. They also make nice additions to your table at a book fair, or to have stashed away in case you spawn a commercial opportunity with a distributor or other professional.

Now, if you're trying to contact dozens or hundreds of such outlets — perhaps you're trying to reach every music shop in America — it can make sense to use a commercial service, where for quantities of a few hundred, you can pay a dollar or two for each catalogue (depending on page counts, etc).

For example, the high-quality printers I use for business cards offer catalogues, designed for all kinds of retail needs, not just books. Play around with the pricing options here to get some ideas about the costs for an 5.5×8.5 inch catalogue, on the sort of paper stock that you typically receive from quality clothing retailers.

I don't find this helpful for my needs, myself. For one thing, I haven't got a mass distribution list that I can use for my fiction titles (unless I want to do a mailing directly to indie bookstores). More importantly, my catalogue:

  • Adds new titles frequently, multiple times/year
  • Never closes backlist titles
  • May need to address foreign languages

This means that I can't benefit from the economies of scale inherent in a professional mass print job.

Evaluating your business

Posted in Business, and Just for Writers

Image of financial tools and resultsAs authors and publishers, we hear a lot about new tools intended to improve the performance of our business in areas like marketing, formatting, distribution, outsourcing, and so forth.

What I'd like to see more of is articles about how to evaluate our businesses, to look upon our activity as authors and publishers just as if we were a small factory.

What that means is being able to ask questions like these:

  • Is our business model sound?
  • Is it improving over time?
  • Is it covering all of our costs, including those not specific to individual titles?
  • Are we actually making a profit, and how long should we expect that to take, after starting the business?

It's not just a matter of counting our sales at the end of the year.

What's the point of financial analysis?

An Income Statement isn't just a tedious document that old-style businesses put together — when done right, it's vital and important information to help you direct your spending and efforts.

I've been a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief Financial Officer for several small-medium businesses, both public and private — all of them young (1-10 years old). I'll use accounting terminology from the USA business world, but all countries do similar things though the terms may vary.

I'll focus on three ways to look at our businesses, and the data we need to support that.

1. Gross income — your business model

When we start as indie authors, we generally focus on the creation of work to publish (I'll call that “books” or “titles”, whatever you may be writing), and the delivery of that work to distribution and retail publishing channels.

Over time, many of us develop additional ways to earn income. As an example, I have the following channels today, in various stages of maturity:

  • Creation and sale of 24 titles (my own books)
  • Publication of titles for others (publishing work, several imprints)
  • Consulting work for colleagues
  • Speaking engagements

Each of these is a “line of business”, with its own costs and income. Some are relatively predictable while others are not, but all can be grown by marketing, if that seems like a worthwhile investment.

Using ONIX as an Independent Author

Posted in Just for Writers

Image of computer screen with dataIntroduction

I've learned something about how the systems of traditional publishing work, since I started in 2012. As a career systems technologist, I've paid particular attention to the data systems, standards, and tools that I've been able to learn about.

While it's a truism that traditional authors who have gone hybrid or converted completely to independent publishing have shared a lot about traditional publishing with the indie community, by the nature of things we don't get a lot of conversations from the techies in the book trade, so it's not terribly easy coming up to speed on the technical systems used by traditional publishers.

Why do I care?

Common Problems

I can't help but notice, whenever I compare my own ebook listings at a retailer with a traditional publisher's listings, that theirs are often cleaner and more complete. Combined with the knowledge that they have large catalogues to maintain, I want to know how that's done, so that I can achieve the same effect. My own catalogue is now 24 titles, so it's not just a matter of data quality but also data quantity.

Managing and Updating Metadata for Many Titles

Whenever I have a bright idea about a better way to manage keywords or categorization, or how to adjust pricing or format book descriptions, I often find myself facing my catalogue and shaking my head about 24 titles times all my distributors.

Today my ebooks are widely distributed. I go directly to Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords, and I use PublishDrive and StreetLib for Apple and Google Play, and for dozens of international retailers. That's in effect 6 retailer/distributors, for each of whom I might have to update 24 titles.

It would be so much better to have a single database for all my titles and just use that to update all my trading partners, so that they could update their own trading partners or international sites, wouldn't it? My massive spreadsheet can marshal all the data, perhaps, but that just sits on my computer and doesn't communicate with anyone.

What is Self-Publishing?

Posted in Just for Writers, and Publishing

Image of logo for Pennwriters.orgA presentation for The Inkwell,
a gathering of writers from Pennwriters.org.

Introduction

I’m a writer of fantasy and science fiction stories. I wrote and published my first novel in 2012, and I currently have 9 novels in 3 series, short stories, and book bundles – 23 titles now, with 3 more novels expected for 2018.

I have always been a self-publisher – what is known as an “independent author” (indie) – and wouldn’t dream of mortgaging my ordinary rights to an agent or traditional publisher. I publish in ebook, print, and audiobook, and I’ve just commissioned my first translation. My books are published worldwide through dozens of retailers and a handful of distributors. You can find my books online anywhere.

I’m just an ordinary author with an ordinary following in my genre, making ordinary proceeds – not any sort of superstar or major bestseller. I started this business while I was employed full-time, and now I’m retired and able to devote more time to it.

Books as manufactured goods

You can take 200 of your family’s recipes, do them up in a word processor, and take the file to your local book-printer and have them run up 100 bound copies for you to sell or give away to friends and family.

Church groups do something like this all the time, to raise money. Corporations publish their annual reports in glossy hardbound editions for handouts at meetings.

Your collection of recipes — that’s a book. But it’s not part of the book trade. No one can order it online. It’s not in any bookstore (unless your local shop decides to take a few on consignment and add them to the “local region” section, because you asked them to.) It doesn’t have an ISBN number, that fundamental identifier that distinguishes one book from every other book in the world and lets it be ordered from anywhere.

This is not what we mean by “self-publishing.”

Vanity Presses

Vanity publishers, like the notorious Author Solutions, are predatory organizations that take advantage of would-be authors. They make their money by selling services, including unnecessary ones, at tremendous markups, upselling as many of their service offerings as possible, and then producing some form of book product, often badly-edited, poorly formatted, and ill-covered, distributed somewhere obscure.

Helpful tips for new writers: 4

Posted in Just for Writers, and Tips for New Writers

At the request of a colleague, I'm spending some time talking to some writers far, far away that she's working with, and I thought it would be useful to collect the presentation in a blog post for them, and for anyone else who might be interested. You can find all the posts in this series here.

I can't possibly touch on more than a handful of topics in a single session, so I'll just mention a few that I think are important:

* The dubious romance of being a starving artist
* Your first million words
* Read like a writer

As question/answers are added during the talk, I'll update this.

 

Introduction

I'm Karen Myers, and I've been a writer of fantasy and science fiction books for five years. I came to this late, after an official career building computer software and services companies that lasted four decades.

Today I have nine novels in three series and several shorts stories and bundles for a total of twenty-three titles. I produce three or four novels most years, when I'm not concentrating on other aspects of the publishing business. (This year, I'm producing my first translated title, into German.

I'm an independent author — all my books are available worldwide, in ebook, paperback, and audiobook formats. I expect to bring most of the audiobook editions out next year (only one is currently available).

As an independent author, I'm in charge of all aspects of publishing, from writing and editing, to layout and formatting, covers, audio recording and production, distribution, marketing, and all the finances of the business. Almost the only thing I don't do myself are translations and the cover backgrounds and titles (though I do the Photoshop work that adds my author name, imprint, and blurb to the work from my cover artist and I make all the output formats). Independents work with various third parties for those parts of the publishing business that they can't or won't do themselves, and different authors have different needs for those services. My publishing business is evolving, too — I've started publishing other authors in 2018.

This is not the only time I've taken on serious work in the arts. I picked up a violin for the first time in my 30s, and a camera in my 50s, so I know what it's like to go from nothing to reasonably competent. I'm finding it's no different for writing fiction, now that I'm a few years into it. You can see some of my other interests here.

Just about all the best advice I've ever gotten came to me from people just a little further along on the same path, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to do the same in my turn.

The romance of being a starving artist

Look, I get it. You'll do anything to get your first short story or novel or poem into print. We all understand. “Maybe if I give it away for free, someone will enjoy it and look for other things I've written. It'll be great publicity.”

Bad idea.

Image of Starving Artist posterIt's much more satisfying to be a paid professional than a starving artist, as any starving artist will tell you.