Coming down off the high of seeing my Kansas City Chiefs win the Superbowl, I got to thinking about patience and perseverance. Yes, this is partly a sports analogy. Patience and perseverance are two of the skills I think every writer needs to have, and needs to hone regularly.
I have been a Chiefs fan all my life, so was my mom, and grandma. I have literally been waiting my whole life for last night’s game. I had no idea if they were going to win or lose. No clue whether my night would end in jubilation or disappointment. Thankfully, it turned out to be the former.
Point is, I was patient. I could have shifted my attention to another team over the years. I could have cheered for the Patriots all these years, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I could have given up football, but I kind of like it when my Chiefs are playing. I was patient.
The last three games especially, have been rough for Chiefs fans. They started each of them down, sometimes down by a lot of points. But they came back. They never lost heart, they fought through some tough adversaries and managed to come out of it champions. They persevered.
I am not always very patient when it comes to my writing. I want to get my work out to readers as fast as I can. While I think we need patience, I also thing we need to be realistic. I submitted Embers to agents and publishers for a year. No bites, no interest. I needed to move on and I wasn’t ready to give up on my book. So, I took another route which also requires patience. Self-publishing means hard work, long hours, and a lot of disappointment. Shows where I don’t sell much, or none at all. Low Amazon sales, and trying to get my book in the hands of readers. I have to persevere.
When you go indie, you’re starting the game behind. No publisher to cover the costs of materials. No agent to arrange any deals. No advance, no marketing, and no book tour. You’re already 0-24 and have a long way to go to catch up. But be patient. Work hard, and eventually you’ll see the benefit.
I’m now going into my second full year as a published author. I almost broke even last year, and my goal this year is to make a profit, even if it’s a dollar. I know I can’t give up, can’t lose momentum. I have to work on my backlog of projects while pushing my current material or I’ll lose the game. I know I won’t get rich off this, but I want to be able to look at the work I’m doing and know that it has value beyond the vanity of telling my stories to as many people as possible.
So, if you’re out there frustrated, tired, scared, worried, or unsure if you can make it, be patient. Persevere. Hone those skills along with your writing tools. Never give up unless you’re really ready to be done. Think long and hard about whether this game is for you. If you write, you’re a writer. If you can’t go a day without thinking of a story or putting words down, you’re a writer. Be patient with yourself and persevere.
I’ve seen a lot of indie authors talking about book sales and the struggle to get books in people’s hands without giving them away. From what I’ve seen, the typical story goes something like: I sold a few when it first released, mostly to friends and family, and after that I might sell one or two a month. Or you add to the first part with: I do a few signings and book fairs but nothing much comes of those. Far more rare is the story of someone selling hundreds or thousands of an indie book depending on Amazon sales alone. If you’re able to do that, either from your Twitter platform and followers, marketing, or just having something that catches people’s eye, that’s great. I think the vast majority are in the first group. So, here’s what I do to stay out of that rut.
Before I jump into this, I’m not selling thousands of copies. I released my first novel a year ago, and my short story collection this past February. While they aren’t flying off the digital shelves of Amazon dot com, I have sold a couple hundred copies of both now. Being an indie author is hard work. Not only do we have to write, edit, proof, design, format, and upload our book, but our job doesn’t stop there. While we’re doing all that to the next one, we have to market and sell the first. You have to do shows, signings, book fairs, give-aways (I know, that’s not selling but bear with me), and try to get it in shops and such. I can tell you, so far, only one of those has produced results for me, and it’s not the one you might think. I’m not saying skip any of the others. I have my books in several shops. It has sold exactly zero copies in every one of those shops except one. Thankfully it was the one shop that bought the books outright.
Shows are where it’s at. I’m not talking your typical book show either. I do those too, and cons (both gaming and pop culture/comic), as well as book signings. I’ve found that the atypical shows are where I have the most success. I’ve sold more books at local arts and crafts fairs than anywhere else. My best show was the Marigold Festival here in little ol’ Pekin, Illinois. And why not, books are art right? They’re hand crafted over many grueling months or years. I’ve only run into one show that didn’t consider books to be art so it’s not too hard to do. What it is, is costly sometimes, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
Why are these types of shows better than a book themed event or a con? Well, think for a second. At a book fair, you’re there among dozens, or hundreds of other authors with countless options for readers to choose from. Kind of like a book store, or mini Amazon. You are at the same disadvantage as you are everywhere else. At a craft fair, you will likely be the only author at the show. That catches people’s eye. They’re curious. Like one guy said last weekend at the craft show I was at, he didn’t expect to see books there, and that intrigued him enough to stop and buy both books. I’ve had great success at these shows, but not as much as my friend and author Rey Clark. At that same Marigold show where I did the best I’ve ever done, she outsold me probably two-fold. Now, she has dragons on her covers, and a completed trilogy. She’s a better salesperson than I am. She’s also been doing it a couple years longer and has a repeat fanbase, but she did better at that little Midwest craft fair than she did at Fanfest in Chicago or Comicon in Indy.
Yes, some of these can get expensive. I’ve had shows anywhere from $35 to $300 for a space. Luckily I have a wife who is a jewelry designer and crafter already doing many of these shows. Sometimes I get a little space, like this weekend, and sometimes I get a whole table. Depends on the show. Now, I’m not saying you need a spouse that already makes bank at shows like this, but I am saying don’t let the price throw you. Get creative. Sometimes I do shows with Rey, like Marigold. My wife was doing that show as well, but she’s at an established location and wouldn’t have room for me. Rey and I split a booth which cut the cost enough to make it worthwhile. You can find other authors, make your own little author space at the show. (Remember, you’re not competitors.) Maybe a friend of yours is already doing these as a vendor of some sort. Or, talk to the show organizer. They aren’t thinking books when they come up with these shows. They don’t understand the profit margin for us is a lot tighter than most of the crafters at the show. Maybe they can cut you a deal for a half space, or a table in a corner. Anywhere to get those books out.
Bottom line, you can’t just put your book on Amazon and hope it sells. I’ve had exactly zero results from Facebook ads, Twitter campaigns, and dropping links in hashtags. I’ve had marginal luck at book shows and signings. But, the real results have come out at the unexpected places. Seek out your farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and vendor shows. The results may surprise you.
Being an indie author can be fun and empowering. We have control of our own work, cover art, editorial decisions, marketing, and all the rest that comes with making the sausage. It can also be overwhelming, discouraging, and challenging to our self-image.
Those last couple of points are what I want to talk about today. It can be very discouraging when it comes to sales. We have to spend a lot of time marketing our book, promoting it, doing shows, and setting up signings. Some of these are better than others, but at some point you’re going to face a moment when you only sell one book at a show that last hours. You might talk to a hundred people, but only sell that one.
Something I tell myself, when this happens, is that books are like seeds. Entertainment, especially books, is one of the few markets where word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing. How often do you see a book commercial on TV? I imagine most of you get your book recommendations from someone else, right? I know I don’t usually read book reviews until I’m already interested in the book. That’s not to say you should avoid that as a form of marketing, but recognize that getting regular people to read your book is the key to getting more people to read it.
In almost every other industry, people complain more than they compliment. Stores, restaurants, products, all get talked about on social media in the negative more often than not. People who like one of those things just keep paying for them. Books, though, people talk about if they’re good. They tell their friends and family, they post it on Facebook and Twitter, and they mention it in reading clubs.
The reason I call books seeds, is because they take time to grow. Who here buys a book and starts reading it immediately? A lot of us have to-read piles on a table somewhere that we keep adding to. If you’re like me you have a to-read bookcase nearly 6 feet tall and double stacked with books on nearly every shelf. Anyway, a lot of people will wait to read your book. Like a seed, it takes time, but it’s planted. Plant enough of those seeds, and they’ll all grow at different times, and if your book is good that seed will branch out into other purchases as word of mouth takes root.
You also have to water those seeds, post on social media, your author’s Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram. Give the reader a reason to connect with you. Hand out buttons for following on one of those outlets (Rey Clark does that). Offer a monthly newsletter, or regular blog to subscribers. And very important here, don’t spam! Nothing is more annoying than a Twitter account following, and being followed by 100K people that does nothing but spam book covers. It looks like a bot, and probably is. Most of those 100K followers are probably bots too. The auto-DM on follow is also lame, don’t do that. If you look like a bot, people will unfollow right away, or at the very least, mute you.
Point is, don’t get discouraged. Hand out flyers describing your book to everyone you talk to. Hand out better flyers to people who actually seem interested. When you make that one sale, thank that person generously, they may just be the oak that sprouts a thousand branches. Most of all, be patient. Writing, and publishing, is a marathon. We are asking people to invest more time in our medium than almost any other entertainment outlet besides video games. Some of them will get right to it, and others may take awhile. And water those seeds, post on social media, connect with your readers, and keep yourself in their mind.
The past week was a hurricane of activity for me and the family. We did all four days of Gen Con in Indy this year, and I had a pretty big event the next Saturday called Ignite Peoria. It was a long, tiring week, and today my body is telling me how badly I mistreated it. But, it was all worth it for a couple of wonderful experiences that I had with readers (I know I titled it fans, not sure if I can call them fans yet but I hope to.) Don’t get me wrong, Gen Con was awesome again this year, and Ignite was so much fun, but there’s a couple of highlights that I’m going to remember for a long time.
I took four books with me to Gen Con with the idea that I’ll play a sort of “Where’s Waldo”, post a pic of myself that day on Social Media, come find me and get a free book. I got nothing, but it was a short day so I wasn’t discouraged. I gave that day’s copy to my son’s friend who traveled with us. The next day, still nothing. On our third day at the con I took two books, but again no one found me (or no one was looking). The Con was going great and I was doing my best not to get disappointed. There were 70K people at the convention center. The odds a couple people looking for me would actually spot me were pretty slim.
Finally, on our last day, with three books in tow, I got some interest on the Facebook post. Shannon really wanted to find me, but was stuck in her hotel doing homework. We were in the vendor hall, making last minute stops and picking up things we didn’t want to leave without before packing it all up and heading back to Illinois. Shannon and I went back and forth on Facebook, she hoped to have time to run over to the hall, and I was going to let her know where I was but unfortunately time ran out. We had to go, and she was diligently working on the important things, her homework. Just as we got down to the lobby with our bags I got the message that she was done and could meet. I said sure, where, somewhere in between our hotels or in the convention center? Nothing. I waited with all our bags while my wife got the car from the parking a few blocks away thinking that was it. The timing just didn’t work out.
Finally, as we’re getting the last bags in the car (no joke, literally last minute) I hear my name called in question. Shannon had not answered my last post because she was rushing to my hotel driveway to catch me before I left. It was so great to meet someone with that much interest in, as she said, helping out indie authors. She took the time to come find me before we left, even after I offered to mail her a copy since we couldn’t find time to meet. I wish we’d had more time to talk but we were holding up the line. We did manage to get a great picture, and had a few nice words. I hope to hear how Shannon likes the stories, and it’s no lip service when I say that she made my Con. Most of the memories from this year will fade into the background of mishmash from previous years, but meeting Shannon will be forever ingrained in my mind.
Then I did Ignite Peoria this past Saturday, and the crowd was great. I talked to a lot of people about writing and my books. Met some new folks, and saw a few regular friends. The part that will stand out though, was during the panel that Rey Clark, Rachael Dunn, and I did. We discussed writing and self-publishing for a small group of aspiring authors. Overall the room was great, lost of fantastic questions and feedback. In the front row was an excited young lady that asked a lot of questions, and was clearly hungry for as much information she could get.
Lola (please let me have remembered that right), the young lady from the front row of the panel, came by each of our booths after and picked up a book from each of us. She was so excited to write, and I could tell it was a passion she had burning in her. She reminded me of what it was like when I first started doing this, and rekindled my drive to stay excited about it. Seeing a young, aspiring author with that much drive was so wonderful. I talked to another young man that day who was a bit shy to approach, and I wish I got his name (I’m really awful at that. If you meet me, tell me your name cause I always forget to ask.). He asked a ton of questions and I could tell that he had a lot of stories to tell. It made my day to meet, and talk to both of them.
To all the people I’ve met and talked to at shows, who picked up books, or just asked questions, you are why we do this. You make the hard work, solitary hours in our heads, and often long days at shows worth it. We love to talk to you, hear your stories, answer your questions, and most of all we are desperate to hear how you liked our stories (and terrified that you’ll tell us but don’t let that stop you.) I hope to meet you all soon. Much Love!
I wrote that title as much for you as for me. Rejection letters, especially those form letters that really don’t tell us why, are probably one of the hardest parts of this gig. It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s not easy to remind yourself, we just have to get our story in front of the right person, at the right time, with just what they’re looking for. How do we know what that is, though, when all they say is “It’s not right for us at this time.” Not the right what?
Anyway, I recently submitted to three big fantasy magazines. And I mean big, like the names of huge authors in the title of the magazine, and got three rejections in a weekend. Yah, you read that right. Magazines that typically take weeks, or months, to respond got back to me in hours. One I could understand, they were closing submissions very soon and going through all the slush pile. They got back to me in 12 hours. The next one, took about 12 hours too. Then I submitted one more time and had a response in less than 4! How bad must this story be? Can’t we give my ego (such as it is) a little break, maybe hold onto that email for a week?
So I gave myself a break from submissions and finished a piece I was working on for an artist. A rough character sketch and intro, not even edited, just roughed together to get his thoughts, and sent it off last night. This morning…he loved it! Literally, his words. No edits, barely first draft material, and he loved it. I’m not ashamed to admit, that brought a little mistiness to the eyes. I don’t have a huge ego, and I really don’t let rejections get to me that much, but it’s impossible not to dwell on it a little. That boost was huge.
The point, right, get to the point. One important thing that a lot of writers do, and I definitely do, is keep those rejections. No matter how sterile, or short they are, keep them. I remember hearing Vince Flynn talk about how many times he was rejected. Something like 60 rejections for his first book, and he didn’t get a publishing deal for his first book, he self-published. Later he got a deal, and the publisher went back and re-printed his first book. That’s a perfect example, his first book just wasn’t right for 60 different places, agents, and publishers, but one of his later books was. Even with his short career, he published eighteen books. Who knows how many more he would have put out.
Keep at it, keep submitting. Keep sending those queries, and manuscripts, short stories and cover letters. Those rejections are tough, but they don’t have to be the end of your story.
About two years ago, while planning my current project, I had to accept the idea that my fantasy setting wasn’t very unique. Of course I had a unique map, names, cultures, deities, and so on but there wasn’t much to separate it from countless other cookie-cutter, Tolkienesque worlds already in the market. I’d just finished one of the writer’s classes at Gen Con, and realized I needed something more, something to set it apart.
So, I got to thinking. I liked steampunk, and it is becoming more popular in fantasy literature. But, everyone was starting to do it. Then I thought, why would a world full of magic develop steam technology or gunpowder anyway? Technology is developed when people wonder how to do something no one else can do, but in a world full of people who can manipulate energy, matter, and time, why would anyone look anywhere else. So the idea of magic-powered technology took hold and I thought magepunk would be a great name for it.
I remember thinking, there’s no way I came up with this first, so I headed to Google. I didn’t find anything at the time, but recently I have. Magepunk is mentioned on a couple of websites out there, but it’s poorly defined, and usually linked to steampunk as an alternative theme of the same genre. So, what does magepunk mean to me, my writing, and the world of Thelos? I figured I should answer that question before I put out many more stories related to it. Currently, the only one of my stories that I can say is fully magepunk would be the last tale in When Heroes Rise called Relic Hunter: A Wasteland Tale.
In it, Jules is a relic hunter, someone who searches the Wasteland for ancient magical artifacts once used as power sources before the world ended. For her they are a source of income for her family’s business, used to power small devices like lanterns, weapons, and even her small skiff. Before the world ended in the great cataclysm the entire power grid was fed by magic, while smaller devices and remote locations were run by items imbued with magic. That’s magepunk to me, a world that has harnessed the most powerful natural resource, magic, to advance technology.
In my current project, tentatively titled The Moondancer Saga, the world of Thelos is just beginning to explore the possibilities of this new technology. A typical fantasy world of elves, magic, and dragons is starting to see firearms, sky ships, and small machines, all powered by magic. While it appears I did not coin the term, or create the genre, I do look forward to adding to this underrepresented theme in fantasy, and I hope you enjoy what’s coming.
I recently did Cogs and Corsets, a steampunk themed convention in Bloomington, IL, and there was one other author there. I watched all day as people stopped at her booth, bought books, and didn’t give mine a second glance. There could have been a dozen factors that caused that, including the fact that I was at my wife’s booth and my books were included in the overall jewelry display she had going on. I didn’t have my own separate table featuring just me. Part of me was a little bitter about how little attention my work was getting, while that author across the hall was getting sales. That’s normal, human. But, I reminded myself, we aren’t competitors.
That may seem like an odd thing to say, but, while we are all selling books we aren’t all selling the same book. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are competitors, but authors are not. We are selling different stories, that will appeal to different markets. There’s a chance the other author at that con was selling stories with steampunk themes, and that’s not something my books have. We aren’t trying to sell better hamburgers, stories aren’t measured on the same scale.
It’s not always easy, but this is something we authors should remember. We want to sell our books, but we have to avoid the idea that someone else selling theirs is a missed sale for you. That person may not be your audience. They may like the other book better to start with, and pick yours up when they’re done with it. There could be a thousand different reasons one author is selling better than you at a show. Next time you may be the one getting all the attention. It’s normal to feel something about that, but try not to let that feeling turn into bitterness or hostility toward another author. In the end, we’re all just trying to tell our stories to people who will listen.
You can’t please everyone. Repeat that and memorize that, if you intend to be a creative. Any sort of artistic endeavor will eventually run up against some sort of backlash, outrage, or hostility. Accept that immediately if you intend to walk this path, and prepare yourself for it. That’s especially true for the written word, because we write so many of them. If you write a novel you have 75-100K words or more in which to somehow offend someone. Sure, you can hire sensitivity readers and editors but honestly they will be applying their own viewpoint to the read and offering advise based on their own subjective opinion. What offends your sensitivity reader may not offend someone who actually buys the book. It’s a guessing game really, and at the end of the day if you change something all you may end up doing is offending someone else.
Consider Amelie Wen Zhoa’s recent run-in with this. Her book caught some flack from a few people taking offense to how the author portrayed her characters in her fantasy world based in an alternate Asia. Amelie told her story from her own cultural background and heritage, but some people didn’t like it. She actually pulled her book from publication, re-read it, hired sensitivity readers, and ultimately made changes and is going to publication. She allowed other people to tell her how to write her story. Will her changes be enough to appease the mob? Reading through the comments on social media it’s a safe bet there will still be people offended by this. How dare this Asian woman address issues in Asia without first consulting American readers about how it makes them feel.
Bottom line, there are people out there who live for this. They wake up every day looking for something to be offended about. In this age of instant communication through social media they can spread their complaint around the world in no time. It makes them feel powerful, popular, and like they are making a difference. There will always be people like that, from all walks of life, all political sides, and from every demographic. No one target audience is free of this so you will not be able to avoid it. Don’t let it get to you. Tell your story. If it doesn’t sell, that’s your clue that you have work to do. If it gets nothing but bad reviews, then you know something needs to change. Don’t cut the wings off your work before it has a chance to even fly though. It’s your story, not theirs.
Welcome readers, friends, and awesome people who came by the page. I want to start giving updates on progress for all the projects I’m working on and what to expect in the future.
I still have a lot of shows coming up this year, and a few more I’m looking into. If you have a book you want signed, or want to pick up a copy in person check out the appearances page on this site to see where I’m going to be next.
I just released the first of an ongoing short story series that will be available through SubscribeStar. The first episode of Shadows of Barden is available for free on Medium. I also recently finished a short story of a darker nature that I hope to start submitting soon and include in a darker collection of shorts in the future.
Finally, I’m almost done with the eighth chapter of my next book, which is still untitled. It is set in the same world as my short stories and will follow the adventure of a young woman who sets out to save her people from a dark corruption.
Stay tuned for more.
I wrote an article covering untouchable characters in general and why they are damaging to the medium, and diversity, but here I wanted to talk more specifically about the problem of main characters whose stories have no risk. No stakes. We’ve all see them. The characters that are so powerful, that have no weaknesses, we just know they’ll win no matter what. How many times have you watched a show or movie and said, “They won’t kill that character, they’re too important to the story.” Let me use a couple of comic book examples, since I’m fairly fond of them.
Marvel has this issue in spades. So does DC, but I never really read DC. Anyway, due to the nature of Marvel’s business model their characters are more like assets than characters. There’s a financial reason no one ever really dies in Marvel comics. Unfortunately it creates a storytelling problem. Take Wolverine, personally my favorite Marvel character. The guy heals from anything, including being launched into the sun (yes, that happened). He comes back from anything, and even when he dies, he isn’t dead. When you read a Wolverine comic (and really any Marvel comic) you know that no matter what, that character can’t die. At the end of the day there’s no stakes. No risk. No real reason to care about whatever danger our hero is in. Ultimately it’s one of the things that drove me to other comic companies with smaller print runs.
That’s just one problem that I want to look at here. Another is a character with no weaknesses. Take a couple of recent examples, Superman and Captain Marvel (the Marvel movie version). These two have been compared a lot after the recent Captain Marvel movie. One of the big critiques is Carol Danvers is too powerful, and has no weaknesses. “But that’s no different than Superman…” Wrong. Superman has two distinct weaknesses; humanity and kryptonite. Now that’s not to say those are great weaknesses, and they get used too often because that’s all you can really do with him, but they are there. For the movie version of Captain Marvel there are none. It begs the question again, why care? Once she pummels her enemies into submission, what’s next? She flew through an armored spacecraft, killing countless people (most of whom were probably just doing their jobs like mopping the latrines and cataloging spare parts), what’s next? What could really pose a threat to Captain Marvel? Those aren’t questions you want your readers asking.
So how to handle this? Should you really kill off your main character? Well…maybe not but if you accept it as a possibility it becomes easier to make the audience believe you will. Look at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. At this point doesn’t anyone really believe any character is safe on either show (or in either book)? When did we stop saying “Oh, they won’t kill that character,” and start saying “Oh crap, they better not kill this character?” In both cases the writers have shown us that no one is safe. Even if they have a plan on who lives, it’s not an obvious one. In my first work, Wastelander, I maimed my hero right out of the gate. First scene, cut his arm right off. I didn’t have it that way to start, or threaten to do it and take it back. Our big bad warrior hero starts his journey almost losing a fight, and definitely losing a limb. I did that so that I knew, and the reader would know, that I wasn’t pulling any punches. I wanted to make sure that my readers would feel like Dez was in real danger the entire time.
This goes hand in hand with making sure your hero isn’t too powerful. The warrior who never loses a fight doesn’t make a good story. We all know the end, in most cases the hero eventually wins, but it’s the journey that matters. No one cares if the hero walks right to the main villain and knocks him out in one punch. This is especially true when dealing with magic and powers. You have to give your characters a weakness. There has to be a way for them to lose, even if they don’t. But, be prepared to make them lose. Make them lose a battle or two, stumble and fall along their path. Let the reader know that you’re willing to throw everything out the window and grind your protag into the dirt if that’s what it takes. It’s not just about throwing obstacles in their path, make some of those obstacles failure itself. The way a person overcomes failure tells a lot more about their character than how they deal with success.