If you are a writer, have searched out anything about writing, or just clicked an ad about publishing services you’ve probably seen an influx of ads offering to help yup self publish your book. “Buy my book to learn how to become a bestseller,” or “With this ten part seminar I’ll teach you how to sell 4 million copies on Amazon.” Meanwhile, you look those folks up (try it, I did) and you can’t find a single thing published by them. One guy I asked, “What have you written that was a best seller,” to which I got back, “I’m not a writer, I’m a publisher.” Kind of belies the idea that he’ll help you self publish, he’s a publisher! It’s not self publishing if someone else does it for you. One of the ones that was selling books about becoming a best seller…only had books on how to sell books. Another, “How I got best selling in a category on Amazon,” only had one book out, that was top in an obscure category once.
I call these predatory players because they are using our desire, more than anything else, to see our work in print coupled with the frustration of how challenging it can be at first. First of all, no one can teach you how to be a best seller, they literally have disclaimers: “Results aren’t typical”. They might be able to tell you how they did it, if they’ve done it, but results aren’t typical. That means success is uncommon. You’re more likely to become a best seller, selling books about becoming a best seller. Just like all those ‘secrets to making money’ scams, that should really say the secret it making books and DVDs about how to make money and selling them to people.
The worst, to me, are the ones offering a publishing package. “All you need to release a professional looking book” without the hassle…for example:
“In our Essential Publishing Package, our team manages proofreading, custom cover design, custom interior design, the metadata to make sure your book is easily found, and publishing your book as an ebook, paperback, and hardback so that anyone in the world can buy your book from the Amazon.com global marketplaces.”
This is a $7500 package from one of these places. Notice, it doesn’t say editing, it says proofreading. Just for clarity, the average cost of proofreading is $.0113/word or about 780 bucks for a 70K word book. Getting your book on Amazon…free. Getting a hardback on Ingram…40 bucks last time I checked. Covers? Well, I do my covers myself with royalty free stock images, and an author I work with does hers for the cost of the images, which is often less than 50 dollars. Even if you buy custom cover art you’re only looking at between 200 and 500 dollars. Still well below the $7500 package price. You’re basically paying them over $6000 to save you an hour or so of your time to format and upload the book to Amazon. A process that’s actually pretty easy, with simple to follow instructions available on the KDP site.
Realistically, if you get out there and sell your book in person (something I highly recommend and they don’t help with) you might make that money back in a few years. But, to stay relevant you’ll need to write and publish more. It’s hard to sell a book when you only have one. So if you do this every couple of years you will remain consistently in the hole the entire time.
Now, imagine you want copy editing, and a week long ad campaign, their next package up. $10-15000. You can get a copy editor for 1200 bucks. A week long ad campaign on social media and Amazon? Nowhere near the added cost. You can do that out of pocket, though I haven’t found them to be very helpful. The last package, which adds a developmental editor ($5000 cost normally) is over $20,000. I’m going to be honest, if you have a book good enough to earn you 20K in your first year, you have a book that can be picked up by any traditional publisher who will pay all those costs up front.
Do not sign up for these services! Indie publishing is hard, I won’t lie to you. Doing all the work yourself is a lot of time spent not writing. It’s tempting to have someone do that for you, but you’re honestly paying people to do things you can do for free, or cheap. The odds of you seeing a return on that investment? Not good. Not typical. Look at the things these places offer, then see what it costs to do them on your own. You want a good editor? Hire one on your own. Even if you do go with one of these ‘publishers’ you’re still going to be doing all the hard work. Setting up shows and signings, getting the books in stores, and selling them in person. Just uploading to Amazon and spamming Twitter is not going to do it I’m afraid. There is no easy button on the indie side of things.
Do your research. Find out how many authors have made any money going with these places. Make sure you understand the difference between an Amazon best seller and a NY Times best seller. They are wildly different. Find out exactly what they’re offering, and compare that to what it would cost you to do it yourself. I guarantee you your afternoon of formatting in Word and uploading to Amazon isn’t worth six thousand dollars. Want some perspective on that? At 40% for a 10 dollar book, you’d have to sell 1500 copies to pay for that before you even started seeing a profit. Ask the other indie authors around you how long before they sold 1500. An old article in Publisher’s Weekly states that on average an indie author may sell up to 3000 copies over the life of the book. Most will see about 250-300 copies sold. I have had a book out for two years this month, and I can tell you I’m still shy of the 1500 mark.
If I paid one of these services to publish it for me, I’d still be paying it off, along with the cost of doing the other two books I’ve put out since then. I’d be about $20K in the hole at this point. Doing it all myself, including the cost of all my advertising, show entries, contests, artwork, and so on, I’m looking at a profitable year this year. Not much. I won’t be quitting my day job, but two years in and I will be able to claim that I’ve made money as a published author. Something to think about when you’re considering one of these deals.
A month we’ve been locked down here. Going out to get essentials, supplies to fix up the house and yard, and curbside pickup to support small businesses. Life is not normal in here or out there. Sure, I have more time at home since I’m not commuting, but my mind struggles to concentrate on anything creative. We can still go out to the store, but we try to make it quick, we have to wear masks, and wait in lines. Talking to people seems weird, because you can’t see their face. Everyone is starting to look the same, just nervous eyes above cloth masks. Everyone dealing with the same uncertainty, sometimes fear.
It’s not always the same fear. That woman may be wondering if her job will still be there when this is over. That man, scared his mother will get sick, being part of the high risk group. That child, whose life is already confusing, is terrified of this experience that they don’t understand. Some people are worried about whether the economy will be able to recover, and if we’re headed for a longer lasting disaster, and others are afraid because none of the information we’re getting makes any sense. Conflicting numbers, opinions, reports, and so on. And, on top of it all, people are turning on each other on social media. The world is already ugly, and people are being ugly to each other because they don’t all have the same fears.
Whose fears are more legitimate? Why do some people feel like they get to decide that? Of course we feel like our fears are more legitimate, but why do so many lack empathy? That’s what empathy is? Recognizing, despite our own needs, desires, fears, that other people have different ones, and that’s all right. Watching someone, standing outside, taking a video of protesters standing outside, and calling them wrong? You’re outside too! Sure, you have fears, but so do they! The people sharing those videos on social media, “See, these people are nuts!”, are they? Did you leave the house to enter a crowd of people to buy something this week? Are you certain you didn’t pick up a bug while you were out there?
Empathy is not passive. It’s something you need to be conscious of, and practice. It’s realizing that everyone out there is going through something, and even if you don’t know that person, or like that person, realizing that for them, their fears and worries are just as legitimate as your own. It’s not sympathy. You don’t have to agree with them. But when you diminish their fears, or ridicule their concerns, you say that you do not value them as human beings.
Why is this all in a book blog/newsletter? Because empathy is the basis for everything we do. As a writer, I have to empathize with my potential audience, and my characters. As readers, you have to be able to empathize with the author, and the characters they create. Imagine the worlds you’d miss, the adventures lost, if we went through life shut off from everyone we didn’t agree with. Imagine the characters lost to history, and the lessons they teach, if we aren’t able to at least see what it is they’re going through. It’s easy to cast empathy aside, just like it’s easy to hate. It requires patience, understanding, and work to empathize with others. You have to put aside yourself for a minute, and imagine what it’s like to be someone else. It’s a skill, a muscle you have to work at. Like Maya said, we are more alike than unalike. We lose so much of the world when we forget that.
Apologies for the coarse language, but then again if you’re on the internet for any period of time you’ll find much worse. I use the phrase “Don’t be a dick,” because it was used by a pretty popular geek and internet personality for quite awhile. He even had it on T-Shirts. Turns out, he can be kind of a dick and he lost more than just me as a fan because of it. He forgot something pretty simple, and more important than his catchphrase. People are people.
We tend to group together based on common interests. For good or ill, tribalism is a normal function of humanity. We like being around people who share our interests and ideals. When that goes terribly wrong is when we use tribalism as an excuse to attack people outside our tribe for being different. I know, especially with the speed and volume with which information is passed online, it’s difficult to remember that most people are decent people. They’re just trying to get through life the best way they know how.
Besides, if you looked at a ven diagram of most people’s tribes, and those around them, you’d probably find something that looks similar to a spirograph drawing. Ever met a Catholic Democrat, or Atheist Republican? I have. How about a gay Christian? Guarantee you there’s a lot. A gun-toting, gay libertarian fake country singer tiger dealing felon? Yup, just watched a show about him. Point is, you can’t pin any one person down to any one circle of interest or tribe. Keep that in mind for this post, and for the rest of your creative career.
So, what’s the point of that long introduction? Let’s circle back to our internet celebrity. He forgot all of that and he went off on a group of people, some of whom weren’t very nice to him. Called them names, and was basically a dick. Now, I happened to be part of that ‘tribe’ if you will, and I saw those comments. I was a fan of his. I’d never been mean to anyone online. Harassed anyone or treated anyone poorly. But, he didn’t make that distinction. It wasn’t even that he was being mean to my ‘tribe’ that did it for me. In that moment he cast his own rule in the dirt and became a hypocrite. He continued to be a dick after that, to all sorts of people who didn’t agree with him, or he imagined didn’t agree with him. He forgot that his circles, his tribes, overlapped people of many different interests.
He wasn’t the only one, and I learned a lot over the first couple of years of really paying attention to social media. There were a lot of writers and artists who I found out were just awful people. Really mean-spirited, coarse, unfriendly people who I didn’t want to associate with at all. I dropped a lot of future works from my to-buy list, and cut several comic books from my monthly pick-up. Not from people who I just disagreed with, but from people who were just awful to others on social media. People whose behavior was counter to everything I think a creator should be. So, here’s some things to remember, and not all of it has to do with the rambling above.
Don’t Spam! I don’t know who got it into people’s heads that spamming their book, patreon link, or store links was good marketing. I tend to follow everyone back when they follow me on Twitter, but I look at their timeline first. If all I see is spam of book covers, theirs or others, I’m out. I’ve unfollowed several creators who turned to that, or perhaps only do it for a day a month, but do it all day. I don’t know a single person who wants to see that in their feed.
Treat people like people. The people who come to your social media platform may be fans, they may be ultra-fans, or they may just be curious about who you are before they give you money. They could also be trolls, critics, and haters. You just don’t know. The best course I’ve found is to treat people like people first. Just be normal, natural, and talk to people, or ignore them. Whether your social media platform is an interactive space where you talk to fans, or a place run by a media manager who gives generic responses, be consistent. When you do find someone who is just there to cause trouble, mute them and move on. You’ll find your social media experience is much less stressful, and the people who are there for good content will appreciate the lack of drama. People who are there for the drama can be just as bad as the trolls anyway.
Finally, Don’t Be a Dick! This is a big one, and it’s difficult for some people. Some will tell you to avoid certain topics, politics and religion, on your social media for example. That’s good advice if you have trouble handling disagreement. Sometimes it’s just best to avoid the things people disagree most about. But even then, you’ll always find people who don’t share all of your interests. But, if they’ve come to your page, bought your books, or picked up your art, chances are one of their circles overlaps at least one of yours. If you go off about all Christians being X, or all Democrats being Y, you’re likely to hit one of your readers with that rant. Not everyone thinks of that excuse (and it’s a pathetic one in my opinion), “if you don’t fit this description then I’m not talking about you.” Remember, our tribes are important to us. You go off about all Christians being bad, and that gay devout Christian liberal who reads your book at lunch after church will instantly feel negative about that. Sure, you can say “but I wasn’t talking about you,” but you’ll never be able to take back that initial feeling.
Now, there’s some creators that don’t seem to care about losing readers/fans. I’d be willing to bet if you’re reading this you’re not one of them. If you’re like me, you can’t afford to lose a single reader. Even if I had so many fans that I could pay all my bills and live comfortably on just my writing, I still wouldn’t want to lose a single reader. Besides, how often have we seen writer’s who are vehemently outspoken about certain things, or consider ultra ‘woke’, get set upon by their fans for not being ‘woke’ enough? Or whatever the case may be. Remember, you’ll never please everyone, but it’s almost certain that if you try to please only a few at some point you won’t be pleasing anyone.
Finally, most of us are writing for a reason. Bring a little joy to people’s lives. Tell a story we’ve had locked in our heads. Show a vision of a world that just a little bit better than our own. There’s probably as many reasons as there are creators, but one thing is true about them all, we want to have an effect on people. Otherwise why put it out there? How much of an effect are you really having if you limit your audience to only those who share your same interests and ideals (if any two people can really say they share everything)? If your writing is meant to show people a better world, wouldn’t you want the most opposite people to get that first? Preaching to the choir is great and all, but they just nod their heads the whole time. Don’t you want your writing to make people think? Feel? Maybe change a mind a little bit?
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!
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.