Sunday, May 12, 2019

Leveling Up - What Does It Mean to You?

This week at the SFF Seven we're talking about leveling up and what that means to us.

Actually, the topic is phrased as: People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?

It's a really good question. I think we're trained - by school, and job performance appraisals, and so forth - to regard the work we produce in terms of levels. Ladders to climb, milestones to reach, levels of income, acclaim, and success. But is that really valid with creative endeavors?

I'm thinking no.

At the same time, however, we absolutely want to progress, to grow and do... more and better.

I've been doing a fair amount of mentoring, largely for SFWA but also answering questions for aspiring writers informally, and I find myself having the same conversation with all of them. At some point, I end up asking them to list out what they want from their writing careers. This is because my answers to the questions they ask - on whether they should try for this workshop or if it's time to look for an agent or countless other choices - all depend on what their priorities are.

Basically, there's no one career path for a writer. There are tons. And whether you prioritize making money to earn a living at it, whether you want to create ART (in capital letters), whether you want to win big awards, and so on, all of these things require different priorities.

So I ask these younger writers to make a list of the various categories:

  • Financial
  • Artistic
  • Ego
  • Altruistic
  • Practical

They can add more, but those are mine that I came up a long time ago, to categorize my goals for my writing career. Then I ask them to list goals in each category. So they might look like this:
  • Financial
    • earn $70K/yr at least
  • Artistic
    • Write books I'm proud of and love
  • Ego
    • Win the PEN/Jerard award
  • Altruistic
    • Honor Grandmother & Papa's lives
  • Practical
    • Great agent for both fiction and nonfiction
These are actually the top goals in each category from my own list from a LONG time ago. I wouldn't make the same list now. Revising this list of priorities would be part of the process of leveling up.

So, I I know I'm not really addressing the question, which is really more craft-based. For that I'd say leveling up in my craft is pushing myself to write things I think I can't, to go for more complex and deeper-reaching stories.

But I also think that levels come in many forms, and what those levels are to each of us is tremendously personal. Maybe that's why we put this so vaguely, calling it "leveling up." Always reaching and growing, no matter what form that may take.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Covers That Don't Know What They Ought to Be - AND Cover Reveal

What a serendipitous topic for this week. Deceptive marketing/book covers. I was just given the new cover for Enemy Within. You'll be the first to get a look. And we can analyze. 

This cover had a very tall order standing behind it. I wanted it to do several things: 

1. Convey Science Fiction
2. Convey Romance
3. Convey that this story isn't entirely a light read - I hope to all the gods it's fun, you know? But there are -- issues. And there's a body count. The heroine has PTSD for a reason. So I really, really wanted the cover to not be all sunshine and roses. Basically, I didn't want my cover to sell the promise of a light SFR when I've been told I'm writing grim SFR. 

How do you think the cover does?

Because this is a rerelease, several of you will remember that this book was originally pubbed with a very different cover (which I cannot link in because it is the property of the publisher.) THAT cover had a very different look and feel. It was sunnier. The background was bright yellow. The heroine was in a very different posture on the cover. Over all, I felt like that print cover did a better job of conveying Urban Fantasy than SFR. But I'll never be able to prove that hindered the sale of the book in any way. I can only speculate. 

Keeping in mind that this rerelease is coming out as an ebook, I have to say I like this new cover. It's clean. It's simple (apparently TWRP has done a serious bit of reader surveying about covers and came up with a 'no more than three elements per cover' rule to accommodate thumbnails). I feel like it communicates more than it shows, if that makes any sense. Now, granted, I have no idea whether that will translate into book sales, but hope springs eternal. Or maybe wishful thinking does. 

I think above all things (and as a great surprise to me) I really love that the woman on the cover comes across as both vulnerable and capable all at the same time. That, to me, feels like a hit out of the park. Now I hope readers will agree.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I had no idea it was THAT kind of book -- book cover betrayal

Once upon a time, there was a geeky almost-teenage boy who watched a lot of Japanese anime. Based on the amount of ninja stars and black clothing he owned, he possibly wanted to be a 16th century Japanese man when he grew up. All possibility of that happening aside, when his parents insisted on him reading fiction, guess what he pulled down from the book store shelf? Oh yes: The Ninja, by Eric V. Lustbader.

Now, nowhere on the cover does it confess that this is a "sprawling erotic thriller." There are no naked people on the cover (in that tiny depiction of the dude ninja and the woman, it looks more like he's killing her, right). There is no genre indication at all. So imagine how surprised this kid was when he sat down and read about ... er, ninjas? Really smoochy ninjas? Which was totally not what he was expecting. 

This is the exact kind of horror and betrayal readers experience when publishers attempt to market broadly and lose sight of their actual audience. The people who do buy the book stand a good chance of being mildly squicked at best, furious at worst. And what do you think that does to their future buying decisions? Do you imagine those people who have been once betrayed will blithely trust again? Do you think the adorable anime-ninja aficionado teen is ever going to buy a likely-looking book at the bookstore without at least three friends confirming the ninja-focus of said book?

Pro'ly not. So people, please stop doing this, even if it seems like a clever or creative way to attack the market. It might get you a few sales in the short term, but it will lose you readers in the end.

And yes, I know there is a little bit of irony in me coming at you with this advice, since my book covers strongly indicate kickass-heroine urban fantasy when the stories inside are... (oh god, not sprawling erotic thrillers?). Well, whatever they are, they aren't urban fantasy and are unlikely to appeal to the average Ilona Andrews fan. Oopsie. My excuse -- and it ain't a good one -- is that I didn't understand markets when those books came out. 

I promise to do better. So should we all.

And also, in case you're worried about that teenage boy, you needn't. He came through it, even though, sadly, he never became Japanese. He grew up and married somebody who has written... wait for it ... omg yes, sort of sweeping science fictiony erotic thrillers. And worse, she makes him read them. (I'm really sorry, honey.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Broad vs Niche: When Marketing Leads The Reader Astray

There's been a theme on Twitter this week about book reviewers who get mad because a book of a certain genre failed to meet their expectation that is the antithesis of the genre. E.g. "LOTR had some good characters, but it was just so unrealistic I had to give it a one star."  "50 Shades of Grey had a hot chick in it, but there was too much sex. One star."  "This could've been a great fantasy if the characters weren't so young. Harry Potter: Sorcerer's Stone gets one star."

Are the reviewers daft or 
did the marketing of the book target the wrong audience?

This week on the blog, we're talking about the latter. Why, oh why, a business would waste money tricking someone into buying their product? Are they trying to get bad reviews? Short answers are Hope and Nope. While I could write a thesis on this topic, I'll do my best to keep to the top-line point. Before that, let's clarify terms:

  • Marketing is the encompassing umbrella for the promotion, sales, and distribution of products/services from producer to consumer. 
  • Advertising is about piquing interest. This is where the adage, "Introduce the Problem, then Solve the Problem" comes into play.  Example: Wrinkles make you less attractive. Use this serum to fade the appearance of wrinkles and become desirable.
  • Sales is about converting interest into purchases. Example: Customer walks into a store (demonstrating interest). Sales person's job is to remove customer resistance to purchasing (identify what interest brought the customer into the store, present [limited] options to satisfy the interest, offer a discount) and complete transaction. 
Marketing = Plan; Adverts = Awareness; Sales = $$$

In book marketing, there are four primary opportunities to gain/lose buyers. Depending on who owns the marketing of the book is how much say an author has in the process. Indie authors can own every step or pay someone else to do it. Traditionally published authors own little to no part of the process.
  1. Cover: Front Art and Back Blurb
    • See Jeffe's post from Sunday about a cover art trad-published experience in which the marketing plan seemed to be a broad romance campaign rather than the niche sub-genre-specific campaign. The generic image suggests the publisher is after eyeballs more than sales. I'll get into broad vs niche in the next section.  
    • Indie authors have huge control over their covers, which is often lauded but can backfire worse than a generic publisher-directed cover. 
    • Back blurbs are usually written by the author to briefly summarize the book (think under 200 words) and use "grab words" to entice a reader to buy the book. Sometimes marketing folks at publishing houses rewrite the blurbs.
  2. Advertising: Creative and Placement
    • What ads look like, what they say, where they appear, how often they appear
    • Every ad-placement has rules and they often differ.
      • E.g. Sex Sells...but No Nipples (even men's nipples). Don't use the words "sale, free, % off, or discount." Images must contain 92% art and no more than 8% text. Products targeting a mature audience will only appear after 9:00PM Eastern. Creative must be static, no animations. 
    • There are lots of ways for ads to go wrong, from cringe-worthy creative to tech glitches to underfunded budgets. There's an entire industry around advertising for good reason. Getting it right is a real struggle for amateurs.
  3. Point of Sale: Convenience and Competitiveness
    • Where the product is available, in what formats, for what regions, at what price, in what time for receipt, gift options, coupons, type of payment accepted, perceived security of payment process, returns policy, troubleshooting/customer support, resale value, etc.
    • Most authors go through vendors like Amazon or Apple to shoulder the bulk of the POS, while publishers have printing and distribution networks layered in between. 
    • Yes, yes I know the other meaning of POS, and sometimes it suits this part too; especially when products are damaged, the wrong file is received, payment is rejected, etc. However, more hybrid and Indie authors are taking the risk and moving to direct-from-author POS usually via their websites in an effort to divorce themselves from complete dependency on 3rd party retailers.
  4. After Sale: Review and Retention
    • The bulk of this falls on the author, and/yet requires consumer consent prior to contact. Yes, a chicken-egg situation. A vendor may automatically send a follow-up nudge to review, wherein the act of the purchase default opts-in the consumer to additional contact by the vendor, but that opt-in does not give the author permission to contact the buyer (unless the author is the vendor).
    • Reviews are advertising. It's the closest thing to viral marketing short of in-person recommendations from trusted sources. We've blogged on the importance of reviews earlier this year. 
    • Retention through Newsletters and New Release Notifications; be they author-generated, publisher-generated, or vendor-generated the point is to get access to and permission from customers to directly market to them. It's a much lower cost with an exceptionally higher Return on Investment (ROI) than any other form of marketing. These are customers who are asking to buy your product(s). You want to know them, keep them, and sell to them for as long as you can. 
Now, about that Broad vs Niche Marketing Strategy. Using Jeffe's example (not to pick on Jeffe; she simply happened to post a great example of an initially baffling publisher decision) why would her publisher opt to target the larger romance demographic where they'd get more eyeballs but fewer sales-per-dollar? Why not target the erotica readers where people are more likely to buy what they see? Why not target the sub-sub-sub romance demographic of erotica retellings customers? Don't they have that info? Wouldn't those sales be almost guaranteed?  Wouldn't the reviews be more positive? 

Top 3 Reasons to Market to Broad Genre:
Note: I use "publishers" here to mean anyone who has control of the marketing strategy from traditional publishing houses, and small presses, to indie authors. 
  1. The Marketing Strategy is about elevating Publisher Brand Power not selling an individual book. 
    • Seems counterintuitive, why sell a concept not a specific product? It's a longer-term strategy that's focused on the publisher's business. Their customer, in this case, isn't the individual reader, it's the middlemen, the vendors and retailers. It's about negotiating more favorable distribution deals through economies of scale. "Look at all the products we offer in this market." 5,000 romance novels is more impressive than 12 erotica retellings. Vendors counter with "look at how well we move 5,000 romance novels" because the data is more impressive than how well they moved 12 erotica retellings.
    • On a smaller scale, this is akin to how hybrid authors position themselves to agents/houses. "My author brand moved 100k books in a year" is more compelling than "Grooming Brindled Pomchicis was a B&N bestseller in the category of Caring for Vanity Teacup Breeds for the first week of August 2008."
  2. The Marketing Strategy is about Building Out Direct-to-Consumer Sales Lists.
    • In this case, the publisher's goal is to build a list of reader-customers who like This General Type of Story so they can sell books by semi-specific genre rather than author.  It's not a bad thing at all, particularly if you're a no-name debut author who's given up 70% of their profit in hopes being discovered by avid readers. Midlist authors also benefit from niche-to-broad expansions.
    • "If you like vampire stories, you'll also like shifter stories, and if you like shifter stories, you'll like alien-shifter stories, and if you like alien-shifters then you'll like science-fiction stories." This is how publishers move buyers from Jeffe Kennedy books to John Scalzi books (and vice versa).
    • To continue to earn profits, the publisher needs to lead the customer via interest to additional sales opportunities. It's like going to Target for a t-shirt, and the pants are right beside them because if you're interested in a new shirt why not buy the cute high-rise pants that won't show plumber's crack? And the undies are by the pants because those new pants might show panty lines so best pick up a pair of thongs, and the underwear section backs to the feminine hygiene section because...well, you get it.
  3. The Marketing Strategy is about moving backlists (aka existing inventory).
    • Publishers have rights to books for years and years and years. Ebooks allow them to keep selling those books without the overhead of printing and warehouse. Slap a new cover on it, something proven to appeal to a broader audience (aka naked man-chest in the romance genre), and boom new sales. Similar theory applies to taking an ebook-only offering and putting it in print for a limited run, possibly as an exclusive with a brick and mortar retailer. Suddenly, there's a print-only audience ready to be assailed with advertising. Discounts and product bundling entice readers from other loosely-related genres to dabble at low-risk to the publisher and the reader.

Broad Marketing strategies often work. We've all heard the "I didn't expect to like this, but I ended up loving it." As authors, we LOVE getting those reviews. Yet for those successes, there are also the misfires of "Ugh, The Notebook was advertised as a resale guide for Moleskine collectors. It never once mentions Moleskine!" 

If you're an author who has control over your marketing strategy, sometimes being a little less niche is a good thing. Trying to reach new audiences is part of the gig, but it's betraying the reader's trust if you advertise your elves vs orcs epic fantasy as a metaphysical healing guide. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

When Book Marketing Betrays the Reader

Recently an old family friend asked me for advice. She was coming out with her first book, had hired someone to help package for it - formatting, cover, uploading, etc. But she wasn't happy with what that person advocated for the cover. She wanted an image that represented her author's vision of the story, which was her coming to peace with a problem, whereas the designer's cover images all focused on the problem.

I gave her my pick from the choices, and then explained that it's not the job of the cover to express the author's vision. The entirety of the INSIDE of the book does that. The cover has two jobs: 1) to entice a reader to look more closely, and 2) to convey the genre and kind of story it will be. In her case, a cover that transmitted the problem was what she needed, so readers would understand what the story would be about.

The cover above is one of my least favorite because it fails on both parts of its job, in my opinion. I don't think it's particularly enticing, as the guy looks ill enough to be mostly dead. Also, nothing about this cover communicates erotic paranormal. The font looks like something post modern, and he... well, NOT sexy. MASTER OF THE OPERA is actually a modern retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, set at the Santa Fe Opera. Kensington published it as a six-act serial novel starting in January 2014. Those covers are marginally better - at least giving a Phantom of the Opera vibe - but I think the genre communication is murky still. Also they didn't do the marketing the way a serial novel needs to be promoted.

Anyway, the zombie cover (though Assistant Carien says I'm insulting zombies by calling it that) was on the print version that brought all six acts together in one place, which came out in the fall of 2015. I asked then if there would be a digital version compiling all six and they said no.

Then, last week, I got tagged on new release congratulations for ... the digital version compiling all six acts, complete with zombie cover and a release date of April 30, 2019.


So, no. This isn't really a new release at all. It's barely a new format. Coincidentally enough, our topic at the SFF Seven this week is marketing suckering readers into reading a genre they don’t enjoy.

In this case, I'm irritated by the marketing attempt to sucker readers into thinking this is a new release from me. The cover mostly just fails to do much of anything, really.

It's even worse, however, when the marketers decide to cash in on, say, the Romance audience. I think this mainly happens with Romance, though I'll be interested in the takes from the others in the SFF Seven if they've seen it happen in other genres.

What happens in Romance is, a story with a love affair in it gets marketed as Romance, but then has an ending that doesn't satisfy the Romance promise. The affair ends in some way - with a death, a sacrificial parting, or a permanent parting of the ways for one reason or another.

It happens a lot in Romance for two reasons: 1) The Romance audience is huge, avid, and passionate, therefor a tempting market, and 2) marketers (and some authors) regard Romance readers as kind of silly and short-sighted in their desire for a happy ending to the love affair. They think the readers don't know what they really want and that this book will change their minds because it's just THAT good. Either that or the marketing folks don't care past getting that one sale. The advertisers of widgets can be like that, not understanding that the book is not simply a one-sale product, but the beginning of a lasting relationship.

(Of course, this is also why the big box bookstores failed. They never understood that readers have relationships with the books they buy that goes far beyond something like acquiring groceries or the latest tech gadget.)

The thing about reading is we do it for pleasure. We scour covers, copy, and reviews to find the story that will sing to us. If we get suckered in by misleading marketing and are disappointed in the end?


(But MASTER OF THE OPERA is a Romance and the story is way better than that cover. Just saying.)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

My Adjectival Mantra for First Drafts

Not the Author - DepositPhoto

Topic: First drafts, and the adjectives we'd choose to describe them.

UGLY. I tell myself this all the time when working on a first draft, as in “First drafts are meant to be ugly.” I don’t have to have perfect prose. If there’s obviously a scene missing or some piece of action I don’t feel inspired to write that particular day, it’s OKAY. I can keep forging ahead in the story and trust my Muse to supply the missing pieces later. This little mantra is very useful to prevent “paralysis by perfectionism.” I remember when I started writing, back in junior high school (we’re not counting the fairy tale I wrote at age 7) being surprised that the books didn’t flow perfectly and beautifully from my pen onto the paper. Ha! I had a lot to learn…
So when I use this word, I’m not being pejorative. I’m encouraging myself not to be daunted.

Satisfying. I’ve had this story and these characters bottled up inside my brain long enough and now it’s time to let them fly. Or teleport. Or drive the chariot. They’re on their way to the wider world of readers, even if not there just yet.

Unpolished. This isn’t the same as ugly. This is acknowledging to myself that right now I’ve used the word ‘that’ probably a zillion times and ‘very’ another zillion and so forth. There will be a process later of cleaning out those words and other problems, including ascribing emotions and stage business to all those talking head dialog situations. It’s a considered process and part of my pre-publication ritual, often included alongside dealing with the inputs from my editor. The main point at first draft stage is to not stem the flow of creativity worrying if I’m using the word ‘that’ too many times. I am. It’s a given. But it won’t be in the final draft.

I released a box set in the last week, the first three books in my award winning Badari Warriors series, all of which were ugly but satisfying, unpolished first drafts at some point!


Ta Da! There’s no new material included, other than a brief recap of why I wrote each book (which appeared in previous blog posts) But I thought it was time to put the books together!

This Badari Warriors box set gathers the first three science fiction romance novels from this award winning series into one collection. Featuring genetically engineered soldiers of the far future, the Badari were created by alien enemies to fight humans. But then the scientists kidnapped an entire human colony from the Sectors to use as subjects in twisted experiments…the Badari and the humans made common cause, rebelled and escaped the labs. Now they live side by side in a sanctuary valley protected by a powerful Artificial Intelligence, and wage unceasing war on the aliens.
Amazon     Apple Books     Kobo     Nook

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Draft in Three Adjectives

A description of a draft in three acts:

Act 1 - Interminable
Once upon a time, the current WIP was started. It was bright. It was shiny. It was NEW! And there was every expectation that the WIP would meet the same warm welcome from its editor as the first two books of the series. Plot twist: It didn't. Broken hearted, it slunk away to lock itself in a drawer.

Act 2 - Intractable
Eight years passed. The WIP was near death, gasping its last few gasps when the drawer opened. "Guess what!" the author chirped. "We're baaaaack!" The WIP wasn't having it. Abandoned? Tossed aside? And then resurrected like some paper-based Lazarus? Nope. Wasn't gonna be that easy to bring this work back to life. But the writer wouldn't quit. Just. Wouldn't. Give. Up. Slowly, over a stupidly long period of time and with far too many words, the WIP and the writer got reacquainted. As in any good romance, they learned to trust one another again, at long last. They achieved mutual respect. Maybe even affection.

Act 3 - Imminent
And now the WIP is within a solid day's attention of reaching The End. Assured of a warm reception, (because that contract has already been signed) the WIP is barreling for a beta read and then to its editor. Which means we're right back to Act 1 for the next WIP.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

My First Draft: A Story in Adjectives

As I develop the first draft of a new story it becomes, in turns,

yikes [<--totally an adjective, as, "Well, that scene was yikes."]
ugh [<-- see above note]

And finally, YES!

Now I see you! Now I know you! I mean, you’re still kind of ugly and you smell like feet, but your shape is good. I can polish out the rest of it. And I do love you so. *snuggles my ugly darling of a manuscript*

This is the point when I can let my critique partners peek and proceed to that next step.

Which of course involves murder.