Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Four Things You Need to Sell a Book

First up: Nice Dragons Finish Last is on sale for $0.99! Hooray!! If you've been waiting for a chance to try the series (or if you want to get someone else hooked!) this is a great chance to do it on the cheap ;).

This is where the books live! Get you one!

Also, I was on Aldus Baker's podcast this week talking fiction! He asked a lot of really great questions about my Heartstriker books, so if you're interested in a behind the scenes look at Julius, Marci, Bob, Chelsie, and everyone else came to be, give it a listen!

Now, on to the post!

Writing Wednesday: The Four Things You Need to Sell a Book

You clearly need more books! Have you tried mine?

Warning: this is a post about selling books. 

I know it might not sound like an issue of craft on the surface, but the stuff I'm going to be talking about today relates very strongly to good writing. Now, obviously, if you're still writing your book, you don't have to worry about any of this yet, but if you have a title out there, or you're planning to someday, this post contains what self-publishing has taught me about how people buy books and how I can use the skills I learned as a writer to improve my sales.

Pretty much any article you read about modern authorship--self-pub or trad--talks about the recent change of the author's role from sheltered artist to promotional machine. Personally, I think this argument is a little disingenuous. So long as books have been sold for profit, authors have always been expected to help promote their own work to increase sales, often at their own expense. But while the author as salesman/woman is hardly a modern invention, the truth of the matter is that--no matter how good you get at selling yourself and your books--the vast majority of the people who buy and read your books over your career will never know (or even care) who you are.

*record scratch*

I know, I know! How can this be? We've all heard how an author's name brand sells books, just look at any big bestseller like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. But while it's true that the really big best sellers can move titles on name alone, the opposite is actually true for smaller and midlist authors. Those of us who can't yet sell a book on name alone have to rely on other factors. Marketing can definitely help with this by getting your book in front of more people, which is why authors spend money on it, but even the best campaigns will only ever reach a fraction of your total audience.

Self pub or trad, this is the reality of publishing for the vast majority of authors. Until you become a household name, most of your readership will never have heard of your book until they see it randomly on a shelf at a bookstore or in an Amazon list. One glance, that's all we get, and it is in that moment--that second when your unknown, often busy and distracted customer's eyeballs land on your book for the first time--that makes the difference between a successful book and a flop.

If that sounds overly harsh, welcome to sales! You can write the best book in the world, but if you can't catch the attention of a busy, tired, grumpy reader and convince them to take a moment and discover your genius, it's all for nothing. But do not despair! This is a problem for everyone who tries to sell things, and while no one's figured out the absolute key, for books at least, there is a very good pattern to catching and keeping reader eyeballs, and it goes like this:

Cover, title, blurb, first pages, in that order.

Now, I am most definitely not the first author to realize this. Plenty of very successful authors before me have already pointed out that this pattern is pretty much the universal blueprint to selling books. This isn't to say that these four things are the most important parts of a book, but they are the four things that readers notice first, and this makes them the four most important things when it comes to selling your book, which is what we're talking about today.

To see why this pattern works, think about the last time you bought a novel by an author you didn't know. Chances are, you saw the book on a shelf or online somewhere, and you were drawn in by something on the cover. Next, you looked at the title, which was probably also interesting or hooky in some way. The combination of these two led you to pick up/click on the book and read the back/blurb, which, if you didn't put it back down, was probably also pretty cool, or at least intriguing. At this point, you're almost sold, but you want to make sure the writing is up to snuff, so you flip the book open/click on the sample and read the first few pages. If these are good as well, that book is sold!

This pattern is the natural progression of a sale, and it's why the Cover-Title-Blurb-First Pages pattern is the way it is. Even if the rest of your novel is horrible, if you knock these four things out of the park for your target reader, you will probably sell a lot of books. Of course, if your book actually is horrible, you won't sell any more books, but you get my point. By perfecting each part of the reader's natural book browsing pattern, you vastly improve your chances of catching their attention, even when you've only got a second to make an impression.

At this point, you're probably thinking "Wow, Rachel, that's super obvious." You're right. It is super obvious when you think about it, and that's exactly the problem, because so many authors don't

I have seen authors who will spend a year perfecting their manuscript and ten minutes on their cover. I have seen big publishers who will give a book a fabulous cover only to turn around and write a shitty, sloppy blurb. I have clicked on novels in Amazon sidebar ads because the cover, title, and blurb all looked amazing only to lose all interest because there was a typo in the first paragraph, or because the opening of the story was just boring. 

Each of these screw-ups leads to lost sales, because each step of the process--the initial interest created by a good cover and fueled by a clever title, the excitement generated by a good blurb, and the final punch of a fantastic opening page--is a decision.

Readers are busy. They don't know us, and therefore have no reason to cut us slack or take a chance on our work. It's our job as commercial authors--people writing books specifically for sale--to show readers that our stories are worth taking a chance on at every step of the book buying decision. It's up to us to catch and hold the reader's attention until our stories have a chance to drag them in, which is why I'm continually amazed by how many otherwise extremely smart authors and publishers screw up or just plain ignore these four fundamentals elements of bookselling.

We get it, Rachel. This stuff is important. So how do we do it right?

This is where things get tricky. Then answer to "What makes a good cover/title/blurb/first pages?" varies according to your book's tone, genre, and what kind of reader you're aiming for. Cozy mysteries will have different selling points than gritty Thrillers, and so forth. Part of being a successful author is knowing what makes your story interesting to your audience and then figuring out how to convey that through your title, cover, blurb, and so forth.

But while there is no universal answer, there are a few basic rules to the cover/title/blurb/first pages game that apply across the board regardless of genre, or even if you're writing fiction vs non-fiction.

Readers be like
  1. Be interesting - no matter what genre you're writing, boring is the kiss of death. Anything you put in or on your book should always be of interest/appealing to your target audience, or why is it there at all?
  2. Your cover/title/blurb/opening pages are for the READER, not for you - This is probably the hardest one for authors, especially when it comes to titles. But tempting as it is to give your book a title that is deeply meaningful to the story, that's not the point. The title isn't there to be meaningful AFTER someone has read your story, it's there to make people want to read your story in the first place. The same goes for covers and blurbs and so on. These are sales elements. To properly do their job, each one must be interesting and hooky in its own right without the help of the larger story. Obviously, this doesn't mean your title/cover/etc should be unrelated to the book. You still want it to make sense! But I can't tell you how many authors I see shooting themselves in the foot by giving their book a long title that's super meaningful in context, but dull or even nonsensical on its own, thus defeating the entire point of a good title. The only exception to this rule is for later books in a series where you can use previous reader knowledge to make the title cool, such as naming the book after an already beloved character. In general, though, anything you use to hook a reader needs to be able to be cool all on its own.
  3. Invest in Your Success - You spent a long time writing this book. Don't hamstring your success by getting sloppy once that it's done. I'm not saying you have to spend thousands of dollars on a custom cover, but it makes no sense to spend a year or more getting your book perfect if you're just going to thoughtlessly slap some stock art and stock fonts on the front and call it a day. Your cover/title/blurb/first pages are the face your book presents to the world. They should be even more carefully considered than the rest of your novel. Don't rush to market. You only get one chance to launch a book for the first time, so don't be afraid to slow down and invest the time and (if you're self publishing) money needed to do the job right.
  4. Know Your Reader -  As I said at the beginning, what makes a great cover/title/blurb/opening pages depends on your book, your genre, and your audience, but it's up to you to know what that audience wants. Whatever genre you write in will have certain conventions that readers expect, and whether you're bucking them or aiming to give readers exactly what they want, your selling points still need to be placed within that context, because that's the framework your reader is operating inside. In other words, if you're writing Romance, it has to look and sound like, or at least reference, what Romance readers expect. If you don't do this, you run the risk of losing readers simply because they didn't have the cues to realize that your book was the kind they were looking for. You can't get readers if they don't know to look at your book, so make sure your book looks like what it is. It's always good to stand out and do something different, but if the cost is having your book look so different people think someone stuck it on the wrong shelf, that's just as bad. Readers come in looking for a certain kind of book experience. If you can show in your cover/blurb/title/first pages that your book is exactly what they're looking for, but also new and awesome in its own way, that's the best of both worlds.
Now, obviously these are all elements that you'll have a lot more control over if you're self-publishing. (You also have enough rope to hang yourself, but that's the price of doing it on your own!) But even if you're going the traditional route and your publisher is the one making the final decisions on your cover/title/blurb and so forth, it's still your job to speak up if you think they're making the wrong choice.

I'm not going to lie: this can be terrifying, especially if you're a newly signed author, but that doesn't change the fact that this is your book. No one wants to be "that author" who makes a fuss, but at the same time, no one will ever care about your book's success more than you do. This is your career, and you'll be the one on the ropes if this book doesn't meet sales expectations. So if you feel your publisher is making a bad call on any of these vital four sales points, bring it up. 

You don't have to be confrontational (in fact, it's better if you're not), but that doesn't mean being silent. Don't be afraid to ask why your publisher made the decisions they made. They probably have very good reasons--they want to make money on this title, too!--but you'll never know if you don't ask. Worse, if the book does end up flopping because it had a terrible cover, you'll carry that for the rest of your career, and that's far too great a risk to take on just to avoid feeling uncomfortably now.

Remember: you're the writer here. This whole enterprise depends on you. You might not be as experienced at book selling, but you know your story and your audience. That is valuable insight, don't let anyone discount it. Even if they shut you down, it's better than knowing that something was wrong, and you said nothing.

Thank you for reading another installment of Writing Wednesday! If you enjoyed this blog, please consider following me on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+). You can also subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner. I do new writing posts every Wednesday and tons of publishing business/fun stuff in between, so come talk shop with me! The more the merrier. :)

Thank you again for reading, and as always, keep writing!


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Writing Wednesday: How to Fix a Broken Plot

First up, if you didn't see it on Monday, we did a huge post on our numbers for the One Good Dragon Deserves Another launch. If you're interested in self-pub and/or you like graphs, definitely go check it out!

Two weeks ago, I did a Writing Wednesday on common plot mishaps and how to avoid/fix them. But while it is true that there are some universal roadblocks to good plotting, things aren't always that simple. There are times in writing when you can do everything right and still end up staring down the barrel of a fundamentally broken plot.

For my money, this is one of the most disheartening things that can happen to an author. Here you have this book that you're super excited about, filled with characters you love, and it just. Won't. Work. Even when you do everything right, even best planned plots can break down unexpectedly, leaving you stranded in the middle of your book with no idea how to get moving again.

Whether it's your first book or your fiftieth, this is very discouraging. As someone who just came off one of the most challenging books of my life, believe me when I say I've been there. But before you think about throwing in the towel, remember: we writers are gods in our own stories. We have the power to do anything so long as it works within the rules we create. This freedom is often the same reason we got into these plot messes in the first place, but it also means there's no corner we can paint ourselves into that we can't get right back out of again.

So, with that in mind, I give you...

Writing Wednesday: How to Fix a Broken Plot

Confession: I have plot breakdowns on pretty much every book I write. Some are relatively minor, and some are catastrophic. I'm not sure if this is because I love complicated plots, or if plot failures are a natural part of my writing cycle, but whatever the reason, I get stuck on just about every novel. The upside of this is that all this floundering has given me a pretty well tested method for getting myself back on track again.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Let's Talk Numbers: Do Pre-orders Help Sales?

It's that time again, folks! The second novel in my Heartstrikers series, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, has been out over a month now, so it's time to take a look at the numbers. This time around, we were specifically interested in pre-orders and how they helped or hindered our projected first month of sales.

There's been a lot of back and forth on this in the writing community with some authors swearing by pre-orders and others arguing that they poached from the vital first week sales that are so important to getting your book high on the Amazon lists (which gets you in front of those all important new readers who might not have seen your series before). Never having done a pre-order ourselves, we were super curious, so when we got the chance to try it ourselves with One Good Dragon Deserves Another, we dove right in, and this is what we found!

(Note: Today's post will be presented by extremely talented and handsome husband/business partner Travis, who did all the math, graphs, and analysis. As always, he did a great job! So, without further ado, I'll turn it over to him. Rachel out!)

Hi everyone! The numbers are officially in, and One Good Dragon Deserves Another has done well far beyond our hopes! As Rachel promised earlier in the month, I've put together a ton of numbers, charts, graphs, and analysis for what's been going on with it.

We have a lot to talk about, too! A lot of things happened this time around that Rachel and I have never done before. We had pre-orders, we found a great trick for leveraging the Kindle Big Deal, and we had the game-changer that was KU 2.0 happen right in the middle of it all!

Its going to be a lot so let's get to....

Let's Talk Numbers: Do Pre-orders Help Sales?

So how'd One Good Dragon do? See for yourself,

can you guess when the book went live?
There's a lot to unpack here and that's what we are mostly about today. Let's talk about these numbers. 

One Good Dragon Deserves Another (OGDDA) was available for pre-order from June 1st to July 30th. In total, it had 4565 pre-orders. It was released on August 1st, 2015 so everything on that date and beyond are not pre-orders, just er. orders.

The first thing to notice is that we have a double spike. Normally, there's only 1 spike on release day and then nothing until a promo or sale is done. Here we had two. Once for the announcement of pre-orders and another for launch day. Very cool!

I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen with pre-orders since we'd never done them before. Would they cannibalize our first month sales? Would they get us on a list? Turns out... neither (Though not for a lack of trying on that second one!).

Lists aside, these are really great numbers for us! Here's what I originally predicted for an August release with no pre-order.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Guest Post: A Salesman Is You!

This is going to be awesome!

A few weeks ago, we were having lunch our friend (and one of the the Inkshares Sword & Laser contest winners!) G. Derek Adams. Since this was a table full of authors and their SOs, the conversation inevitably turned to book selling, and I inevitably turned into a grump. This is because, like most authors, I absolutely hate trying to sell my book to strangers. HATE IT. Hucking my own work is probably my least favorite part of the author biz.

But when I said as much to Derek (who actually works in sales for his day job), he didn't join in my misery. Exactly the opposite. He came back with what is probably the best and most useful advice I've ever heard about how to sell your stuff to people without coming across as a jerk.

I'm not exaggerating here. This advice was gold. In the month or so since the conversation took place, Travis and I have already put a lot of these ideas into motion with really good (and surprisingly painless!) results. It was a win to be sure, and so, since the whole point of this blog is to share what works, I invited Derek to the blog to tell you what he told us, and he knocked it out of the park.

So, without further ado, here's author G. Derek Adams's post on how to sell your books in a way that actually sells books, but doesn't make you feel like a shyster!

 A Salesman Is You!

Hello, Sir or Madam. I have a Thing. I would like you to give me money for the Thing. But it’s okay, it’s a Cool Thing. And if you act now, I will throw in this Semi-Unrelated Thing or this picture of a wombat with your purchase of the Original Thing. What if I drive over to your house and read the Thing to you? Or chop the Thing up into easily digestible Tumblr posts with clever captions and sick Stephen Universe GIFs? No?

It’s hard to sell things. There’s something in the psyche or moral framework of most sane human beings that cringes when we have to actively ask another human being for money.  It is only those mutants or cyborgs or emotionally stunted nega-people who actively enjoy the task of parting crisp dollar bills from their owners. The faceless wolves who cry for blood and loose change at the Hunt’s trumpet, the soulless robots of commerce that infest every nexus of the world. As writers and creatives and silky-shoed wood nymphs, we despise the salesman ilk and the further we demean ourselves to enact their arcane practices and rituals - the sicker we feel. The personality types are almost diametrically opposed - which is probably why most of us creatives find it so difficult and soul-demolishing to promote our work, advocate for our web presence, or just flat-out ask people for money.

I get it. Probably better than most. I too have a Very Cool Thing That I Find Difficult to Describe Succinctly. And as my day job I sell things to people, quite successfully. You would think that I would be uniquely gifted - that for me self-promotion would be a SNAP? GUESS AGAIN (or rather guess the first time if I have misjudged your guess-count and you’re still on your first one).

It’s hard. It requires energy. It requires time. It is not fun. Not all writers are introverts - but it’s safe to say the vast unwashed masses of us expend energy on personal interaction instead of gain it. And when the interaction is a sales pitch or a plea, it becomes all the easier to avoid or blunt or escape from them instead of buckling down and facing the sharp jagged edges of Potential Rejection.

So, for the purposes of this post I speak only of the Ethos of Sales - how you can successfully and regularly convince people to give you money for things. It’s far easier to sell things that mean nothing to you than the Thing That Means Everything.  Consider these watchwords and guidelines - ways to get into the headspace of self-promotion and sales without feeling needlessly icky.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Bare Bones Guide to Becoming a Better Writer

Today's topic is one I've been meaning to cover for a long time now, but first, exciting news!! My fast writing book, 2k to 10k, is now available as an audio book!! 

We worked with fantastic narrator (and fellow author!) Arial Burns, and I just think the whole thing sounds amazing! She really captured the humor and enthusiasm of 2k to 10k, and the transitions are so much smoother with music :)

So if you're the sort of person who prefers to listen to your non-fic in the car or while you're doing other things, I hope you'll give it a try! Even if you've already read 2k to 10k, this new version is just so nice. I hope you'll give it a sample listen at least, because it really is a different experience. (I'm in love with this thing, can you tell?)

Anyway, enough with the news. On to the blog!


Writing Wednesday: The Bare Bones Guide to How to Become a Better Writer

One of phrases that gets tossed around endlessly in the writing world is "honing your craft." This is a fancy way of saying "get better at writing," to which I say, "duh." If being a writer is your dream, then getting better at writing is the obvious best way to make all your dreams come true. No wonder so many writing advice lists start with "hone your craft." Do you suck at writing? Just get better! Problem solved!


As you've probably picked up, I really hate this phrase. It's not the idea I disagree with. I absolutely believe that if you want to do something professionally, you should do everything you can to improve your skills. But too often, the way "honing your craft" is presented--as if it was a single entity, just a box to be checked off before you can move on to other things--bugs me to no end, because improving your craft is not an item on a list or a finish line you pass to collect your winnings. It's a process that continues for the whole of a writer's career. It's the subject of thousands of writing books, articles, essays, and this Writing Wednesday series. It's not something you can just go knock out real quick before you do a final edit and settle in to write your query letter.

All ranting aside, though, all those "How to Become a Writer" lists aren't actually wrong. If your dream is to become a published author, then becoming a writer good enough to pull that dream off has to be your first step. But (and this is my problem with almost all "hone your craft advice") telling writers they need to "get better" is about as useful as telling someone struggling with poverty to "just go make money." If it was actually that simple, everyone would do it, because if there are two things everyone seems to want to do, it's make money and be a writer.

So, clearly, honing our craft is a long and complicated process, but this does not mean it's undo-able. Quite the opposite, every successful writer, regardless of genre, has gone through this process at one point or another. Many of us are still on it, because one of the most beautiful things about writing is that it can always be better. We can always work to become more skillful, more refined in our process. But no matter where we are on the writing journey or what kind of stories we prefer to tell, the basic process of honing our craft is the same, and it goes (more or less) like this.

Writing Wednesdays: The Bare Bones Guide to Becoming a Better Writer

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Common Plot Fails (and How We Can Fix Them)

I've talked a lot on this blog about what makes good stories. I've talked about character driven narrative and how it makes books amazing, I've talked about taking smart risks with your fiction, I've talked about tension, I've talked about plotting. Heck, all you have to do is click on the Writing label and you'll find enough Walls'o'Text about good writing to keep the Huns out of China! But while talking about how to do things well and why can be very useful, sometimes the best teachers are the failures.

A few weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter:
In response to this, people very rightly pointed out that there are many demonstrably bad books out there that sold like hotcakes (with 50 Shades taking the top spot), and to them I can only say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Yes, those books are bad, but they clearly did something right to make readers love them so much and buy them in such numbers. That's the thing about art: it doesn't have to be technically perfect to be enjoyable. Sometimes you can slap together a terrible plot but end up with characters so wonderful that no one cares about the silliness of their actual actions.


These situations are exceptions to the rule. While it is true that extremely well done elements in fiction can overcome weaker ones, no author in their right mind willingly says "You know what? I think I'll half-ass this part of my book and just do this other thing so well that no one notices. That's a great plan!"

Obviously, if you want to write a book people are going to want to read, then you're going to try to write it to the best of your ability. You might not succeed (no one's perfect at everything), but you're going to try, and for that, it can be helpful (and hilarious) to examine some common ways authors screw things up and how we can fix them (or avoid them all together).

Writing Wednesdays: Common Plot Fails (and How We Can Fix Them)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Strong Prose

So I got a really awesome question through Facebook (follow me! It's cool!) about prose, and since this is a subject I don't believe I've ever touched on here at Pretentious Title, I thought it would make a great Writing Wednesday!

Here's the question in question:

Tom Shreeve asks,
"Hi Rachel, I've been enjoying your blog for a while. What are your tips on writing strong prose? As much as I plan the content of what I'm writing on a scene by scene basis (plot, exposition, character, flavour etc) when it comes to the actual writing - at a paragraph level - I wing it, hoping everything I want to happen in the scene just happens intuitively.

At a granular, nuts and bolts level, do your paragraphs follow a particular structure? Do you break down scenes into smaller pieces? How reductive do you go? 

And how often do you find yourself rereading what you just wrote to make sure the next bit follows naturally? I do that way too often!"
I love getting questions like this because, quite frankly, I'd never really thought about this aspect of writing in quite this way before I read your question. But I've thought about it a good bit since, and I think I have an answer. Or, at least, my version of an answer.

(And Tom, I hope you don't mind that I'm answering you on the blog!)


Writing Wednesdays: Strong Prose

I've never considered myself to be a lyrical writer. This isn't to say I think my prose is weak, but I freely admit there are authors and poets who can evoke more emotion in four sentences than I manage over an entire novel. I mean, just read this:

That is beautiful. That is writing that makes me want to write books. It's also a sort of writing that, to my eternal despair, I've never managed to create myself.

I've long since made peace with the fact that I will never join Margaret Atwood or Ursula LeGuin or any of the other great writers who elevate words to eternal artforms. But while it makes me sad to know there's something I love but can't do (I feel the same way about drawing, which I love but utterly suck at), I don't consider my inability to write deathless prose a failing.

Being able to turn a good phrase is an inescapable element of writing, but there are more paths to being a good author than just creating beautiful prose. Every writer brings their own strengths to their stories. Some are great plotters, others write amazing tension, some create characters we'd gladly read doing anything, some are just flat out hilarious, and some write beautifully, but no writer is fantastic at every single element of storytelling. We all have our "areas of growth," and part of being a mature, professional artist is understanding where our weaknesses lie and coming up with our own ways to address them.