Sunday, June 29, 2014

The "Long Tail" and You

I ran across Chris Anderson's Book "The Long Tail" and just noticed the sub-title. "Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More." I was going over some of the notes from the book that people had highlighted and remembering a lot of the discussion. Without getting into the math and statistical basis, one of the conclusions is that digital businesses make it possible to shift focus away from the Head of the tail (high sales producers) to the tail itself.

For those unfamiliar with the basic theory (and this is overly simplified) the Long tail is a distribution
curve applicable to many areas of life but frequently applied to business and sales. A few products tend to sell extremely well, everything else sells fewer units. In publishing this is clear. Pick the genre and there are a dozen names that are insanely popular and everyone else is splitting up what is left over.

In brick and mortar retailing, this presents a dilemma. Do you stock as many products as possible giving your customer a huge selection, but end up with some of those products sitting on your shelf for months or years. Or do you focus only on the top sellers. I knew a Christian bookstore owner who used the terms Narrow and Deep vs Broad and Shallow. He felt his success was based on the Broad and shallow approach. He bought a few copies of a lot of different books. Other bookstores, most, in fact, went narrow and deep. They bought lots of copies of the best sellers and few if any copies of anything else.

The change comes with digital retailing where you don't have to worry about shelf space in the store. Amazon can sell literally every book published that any publisher wants to sell through their store. Aside from issues of legality, rights, potential for libel, etc, basically, they turn no one down. This is what Anderson calls The Economics of Abundance. Digital publishing makes it even easier because you don't even need a warehouse, just a single copy of the book on a server (well probably a few back up copies as well).

Lets go back to that long tail curve. If you add up everything in the tail, it's a lot of stuff. As much, if not more, sometimes than in the head. So, you can sell fewer units of each title but make as much money or more than on those few top performers.

This can work for or against you depending on where you are in the curve. If you are in the head or short neck, it could mean less attention and more competition because you are in the same store with those in the tail, which you never were before. My book can show up right next to a book by James  Patterson in a search for mystery novels. Not that Patterson has anything to worry about from me. His marketing machine is massive, but the point is, when someone sees his book, just a glance to the right or left could bring up my book or some B level trad pub or someone who is writing a debut novel. And in all likelihood, our prices are going to be less than half of his. So, it expands the competition base.

But the other thing is that Amazon isn't going to stop carrying, say, steampunk novels, because they aren't trendy this season and sales have dropped. This means the author can have a longer shelf life.

However, the other side of this long tail theory also applies not only to the retailer, but to the producer. Trad pub writers have often been punished for taking risks and writing books that had only a niche appeal or books that were different from their normal "brand." An agent wouldn't represent a science fiction novel from someone they had promoted as a romance writer. A publisher wouldn't publish a book that might only sell a couple of thousand copies in the first  year. And if it did hit print and didn't sell in the first three months, it just goes out of print.

The indie can take more chances because even if the book isn't in the head of their own personal long tail, it can still make money for years even if it comes in only a few dollars at a time.

But a few dollars at a time even if it goes on for years doesn't amount to much right? This is where selling Less of More comes into play. Many writers, in fact most of us, have that dream of that one breakaway bestseller that will make us a household name and a ton of money. Then we can write a book a year and each one another best seller.

Well, the economics of the long tail favor the more prolific writer. Success in this model is selling a few units each of a lot of titles. We've all heard the old saying about how to make a million dollars. There are two ways to make a million dollars: find one person who will give you a million dollars or find a million people who will give you one dollar. You can write one book that sells a thousand copies a month or write a hundred books that sell 10 copies a month. The old economics of scarcity says the road to success is the first. The economics of the long tail say it is the second.

Now, you may like that or not. You may feel that quantity destroys quality. I don't believe that has to be the case. But I'm afraid that this provides both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that you don't have to be dependent upon a single book or series of books for your success. The challenge is that writers are going to have to be more efficient and produce more content in order to be competitive. But it also means that I can experiment more and take more risks because even if it flops, it can still be part of my own long tail of finances.

But whether it is to our advantage or not (and there are compelling arguments that say it isn't) the Long Tail is with us an in that economic climate, turning out content consistently is going to be the key to economic security.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Understanding the New Kindle Dashboard

I have to say I'm loving Kindle's new dashboard feature. It gives me a wonderful snapshot of how my books are selling. However, there are a few idiosyncrasies. So, here's a short tutorial about this new feature.

When you first log in you get this screen:

This will show your sales, borrowed books and free books. The red line represents sales. The blue line is books borrowed through the Kindle Owners Lending Library.

If all you got was this, it would be great, but you have a great deal of control, for instance, you can choose a preset time frame by clicking on this button:

The system defaults to the last 30 days, but you can set it to month to date, week to date, or last 90 days. You can also set a specific time range by clicking on the boxes next to that button and choosing a date range.

Likewise  you can check the performance of a specific book. For instance, I had let some people talk me into raising the price on one of my books from 99 cents to $2.99 so I could make more profit. Sometimes a single picture says it all. Here's a 90 day snap shot, can you tell when I returned my pricing to 99 cents?

Hmm… I wonder about Those "profits" in that big empty middle section.

This is great for measuring the effectiveness of a promotion as well.
You can also check royalties. Right under the chart, you have your royalties reported out by market place here:

And by clicking the yellow button you can generate an up to date spread sheet with the sales for each book.

There are a few idiosyncrasies, though. The graph can sometimes be a little bit ahead of or behind the itemized month to date figures you find by clicking that link in "Reports." Also the royalties do not reflect your earnings on borrowed books, which averages out to about $2.00 per borrow, but varies slightly from month to month.

Also, you might think you lost some royalties if you are not careful. When you open the page, it defaults, as we said before, to the last 30 days. However, that means if you open it on June 30 you get June 1-30. On July 1 you get June 2-July 1. Some people forgetting that wonder why their royalties may have dropped. Well, any royalties on June 1 are no longer reflected. So unless your royalties have gone up on July 1, the number could go down. It is best for you to always set your date range to the specific range you want a report on.

So, that's the new dashboard. I hope this will help you understand it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Taco Truck Method

Down the road from me there's a highway interchange. A number of travel-related businesses, gas stations, etc. have sprung up there.  

About 15 years ago, sitting in a vacant lot next to a gas station for a few hours a day was a Taco Truck. It served tacos and burritos for 99 cents. It only stayed during the lunch hours at the various industrial places
in the area. Over time, they extended their hours and added a few new things to the menu. Then one day, I saw they added tables and chairs. A few months later, they put up an awning. A year or two later, they built the awning permanently on the spot and created a place for the truck to pull in behind a take out window. Then about five years ago, they built a restaurant on the site.  

Inside, you can get a nice sit down Mexican dinner. It's not 99 cents anymore, but you can get the fast food at a take out window on the side.  

Restaurants in that general location don't last very long. However, he's been there five years and is doing well. Now, if he had started by taking out a bunch of loans and building a restaurant, he might have gone out of business before he could have seen one penny of profit. After all, he was an unknown quantity. There were some big chain outfits nearby, an AM/PM, a Bobby Salazar's, a Denny's down the road. He had to have an edge, and he had to control costs. His edge was shaved meat (not ground beef) tacos at a low price that those other restaurants couldn't match with rent, wages, utility costs and other aspects of overhead. After he had a thriving clientele, he upgraded.  

Too many writers want to set up a full-service restaurant on their first book. They need a taco truck instead. There are many authors who have great books, well written ready to go, but they can't afford $500 for a cover design they want or they think they have to hire three editors at $1000+ a pop before they can publish. 

And they have laudable motives in this. They want to produce a good quality product. What they forget is that quality is not in linen napkins and fine china. Quality is in the taco. In the writer's case the taco is the story or the nonfiction book. It's not in a wonderful cover or even a perfect proofreading job. I have traditionally published books with blah covers and not that great proofreading that still hit the bestseller lists and some are even considered classics now.

That guy with the taco truck could have said, "I want my customers to get a quality product. So, I'm not going to sell a single taco until I have a full-service restaurant." If he had done that, he probably would never have built a successful restaurant.

As a one-man operation, he could give his customers a break on the price while keeping the quality of his ingredients and cooking high. That built a "fan base" of regular customers. Sure there were food snobs that drove past his taco truck and probably called it names like "Roach Coach" or "Tomaine Tommies," but he just kept serving tacos while the Bobby Salizar's down the street went out of business. 

Many will say things about indies. They may assume that if you do your own cover or your own editing that it will be poor. They may degrade the DIY indie even claiming people like them give indies a bad name because the cover was done on a Kindle cover creator or used a premade template instead of being custom designed. That there was a comma splice in one chapter or a misspelled word somewhere in the book.

The taco truck had a few dings in the fender. But the food was good. And as the business improved, he added stuff.

I do my own covers and most of my own editing. Are they as good as if I spent thousands of dollars on them? Maybe, Maybe not. But they are published. They are selling. Royalties are coming in. Maybe fewer sales than if I had fancier covers, but a lot more sales than I would get waiting around for the money to pay for a fancier cover and much more in profit than I would get with an expensive cover.

DIY does not have to be shoddy workmanship. Modern cover design software, stockphoto sites, easy to use photo manipulation programs can create good workable professional looking covers. They won't win awards, but they won't look bad. Using good software will also help with editing. And, if you got decent grades in your high school English class, you have the knowledge to edit your own stuff. It mostly takes patience and an ability to look at your own work objectively and that's just a matter of mental discipline. You might miss some problems, but hey, if you do ebooks (like me) when you or someone else spots them, you can correct the problem. First editions are usually identified as such by errors caught in later editions.

Learn the lesson of the taco truck. Start simple and grow. Don't get over extended so that you show a profit on your first book within a couple of months. Then use your proceeds to start working on your next book.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

. . . And I got a one star review

Earlier this week I got a one star review. Yeah, I was bummed out a bit. How could this happen to someone as wonderful as me about a book as wonderful as that? I need to work through this (chocolate and pizza  usually helps but not at the same time). What a horrible disaster. What worse could happen?

Well. . . .

In Afghanistan, only 12 percent of adult women can read and write
Photo By vishwaant avk

. . . And I got a one-star review

In Turkmenistan the state closed all libraries and expelled foreign journalists

. . . And I got a one-star review

In Eretria 15 journalists have been jailed and held in secret detention centers

. . . And I got a one-star review

Libyan opposition writer Abdel Razek al-Mansouri  was jailed and Dayf al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi was murdered

. . . And I got a one-star review

Seventy-Seven Journalists were killed while reporting the news last year

. . . And I got a one-star review

Watchman Nee had to smuggle his books out of a Chinese Prision

. . . And I got a one-star review

Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught a seminary "on the run" during WWII in Nazi Germany and wrote his last book while in jail awaiting his execution.

. . . And I got a one-star review

Tyndale, John Bunyan, Martin Luther King, The Apostle Paul and thousands of other were imprisoned and killed because they put pen to paper and dared to write

. . . And I got a one-star review

. . . And I got a one-star review

Writing is not safe. It was never intended to be.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why I sell books for 99 Cents on Kindle

I've had a number of people suggest that I am naïve or maybe just plain crazy to sell everything from a 30 page Bible study to a 600 page three-novel bundle for just 99 cents. While I do have some sound business reasons for setting that price point, I also have an underlying philosophy that makes me determined to keep that price as long as it is economically possible for me to do so.

To understand a bit about this, I would like you to go back in time with me to when I was in junior high. When I went to the grocery store right after payday, I'd make a beeline
 My Amazon Author Page
for the paperback book rack. It was filled with wonderful stories of mystery and suspense and the future. They derisively called it "pulp fiction" because of the low quality paper the stories were printed on. Admittedly, this was not great literature. These were wonderfully light adventures whose sole purpose was to entertain the reader and lift her out of the sometimes difficult life of being part of a class we would today call the "working poor." Out of my $3.00 every two-week allowance, I couldn't afford much, especially since that also had to take care of lunches at school on "turkey days." But for just 35 to 50 cents I could fly to Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs or work out the Three Laws of Robotics with Isaac Asimov or be on the case with Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.

For those hours with those friends, I didn't have to think about having to save the tea bag for the next meal or the fact that we could only afford soda once a week. For the price of a loaf of bread, I could escape my troubles for a few hours.

Today, bread has gone up from 35 cents a loaf to $3.50 and the price of "pulp fiction" is close to $10 a book. Reading is no longer a treat available even to someone on a low income. It is fast becoming a luxury. At least in the print world.

Online, though, the cost of production is low. Admittedly, authors and publishers need to be compensated for their time, but still the cost of production is low enough that those of us who publish direct to the reader can bring back prices that make reading a treat and not a luxury.

As one of those who do not depend on a publisher to edit, format and publish my books, I can offer a price point, and still show a reasonable profit on each sale, of 99 Cents. Many other authors are doing the same. We may not be big names, but I doubt our writing is 10x worse than that of those authors offering their ebooks at $9.95 or more.

I don't pretend to any greatness. I write "pulp fiction." I don't pretend that my stories will change anyone's life, inspire them to greatness or achieve critical acclaim. I don't write for that. I write that people may be entertained and like that child scanning the grocery store rack for a new adventure, maybe just help someone escape their own problems for a few hours without having to figure out how they are going to afford to do so. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Branding. It's not about Genre

The other night as I was about to fall asleep I was thinking about branding. Hey, I'm not married. There's not much else for me to think about in bed. (I know too edgy for CBA, but we're wild and crazy indies). Seriously, odd things pop into my brain right before I fall asleep.

I figured out what bothered me about the small press/indie/agent view of branding. They tend to tie the brand to product and not positioning. Let me explain a bit. What we hear about branding is that you
Photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy
need to produce similar products over and over again. Stick to one genre, write only fiction or only nonfiction, always do sweet or always do edgy, make your covers bear a similar theme. These are all marketing concerns and we can debate how valid each of them are, but they do not address the quintessential essence of branding in the Marketplace and that is Positioning.

Think about brand names. If you are my age (61 soon to be 62) no matter  how upscale Penny's have become, in your mind it was good, but not great clothes at a low price. A J.C. Penny suit or dress was more like Sears or Family Fashion or TJ Maxx. I know, most of my clothes when I was growing up came from Penny's. Compare that with Macy's or Neiman Marcus. Those brands say, "a fool and his money..." ooops sorry. They say "We've got good stuff but you are going to pay for it. Be sure to bring your gold card or don't even expect to breathe the air in here."

Neither of those are good or bad images, but they are definitely different. Playboy and GQ are both mens magazines, but quite different brands. The Same for Cosmopolitan and McCalls and Ms for Women's magazines.

Positioning then refers to image, but more specifically the image that is unique about your business. Not about your books specifically, but about your line of books. What makes your mystery novel different than what Agatha Christie or Lillian Jackson Braun wrote? How is your romance series different than Love Inspired or Harlequin___ romances?

It's like that terrible question you always had to answer when preparing a proposal for a publisher. How is your book different from what is already on the market? I hated the question. Now, I totally understand it. I'm working on revamping my brands to address that question. I've got some ideas, and I'll let you know later.

It's not about how many products you have or how different they are. It's what image people have of your brand regardless of the product you make. Mercedes Benz builds cars and trucks, but the image is alway quality, luxury and durability. Honda does the same and the image is economical, dependable.

I'm asking myself what is my uniqueness. And I'm building from there. What about you?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reality Based Planning

Everyone says you should have goals. Annual, weekly, daily goals. Some even go so far as to say you need an action plan for those goals. For instance, write 700 words a day or spend an hour a day on marketing. Yet, I would say most of the goals people set for themselves are unrealistic and they doom the person to failing to meet those goals. Consequently, they feel guilty. A better approach is reality-based goal setting.

You will recognize parts of this because I've been talking about my own brush with this type of planning. Your implementation of this approach might vary, but I strongly advise that you consider the principles behind this approach as you make plans for the second half of the year.

A Time-Based Approach

Too often people choose goals based on the projects they want to complete without considering the time it will take to complete those projects. No matter how motivated you are, if your project will take four hours a day every day to complete and you work 8 hours a day, sleep 8 hours and spend 5 hours a day on essential chores, you are not going to complete that project in a year. As Scotty would say, "I cinna rewrite the laws of physics Cap'n."

So,  your first step is estimating the time each project will take to complete.

Estimating Times

If you don't know how much time each project or part of your project takes, then you a flying blind trying to set meaningful goals. Before you get into a lather about how you can't make predictions about creative processes, etc., I will affirm that is true for any one project. However, creativity is not a mysterious, fragile, and unpredictable thing. It is a skill developed through years of practice and training. That means it develops a type of regularity over the long run. While I can't say with any precision how long it will take to write one novel, I can be fairly accurate in my estimates of how long it will take to write three novels and be even more accurate with estimates of time to write 10, 20 or 30. 

We are talking about averages here. If I know that on average I write at a rate of 20 words a minute or 1200 words an hour and an average novel for me is 75,000 words, then I know that it will take about 65 hours to write a first draft of my novel. It may be a few hours more or a few hours less, but it will be very close to that. I can figure the same for the other stages of novel development, plotting, developing characters, editing, etc.

Look over your previous projects make an estimate of how much time each took and work out an average. It won't be precise, but it will be good enough for planning purposes.

Make a List of Projects and Activities

Start with a list of things you want to complete within a certain time frame. We are close to the beginning of June. That leaves six months until the end of the year. It is a good time to do some mid-year planning.

So, what do you want to accomplish between now and December 31.

This can be specific like specific novels or nonfiction books. Or they can be specific but less defined like "three novels" instead of three specific novels. 

My goals are to write three new novels, edit two completed novels and edit one of my new novels by the end of the year.

Your goals may be more or less ambitious than mine depending on your circumstances. I'm guessing I can do these things in the time I have available. But my advice is to think big, then you can trim it down later.

Add it Up

Now, take each of those projects and figure out how many hours each will take. This will give you a lump sum for each project.

So, I might have

Write two novels 75 hours each for a total of 150 hours
Edit Three novels 50 hours each for a total of  150 hours

And so on.

Check your Calendar

Now comes the reality part of this. It's great to know how much time your plans will take, now we need to find out what that means on a daily basis.

First, if you want to take weekends off, eliminate them. Then eliminate holidays you will be spending with family. Next consider personal holidays. Birthdays, Anniversaries, is someone having a wedding this year, is someone having a baby? Add in days for Baby showers, wedding showers, rehearsal dinners, etc. Do the same with planned vacations, family reunions, etc. Anything that would eliminate the day.

If it is something that would just eliminate half a day then just add it as .5 day.

When I did this, I ended up with 161 days. So writing two novels is 150 hours. I simply divide the number of hours by the number of days. That is .93 hours or about 55 minutes per available day. About the same for the novel editing. So that's close to 2 hours a day. I might not be able to do that in one setting, but I might be able to do it in two or maybe four 30 minute segments.

When you get all your numbers, take a good hard look at them. Odds are you are going to have more projects than time available to complete them. So, you can cut down on either the number of projects or the number of days you took off. Maybe you took off little league soccer practice. Well, you might just decide your writing is more important than being the third assistant coach mostly in charge of inflating the soccer balls. Or you might decide that book club every thursday night might be something you could drop.

Odds are, you are going to have to do a little of each. But finally you figure out how much time on average you can spend a day and how much that will accomplish. Now, you have reality based goals. If I write 55 minutes a day and edit for the same amount of time, I will complete my goals. That gives me as much predictability as I can have.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Whose Responsible?

I've noticed a disturbing trend among writers. It's a basic failure to take responsibility for their own writing. Just consider the layers of editing indie authors outsource. First, there's a developmental editor who fixes plot holes and makes the characters more believable. There's the content and style editors, who fix scenes and rewrite sentences so they are more powerful. Then there are the proofreaders who check your spelling and punctuation.

I could imagine what one of my journalism or creative writing professors in college would have said if I told them I needed more time on my assignment because I hadn't gotten it back from the developmental editor. Actually, I prefer not to think about that because I don't use that kind of language.

Photo credit J. E. Theriot
We tell our students in school (I was a teacher for 30 years) to do their own work. Why? Aside from the ethical issue of taking credit for something you didn't do, it's also the only way you are going to learn. If you can't fix plot holes on your own, why are you writing a novel? Go back to school, read some books, take a course in novel writing, get a mentor or tutor and learn how to create a plot without plot holes and how to spot them yourself.

There are wonderful books out there on editing fiction and nonfiction. One of the values of doing this yourself, is that by editing your own stuff and spotting your own problems, you will make fewer mistakes in future first drafts. You don't only learn by doing. You learn by making AND correcting your mistakes.

You will learn more about creating compelling characters and engaging plots by wrestling with fixing those plot holes and revising the characterization yourself than by letting someone else do it for you. And if you don't learn how to spot them now, you never will if you depend on someone else to point them out to you.

I'm not saying that editorial services are without value. I frequently employ a proofreader to save time correcting spelling and punctuation and streamline my productivity. However, I can proofread my own copy. And, if I don't do a very good job of it, I'll get dinged in the reviews for it, which helps me improve.

But it is not only in the area of manuscript preparation where writers evade responsibility. We also do so when we fail to write. No one wants to take responsibility for managing their own writing time. I hear it all the time. I couldn't write because the kids keep pestering me when I'm working. I remember when my Dad or Mom were busy, the other took care of me when I was tiny. And once I got school age, they could say, "I need to work, pleased don't interrupt me." I knew not to bother mother when she was on the phone or Dad when he was working with power tools in the garage. Now, if a kid can learn to do that, they can learn not to bother Mom or Dad when they are at the computer.

Sometimes the finger is pointed at the spouse. "They don't understand my need to write." And why should they? They aren't writers. I'm sure there are things they do that you don't understand. I can't understand people sitting in front of a TV watching a bunch of people fight over a misshapen ball yelling "Go Defense!!!"  I mean, if you like football so much why aren't you playing the game instead of watching someone else?

If someone, then, doesn't understand my passion for writing, I just think football or scrapbooking or fishing or rollerblading or other things I don't understand. But reasonable people can and do negotiate time for others in their households to spend time doing things they enjoy. Sometimes when I ask people if they have tried to negotiate time for writing, they admit they haven't even tried. Even the Bible says, "Ye have not because ye ask not." If you haven't made the effort, then it is your fault you don't have the time to write and not theirs.

The same goes for other simple expedients like telling teenagers that you are going to write for 30 minutes and don't disturb you until you finish and then shut the door. They are intelligent and mature enough to leave you alone. If not, this is a good way for them to learn that maturity and intelligence. But many times, people don't even try.

This extends to the job as well. I know I've been guilty here a lot. I am terrible at taking on extra duties at work, even though I was on salary and those extra duties were essentially unpaid hours. Of course, the core problem was pride. I liked thinking I was indispensable. However, I notice the college is still standing nearly two years after I retired. But I can't blame my boss when I took on jobs I didn't need to do which took away time I could have spent writing.

Likewise, many of us won't change our habits. I was one of those who thought I needed to sit down for at least an hour to get any work done writing. Now, as a journalist, I often wrote on the fly in 10 or 15

minute segments but somehow I thought novel writing or "literary" writing was different. Then one November, I decided I was going to do National Novel Writing Month and accept the challenge to writer a 50,000 word novel in a month. But about a week into the month I got sick. I could only sit up for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. So, I said, I'm going to do as much as I can during those 15 minute segments, and I completed my second published novel's first draft never writing for more than 15 minutes at a time. I was responsible for how I handled my illness. I chose to work around it.

Now, it would have been equally valid had I chosen to ditch the novel. But I couldn't blame the illness. I had to take the responsibility myself. And don't think I'm pointin' fingers at anyone here without seeing those three pointing back at me. I know I had to take back my own responsibility for both writing and setting boundaries that allowed for that, but also setting boundaries on my writing which allow for other things.

So, I know how unpleasant this is to hear, because I've been hearing it myself for a few weeks. Now, I'm sharing it with you. Circumstances do not control your writing. How you respond to those circumstances do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Practice Man, Practice

There's an old joke about a tourist who stopped a musician on the street.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The tourist asked.
Photo by Princess Ruto

The musician's reply?

"Practice, man. Practice."

Success at any skill REQUIRES practice. I emphasized the word requires because there are many things in writing that are not fixed. How one plans a novel, whether one writes in the morning or evening, editing techniques, when to use passive voice, and the list goes on. However, some things are not a matter of individual style. This is one of them.

I have been a teacher for more than 30 years. I've studied the art of learning, the research behind creative thinking and the development of creative skills. The one consistency in the whole study is that to become better at something, like our musician said, you have to "practice, man, practice."

Musicians understand this. Just try and get a practice room in a college or university music department. A professional musician plays every day. They don't make excuses about "family time," "needing" to watch the game, their day job or anything else. They find that time to practice. The ones who don't quite simply are not professionals or even very skilled.

The same is true of athletes. I lived close to the University of Oregon in the 1980s. World class runners attended U of O at the time and I would see them every day, rain or shine, running past my apartment. If they were not consistent, they would not be world class athletes.

So, why do we believe that we can become world class writers if we don't practice our craft EVERY DAY?

You can't.

Alexander Pope put it this way:

True ease in writing comes through art not chance
Those move best who first learned how to dance
Can you imagine learning to dance by only doing it whenever nothing else is happening in your life?

The problem is we don't want to accept that there are trade-offs in life. We want to believe that somehow we can fit writing in around the rest of our lives. Consequently, whether we say it or not, everything else takes priority over writing. The family says, come watch this movie with us, we shut the computer and go. We'll get back to it later. The cell phone rings and instead of letting it go to voice mail and calling back at the end of your writing session, you pick it up and suddenly you are in a conversation and no more writing gets done that day. There's a sale on at the mall, the Dodgers are playing, there's a great video on YouTube, and writing keeps getting pushed further and further back.

Nothing is worth much to you, if you are not willing to give up something for it. Yet, when I suggest giving something up for one's writing, I get responses that range from profound sadness to anger. It's as if I have asked them to do something impossible. But it's quite simple. If you have 13 eggs and an egg carton with 12 spaces, something has got to be left outside.

I guess most of us never quite think in terms of relative importance. Even when we talk about priorities was say things like, "Is that a priority for you?" That's the wrong question. Everything on your list is a priority. The question is how high on your list of priorities is it? Even high priority items must sometimes compete for attention. It's not whether writing is a priority, but whether writing 30 minutes a day is a high enough priority to let something else in your busy life go.

It's okay, if writing is not a high priority. There may be higher priorities right now. Just like some promising musicians discovered that there were other priorities that were more important for them and put away their instrument and their music. That doesn't mean it wasn't important to them. Just not as important as the other things they wanted in their lives.

However, if you do that, then you can't expect to improve your writing or get published. If you don't practice, you'll never get to Carnegie Hall.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Quitting Time

For a time when we had only one car in the family, I had to pick up my Dad at the sawmill where he worked. I'd sit in the parking lost a good two blocks away from the mill, but I could still hear the whistle blow even in the car with the windows rolled up. Not long afterward, my Dad appeared weary from a long, hard day's work, but certain of one thing: He was through for the day.

When I retired from teaching and began writing full-time, I thought I was ready for another job without
Photo by Alan Cleaver
a nine-to-five schedule like teaching. I taught at a college, my classes changed every semester and the job was just starting when the students left the classroom with papers to grade, lessons to prepare and committee meetings to attend.

However, I found I wasn't prepared at all. My Dad knew that when he had completed eight hours of work, he could go home. I knew if I completed grading the papers for Interpersonal Communication by April 30, I had done my job. There was a very clear benchmark that said, you are finished for the day.

Writing had no such benchmark. Oh for some private jobs I had deadlines to meet, but for my bread and butter work of writing novels, Bible studies, short nonfiction books, things were open, and I was always wondering if I had done enough. In other words, had the whistle blown?

This has led me to do some very foolish things. I've been known to work 16-18 hours with just a short break for lunch, working all night and day. Going 24-hours without sleep and then crashing for three days afterwards.

It came home to me last week when I took on too much work including a rush private job. I ended up overtaxing myself (I have health issues which mean I only really have five or six healthy hours a day so working beyond that is going to create some payback later on) and was too sick to go to church Easter sunday.

I took some time to discuss the problem with some other writers. Many had good ideas, but not ones that would work for me. However, those ideas did spawn other ideas. Most importantly, it helped me clarify what I really needed.

What I needed was a way to be sure that I could make a certain amount of money from my books and grow that at a certain rate over the next five years.

So, here's the plan I came up with. Maybe some ideas in it may help you as well if you struggle with the question of when to quit. I've been working this plan for a week and I've never been more productive or more rested.

First I asked myself, what do I want to accomplish by the end of the year?

I came up with a list:

10 Bible Studies edited, formatted and published on Kindle (They are already written first draft)
3 New novels written
2 of the above novels edited and published
2 Novels already written edited and published
5 New Bible Studies written, edited and published
6 Mini courses with 8-12 lessons each written and distributed to students

If I do that, my income is where I want it to be.

My next job was to figure out how long each would take. Now, if you don't know how long it takes to do basic writing activities, then you need to find out. It really helps in managing your time. If you are doing long term planning like I am it's even more helpful. Now, you might say, but some days I can do 1000 words an hour other days I'm good if I write 700 in the same time. I'm talking about averages here. Yes, it will vary from day to day, but over time you will discover an average. On a good day I can write rough draft speed at about 1500 words an hour. Other days I'm closer to 1000. So that averages out to about 1200. The same goes for other activities as well. So for each of these activities I figured out how many hours it would take. Let's use the Bible study editing and publishing as an example. I have already completed three of these so that left seven for the year. It takes me about 10 hours to edit and format. So, that's 70 hours.

Now I need to figure out the number of days. It's 37 weeks or 185 work days (M-F)

But there are upcoming holidays I want to take off. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving (2 days), Christmas (2 days). So, let's take eight days off that total. That's 177 days.

But I also want to take a three-day weekend or its equivalent every other week. So let's take off another 16 days. Now we are left with 161 days.

Now, all that is left is to divide 70 hours by 161 days thats .43 hours a day or about 26 minutes. So I round it off to 30 minutes a day.

I repeated that with the rest of the items on my list and added three: Blog writing, posting a daily devotion (which are already written) and marketing activities. Blog writing is a low priority, so I set it at 5 minutes a day (this post will take almost a week); devotion is just cut, paste and publish, so that was just 10 minutes; marketing is important but can be done in 30 minutes a day.

What I ended up with was this schedule

Lesson writing: 30 minutes
Novel editing: 30 minutes
Bible study editing: 30 minutes
Novel writing: 40 minutes
Blog: 5 minutes
Devotion: 10 minutes
Writing new Bible Studies/Nonfiction Books 15 minutes
Marketing 30 minutes.

So, now I have a schedule where I work 3 hours and 10 minutes a day. I don't do them in the same order every day and I take long breaks between each one. But I set a timer on each one and when it rings, I stop without guilt, without concern that I might not be doing enough to ensure my financial future or to accomplish all I need to accomplish by the end of the year.

I worried a bit that I might lose the flow of the writing stopping right in the middle of something. But I find if I just finish that sentence or paragraph and stop, and come back to it the next day, I can pick it up without any problem because I'm fresh and not worn out because I was overworking the day before.

This last week has been my most productive in a long time. I wrote 5000 words on my novel, edited 8000 words, wrote 4000 on my lessons, outlined a nonficton book, completed a blog post and published 5 devotions, and uploaded one new Bible Study to Kindle.

Again, this might not work for you, but I do think that making long term goals and turning them into daily action plans could be valuable regardless of how you do it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why you shouldn't read your Five Star Review!!

My fellow author Randy Ingermanson just wrote an article about why you shouldn't read your one star reviews. I agree with him up to a point. If you can read them and not let them affect you, they can sometimes be comical. Some one gets their kicks thinking they are Rogers and Ebert of the literary
Neal Fowler Photo Credit
world and usually failing miserably.

If you let the criticisms get under your skin and cause you to doubt your abilities in spite of all the 4-5 star reviews, then by all means don't read them. However, I would suggest that 5 star reviews, especially the gushy, this author is wonderful and can do nothing wrong reviews can be equally harmful, but in a different way.

The Bible observes that "Pride goes before a fall." Nothing can inflate your pride like a really effusive five star review.

So, you ask, what's wrong with being proud of your work. If you mean taking satisfaction from a job well done independent of anyone else's evaluation of that job and without considering yourself better than anyone else because of the work you did, nothing. Unfortunately, most of our pride doesn't come near that definition.

Too often we require some sort of external validation of our work and the belief that we are in some way better than "the average bear" because of it. Herein lies the danger of the five-star review. It feeds that need for validation and inflates our egos to a place where we consider ourselves better than others.

However, and this is something we must remember, in most cases, it is no more valid in any objective way in evaluating your book than the one star review.

:::Sound of needle popping balloon.:::

Isn't it interesting how easily we can dismiss the unsupported criticisms of a one-star while basking in the glory of an equally unsupported critique of a five star. The core of the problem lies in giving any credence at all to customer reveiws individually because, regardless of the name on the page, they are rarely reviews. They are just reactions.

There is a difference. If I tell you I like Broccoli and Cheese soup at a certain restaurant, that's a reaction. I'm simply stating my experience and my feeling about that soup. My evaluation of the soup is based entirely on my personal likes and dislikes.  However, if I tell you that the Broccoli and Cheese soup is excellent, the broccoli is cooked to a consistency that is still a bit al dente and has a bit of a snap to it and the blend of cheddar with just a hint of mozzerella creates an unusually rich sauce, but the soup was served a bit cooler than it should be for this particular soup, then I have done a review.

I am giving more than my reaction, I am giving you the reasons behind that reaction, I'm appealing to something other than my preferences, I'm being objective about the factual material presented, I'm given examples, and I'm giving a mix of what was good and what might have been improved. I'm doing a reasoned evaluation of the soup.

That's a review. How many of those do we actually see under "customer reviews"? A five-star review, therefore, is rarely any more valid than a one-star in learning anything that will help you become a better writer. It is based entirely on the enjoyment of a single individual. You can feel good that you brought joy to that individual, but the review itself, by itself, tells you very little about your writing ability or the quality of the book itself.

The problem with paying attention to any individual review (good or bad) is that we are confusing the opinion of one person with that of all our readers. Worse, we are judging our own capabilities as a writer based on the opinion of someone who may have no understanding of literature and may be an anomaly among those reading your book.

So, what does this have to do with reading 5-Star reviews. After all, they are good reviews and make you feel good. Well, therein lies the danger. You can see a bunch of 5-Star reviews and think, "Hey, I'm pretty hot stuff." They can lead you to believe that you will always produce top notch writing regardless of how hard you try.

Here's the problem with customer reviews, they tend to skew to the high and low ends. Usually, you are only receiving reviews from those who really, really, really liked the book or those who really, really, really hated the book. In the first case, you find nothing but glowing comments without any suggestion that the book was not perfect. In the latter, the implication is that it had no redeeming value at all. In other words, you learned nothing of value from either one that can help you improve.

If you feel you MUST read reviews, then read the three and four star ones. They are more likely to have specific reasons why they like or dislike something without the adoration of a fan or the vitriol of a troll. But even then, don't get fixated on a single review or a single criticism. Look for trends. Don't pay attention to a criticism (good or bad) unless it appears at least three times. One time is that person's opinion. Two times could be a coincidence. The third time is the beginning of a trend.

Look at both the negative and the positive things. You don't only want to correct what you did not do so well, but you also want to continue to do things people seem to like. However, there is a danger there as well. Giving people what they want is a good thing, but, as with any other art, becoming  predictable or formulaic can lead to popular, but stale writing.

In short, whether it is a good review or a bad review, regardless of star count, there is one piece of advice I can give.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Guidelines for Quoting from Bible Translations

There's a question that frequently comes up about quoting from various Bible translations and whether or not you need permission to include a scripture from, say, the New American Standard Version. 

With the exception of a translation in the public domain such as The King James Version (the original not one of the modern paraphrases), the answer varies from translation to translation. 
As a general rule, the easiest way to find out the permission is to just go to the publisher of that translation. They all have guidelines for permission to quote. In fact, a simple way to find any one translation is to run a search on Google for "Permission to quote from [Bible Translation Name]" 
But to make it even easier I did that for you. 
Here's a list of links to all the major Bible translations. The amount able to be used without express permission ranges from 101 words for The Message to 1000 verses for New American Standard. The average is about 500 verses and the quotations must comprise less than 15% of the finished work, but that varies with the version. Most will not allow the reproduction of an entire book without permission regardless of the number of verses. 
But each is different so read their guidelines. And remember, writing a book is a commercial enterprise, so, in spite of sales, you can't use the "Non-profit" status. 
Permissions to quoteThe New Living Translation and The Living Bible
NIV (New International Version and all Zondervan Bibles)
The Message (most restrictive for commercial use)
NASB (New American Standard Bible, not to be confused with the New American Bible or the Revised Standard)
Amplified Bible
New King James (and all Thomas Nelson Bibles)
Good News Bible
Revised Standard
New American Bible (Catholic)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Perfect or Published


I had been fussing around with my Master's thesis for a couple of years. I wanted to get everything perfect. It had taken me more than a  year just to choose a topic. My most recent perfection detour was tracking down some obscure legal procedure in colonial courtrooms during the time of the Salem witchcraft trials. I was writing a reader's theatre script based on the transcripts of the trial of Sarah Good.

Apparently frustrated with my progress (or lack thereof), my professor looked at me and said, "I'm going to tell you what my advisor told me. There are two types of dissertations: The Perfect One and The finished One.

After 30 years of teaching writing, I have paraphrased that often enough for my perfectionist students as "The Perfect Manuscript and The Published Manuscript."

We have made a type of God out of perfectionism. We say someone is a perfectionist as though that is a good thing. However, true perfectionism paralyzes professionalism. The perfectionist won't let go of a project until it is perfect.

What's wrong with that? You say. The problem is that the perfectionist will always find one more thing to fix. Nothing is ever perfect. The curse of the human mind is that it can conceive perfection but never achieve perfection.

Both Indie and Traditional writers can fall prey to the peril of perfectionism. Indies often wait to publish their first book until they can get everything perfect. They keep redoing the cover design (or sending it back time and time again to a long suffering graphic designer), they know there is a comma they missed somewhere, a line that left too many spaces between words when justified, one obscure ereader that adds a space where a space is not needed. And the list goes on.

The traditional writer lives in fear of the editor/agent/publisher. If everything doesn't match Chicago Manual of Style perfectly, if they missed one point of the guidelines, if the story needed any editing at all, they fear they will be blackballed throughout the industry never to write again.

The problem with this type of thinking is that the perfectionist's fears produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are afraid that if they don't do everything perfectly they won't get published, but by being afraid to publish anything that isn't perfect, they end up unpublished longer than the person willing to trade out the notion of perfectionism with excellence.

So, what is the difference between perfectionism and excellence? Perfectionism says if there is even one flaw no matter how miniscule, the product is worthless.

Excellence says one does the best job one can with the resources they have available in the time allotted for the job.

Professionalism says you put out a workable product that fulfills the consumer needs at a price they can afford in a timely manner.

Successful writers are not perfectionists because their products never see the light of day. However, that does not mean they don't strive after excellence and professionalism.

The perfect manuscript is an illusion which will take away all hope of publication. At some point you have to say the imperfections are so minor that they will not affect the reader's enjoyment of this story. Or like a good engineer would say, they are within acceptable tolerances.

So, what will you do today. Continue to chase the rainbow of Perfection or Pursue the possibility of publication.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Do We Major in Minors?

I was at a business seminar several years ago. There was a time management consultant speaking to the group. And he put forth the 80/20 rule. He said that in most businesses 80 percent of the time is spent producing 20 percent of the income. Meanwhile 20 percent of the work produced 80 percent of the.

There's been a lot of research about the 80/20 rule over the years and have found that it is true in many different types of organizations and activities. I would say that a similar situation exists among writers. However, I would go so far to say it's more like a 90/10 rule.

Let me ask you a silly question: generally speaking, where do people go when they want to buy a book for their Kindle? Do they check out social media sites? Do they go to a blog? Do they check twitter? Do they look through a bunch of bookmarks, brochures, and refrigerator magnets?

This is not a trick question. When people want to buy a book for their Kindle, they go to the website. So, why do authors spend hundreds of hours of month writing blogs, updating author pages on Facebook, Tweeting and pinning? Well, we had been told that that's what we need to do. Of course, none of those things are bad. They can produce some sales. However, they are not going to produce the bulk of your sales. Most of the books you sell will be sold by people who were looking for a similar type of book in the Kindle (or Nook or iBooks) website.

Yet, how much time do we actually spend per month trying to attract our share of the 75 million people who visit every 30 days? I would say that most writers spend very little time there.

This is a major mistake. If only one-tenth of one percent of the people visiting Amazon are looking  for a book in your category, that's 75,000 people. And not just any people. These are people who have their credit cards handy in an attitude to buy a book. Even if it is one-tenth of that number. That's still 7500. Few of us have social media networks with 7500 people interested in buy a book at the time they see our posts.

Unfortunately, in recent months I've allowed myself to get seduced into spending more of my marketing time away from Amazon than within the Kindle ecosystem.

This week, I went back to several of my books that I rushed through the process with and took more time identifying the most popular keywords, rewriting the descriptions embedding those key words at strategic points, adding book details and book extras, checking the categorization of the books and the keywords I listed when I originally uploaded the book. I reworked the whole sales page for each book. Within 24 hours I saw a jump in sales for those books.

I'm not going to kid you. It takes time. You have to write for the human being reading the blurbs, but also for the machine indexing them. Most people write their book description like they would a jacket cover. Certainly, it serves that function IF the person finds the book. However, when located way down in the search engine listings, they are not going to find your book in order to read your great description. The first job of that description is to help the search engine find the book. The second is to get people to read the sample and eventually buy the book. 

You also have to spend some time determining what are the best keywords/key phrases to use. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about how to determine this, but try typing in a possible keyword into the Amazon search box in the Kindle category and see what drops down. Those are all potential key phrases. Which ones are near the top that best describe your book? Repeat this process, but add the letter a after the category. For instance, fantasy a. See what drops down. Repeat for each letter of the alphabet.

Switch over the Author Center on Amazon and add the book details like editorial reviews, comments from the author and an author bio tailored to this book all integrating some of your keywords.

Then click on the link to add book extras from Shelfari. You can enter a TOC, quotes, cast of characters, one line premises and other items which can be accessed from your Amazon Sales Page.

This takes time. However, not any more time than writing a blog entry or posting several times to your author page each day. And, it's the sort of thing you only do once in a while. And, unlike those other activities you're not speaking to prospects. You're speaking to customers.

Of Fishing and the Self-Publishers Education

There is an old saying most of us know that goes, "Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." The idea is that what you are given (or even buy) only lasts for a day. But if you learn to produce that thing yourself, you have a lifetime supply.

So, what does this have to do with indie publishing? Simply this, indie writers can not simply be writers. They must learn many other skills as well. We need to learn editing, formatting, cover design, marketing, search engine optimization and others.

Many indie writers will object saying that they do not need to learn those skills. They will simply hire others to do those jobs for them. This is where our proverb comes into play. If you buy a service, you will get that service for one book. If you learn that process, you have it for all books. Some people spend up to $2000 or more per book. Yet, when I suggest that they simply learn how to do something
Picure by Photoloni
very simple like do their own ebook formatting or design their own book covers, they object that they don't know how to do that. Imagine if instead of spending $2000 dollars on outsourcing, you spent the same amount of money on editing courses, graphic design, books about the basics of marketing and search engine optimization, maybe went to a social media marketing convention. How much would you learn to do that would save you money not just on this book, but on every book you wrote.

However, even if you decide that you would prefer to outsource everything except writing, you still need to know the basics of all phases of publishing. You are no longer a writer only. You are also a publisher. Sure you can outsource a cover design, but do you know what a good cover needs in order to be visible in an online store or stand out as a thumbnail? Do you know how much time it likely took the artist to create that cover and whether the charge was appropriate to the work involved?

The same goes for editing. If you hired a content or developmental editor, did they preserve your voice and your vision or substitute their own? Were the changes they made consistent with your concepts of the character and plot? Did they understand the world of your story? If you outsourced proofreading, you will still need to read through your manuscript to evaluate how well the proofreader did his/her job.

If you learn something about formatting your own manuscript for ebook or print publishing, you may decide that it is so simple (especially ebook publishing ) that you don't need to outsource it. Or if you do, you will know how to not be overcharged and what to look for in the final product.

Whether you do it your self or your outsource the work, you will still need to learn a bit about every aspect of publishing. You may not become an overnight expert in all aspects, but if you do nothing more than learn enough to intelligently choose your service providers and to evaluate their work, the time spent "learning to fish" will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to be a High Speed Writer

Someone sent me an email with a link to a story about an author who puts out 7000-10,000 words a day. I've seen it a couple of times in different venues. It's at

People mentioned how "fast" he was. Really? Did they read the article? He works from 8 am to midnight. Okay, let's say he just sticks to an 8 hour day. That's just about 1000-1200 words an hour. That is well within the range of most professional writers. One 80,000 word book at even 5000 words a day (and many of us have done that during Nanowrimo) is just 16 days or a little
Photo by William Warby
over two weeks. That leaves another three weeks for editing and proofreading. Let's say it takes twice as long to edit as to write, that's another four weeks. Okay, that's six weeks. And if you are working 8 hours a day 5000 words is just 675 words or about a page and a half of single spaced copy an hour.

That's not "fast writing" at all. That's actually pretty slow. I do rough drafts at about 1200-1500 words an hour. If I'm using speech recognition, it's closer to 2000.

No, these prolific authors are not "fast." They are consistent, and they put in the hours.

They don't squawk about not having time to write. They don't take off an afternoon because the kids want to go shopping, anymore than they would if they were working for a paycheck.

We talk a lot about professionalism in writing. Most has to do with craft - clean copy, good characters, etc. - but the work of many amateurs outstrips many professionals in those categories. No. The one aspect of professionalism rarely mentioned is the time spent at the keyboard turning out copy on a consistent basis. No bemoaning an absent "Muse" or being "uninspired." No decisions to take off in the middle of a work day and "play hookey." No change of schedule for the holidays other than the days they would have taken off if they were working for another employer. If visitors show up, they don't take off work to hangout with them anymore than they would if they were working full-time.

Now, that might not be the type of life you want to live. I have, and I'm backing away from it for awhile. But don't expect those results. And don't be "amazed" at the "speed" of the writing. You can do the same, if you are willing to first make the commitment to the time spent and second are willing to make the sacrifices.

It's not magic or talent, it's just plain old hard work.