Art is messy
Not long ago, I ran across some comments about how writers just had to let the process flow, that if you worked too hard at it, you were going to start killing the process. You’d sound like a Harlequin romance.
“I can tell when a writer is forcing it in the first paragraph and I’ll put the book right down!”
“Never force your writing. That just makes for bad writing.”
All of this seems to point to an idea that art should come easily. That, if you’re “talented” enough, it just falls neatly onto the page, like Venus springing fully formed from the foamy brine because the Muse channels it magically through your enchanted self. I did my first take on my first novel like that. The result was something that had promise and failed utterly to deliver on it. Two years of queries, partial and full manuscript requests, and rejections later and I was ready to give up. Finally, someone pointed out the REAL problem with the whole thing, and convinced me to tear it down and start from word one. The finished product is vastly different from the rainbow colored, glitter-filled pile of crap I did the first time.
Art is hard. It’s messy and complicated and uncooperative. And like most things we do in life, it almost never turns out right the first time. And limiting ourselves to what we first throw down on the page, I think, is the opposite of letting art “flow.” I think we have created this perception of creativity being like water, that it just gushes forth freely. But maybe….maybe it’s more like wet, sticky clay. It just sits there until we reach in and start squishing it and mashing it and shaping it and getting our hands dirty, then reshaping it and refining it until we have something beautiful.
And make no mistake, for some of us, it isn’t the finished product that is the end goal. Sometimes, act of making art itself is what we’re after. For a lot of writers, just creating worlds and watching the characters’ stories unfold is the entirety of what our art is for. Storytelling is our therapy, our escape. It’s where we find God, serenity or our Zen space. Calling it a hobby falls far short, and calling those writers amateurs feels like a disservice to me, even if the terms are technically correct. When you’re creating art for yourself, writing stories to your own standards, you’re going to write the work you want to read, generally, and you’re usually going to get it right or close to right the first time.
It’s when we start trying to make art that speaks to others that it gets hard. We have to see things from our own perspective, and that of our audience, and bridge the two, so that our audience can see what we see.
Like I said, messy and complicated.
The following two videos are a great example of how the finished product can be so very different where we start from, and the magic of trying out different approaches, instead of expecting it to just fall from our pens fully formed.
The first one shows the process inthe studio, and the second is the finished product. The difference is enlightening.
How I got an Agent
How I got an agent…
So, how did this happen? What led me to sign with this particular agency? Who did I know (because you have to have contacts in this industry!)?
Well, like a lot of stories, it starts kind of randomly. I was at NorWesCon, and I’d just gotten out of a panel, and I was waiting for the next one on my list to start. Across the hall, two guys were talking about the changes in the publishing industry, and new genres that one of them was interested in, including fantasy and urban fantasy. Well, I just so happen to write in that genre, so I deftly joined their conversation. Somewhere along the way, we all traded business cards, and I learned exactly who I was talking to: Trodayne Northern, from Prentis Literary, and Lawrence M Schoen, a Nebula nominee for science fiction. As we went on, I mentioned that business was so good for urban fantasy for me that I had out-earned Jim Hines last year, (but quickly pointed out that I hadn’t out-SOLD him). It was about here that we decided this conversation was a lot more interesting to us than whatever the panel was on, so we wandered over to one of the little sitting areas, commandeered a table and proceeded to talk about publishing, self-publishing and sales. At the end of things, Trodayne invited me to have dinner with him the next night so we could talk further, and I could meet the other two agents from Prentis.
So, the next night, I pitched some of my upcoming work over dinner, and they told me about what they had in mind to help capitalize on what I had already done to get me the best deal possible going forward. I’d already done my research on them, and I knew by then that they had represented Patricia Briggs. They asked to see some of my current work, and for something from my pipeline, which of course I sent them immediately. The thing was, as much as it actually was a business meeting over dinner, it also felt like I was having dinner with friends I’d also just happened to be doing business with for years. They answered a lot of my questions without me having to ask. I walked away feeling pretty positive about things.
So, NorWesCon came to a close, and I went home feeling pretty good about my career. And the truth was…I hadn’t shown up intending to pitch to an agent.
Over the next few weeks, we exchanged a few emails, as Trodayne and Leslie hit other conventions leading up to the Nebula awards in Chicago. Then, on a Wednesday afternoon as I was driving out of Springfield on my way to X-Con, my phone rings, and it’s Trodayne and Leslie. I pulled over to take that call, and got the news I think pretty much every author wants to hear: They wanted to represent me. We went over the details for a few more minutes, and I resumed my journey on cloud nine. I signed the contract a few days later, and made the announcement today. Now it’s starting to feel real.
There are a few things I’d like to mention.
First thing to remember here is that I didn’t come to the table with just a manuscript. When I showed up to NorWesCon in late March, I was already writing full time, with six books of my own across two series, and a seventh that was a spin-off from another successful series. I showed up with a solid base of readers and a track record of being able to earn with my work. I gave them a solid set of numbers to work with.
Second, while I showed up at NorWesCon with only one contact, I left with half a dozen. A lot of folks say it’s who you know in this business, and I think that knowing the right people can be extremely helpful. The thing is, a lot of folks also seem to think that if you don’t have contacts, you’re out of luck. The truth is, you can and will make them as you go. Just ask my friend Ronnie Virdi, who has recently made friends with Jim Butcher and Kevin J Anderson. So, yeah, contacts are important, but just because you don’t have them doesn’t mean you can’t make them. You just have to get out there and talk to people at conventions.
Finally, kind of a double point. Don’t give up hope and keep your options open. You never know who you might meet or what might happen. So keep your business cards with you, keep a quick pitch rehearsed and stay professional.
Trodayne Northern (l), Lawrence M. Schoen (c), Me (the dorky one on the right)
The Other Cost of Self-publishing (or How To Do it All Wrong and Still Get It Right)
Recently, fellow Missouri author Lisa Medley posted a blog post about the cost to self-publish her first book. Now, some folks have given her a little flack for paying for things she didn’t have to, and the amounts she paid and so on, without understanding the context of her choices. They’ve claimed some of her expenses were mistakes. But while she made some different decisions than I did, I think I’d rather have made her mistakes than mine. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lisa through a local writers’ group, and I was thrilled for her when Harlequin picked up her Reaper series a few years back, right around the time I was first published by Pendraig Publishing, a small press out of California. Oddly enough, we both had some similarities in our experiences, in that we both got picked up by publishers, and we were both disappointed by the results. And we BOTH went to self-publishing.
Now, here is where our experiences differ. First off, Lisa writes in the VERY competitive romance market, specifically in paranormal romance. I write urban fantasy and zombie fiction. Technically, the zombie novels are post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And I will tell you from a total lack of experience but from knowing folks who know the business…romance is an expensive genre to write in. Sci-fi and fantasy…not so much. So it stands to reason that though we’re both following a similar path to publishing, our costs were different.
Lisa broke her costs down pretty thoroughly for her first book, and I thought I would do something similar for my first self-published book. However, I’ll also break down some of the costs for one of my later books as well. Lisa chose to do a few things that I didn’t, mostly because she’s a class act and I’m a hack writer. So, where our paths differ, understand that my choices don’t reflect on a disagreement with hers or anything like that.
So, on with the show. Here’s how the expenses for Zompoc Survivor: Exodus played out.
Zompoc Survivor Exodus
Write the book: Time and energy, $0
Recruit beta readers in place of an editor: Time and energy, mention in acknowledgements, $0
Make cover myself: Time, effort, $0
Format myself on Smashwords & Amazon: Time, effort, headaches, stress, $0
Get ISBN number from Createspace for print copy: $0
Let Amazon assign ASIN instead of ISBN to e-book: $0
Createspace proof w/ slow boat to China level shipping: $6.36
Advertising via spamming on promo groups on Facebook: 2-4 hours daily, $0
10 copies from Createspace: $35.50
Prize shipping: $30
Total cost: Time, effort, Sanity, hair loss, $71.86
Now, notice one HUGE thing I did different from Lisa: I did a LOT of the work myself. Formatting, cover, editing, all me. Some folks might think this is a great idea. But while some folks have pointed out on Facebook that Lisa paid for some things that might not have been strictly necessary, I am here to tell you, she made the better decision!
First off, the editing. This is something no writer should try to handle on their own, in my personal opinion. Here, let me get on my soapbox and shout that out with a megaphone and some neon lights. DON’T DO IT! If you love your readers…if you want to ever HAVE readers, don’t edit your own work if you can avoid it. Even if you can’t avoid it, at least get some good beta readers. See, I was very lucky when I went searching for beta readers. I asked other successful writers who they had beta read their work, and I went to talk to those people. Best bad decision I ever made, that. One of those beta readers now has her own business as an editor and proofreader. So, I wasn’t smart, I was lucky.
Second dumb thing I did that ended up turning out okay: the cover. For my cover, I went through some of my photos and found one in my files that I could alter to the point you couldn’t tell who it was or where they really were with ease because of the composition of the photo. Then I took it from color to black and white and ran it through a water-color wash and BAM, instant iconic image for my cover. Then, I did one other smart thing. Remember how I talked to other successful authors about beta readers? Same thing here. I found out what worked and made the changes they suggested. And it worked. Of all my covers, it’s by far the most amateurish, and it shows. But again, luck favored me in many ways.
Finally, formatting. Dang, that was a learning process. I wish I knew then what I know now. The print version of ZS: Exodus doesn’t have page numbers because I didn’t know how to insert them. The front matter is painfully bare. It took several tries to get it to actually read the way I wanted to. And for the record: I still do it myself, and I still hate doing it. But I’m getting better at it.
So, my first book cost me less than $100 to self-publish, but as Lisa also points out in her blog, as the publisher, all of the responsibility for getting it done right was on me. And somehow, I was up to the task, even if it was entirely by accident. Because, like Lisa discovered, having the right people in your corner is crucial.
Now, here is another place where my experience differs slightly from Lisa’s. For ZS: Exodus, the bar to break even was low. So, I had some leeway to do something that I believe has had a tremendous impact on my career.
I practically gave my first book away. My initial price point was 99₵ and I kept it there for a month. Now, at that rate, I would have had to have sold just over 200 copies to break even. I sold over 2500 in the first month. Later on, when I raised my price to the full $2.99, my ranking was so high, I still recouped my costs several times over. However, even if I had spent more on the first book, I would have still done the same thing, because the high initial rankings got me sales at the higher price point. More importantly, the high volume made up for the loss in potential income with repeat readers.
In the end, ZS: Exodus ended up making me enough to hire professionals to handle the two things I should never touch again: editing and covers. When it came time to put ZS: Inferno out, I paid a LOT more for those two services, an easy $500-600 for editing and covers. I made that back in the first month it was out. In short, my second book presents (and thus sells) a lot better than my first book did because I spent more money on it.
So, the lesson here is that it IS possible to self-publish a book for less than $100. But it isn’t a good idea. Lisa’s initial offering presents a lot better than mine did. If you’re going to make mistakes, follow Lisa’s example and err on the side of quality. That’s the better decision. If you’re going to make my mistakes, you’re going to have to make them EXCEPTIONALLY well. As in the “you’re going to have to roll sevens three times in a row with loaded dice” kind of well. And trust me, you don't want to rely on luck more than skill.
Your first book is an investment, and truth be told, if I had to give one piece of hard to swallow advice, it would be this: Don’t expect to make a lot back on your first book. Your first book is an investment in your fan base, and your royalties from that book are an investment in your second book. Assume a loss early on that is going to pay off in spades in the long run.
What is that pay-off? Consistent sales. So far, I’ve self-published three books. Because of the investment in my first book with the low price point and high volume of sales (and a lot of luck), all three books have hit the top 100 in their genres in the first month they’ve come out. The first book attracted a strong fan base. The second and third got them to come back, and they brought friends.
In conclusion: Write a damn good book. Invest in it. Write another damn good book and invest in it. Repeat as necessary.
A long time ago (the 90s) in a land far, far away (Nixa, MO), a much younger me worked at a monotonous job doing something monotonous. Seriously, we did the same thing hundreds of times an hour, thousands of times a night. It was an entry level job that was guaranteed to pretty much stay entry level forever.
I'm not there any more, and soon, I could be making enough money with my books to make an actual living at it. I beat some pretty long odds just getting to where I am now. So, the question some people ask me is "How did you do it?"
I wish I knew. I wish there was a formula for success I could just write down for you...hell, I wish there was a formula I could write down for ME! But if I could give you one piece of advice that I think would make everything else work, it's this:
Start chasing contrails.
See, back when I was working at the monotonous job, my best friend Roanen and I would do something different on our breaks than anyone else there. We'd walk around the building and dream big. We'd look up at the sky and see planes flying overhead, and we told each other we were going to be one of the people on those planes some day. We would talk about how our current project was going to help us become one of those people, going to conventions, having fans all over the US. We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we were sure we COULD do it. We had a dream, we had talent and we had determination. Who cared if we didn't have a clue? We knew we'd figure it out.
One night, we noticed something else, something that made us stand out from everyone else there. Other people were having very different conversations than we were. We talked about our dreams, we talked story, we talked style, we talked about art and whether or not to do our graphic novel in black & white or in color. We made plans. Big plans.
The people around us talked about each other. They complained about their neighbors, their job, their family. Their conversations never left the world they were in, except when they joked about winning the lottery.
I think that if I had to pinpoint one moment when I knew both Roanen and I had a shot at beating the odds, it was during that one night. Because our focus was always on our dreams. When everyone else was looking down, focusing on things within arm's reach, we were looking up and we were chasing contrails.
And we never stopped.
So, at the end of each day, think about where your focus was in your free time. Was it on your dreams? I know, there are a thousand things that might demand your attention, but make room for your dreams. Look up sometimes, and never settle for what's in arm's reach.
Author of the Zompoc Survivor and The Demon's Apprentice series. Occasional wit. Constant smart ass.
Books By Ben Reeder:
The Demon's Apprentice The Page of Swords
The Verge Walker:Book 1
Zombies by Ben Reeder:
Zompoc Survivor: Exodus
Zompoc Survivor : Inferno
Zompoc Survivor: Odyssey
The Gathering Horde