My subconscious, asking the questions no one else could think of…
Over the years, I’ve given a great many interviews, and I’ve answered a lot of questions. Most were predictable, kind, polite, some were naughty, some did catch me off guard. Some interviewers send questions ahead of time, to make sure you have the opportunity to think about a good response. Today, I’d like to try something else, asking myself questions, just like that, what comes to mind. Not sure this is going to work, but I hope it’ll be an honest interview because if I lie, I’ll know. LOL
Going straight for the jugular, are we? Yikes. Well, I did write a few hundred words earlier today, but to be honest, my mind wasn’t in it today. Not sure why. There’s a certain amount of procrastination involved. I was also preoccupied with some personal, financial stuff, and my guiding business which I spent some time on.
Just an example of how alternative communication can look like. I’ll need to incorporate some form of that into the book.
But the real truth is that I’m scared. Afraid I won’t do Matt justice, and he’s not been talking to me, really. Not for a few days. I had this amazing meeting last week, where I was learning about alternative forms of communication, and walking away from it, I was super inspired, but then I got scared. Scared to screw things up, scared to write poorly. I always endeavor to improve my game, for the next book to be better than the previous one, and I feel it’s becoming increasingly difficult, mentally. The more critical I am of myself, the bigger the hurdles to open the file and write. I’ll get there. Just give me a few days.
You have no deadline for this. Does it affect you?
Not sure. Could be. Then again, I’ve hardly ever had to write toward a deadline. I’ve never participated in something like NaNo. Just not my thing. Then again, I want the book to be out next spring which means it’ll have to be done and with my publisher before the end of the year. Having so much time is unusual. So yes, maybe that helps with the procrastination. You know the aegis, right: “That which you can do today, postpone right away!”
How does the public debate on various topics influence you?
It depends on what the subject is. Let’s say “Brexit”… That has no influence on my writing at all. But there are things in politics around the world that might find their way onto the pages of my books, e.g. the environment, global warming (The Golden One.) Sometimes it can be a discussion on Facebook (here’s one example), e.g. there has been a debate in the past year or so about bi-visibility in books, TV, and films which have been on my mind.
Lucifer Morningstar, the devil himself (which incidentally makes hell look like a much nicer place than heaven), is portrayed as very bisexual in the series with the same name, or should I say pansexual, given his inclusion of non-human lovers? Labels, another post entirely! In any case, I find it highly refreshing that he also has sex with men, even though the show focuses on his relationships with the “detective” and lately, Eve.
I think about how my characters (I’ve only ever had one character who’s openly bi in one of my books) and what I can do to help the community to feel more included. It’s also had me think a lot about how I interpret bi characters when I read/watch. Am I disappointed when a male bi character suddenly hooks up/ends up with a woman? Why? Do I gay-wash him when he’s with a guy? What are my feelings about bi people in general? Should I include one (and the debate) in one of my books? I just had this idea to let one of my characters in my new book be openly and unabashedly bi (and have it out with an ex.) That could be a cool scene if it works with the rest of the book.
Visibility, the true representation of all kinds of diversity are important in books.
Any other topics that influence you?
Of course. Mostly topics that somehow have a bearing on my personal life, my relationships, my family. Feminism is always on my mind, women’s rights in general. Voting, representation, discussions about abortion, women’s control over their own lives, their bodies, how women themselves often seem to have opinions about what other women can/should/cannot/shouldn’t do. #MeToo is often on my mind, too, not just because I’m a rape victim myself, but because I often see how women react to me, a middle-aged man, when we meet in a solitary situation, the fear, the momentary stop in their walk, and I can virtually read the look in their eyes “is he a rapist, or not?”
Children are also something I think about, a lot. My son, his development. The differences between my upbringing and his. The fact that he already reads, is good at (simple) math, all the things he knows about the world, cultures, etc. A full year before I even started school. But I also worry, about his chances in life, given how the labor market changes, the global competition these days, how global warming may threaten his future and that of all of humanity. To name a few things constantly on my mind.
You’ve thought a lot about Haakon recently, and his time in Paris. Do you know why?
This is one of my favorite sights in Paris. Why? Hard to explain, but this is the spot of a key scene in “The Fallen Angels of Karnataka”
Is it presumptuous to say that The Fallen Angels of Karnataka is my most important work to date? I like to tell myself it is. I remember so well how long it took me to get back into the “zone” after The Opera House. Then I read a book by Larry Benjamin, who’s also published by Beaten Track, and I got this idea to write about travel, a classic travel novel, you know like Jules Verne, minus the Nautilus. But then, Michel happened, and after that, I was emotionally drained, and it was downhill from there.
So when the cathedral burned a while ago, I began to remember all the scenes of Michel and Haakon in Paris, the romance, the discussions, the illness and–last not least–Michel’s passing, which still is my all-time favorite scene in any of my books. And still, even after all these years, I can’t read it without crying. Michel died too soon. Plus there have been articles recently about the first ever HIV patient in the west, possible cures and what not, plus Norway’s national holiday last week. There have been a lot of reminders. It doesn’t take a lot to get this brain going…
So it seems. Even the tiniest little bit gets you to think about “stuff” you’ve experienced?
Yes. Literally. Anything. I can listen to my favorite podcasts and suddenly my mind wanders. I honestly don’t know how other people tick, but my mind is triggered by any- and everything. Not always, of course. But a lot of things. One shiny object leads to the next.
How do you focus?
That’s not fair. I can’t even answer that question. It is really difficult to quiet my mind, to get you to shut up for a while. I’ve recently discovered that not drinking coffee in the afternoon helps, at night anyway. When I wake up because of a noise or old-man-issues, I can fall back asleep quickly. But during the day, in order to write, I really need to be in the zone, to hear the characters talk to me from the depth of “you”. That way the rest sort of fades into the background.
Research is valuable, it helps me focus, having a task to complete. That sort of stuff usually keeps me single-minded. At least for a little while. I can be extremely productive and I work very fast…
And I guess it helps if I don’t have any other stuff going on that I need to worry about. Sadly that doesn’t happen all too often.
Willem has also been on your mind recently. How come?
Elections in South Africa, lots of articles and features on the country, putting things back on my mind. Plus I wonder at times if my “dystopian” predictions of how WWIII comes to pass are true if it really is global warming and the displacement of large segments of the global population that trigger it all. S’all. Just crazy me. Plus I really like Willem. He’s a bit of a role model. The perfect human. I wish I were more like him.
What about Jason. Why are you still thinking about him?
Okay, that’s not fair. I could just say that it’s because the final book isn’t out yet. But that’s not the only reason. The whole picture is a bit more complex. When I began writing about Jason, I had this notion of a movie in the back of my mind, and I can’t shake the feeling (and I’m probably jinxing it this very moment) about how cinematic the story feels. Maybe I suffer from megalomania (and I’m being way too open and honest right now), but I’d love to see it turned into a movie. I see all those fantasy books turned into movies and I wonder if The Golden One would work, too, or if there isn’t enough blood and gore in it. But I also wonder what would happen if a movie would be tremendously successful. JK Rowling wasn’t done with Harry Potter when she finished the series, yet she still ads new books to the “universe”, these weird prequels. Game of Thrones simply continued where the books left off. I guess that is where I’m at right now with Jason. Preposterous, right? I just see him where he is at the end of book three and (I can’t say anything) I wonder about the ending. How open is it?
Are you open to writing a fourth book? A fifth?
See, I can’t answer that question without giving away something that shouldn’t be out there. Yet. So no comment. For now.
But you’re thinking about it? Would you be open to re-writing the ending to make it happen?
*poker face* I, uh, okay, yes. I’ve been thinking about writing more. No, I would never rewrite the ending. It’s perfect as it is.
Okay, let me ask you about Matt… I sense a close relationship with his personal assistant. Where’s this going?
Not sure I can answer this yet. Matt certainly has feelings for Timmy. But I’m not sure those are answered. Certainly not in a romantic way. But I’m not finished yet, or let’s say you and I aren’t finished thinking about it yet. There are things to consider, such as how appropriate it is for a personal assistant to have a relationship with a patient/client. Besides, would Timmy fall for Matt? I have my own set of preconceptions and prejudice against people with severe disabilities that I’m working through. What makes someone attractive? To whom? Why? And how credible would that be? Let’s just say this is contributing to my procrastinating. This is one of the most difficult aspects to work through for me because I know that Matt loves Timmy. But yeah, the rest is up in the air. I have a lot of issues to work through.
So you’re being an asshole?
*blushes* I guess?
How do you envision this working out?
You’ll be the first to know when the words begin to appear on the screen. I really can’t say if they end up as friends or a couple. I honestly don’t know. But whatever happens between them will be a good thing because it’ll be the end of the book. It’ll be realistic, believable and relatable. Hopefully, I’ll have my shit sorted in time.
Any final thoughts?
Do I really want to publish this? Think this might backfire? Does anyone care about my ramblings with myself, basically?
Nice deflection, answering a question with questions. I guess we can call it a day…
Thanks for keeping me honest. Still not sure if this is such a good idea.
Off to an interesting meeting today, to learn more about alternative communication
Matt, the main character in my new novel (Opus XIII) is suffering from cerebral palsy. This is a condition that comes in many “flavors”. You may have seen characters with CP on TV, e.g. the teacher’s son, Walter Jr., in Breaking Bad or the main character in the new Netflix show Special. Not unlike autism, CP comes on a spectrum and in recent years, thanks to advances in medicine, we are able to help people with CP to live much fuller lives than in the past. For some, the damage from CP is so big that they are almost completely disabled, in some cases, they can’t communicate verbally. This is where alternative communication comes in.
I’m about to learn more about alternative communication
I’m sure you’ve seen how Stephen Hawking used a synthesized voice to communicate with the outside world. Mr. Hawking didn’t suffer from CP, he had MND. Over the years, you can read it in the Wikipedia article, he used different forms of alternative communication. Here’s a snippet from his appearance on Star Trek TNG:
Today, I have a meeting I’m really looking forward to. It’s with an expert on alternative communication at Dart, which is our local West Swedish center for alternative communication here in Gothenburg. I can’t wait to learn about how methods are developed and to see how I might be able to help Matt to break out of his shell.
(Almost) every case is different
You see, each person with a severe communicative disability is different. Okay, they all can’t speak, some might even be deaf, which makes things even more difficult. As babies and toddlers, our brains quickly learn. We recognize our names, realize who’s a mom and who’s dad, recognize them by putting a face next to a name repeated. My six-year-old son just recently entered a phase where he’s fascinated to learn that pappa and daddy not only have “titles” but names, too. He finds it titillating to call us Alex and Hans. Endlessly amusing.
We also learn to recognize objects, as they’re shown to us: forks, teddy bears, spoons, cups. You get the gist. And a healthy baby will repeat those words and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives as they learn new words. Now imagine if you can’t speak. You can’t repeat what your parents are telling you to. You just can’t get those words over your lips. In time people will realize that something is wrong, and they might take you to a doctor to learn more.
In time, with a lot of research, specialists at places like Dart will be able to find a way to help you break through that barrier. But how?
Not reinventing the wheel
I won’t spoil the story for you, but Matt is particularly challenged. There are a great many ways to help patients with communication challenges. Some might be able to use their hands to move a device that looks similar to a computer mouse to point to objects or letters and make words. Others use an eye tracker to see what the individual is looking at. However, not every method works for every patient and to make voluntary movements (rather than erratic ones which are common in CP patients), it will take a lot of time to determine what might work and what might not.
Unfortunately, not every patient with CP gets help. A while ago a friend told me about someone they met out and about with their parents, a young woman, severely physically disabled, unable to communicate. Just imagine the horror of being trapped inside your body, unable to speak, unable to communicate, make yourself heard, tell the world about your desires, your dreams, your hopes. Would you go crazy? In a way, this is what interests me the most about Matt’s journey.
For me, as an author, I’m not up to the task of inventing a communicative method of my own. Hence my meeting today. I have realized, thanks to Matt, what works for him. Now I need to find out just how I can use that to help him communicate, for the first time in his life. I can’t wait for that day when I get to write those chapters. I’m not quite there yet.
Realistic, believable, credible
At the end of the day, I need the story to be realistic enough to be credible to the audience, believable. Unlike the snippet from StarTrek above, this isn’t science-fiction. I can’t just “pretend” this or that, can’t simply attach a diode to Matt’s head which allows him to communicate freely. We’re just not there (yet?) The story I write is about Matt, it’s about someone who–for now–is relying on me to speak on his behalf. I want to write a story about a human being with a particular set of challenges and it won’t be until the end of the book that Matt gets to speak within quotation marks with his own words. Until then, he relies on me, on the things he tells me.
Books are important. The stories we tell are about seeing ourselves through the eyes of someone else. We want to read about “ourselves”. We crave to have our own life validated through the characters in the books we read. We need to see that we are not alone, the only one in the village. This is particularly important for minorities. And in a way, we’re all part of a minority, some may just be smaller than others. Sex, gender, age, creed, skin color, ethnicity, hair color, glasses, LGBTQ, disabilities, etc. All of these in infinite combinations. We’re all some of that, somewhere, somehow.
So is Matt. This may be his story, but it has to be relatable enough for abled people to maybe learn something and for people with disabilities to feel validated, seen. Maybe that’s a tall order. Maybe I’m not the right person to write about this (I’ve had this argument before), but I am an author. It’s my job to tell other people’s stories. Research helps me make sure I get it right.
I can’t wait to present you with this story, eventually, when it’s done. I expect it to be released next spring. Until then, we have the finale of The Golden One to look forward to.
A year ago, I would’ve flushed the unwanted intruder down the toilet…
I can’t take a walk through my beloved forest here on the island without minding my steps anymore. I see the tiny ants crossing the path I walk on as they try to shlep food or building materials back to their anthill, and I try to stay out of their path. This morning, getting dressed, I suddenly noticed a big fat spider on the chair next to our bed. Despite the urge to scream (yeah, I’m that big a wuss…) I calmly removed the rest of the items, placed them on my bed and then picked up the chair, carried it to the back door, opened it and released the spider back into nature. Sadly, I’m not Jason Mendez, and I didn’t get any thanks from the spider, although I DO have a hunch that it would’ve rather remained in the warmth of the house. Alas, it’s not my kind of roommate.
The Cover of my fantasy novel The Golden One – Blooming, the first in a trilogy about seventeen-year-old Jason Mendez.
How writing the Golden One changed my outlook on the animal kingdom
I have never been a big fan of insects. Spiders give me the heeby-jeebies, mosquitos annoy me and most bugs are just gross. My personal hate object have always been cockroaches, so much that I once ended up in a hospital thanks to a particular nasty individual who insisted on falling on my face after pre-teen me tucked myself into bed, tightly tucked with my arms under the sheets, unable to defend myself when the cockroach’s antennae appeared on top of the wooden headboard and it suddenly fell on my face. I had a panic attack and was admitted to the hospital. Ever since, I’ve been persecuted by that particular animal species across the planet, all the way to the Maldives. Luckily we don’t have any here on the island. Yeah, me and cockroaches. Not a pretty story.
Having said that, when I wrote Jason’s story in the past year, my outlook on the animal kingdom (as well as plant life and fungi) changed, subtly at first. I barely noticed how I began to look at my surroundings differently. I began to “see” articles about nature in the papers I read, I’ve learned about the value that particularly insects have in the great scheme of things and how we humans greatly depend on them, even though they’re not really a primary source of food for us. And it’s not just honey bees I’m talking about. Yes, they are very important and we have to make sure to save those populations, But it’s butterflies, wasps, bumblebees and other pollinating insects as well, along with every stink bug, maggot, and other insects that in one way or another serve their purpose in the grand scheme of things, be it in softening our soils, be it as a food source for another animal in the amazing pyramid that “Mother” has created over the eons.
The entire series is available as an ebook, a paperback or as an audiobook.
“Do no harm”, that’s what Jason has taught me
I was never viciously killing animals. I recall a specific instance when we had been out with our boat to an island in the outer band for an overnight stay with our then exchange student. At one point as we were enjoying the warm evening air, adults sipping wine, he picked up a clam from the boulder we were anchored against and suddenly crushed it. No apparent reason. Just for the heck of it. I got super angry at him for the needless kill of an animal. He didn’t understand my anger because to him, a clam’s life wasn’t really much to care about. He stopped nevertheless.
I often see kids kill animals, I see them fish for crabs (which must be terribly stressful for the critters, being stuck and sometimes killed in tiny plastic buckets), I see them squash ants with their fingers or tiny feet. But I notice in particular how few parents (if any, ever) tell their kids not to. But if you don’t respect the weakest members of Mother’s creation, how can you expect the same kids to not pull a cat’s or dog’s tail? Not to maltreat pets or other animals in time? Unfortunately, humanity attributes a purely economic value to the animals and plants around us. Some are desirable (“valuable”), others are not, and we treat them accordingly.
We are about to face the music for our callous behavior
I recently read an article about the extinction of insects in Germany. So many pesticides and insecticides have been used in their agriculture in the past decades that already more than half the insect populations are gone. I still remember that when you’d take a long drive decades ago you’d end up with stains of squashed bugs against the windshield. No more. I try hard to remember when I last had to clean (remember how hard that was?) a bug stain from our car’s windshield, but I can’t. That says a lot. Germany and other countries could be out of insects within a century if we don’t do anything about it.
The final installation of the Golden One, Reckoning, will be released this fall.
Yes, we may have higher yields of crops today, but what about tomorrow? Who’s going to pollinate for us? What are birds and rodents going to eat? And what are foxes, lynx, and other predators going to feed on if birds and rodent populations disappear as a consequence thereof? Nature’s carefully calibrated food pyramid is about to lose its base and the fall from the top for us, humanity, will be far and hard.
It’s not too late, or is it?
When I began writing the Golden One, the idea in the back of my mind was climate change, and how we could find a way forward. I quickly realized that no one being, regardless of how powerful they were. Only as a species, a global community, can we hope to fight global warming and the effects of a changing climate. But that’s only part of the environmental challenge we face. The current wave of mass extinction of species is another. While species have always come and gone, the current level thereof and the speed is unprecedented, and it is entirely humanity’s doing.
It’s funny. All it took for me to realize the value of an animal, any animal, was pretending to talk to it. Give animals a voice and suddenly you can’t dismiss them as easily. In a way, you’re lucky (if you read this) because you don’t have to go through the process. You can simply pick up the finished books and partake of their voice, or–even better–listen to the amazing Vance Bastian narrate the story for you, complete with animated animal voices, be it the simplest bug to the mighty elk!
There’s a reason why authors keep nagging about reviews
1.11% is a number that is greatly frustrating me. It’s the percentage of reviews I’ve received last year. Roughly one in a hundred book buyers actually left a review. In reality, the number is lower because some reviews are left by reviewers who work with advance review copies, i.e. books they don’t pay for. The low number of reviews isn’t just frustrating for me, it’s a source of great consternation for most authors out there. A couple of years ago, when Disease came out, I had been in touch with several Alzheimer’s associations around the world, and one of them, in Australia, said they’d be happy to mention the book to their members, as soon as I’d reached one hundred reviews. I got to thirty-one during that release cycle, having to work hard for every single review.
Why reviews matter
Disease was greatly received by the audiences, but after I had worked hard for those first reviews, they’ve pretty much stopped, even though the book still sells.
The sad truth is that reviews matter. For many reasons. Of course, I could tell you how much I love to read them, but I won’t lie to you. I usually don’t, simply because I’m unaware of them. Also because I have thin skin (I share this trait with most artists) and a negative review can ruin my mood for days. If someone emails me a positive review I walk on cloud #7 instead. Some readers think that authors learn from reviews. With all due respect: don’t overestimate your importance. I say this in all humility. That is not the job of a review, nor the job of a reviewer. By the time a book is released, it’s polished and looks exactly the way author and publisher intend it to be. Nothing left to change, except for some sad and overlooked typos. If you feel you need to teach an author a lesson, try to get involved during the alpha-, beta-, editing or proofreading stage. I know some freelance editors who itch to critique a finished novel as a way to pitch their services. I also know editors who have killed for less after having read such reviews. Just saying.
But reviews matter. The primary reason is commercial. The more reviews a book garners on a site, the more likely it will be highlighted by the site’s algorithms. There are differences, of course, but many reviews are always better than few or none. That is why they matter to the authors and publishers of the world. This isn’t just true for books, but any product sold online, and the main reason why we’re all asked for reviews, be it after a hotel night, a product purchase, by the apps on our phones and–duh!–authors and publishers.
I think readers who are afraid to leave a bad or negative review make a big mistake. Firstly: if a book is full of plot holes, or poorly formatted, or if the story just doesn’t make sense, don’t you think other readers deserve a word of caution before they invest their money? It’s so easy to publish books today. Upload your word document, slap on a cover and you’re pretty much done. No editing, no proofing, no typesetting.
Equally, if you do not like a perfectly well-crafted book, I think people deserve to know. Let’s face it: there is NO book that is for everyone. If you don’t like that a book includes e.g. a descriptive sex scene, this is great customer information. It might actually attract readers who enjoy that sort of reading. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, but simply that it’s a book that wasn’t for you. You might not enjoy lengthy descriptions of locales in a story or how the dialogue is structured or, or, or… Someone else might love that. I hope that makes sense.
Finally, consider this: as much as I love a five-star review, and I am personally super lucky to get amazing reviews (the ones that I receive), but look at it from your point of view, as a reader. When you look for a product that is adorned with five-star reviews only, doesn’t that make you the least bit suspicious? Aren’t you more at ease when you see that there is a mix of reviews? Sure, we all want the majority of those to be favorable, but all of them? Which isn’t to mean that you should start to hand out one-star reviews, but rather than not leaving a review, wouldn’t a two- or three-star review be better? To balance all those five-star ones?
I don’t review because I’m not good at writing…
I get this a lot from people I talk to about reviews. Thing is, you don’t have to be a writer or author to review. Simply say what you like about a book, what was your favorite aspect? What didn’t work for you? Maybe explain why? I understand that many readers want to do the author justice, but remember this: your review isn’t for the author. It’s for other readers. Keep it simple, keep it short. There is no need for a review to be several paragraphs long. Yes, some reviews are long, they look at a great many aspects of a book, and being a reviewer myself, I can often write a thousand words or more in my reviews here. But let’s be honest: on Amazon, nobody’s going to read a review that is longer than 200 words. They might read the first couple of sentences and then move on to the next. Our attention span is limited. We look at the stars and then why those stars were awarded (or not.) Simple as that.
I used to review, but then got flak from the author
First, allow me to apologize on behalf of all authors, and I don’t give a shit whether they allow me to or not. To criticize a review is one of the taboos I hold dear in my job as a writer. So what if you get a bad review (see above.) It’s not a criticism of you as a person. I know, I know. Authors are sensitive flowers and read on a wrong day (heater broke, the youngest kid was sent to the principal’s office, car totaled) we are all extra sensitive to it. BUT, readers are entitled to their views in peace and quiet. And as authors, we have no right to go after them. And sadly, it happens.
But instead of giving up on reviewing altogether, please consider just sticking the middle finger to that particular individual. Continue reviewing other books you read. To my fellow authors, I say this: if a review rubs you the wrong way, for whatever reason, look the other way. Talk to a friend or a fan and let them pick you up from the gutter of your self-loathing (we’ve all been there.) But never, ever, take your frustration out on a reader. We all end up losing.
Reviews matter, they are probably the single best thing you can do for an author besides buying their work
I can’t stress this enough. Reviews are absolutely critical and on sites like Amazon where most Americans and Britons these days look for “stuff” (regardless of what it is), having reviews is essential to a book’s visibility. So if you have a moment, please go back to your orders and review past book purchases. We authors will be forever grateful for it. This is even more important for authors who are not published by the “big five” where marketing funds will make sure to highlight those books to potential readers. Indie authors and authors with small presses just don’t have that luxury. Reviews and sales are the only way to make a dent, to be seen among the fifty-plus million books that are on sale on Amazon. And without reviews, no/fewer sales.
Most people buy their books on Amazon. Like that fact or not, but a fact it is. Review there. Or leave it wherever you buy your book. If you have the time and feel inclined to, reviews on BookBub or Gollumreads are appreciated, even though the “average” reader doesn’t frequent those sites. They are geared toward very frequent readers, fans.
I just can’t…
Patreon is a service to help artists find people to keep creating their art through crowdfunding.
I get it. And you are in good company. Unfortunately for us authors. But even if you can’t bring yourself to review because of bad experiences, lack of time or just can’t find the right words, there are still things you can do to help an author: why not recommend a book you like to a friend or two? Word of mouth is the best marketing method there is (hence reviews…) and if every reader were to get two more people to buy a book, most authors would have fewer reasons to complain about declining book sales.
If you are active on social media, and you see a post by an author you like, heart/like it. No need to comment, but those darned algorithms react to reactions. It doesn’t even take a second and you’ve done a good deed. Share, comment, encourage. Write your favorite author a letter/email and I guarantee you there will be smiles on the other end. Most of us who do not support ourselves financially with our writing “live and breathe” those messages. They truly make our days.
If all of that isn’t for you, but you have money for a couple of lattes to spare, consider sponsoring an artist through sites like Patreon. I just started my page after long consideration and I’ve just written a post explaining why contributions make such a big difference for us.
Please don’t read this post as a “lecture”. I have had several conversations over the past weeks and months on this subject with readers, and I’ve recently attended a seminar which really drove home the importance of reviews for me. Hence the above. I felt I wanted to address some of the concerns and provide perspective.
I would also like to say thank you: thank you to those who buy my books and others, to readers who reach out and care, reviewers and my first patrons. Art isn’t primarily about money. Every true artist keeps saying that, but the fact of the matter is that “love” and “exposure” don’t pay utility bills and they don’t keep us from maxing out credit cards.
Every author’s life is different, our circumstances vary and we do what we do for a great many reasons. I can only speak for my own. Thank you for supporting us, the arts, for allowing us to enrich human culture, to facilitate our continued growth and development, particularly “in these dark and troubling times”.
Money is always on my mind. Maybe it’s genetic. I am Swiss after all, and we have perfected both money and banks (and we love to take it from you…) However, on a serious note, money is a constant headache for artists. It’s a topic for everybody these days, as our societies drift apart with a select few having more and more while the vast majority gets by on less and less. For artists, to earn a living with their art is increasingly difficult. I see many reasons for that.
The democratization of the arts
There used to be a time when humanity was busy putting food in their mouths, clothes on their bodies and finding shelter. Most never got beyond that basic level on Maslov’s pyramid. The few who always had it all were also the ones who were patrons of the arts, and there are many famous examples, from the popes in Rome to e.g. the Medici family in Florence or the royalty around the world who would employ bards, painters, sculptors or storytellers. Even authors were often supported by nobility in their art and often had to flee, head over heel, as their ideas weren’t always appreciated by their patrons. One of my personal favorites, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is one such example.
Amazon is a key player in the democratization of publishing, but also inadvertently destroying the ability of most authors to ever make a living.
In a way, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are the oddities for writers. Suddenly, there were writers who were able to make a living, thanks to publishers, newspapers, and magazines. With the advent of Amazon and self-publishing in the late twentieth century, publishing a book is suddenly a tool for everybody. Publishers, literary agents were no longer the gatekeepers they once were. Within just a couple of decades, things have drastically changed and with over fifty million books available to readers, and the latter decreasing thanks to the Internet and the increase in podcasts, a change in the pace of life, it’s getting increasingly difficult to sell books. Add the decrease in the price of books and you have a lethal cocktail. Mind you, the same is true for music. They are about ten years ahead of us, as their price decline started a lot sooner. The biggest acts these days don’t earn their money with records but tours/concerts. Many have claimed for years that the same is true for writers. And in a way it is, because the only writers who really make a dent these days in terms of “bestsellers” are celebrities. Today, you must be famous to get a publishing deal. You don’t achieve fame because you write great books.
The role of Patreon
Patreon is a service to help artists find people to keep creating their art through crowdfunding.
Having to fall back on a patronage service (crowdsourcing) feels like defeat. When I first decided against Patreon more than two years ago, it was for a fear of being pushed in a certain direction by my potential patrons and a fear that I might not be able to keep them happy, that the content creation for Patreon might take too much time. Let me add that as a European, completely unaccustomed to crowdsourcing, a healthy dose of shame also played a major role. Begging just seems so strange.
Let’s face it. If you write in English and the U.S. is your major market, you need to abide by the rules that apply to that market. I’ve tried to behave “European” for the past six years and it’s not done me any favors. My personal integrity may be intact, but my family economy isn’t. There are boundaries I’m not willing to cross. I won’t steal art, I pay for the content I use, be it music, imagery and film snippets for trailers. imagery for my covers, I pay my cover creators and I pay for the guys who narrate my audiobooks and the illustrator of my children’s books.
Patreon fills a gap here. They help us recoup some of the cost of our content creation. Crowdsourcing is a thing in the U.S., be it for healthcare (in absence of public solutions) or even a funeral. Here in Sweden, there are plenty of grants for authors to apply for, but writing in English, those don’t apply to me. Like I said, if you play on a different market, different rules apply. Unfortunately, it seems that the most successful people on Patreon are the ones who need it the least, i.e. the famous ones. That is part of the rule of the game these days.
The cost of being an author
They say that publishing a book is free, and that is true, of course. But what book will that be? Relying on free images to create a cover, relying on friends or one’s own talent. I’ve seen far too many such covers, and in nine of ten such examples, they fall short. Self-publishers who do not pay for professional editing or proofreaders, and who typeset their own books. I’ve seen those books, and far too many fall into the DNF category. As interesting as a story may be if it is hidden by typos, plot holes, and atrocious typesetting, readers will return them to Amazon for a refund.
Conventions are necessary for an author to attend, as we are in a day and age where our brand is centered around who we are, less on what we create.
I spend 50% of my earnings to have my book edited, proofed and typeset by my publisher. I’m lucky. Most traditionally published authors earn royalties below 30%. I pay for my own covers (roughly $200 per book) because I am picky about that and because I’ve done my own covers even before I joined Beaten Track. They do have a say in covers though since their earnings also depend on a successful cover.
Audiobooks are becoming increasingly important as people read less and less. Our attention span is decreasing, we spend more time consuming shorter and shorter bits and pieces of information and fewer people set aside the time to read. They will still listen to an audiobook on their commute though, or while cleaning the house, etc. There are different models for paying for that, which again includes a cover, but the most expensive part is the narrator, and the three books I’ve done so far have cost me between $600 and $2,500. I get about $9 per book purchased. You do the math…
My children’s books require illustrations, and the artist who so brilliantly does them for me also wants to be paid. Each illustration clocks at $75 or more, depending on the artist. I just recently commissioned a new cover illustration for one of my books and prices ranged from $175 to almost $1,000.
Have I mentioned conventions and signings? Flights, hotels, paying for tables there? The cost of buying books and having them shipped. Yes, I usually sell well, but not always. I recently attended a book fair and ended up selling one book, but I still had to make sure to have them all there. It’s a hit or miss situation, you never know how well you’ll do. But nobody is sending me books for free and no postal service ships without charging… And no amount of book sales will ever cover the cost of transatlantic flights and hotels.
But that’s not all, there’s my website, the cost for my newsletter ($30/month), the cost for marketing campaigns, BookBubs, etc. It never ends, and with an ever-decreasing budget, the likelihood of breaking through the noise is diminishing rapidly and no nude selfies would ever be able to change that…
Artists deserve to be paid
Still one of my favorite covers. Natasha Snow, one of my cover artists, deserves every penny I pay her.
I think that goes without saying. I cannot pay my groceries with “exposure” (sorry, HuffPost), and I’ve stopped writing for websites who don’t pay me. I think the same applies to the artists I work with. I know they have invoices to pay, I know they do great work and deserve every penny they get.
If you look at the above, you quickly realize that I would have to sell thousands and thousands of copies of books to even break even. Alas, I am not. Not even close. Note that this is in no way a complaint. It’s just a fact. I don’t have the money to advertise for my books, and to become visible among the fifty million books on Amazon is simply a question of investing a ton of money, or luck. So far the latter has also eluded me. I could compromise. I could use standard cheap covers, but what would that do to my visibility on Amazon and elsewhere?
I could use a narrator based simply on a profit-share scheme, but what is the likelihood they’d help me again if they realize that they won’t make any money? And do I want twenty narrators for my different books, twenty disgruntled people badmouthing me for not selling? And would readers/listeners appreciate a new voice for every book?
Why I created a Patreon page
I have a business that has been in charge of my publishing of audiobooks and a couple of my titles (Common Sense and Dads.) Over the years, that business has accumulated losses, losses that my husband and I have covered with our own money. I can’t even say how much money we’ve invested to keep that company afloat. It’s irrelevant because whether I run my writing through a company or privately as a hobby, the invoices would still need paying.
But I’ve noticed that around us, things are getting more and more expensive, while my sales peaked in 2015. Yes, 2018 was better, a lot better than the disaster year of 2017, but still. I’m miles away from even paying the cost of my books. And unless lady luck intervenes, I’ll never be able to make a living as a writer. Unfortunately, getting a day job isn’t easy either when you’re fifty-two years old in Sweden. I’m either over-qualified or too old, the former a euphemism for the latter. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have nothing to lose.
Which is why I’ve finally decided to create a Patreon page. Nothing’s changed on the surface since I published that first post in 2017, but I’ve tried to find ways to mitigate the amount of work I will have to put in creating content for Patreon, and I’ve talked to a lot of people on Patreon about their experiences.
Have a look, please provide feedback
My Patreon page went live yesterday, and I’m thrilled to already have a patron. *smiles* I have created a few tiers from $5 to $100 (overly optimistic perhaps) a month with content I hope will appeal to potential patrons. That content can always change. So please have a look and let me know what you think. I’d be happy to listen and learn. I’m new at this, and yet I’m not because I’ve always had a patron, my father. Without him, I would have had to give up on writing years ago and really on unemployment benefits (since I can’t get a job at my age. Just in case you wonder…) At least this way, I feel that I am making a positive change to society with my art and keeping myself busy, too. Only time will tell, if Patreon is going to make a difference in my life or not.
Branding is more than a logotype or a genre to write in…
I’m still thinking about the breakfast seminar I attended yesterday… Bear with me. In it, the number 76 was imprinted (branded?) on us. 76% of all marketing efforts of companies selling primarily online was aimed at strengthening their brand, NOT to promote specific products or getting people to buy stuff. Research from traditional marketing suggests that number be 60%. So why do online brands focus more on branding? The answer is that people buy your goods on marketplaces that do not bear your logo, places like Alibaba, Amazon et al. For me, as an author, I can add B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Kobo and all the many bookstores around the world. NONE of them bear my name (duh!) and none of them care the least about me. In order to make a dent, to be recognized, we need to focus on our brand image.
A brand is an overall experience of a customer that distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of the customer. Brands are used in business, marketing, and advertising. […]
Branding is a set of marketing and communication methods that help to distinguish a company or products from competitors, aiming to create a lasting impression in the minds of customers. The key components that form a brand’s toolbox include a brand’s identity, brand communication (such as by logos and trademarks), brand awareness, brand loyalty, and various branding (brand management) strategies. Many companies believe that there is often little to differentiate between several types of products in the 21st century, and therefore branding is one of a few remaining forms of product differentiation.
Here’s what I take from this for me, an author; words like customer experience, but also identity, communication, loyalty, and awareness. But also the last sentence, which is how I began the post. At the seminar, we were told that we live in an age where there is a bigger supply than demand. How can I make sure that a reader chooses my books among fifty million to choose from?
How to approach branding
One of the many swag items I produced. This coffee mug is the most expensive item, either sold at cons or given to those who buy several books in bulk.
I do not have many resources for branding. There are anecdotal stories about how a book reaches a big audience. One of the stories I recall hearing relates to the first English translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently (I can’t vouch if this is true or just an urban tale, so take it with a pinch of salt), the English publisher passed out thousands of free copies of the book in the London subway to create a buzz for the book. If true, it certainly worked, as the Millennium Trilogy has since been adapted for the silver screen and expanded into additional books ghost-written after the author’s death. A lot of money involved. That would be considered an example of product branding. Who cares about a dead author? Not much to work with except of course legends (there is a certain amount of that going on here in Sweden, but that’s beside the point here)
I don’t have the money to give away thousands of printed copies of my books in the subway. I have tried to move books using BookBub, and in both instances, a book of mine was accepted, it worked out nicely. however, and I think this is critical, while both books became bestsellers, the number of reviews garnered was low. Of fifteen-thousand plus copies sold of The Opera House, only thirty-five actually reviewed the book. Mind you, great reviews, but still. 0.0067% is a miserable conversion rate. My second Bookbub with Disease didn’t fare any better. While Bookbub will get you great sales numbers (at considerable cost!), it will not lift your book in the long run due to miserable conversion rates.
My (lacking) approach
So what else can you do?
The official logo of author Hans M Hirschi
What do I do? Swag is something that comes to mind, a logotype. I began creating swag in 2015 for conventions I attended (another branding aspect.) The logo came in 2016. I’m not a huge fan of swag and I haven’t produced anything for two years. I still have pens left over (the most sensible thing done) as well as buttons, key chains, and coffee mugs.
I have never really done my homework. Yes, I gave the designer of my logo instructions, but if you look at my author logo you may not necessarily get to the same associations about the brand I want you to. Then again, what logo ever does that? My logo is fairly masculine, despite the “crown” (which stems from my nickname “The Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings“) I still like my logo and even though I might wish to alter my brand image, I believe I can achieve that with the existing logo. Others have. Besides, I’m a writer. My logo isn’t the culmination of my brand. It’s only a facet of it.
So what will I need to do?
So many faces, so many expressions. Who am I? Which best expresses my core values? My brand?
I need to sit down and figure out what I actually want my brand to signify, what I want it to imply. What emotions do I wish to evoke? What is it I want readers to associate me with? How broad do I want my branding to be (which speaks to my target audience), how do I communicate these values and emotions? I have a lot of work to do, and it’s not made easier by the fact that I have very little in terms of money to play with. If I could’ve asked my hosts from yesterday for help, I could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars in fees (before spending a dime on actual marketing) to answer these (and other) questions and reach success.
I remember a question that was put before me once by the GM of one of our countries in a company I worked for: what conversion rate do you envision? I was asking for funds for a campaign. He expected a 1:100 conversion rate, i.e. for every dollar spent he wanted 100 dollars ROI. Maybe he was just yanking my chains, maybe he was being realistic. At the time, I turned around and walked away. I barely knew how to compute ROI on training (different topic altogether) and we never saw the revenue of any sales. But that was then. Given that most of my books sell for five dollars, and we get maybe 50-60% of that, which I share equally with my publisher, I get about $1.25 per book sold. You do the math of how many books I’d have to sell to even afford a campaign, not to mention getting to that kind of ROI. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of ebooks. Compared to the 1,800 books sold last year. Yeah. Whatever approach I choose, it better be dirt cheap.
I have some ideas…
I have homework to do. Once I have figured out what kind of emotions I want my author brand to evoke, I need to work out how to communicate those. I need to think about how my genre-jumping (which doesn’t make things easier) can be aligned with the brand. And then I need to figure out how to communicate that to my readers (existing and potential ones.) Followed by actions on how I can convert that into sold books. I have ideas but need to carve out time to actually work on that. And I feel I really need to begin to focus on that work. I’ve always enjoyed marketing and PR work, although (in my previous life as a training and development executive) I used to have a fairly nice budget to achieve my goals. No longer. I may have to rely on guerilla tactics…