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”.
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…
I attended a breakfast seminar this morning, getting up way early to go downtown. The seminar was organized by the Dentsu Aegis Network in Gothenburg and it was all about the rumored, coming, pending, threatened (I could go on, you know…) arrival of Amazon on the Swedish market. This has been talked about for years, but only last year (or so) did they get the .se domain and rumors have it that they’re working on distribution and/or have that finalized. Whether or not they’ll open up, that’s a different question. Doesn’t stop companies from selling services or others from wondering about how to tackle the arrival of such a disruptive force in e-commerce.
Author, what are you doing there?
My logo, part of my branding. But hardly enough.
First, as a poor author, it would be stupid to say no to a free breakfast. Thanks, Dentsu Aegis! 😉 Second, duh! Amazon, right? I mean, where do I make most of my money (what little I make) if not through Amazon? I’ve been working with them since 2013, and even though I often want to pull out every last hair on my head, I realize that they ARE the most important sales channel for me. So I was curious to learn more about how I might improve my presence on Amazon, potentially learn about advertising as well as tips and tricks on how to beat the system. I left disappointed. The seminar wasn’t geared toward authors who possess no marketing budgets from which Dentsu Aegis could’ve recovered the cost for my morning coffee and sandwich. I already knew that before sitting down.
However, I did learn some interesting things, even though I qualify as “vendor” to Amazon and they fulfill everything. Things like the fact that most people never click beyond the first page of results, which is frustrating, particularly when you write queer literature, and you compete with naked torsos and Michelle Obama’s biography (WTF?) It’s a fact and not much I can do about. At one point, one of the speakers rightly pointed out that the more you sell, the higher the ranking, which leads to more sales. Mind you, he was referring to products not books, but we were first and bestsellers do sell best. Duh.
I’ve never tried advertising on Amazon. I wish I could, but they won’t let me. As a non-US entity, I can’t advertise on Amazon and every time I try, I’m met with this lovely fuck-off message: “This account may not purchase licenses for this product due [sic!] country or region restrictions. Please check your country or region settings and try again.” Besides, I readily admit that I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s like contacting them and getting to talk to a human.
What I did take away from the seminar though was that branding, and focusing your ad money on branding was more important than focusing on pushing product, which feels a bit counter-intuitive until you think about it. Because when others push your wares (aforementioned Amazon), you need to have a strong brand to stand out against the rest, selling similar stuff. Mind you, as authors it’s a little bit different. A book isn’t a phone or a fridge. But there are similarities in that even writers have a brand, and it is important for us to focus on our brand, to cherish it, look after it, cultivate our image.
The speck of light…
I’m but a speck of light in the universe…
Which brings me back to the title of this post: who the hell am I to help a reader find my bock in a place filled with over fifty million books? I feel like that one speck of light in the universe and the readers are literally lost in space looking for something. That something I so desperately want to be me? My speck of light? Will they be attracted to the brightest light? The most colorful? Probably a bit of both, and without overstretching the analogy, I can say that this is what I will try and focus on a little more going forward, to build a brand image of myself (inexpensively) to increase the lumen of my brand.
Do I have a brand today? I guess I do, but it’s obviously not nearly well known enough, so that’s one aspect. The other is obviously to make sure the connotations associated with me and my writing are such that readers want to read more, can’t wait for the next book.
Breadcrumbs on the way to success: reviews
There are obviously other aspects as well, particularly reviews. I don’t really have to worry about customer service, fulfillment etc, as Amazon handles that for me (and my publisher.) However, I do worry greatly about reviews and the lack thereof. Most people who buy my books do not leave a review, and that is sad because I know. I sold 1,800 books (not much, I know) last year, but only a fraction of those left reviews. I think that is probably my number one goal this year, to get more people to review my work on Amazon. If only 10% of those people had left a review, that would mean 180 reviews. My most reviewed book to date has 37 reviews. Mind you, that would make a HUGE difference. How to get there? That’s a different question altogether. Tips? Always welcome.
I’ll keep thinking about this for a day or two, and who knows, I might come up with more. Some things I know might help (e.g. stick to writing in one genre) I won’t consider. It’s not me. Others I may not be aware of yet.
This weekend I attended a regional book fair a few hundred kilometers north of Gothenburg. It was my second visit. Last year the organizers had asked me to attend and “sponsored” me. I was also able to stay with friends to minimize the cost. Not so much this year. I had sold decently last year and figured I’d do well again this year. Well being about ten books, if memory serves me right. We decided to take the weekend and take our son along, as he loves train rides and hadn’t seen this part of the country. While a fun day and fair for me, financially, it was a bad decision.
The economy of a non-bestselling author
Most people don’t like to talk about money or income. I don’t have much to hide. My royalties are non-existent and I still see (on average) a book or two per day, making my Amazon author rank zig-zag between 30,000 and 250,000. It goes up when I release a book and down again after a while. Every time I sell a book, it goes up drastically. Makes you wonder how many people actually make a living from their writing. I know authors who sell a lot more who still have day jobs. I don’t. More about that (and why) in a minute.
Let’s just have a look at this weekend and the cost I incurred: train ticket, hotel, a table at the conference, the cost of books v the income of books sold. Book fairs are fickle beings. Some years you sell well, some you don’t. This year, a combination of fair weather, plenty of other events and the “unknown” of the visitor composition meant that few people bought books. Writing in English, selling books in the Swedish countryside is challenging as it is, and given that some of my colleagues didn’t sell a single book, I have to be pleased with the two I did sell. However, comparing the cost I incurred (~$458), the revenue of ~$27.50 is a drop in the ocean. Two-thirds of my royalties spent in one weekend.
Why I make these “horrific” financial choices
The indie author’s daily reality: money down the drain.
Some might say I’m crazy. They might just be right. Some might not make the same choice. Why do I attend a fair like this, knowing full well that I will never recoup that cost. I will also add here that these events are like best-selling lists. Only a few will ever make money. At the fair this weekend, I reckon one, possibly two authors got their money back, one being the “star” of the show, the main event. Already making money, she likely made even more and was paid to appear. I’m not envious, but as these things go, the book world is a funny place: you need to be famous to get a book deal to make money which you already have, as you’re famous. Alas, it’s the world.
So why do I (and many others) attend these events? What could possibly motivate us to throw away money? Had I not better save that money for a rainier day (e.g. my retirement?) Obviously, I don’t. So why? I think for most authors, our “need” to tell our stories goes far beyond simply writing them. Many of us also invest a lot of money to get these stories published. ONE author in Sweden was lucky enough to be published by Nordic (and global) giant Bonnier last year. One author! I have a hunch that the picture is similar for the remainder of the “big five” (regardless of what country you call “yours”.) The rest of all debutants had to either rely on small niche publishers or self-publishing. Some might even have paid for expensive vanity publishing services. My publisher is a niche publisher, a small indie house, and they make about as much money as I do. The only real income is the love for stories and to be able to read and polish stories, to make them available for a wider public.
I think that applies to me as well. I enjoy meeting readers, to showcase my work, and the joy of someone buying a book (or two as it were) goes a long way. Will I make the same decision again next year, given the meager results? Probably not. But maybe attend another book fair?
An indie author’s drive
Money can’t be our driving force, that is clear. So what is? What keeps us going? Well, I think we have those stories bubble up within us and we just can’t help it. We have to tell them. And just as some people spend thousands of dollars renovating vintage cars, collecting stamps or coins, we spend money making these stories available, regardless of the cost (to a degree anyway.)
The decisions we make to arrive at where we are aren’t driven by what is most economically beneficial to us, or even from a marketing point of view. We often choose covers because they appeal to us, because they’re beautiful, not because they sell. We write blurbs that convey an emotion of the book, not one that hooks people into buying it, and we send our ARCs to those who would’ve bought the book anyway, in hope for a review, thus losing both money (and often enough not seeing a review.) We make decisions regarding our books from a place of love, not a place of making money.
Yet somewhere, in the depth of our subconscious, we all hope that some mysterious agent might pick up our work, that a film studio will stumble across it, despite the handful of reviews on Amazon, and love the story so much they’ll send us a contract worth six-figures to sign us with all the fame and glory that comes with that. We all do. One in a million actually sees that contract. Just like the American dream, for most, it remains a dream at best.
Are you crazy? Get out and work!
I’m sure that most of the handful of people who will read this post will have this thought on their mind by now: why don’t you get a job? Why don’t you go back to working full-time? The answer isn’t an easy one, and it implies a shameful admission: it’s not as easy as it sounds. Today’s job market is brutal and we compete not just within our own countries but with bright, well-educated people around the world. I’m old, and at fifty-one (soon to be fifty-two) my education isn’t “fresh”. I’m also quite expensive (and no, I can’t call an employer and say that I’ll accept a 28-year old’s wage because they’d think I’m nuts/desperate) in the eyes of an employer given my thirty-year experience on the job market.
I’ve applied for a great number of jobs, both within what the market considers my “core” competencies and within adjacent areas. The result: one interview in three years. I’m either considered over-qualified (aka too old) or I don’t have the right industry background. Add to that that every year that I’ve been writing widens the chasm to the so-called workforce and I’m considered too remote and useless. Spice it up with a pinch of Xeno- and homophobia and my job market is all but the Gobi desert. This is all doing a stellar job on my self-esteem. So I keep writing because I can’t sit still and twiddle my thumbs. I need to work, I need to do something. And yes, I’m keeping my eyes on job adverts, too. I am capable of multi-tasking. 😉
I honestly don’t know. I have no real WIP at this time. No inspiration for the next great Swedish novel (in English.) I’m working on a children’s book, but that’s a long-term project. Short term? Find my inspiration? Make sure my self-worth, my self-esteem and what Americans so often refer to as “confidence” doesn’t plummet further? I don’t want to appear as a pity-party because I’m doing well, especially compared to the millions and millions without a meal on their table, those who lose house and home to natural disasters or those who are constantly under threat from oppressive regimes. Who am I to complain? First-world problems, right?