Responding to Nick Spalding’s Self-Publishing Tips

Yesterday I posted excerpts from Nick Spalding’s thirteen-year old tips on self-publishing, which he told me are all still applicable today. So, today I’m going to respond to his tips with my thoughts.

1. Don’t give up the day job

Of course the dream is to sell lots of books, make tons of money, and quit your job. The key here is that until writing can sustain you it is best to write around your work schedule. Which, is what I’ve done. Of course, that’s a big reason why it took seven years to complete the first draft of my first novel. My final push to finish the first draft was achieved by being extra aggressive in making time to complete it. So, day job is still intact…

2. Be yourself

I have often heard people say that authors should write the books they themselves would like to read. I like the novels of Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Matthew Norman, and other “lad-lit” authors (like Spalding, Dunn, etc.), and that’s basically what I’ve written. My novel is, of course different from theirs books… but it’s one that I enjoyed writing, even when it got difficult. I enjoyed exploring the different characters and making various plot points work together… I didn’t try to write anything bigger than I could realistically pull off. I wasn’t trying to write the next great American novel… just a story I enjoyed to write that I hope others will too.

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Self-Publishing Tips From Nick Spalding

Nick Spalding is a very successful author with indie roots, who went on to sign a six-figure book deal. Back in 2003, he gave us his top 10 self-publishing tips. I’ve posted them below with excerpts:

1. Don’t give up the day job

“Everyone wants to live the dream and write full time, but it is a very difficult industry to get into and a very difficult industry to stay in. Learn to write around your day job in the beginning, that’s what I did.”

2. Be yourself

You have to be yourself in your writing. You have to pick a genre that suits you as a person and you as a writer. If you are a happy go lucky person it might not be best to write about a serial killer or vice versa.

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Is The Key To Selling Lad-Lit Marketing To Women?

Wow, I had no idea that the publishing world was writing off “lad lit” fourteen years ago… but it’s true. In 2004, Publisher’s Weekly published an article titled “Lad Lit Hits the Skids”, and it was kind of frightening to read.

What if publishers created a subgenre and nobody read it? In the case of “lad lit,” the answer appears to be that they would produce even more titles. Despite disappointing sales of fiction and nonfiction that turns chick lit’s self-deprecating gaze on young men and their dating woes, a slew of new books are on the way. Whether that’s a result of stubbornness or sexism, the bottom line for booksellers is “the only place lad lit exists as a viable genre is in the imaginations of publishers,” as Borders’s fiction buyer Leah Rex put it.

The author of the column, Natalie Danford, notes that despite ample media coverage for “these boy books” sales were disappointing.

If there’s a patron saint of lad lit, it’s Nick Hornby, whom Brad Thomas Parsons, senior editor for literature and fiction at Amazon, termed “the go-to guy in this genre.” Yet even Nick Hornby isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. While Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (Viking, 1998), launched the chick-lit category after selling more than two million copies in hardcover and paperback, it took Hornby six titles in trade paperback to hit that level of sales.

Wow. Who knew? I certainly had no idea. What’s the answer to the lack of sales (at least compared to chick lit)? It seems to me that appealing to women readers is the way to go. This article hints this as well, though doesn’t quite commit to this theory.

Pocket’s Downtown Press imprint is publishing three paperback originals with announced first printings of about 25,000 copies apiece: Mike Gayle’s Dinner for Two (June), John Scott Shepard’s The Dead Father’s Guide to Sex and Marriage (July) and Simon Brooke’s Upgrading (Aug.). Louise Burke, executive v-p and publisher, doesn’t expect the titles to draw male readers. “These women are reading chick-lit books like popcorn, so you have to keep giving them an eclectic selection,” she said.

But it’s far from clear that focusing on female readers will spark sales of lad lit. There don’t seem to be enough young male book buyers to allow the subgenre to survive without crossing gender lines. And so far, it hasn’t consistently attracted enough female readers to become commercially viable. For women, the appeal of lad lit may be “spying on the other side, getting a look into the locker room,” said Lynda Fitzgerald, events coordinator for the 10 Barbara’s bookstores in Chicago.

So, at least in 2004, the answer wasn’t entirely clear. That was a long time ago, and certainly things have changed. But, maybe the truth is more obvious than those of us who write “lad lit” and read it are willing to admit. Nick Hornby may be the king of lad lit, but in the past several years, he’s been dabbling a lot more in movie writing than novel writing. Jonathan Tropper’s 2009 breakout novel This is Where I Leave You offered hope for the genre, but he’s only published one novel since (which honestly was not his best work) and has been doing a lot more with television writing lately it seems. Are two leaders of the genre telling us that those of us trying to write and sell books that might be described as lad lit are wasting our time?

I’m going to write the books I want to write, but it seems to me that the issue with lad lit is not a problem with quality or content, it’s marketing. So the answer must be not to market specifically to men or women, but to market to both. Look at the cover for Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. It doesn’t appear to be meant to appeal to men over women or vice versa. It’s got big bold letters and doesn’t feel too masculine or feminine. It did very well and was made into a movie. His earlier books, on the other hand, their original covers (not the post-TIWILU redesigns) felt very much like they were designed to appeal to men. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

I recently wrote that I was giving thought to an alternate design for my novel’s cover… one that was a bit more in line with other lad-lit… illustrated… bold colors… maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe my gut was right in the beginning.

Or, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. When I look at the covers of British writer Matt Dunn, (both the UK and US versions) I see an interesting pattern. Several of his UK covers have a chick-lit feel to them, and others more masculine and neutral. All of them are illustrated, so clearly that route clearly works for him.

My favorite cover from his books is for What Might Have Been. It’s bold and simple. It definitely feels like lad-lit while also not being overly masculine. As for the covers that appear more like chick-lit… that probably  was intentional, because there have been many words written documenting the success of the chick-lit genre, and I’m sure those covers were designed with that in mind. Since Dunn has written more novels than Nick Hornby or Jonathan Tropper each have, and has a new one coming out in September… I suspect what he’s done has worked just fine for him.

Perhaps I’ll invite Mr. Dunn to chat about this issue sometime on this blog.

Who Will Buy My Book?

I just came across this article from The Millions by author Tom McAllister, and was immediately drawn to this paragraph:

Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.

The last sentence really struck me. I’m probably still many months away from self-publishing my first novel, and, sure, there was a time where I assumed that friends and family alone could guarantee a few dozen sales without any effort or investment. If that were the case, other self-published authors I know on Facebook with over 5,000 friends could easily get themselves in the top ranks of Amazon just by posting on social media. But, it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve heard lots of stories from indies who are barraged with requests for free copies of their books, with the promise of “I’ll tell everyone about it” in return for the gesture. Writing a novel is no easy task, and yet the people who should be the most willing to support you are not willing to cough over a few bucks to buy your book, and even if they did they probably won’t read it anyway. At best, they’ll offer to share something about your book on social media, and expect their freebie in exchange for the free PR. But, as McAllister notes, this doesn’t help authors one bit.

People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writer friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.

And, if we’re honest, we’re all guilty of not being supportive all the time. McAllister acknowledges he’s guilty of this as well.

I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.

McAllister says, and I agree, “I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do.” Truer words cannot be spoken. A book is a significant time investment, and the name on the cover is not enough to convince anyone to invest the time it takes to read it if the story isn’t compelling to the potential reader. Honestly, I know a lot of indie authors through Facebook, and I absolutely would love to support all of them. But, I have specific tastes, and if they’ve written a book that I know is not my cup of tea, am I going to buy it and read it? Maybe I’ll buy it if it’s on sale, but I won’t read it. Why would I read a book that experience has taught me I won’t enjoy? I know it sounds terrible, but it’s true. I’ll maybe buy the book when it’s free or on sale on Kindle for 99 cents, but I’m not spending the time to read a story I won’t enjoy, and I won’t be posting a review on Amazon.

Is that what the author really wants?  Sales are great, but readers are better. When you target friends and family, you’re going for sales. So, don’t bother. Target people who will actually want to read your book, because they’re the ones you won’t need to beg. They’re the ones who are far more likely to care about the story you’ve put all that time and effort to create.

So, I’m not going to bother pushing my book to friends and family. I’m taking the steps now to find my target audience… the people who are likely to take a chance and read my novel.

Why I’m Going Right To Self-Publishing

I’m in a few author groups on Facebook, and recently someone was talking about their novel in progress, and was asked if they were going to self-publish or attempt to get an agent and a publisher.

I honestly can’t remember what the answer was because I immediately began to consider the implication of the question.  Attempting to traditionally publish my novel never even occurred to me over the seven years I was working on it… off and on.

Why not? Aside from the stigma of self-publishing basically being a non-issue these days, the truth is that an author doesn’t need a big house publisher, or even a small traditional publisher to put out a quality book that can be successful. Indie-authors Nick Cole and Jason Anspach have enjoyed incredible success with their Galaxy’s Edge series. They wrote some quality science fiction novels, had some kick-ass covered illustrated, and new how to market them in a way that would get them noticed by their target audience. If you’ve ever listened to Nick Cole talk about how they did it in a podcast, he’ll tell you that as successful as Galaxy’s Edge is doing, he know other authors who are doing even better.

And if you Google “self-publishing success stories” you can find a number of examples of authors who didn’t need a publisher to strike gold.  It does seem they are often Sci-Fi/Fantasy, paranormal, or romance, but still… the potential is there.

Bottom line: a self-published author can be a success.

Of course, my path to success will be a bit more difficult. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been struggling at times to really settle on what the genre of my book is. I’ve used lad-lit a lot recently, and while I think it generally fits that description, I worry that marketing it as such might turn off potential women readers… who I do think will enjoy the story as well.

I’ve skimmed lots of articles on achieving success in self-publishing. There’s plenty of different marketing strategies out there and not every strategy will work for every book. I’m still at a stage where I’m thinking about the product itself before the actual promotion. And I think about my process in choosing books to read.

I scan covers. Why? The old saying goes “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, to which I say “the hell I can’t.” If a cover looks like crap, I interpret that as a sign the author doesn’t believe in their product enough to invest in their work. Hey, maybe the next great American novel has a shitty cover and I’ll never read it… but that’s just the way it is. Covers tell you so much about a book, and in the era of online book buying, you’re looking at thumbnails and titles before you’re even clicking on the book to find out what it’s about… so yeah, the cover needs to be good looking and genre appropriate.

Look at the Galaxy’s Edge covers. They’re amazing.

I’ve also invested in a really nice cover (to be revealed later) and formatting services for the paperback. It has to be done. It may not be the world’s most beautiful cover. But, I think it does the job. The cover concept was one I put a lot of thought into. My goal, as someone writing contemporary fiction that could be described as lad-lit is to appeal to male and female readers, and so my cover does not scream “lad-lit” the way many lad-lit covers do. But, I’ll talk more about the cover later when I’m ready for a cover reveal.

And I’m currently strategizing how  to market this thing so that I can actually achieve sales when it comes out. Maybe even enough sales to buy my morning coffee everyday. And hey, if it doesn’t, I’ll try again. But, it’s becoming clearer all the time that you don’t need a publisher to be a success. Success takes effort, no doubt, but it’s an effort anyone can achieve without some company taking a huge chunk of your royalties when they’ll still expect you to do all the marketing anyway.

On Writing (Strong) Female Characters

Men know jack about women. Women don’t really get me either. But, men and women authors have to write characters of the opposite sex. They do it all the time. Some even write novels/stories with women narrators. Hey, if they can pull it off all the power to them. Nick Hornby did so quite effectively in How To Be Good, a novel I haven’t read in some time, but, I remember thinking he was successful at it. His novels A Long Way Down and Juliet Naked also feature women narrators or POVs in them and I think he did those well.

But, then again, I know jack about women, so what do I know? Still, writing women characters was something I felt would be one of the more significant challenges for me. Especially characters that are explored in depth over the course of the story.

Recently, I linked to an old article titled King of Lad Lit Nick Hornby On Writing Strong Women — the article was, perhaps, not as insightful about being a “guy’s writer” writing about women as I hoped for… but, I’m gonna explore that idea on my own anyway.

There are a number of primary and secondary characters in my novel that are women. I would not call them strong or weak women by design. I did not set out to say “this character is going to be strong.” No, I had basic idea of who the characters were when I started, and rather than set out a huge laundry list of qualities they would possess, I had a rough idea about each of and the let the character develop organically however they might… and usually that meant something more complex than strong vs. weak.

The truth is, women (and men) are a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has personal flaws that they struggle with or refuse to recognize. Writing “strong women” characters simply because political correctness doesn’t do your writing any favors… at least, if your goal is to write realistic characters. I tried to write realistic characters, which meant women characters who were just as flawed as my main character… even if for different reasons.

That said, the weakest character in my novel is probably the main character, Nick. When the novel begins he is only months removed from a marriage proposal that ended with his girlfriend revealing that she cheated on him, resulting in the relationship ending. He’s humiliated and depressed, but realizes after a one-night-stand that he needs to get back out there and find a new relationship, which he does, but the incident with his ex-girlfriend haunts him throughout the story, and ultimately influences some bad decisions.

The two most prominent female characters in the novel are Nick’s roommate Devon and his new girlfriend Alli. Neither were written to be specifically “strong” characters as much as they were written to be important characters needed to play specific roles in the story. They both have what would be considered “strong” qualities, though. Devon is assertive and confident, and Alli is motivated and hard working. But, they are also polar opposites, since Devon is extroverted and promiscuous, and Alli is introverted and virtuous. Devon is perceptive, and Alli is naïve. Despite their clashing values and personalities they are both important influences on Nick’s growth over the course of the novel. And I like that. I like that both have vulnerabilities that make them who they are. They are each unique blends of strengths and weaknesses that, I hope, make them believable and not reading like agenda-driven characters.

Whether I’ve succeeded in writing realistic/believable characters has yet to be determined. My first beta reader is still hard at work. I have another beta reader lined up, then someone who will edit it. I’m looking forward to reviewing the first round of comments/suggestions!

Writing for Men… and Women.

Today I got curious about the prevalance of the term “lad-lit” and decided to do a Google News search on the term and see what came up.

Not much. Articles were sparse… but… I did find a three-year-old Newsweek article that caught my eye about… you guessed it, Nick Hornby. Titled, “King of Lad Lit Nick Hornby On Writing Strong Women” I was curious because, in writing my first novel, the yet-to-be-published Not Famous, writing female characters was an interesting challenge for me, and thought this article might provide some interesting insight that I could either relate to, or learn from.

What first struck me about the article was how it addressed Hornby and his ability to appeal to women readers.

Hornby laughs when I tell him that three generations of women in my family love his books. “If you write fiction and the fiction isn’t about people killing people, if you don’t get women, you’ve got no one,” he says. “Which is funny ’cause I was supposed to be the guys’ writer.”

Indeed! “Lad-lit” is arguably men’s fiction right? It may be written about and by men, but we live in a world with men and women on it. If you only appeal to one, you are, in fact, limiting your potential audience. This is, of course, one of the main faults I find in how “chick lit” is marketed.

Let’s compare the definitions of “chick lit” and “lad lit” according to Wikipedia:

chick lit:  genre fiction, which “consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”. The genre often addresses issues of modern womanhood – from romantic relationships to female friendships to matters in the workplace – in humorous and lighthearted ways.

lad lit:  a fictional genre of male-authored novels about young men and their emotional and personal lives, often characterized by a confessional and humorous writing style.

This definitions are basically similar… But what also caught my eye was the definition that popped up when I Googled “chick lit” via dictionary.com

chick lit:  literature that appeals especially to women, usually having a romantic or sentimental theme..

Hmm.. What does dictionary.com say about lad-lit?

lad-lit: fiction about young men and their emotional and personal lives

Notice the difference? Chick lit is, according to dictionary.com, books about women for women to read. Lad lit is not similarly defined as being limited to a male audience.

Is this limiting the audience to women a setback for the genre? I don’t think so. The best I can tell from a few minutes of Googling is that it remains a popular and profitable genre. Despite this, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner has often complained that women writers are not taken as seriously as male writers.

I don’t really agree with that assessment, but if there’s any reason for such disparity, I think it comes back to the definitions I previously cited, and how that affects how these two genres are marketed. Chick lit (or Women’s fiction) is packaged and marketed for women. When I think of Chick lit, I think of books with illustrated, feminine pastel-colored covers that scream “this is a book for women, no men allowed.” Lad lit has it’s fair share of covers that suggest the book is for male readers, but when I look at the covers for, Mike Gayle’s books, for example, I see generally gender neutral covers that can appeal to male and female readers despite stories clearly written about men or from the male perspective. Nick Hornby’s books have had various covers over the years, but the ones currently showing on his official website seem quite neutral to me. Jonathan Tropper, same thing. Maybe being a man has biased my perceptions, but I still feel if male authors are getting a better mix of readership of the two sexes, then marketing is the real reason behind that.

But I digress, back to the Hornby interview. Why do his books appeal to women, too?

The books that got him pegged as [a guy’s writer]—High Fidelity and About a Boy—were both successfully adapted for film and appealed to female readers perhaps because of their guy-ness. When I first read High Fidelity (1995), the story of a hapless record store owner who sets out to unravel the mystery of why women keep dumping him, I thought, This should not fall into the hands of women.

“And of course they all ended up reading it for exactly that reason,” he says. Still, his best-known books are about men, or boy-men, having to grow up.

High Fidelity and About a Boy are perhaps popular with women because they show men struggling to be better, and they reassure them that beneath the sports talk and record cataloging, there’s a compassionate person in there.

I’m not sure how this relates to the title of writing about strong women, but that is something I’d like to discuss more in-depth in a future blog post, because writing women characters was  indeed challenging for me. Lad-lit is often about flawed men… But, of course, women have their flaws, too. Both men and women characters should have room to grow over the course of a novel, and I’d like to think I succeeded in doing so with Not Famous (of course, we’ll find out when I publish it). My characters are all very different and their stories and growth over the novel are unique. I’d like to think that, more than anything, would attract all kinds of readers, regardless of them being men or women.