Hello, Matthew! I’m so pleased you invited me to join you today—thank you so much.
Your first self-published story, a short story, was over two years ago. Since then, you’ve published another short and one novel. The novel, As the Crow Flies, is arguably a fantasy masterpiece. Have you sought representation from an agent or publisher? If not—why not?
I’m glad you enjoyed it so much! That means a lot to me. For As the Crow Flies I chose to self-publish, though I have submitted other works to traditional publishers. I had a short story published in an e-zine and I was, of course, delighted, but gaining traction in the traditional market was painfully slow, and I’m evidently an impatient person. While I was writing As the Crow Flies I looked into more publisher/agent alternatives, and I discovered the option of indie publishing. My interest was piqued, and when faced with the option of years of submitting to publishers before my book found readers, the answer seemed pretty clear to me.
You’ve been in the business long enough now to get a clear picture of the way the industry works and I know you’re an active advocate of other authors. Through your correspondence with those authors, I’m sure you’ve gained an understanding of the way selling books has changed. In your opinion, do you see more changes coming to the book industry, specifically in the self-publishing segment?
I do like to champion other authors, no matter how they choose to publish—an opportunity made incredibly easy by today’s technology. It’s so fun to get to know other writers, to hear about their publishing experiences and learn about their books. If I may be so bold, I have a page on my website where you can find out what I do and a list of books—primarily fantasy—I happily recommend: http://www.robinlythgoe.com/flinchfree.html.
The book industry has changed a great deal just since I stepped into the market, and yes, I think it is going to continue to change—must change. Self-publishing is more accepted every day, and we have folks stepping up to offer their professional services as editors, artists, formatters, marketers, and mentors. More people are reading and reviewing self-published works, lending fresh credibility to indie authors. Technology that allows further exposure and more reading continues to expand. Online venues available all over the world provide new places and ways to discover books. It’s really an exciting time for both writers and readers. Now if only we had a time machine that would allow for more reading!
Genre. Some say it is an author’s doom to cross genres because readers will never know what to expect from an author who does. Many of the big name authors have found success through sticking to a primary genre and a formula for their books. As an author who has closely stayed within a particular genre (for you, high fantasy) can you discuss your opinion of whether you feel it has contributed to the success of your work?
I write fantasy because I love it, and I think staying with a particular genre builds trust with the readers. Those big-name authors found something that worked for them and stuck with it on purpose. It worked. Authors who have several books published and a large following can more easily afford wading in other pools, and there are some that do so successfully, though they often choose to publish under a different name. Why? Because their fans expect them to stay in the already established lines. And, thanks to a surge in the popularity of fantasy stories—evident in book sales as well as movie and television production—why wouldn’t I stay with fantasy? Bottom line? Yes, staying within the fantasy genre has definitely had a hand in the progression of things.
It is generally agreed that the most difficult part of being a self-published author is marketing, especially in the beginning when there are only a few titles for readers to choose from.
How long (years) and how many novels did it take before you were able to consider that a career as a novelist could be a reality?
I’m still working on that! Frankly, the response from readers (other than my family) to my first novel pretty well cemented it for me, though I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a “career” yet. I see other authors with similar works available, and I read their stories, and it encourages me. The indie world also has some awesome mentors out there who teach and lead and lend their support very generously.
What strategies did you use to market yourself that you feel contributed most to your success?
Finances have dictated very modest marketing, so I’ve had to be choosy. I advise authors to stay away from offers to “tweet your book to our XX-thousand followers for only $5/$10.” It sounds like a nice, small step, but it doesn’t offer tangible results. Reviews are a blessing, but they’re not that easy to get. What’s a poor, starving author to do?
First, write. Writing actual words to an actual book should be your main focus. Editing should be the next Important Thing. Poorly edited books won’t help your career at all. The better the product, the more likely its chances of success.
Second, get a good cover. That axiom about not judging books by their covers? It doesn’t apply to books; it’s a good philosophical principle mainly related to people, and possibly puppies. Readers can usually spot the DIY covers, and, sadly, there is a plethora of cover design websites that aren’t much better. Look at the books that are selling at the top of their lists. Is your cover up to par? Get other opinions (not from relatives and best friends, who don’t want to hurt your feelings). The book cover is the very first thing anyone will see about your book, and it has to impress, it has to elicit interest and curiosity. It’s usually competing in a line-up of other suggested books.
If you’re lucky enough to grab the attention of a shopper, the next thing you need to present them with is a good blurb. Then they’ll move on to the sample chapter(s). Is it well-formatted? How much front matter do they have to wade through to get to the good stuff? Is the stuff actually good (properly edited and formatted and, yup, interesting)? Your book has to work hard!
Third (or are we technically on #6?), don’t waste all your time on social media. Yes, “they” tell you that you need to brand yourself—and you do—but be cautious. Social media swiftly turns into a black hole that will suck you in and never let you go, and you’re not likely to see much of a return on your investment of that time. Pick one or two platforms that you feel comfortable with, learn how to use them, then limit your time there. Do be friendly, helpful, and engaging. Don’t constantly be telling people to buy your book. Hook up with fellow writers and readers, especially those in your own genre. It’s called a community for a good reason.
Another way of getting the word out about your book is to do some giveaways. Naturally, it’s much more economical to give away e-books, and the good news is that there are lots of opportunities for that. Many book-related blogs do giveaways and blog hops. Book-related social networking sites like Goodreads and BookLikes offer the opportunity to connect with readers and to do giveaways. Goodreads requires you to give away a physical version, while BookLikes will let you use print, digital, or audio. (Mind, though, that this is another form of social media that will threaten your writing schedule!) You can run your own giveaways on Twitter, Facebook, your blog or website—and you can use Goodreads to advertise an “event” (giveaway).
Another thing to be aware of is that only 8-10% of the U.S. population owns a Kindle e-reader—so you’ll want to expand your options and offer other formats for the rest of the reading world.
Reading and commenting on the blogs (websites, social media sites) of authors, readers, and reviewers (Hello, Matthew!) is another great way to open yourself to opportunities. Again, be careful of the amount of time you spend being social!
And here’s the catch to all things marketing: What works for one author won’t work for another. That means that you’ll need to experiment until you find a comfortable and productive schedule and place for yourself.
So the very last thing required is patience. Not everyone blasts into the publishing world like Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey, and not everyone will be a flash in the pan like—well, better not to name any names! Persistence pays.
Is there any one book you’ve written that has molded your identity as a writer and made you into the brand you are? Is there anything about your brand that you feel has created a reason to compel readers to read more of your books?
That’s kind of an easy answer, since As the Crow Flies is the only book I’ve published so far! I’m behind! Crow’s story delivers a particular stamp of adventure and humor (one that’s found in my short story, Dragonlace, as well). It’s fast-paced, but not too fast for some creative world-building. I have it on good authority that the novel can be read in one day, if you’re willing to let chores fall by the wayside on your day off. The characters are relatable and they grow. People care about them, and it’s great when readers choose one character as their favorite and fiercely defend their choice. My current project is more involved than As the Crow Flies; it is, in fact, part of a series (Sadly, book one is still laboring under a “working title”). Still, it maintains the solid core that readers so enjoyed with Crow: style and rhythm, characterization, adventure, world-building. And, in spite of my original intention to write Crow’s story as a single, stand-alone novel, I’ve also got another story for Crow simmering—thanks to the enthusiastic prompting and prodding of fans.
With regard to building a brand, is there any advice you would overwhelmingly give to struggling authors?
Yes, be consistent! Ideally, you want to be seen all over the internet. It’s crucial that people recognize your name—and by that I mean your author name—and your public identity. So you want the things that identify you (your name, your photo, your logo, etc.) to be the same across the board. If you’re Jane Jones on your blog, you can’t be TwinklyFairy on Twitter and JaneLuvsTrzn on Facebook. Aside from looking unprofessional, you get lost in the translation. It also helps to make use of graphics and colors consistently. Using the same background and graphics across the web helps tie all the pieces together. And, just like the covers, remember that this is often the first glimpse the world has of you, the author. Make your “selfcover” purdy! (And compare it to those of other successful authors to see how it measures up.)
Along the same lines, be sure that your content is consistent and relevant. The things you post are part of your brand. If you’re trying to sell fantasy books, chatting excessively about your dog won’t do the trick. (Unless, maybe, that dog features as wizard in your novel…) If you’re trying to sell children’s books, your interest in steamy romances or your plan to build a zombie-proof bunker will turn away the crowd you need. You can perhaps see how this overlaps with the “stay in one genre” rule. Er, advice. But relax! This advice doesn’t strictly rule out including other things, other interests. After all, readers like to get to know the person behind the book. It also helps you if you can relate those other things to your brand in some way; bring the topic back on subject, so to say.
The words “focus” and “consistency” apply to all parts of our writerly lives. Focus on your writing / focus your writer brand. Be consistent with your writing schedule / be consistent with your public persona.
And on that note, I need to go focus on some WORDS! Thank you so much, Matthew, for inviting me to spend a little time with you here on Unicorn Bell—and happy writing!