It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

Is it Vanity to be Indie?

The leaves were changing, the barbecue was spicy, the air was nippy. It was the perfect October day for an outdoor literary festival up in the mountains. Whenever I attend or present at a writers conference or book festival, I always leave with a smile on my face at having met so many awesome writers and readers (the gas that makes us go!) This particular weekend was no different. But what was different, was the fact that I met no less than twenty authors talking, unhappily, about their publishers. What was different about it, was that almost all of these disgruntled writers were referring to their indie publishers.

Okay, most of us Indies know the drill of publishing to Amazon or Smashwords. It can be a pain in the ass and often takes forever to get it perfect, but it is NOT, as I’m always reading all over the net and can personally attest to, rocket science. So when I heard author after author complain about their publishers saying it took three and four months to put their books up on Amazon, I was astonished. Furthermore, every one of these authors was giving 50% or more of their e-book royalties to their publishers—their indie publishers. What the heck was going on? Did the slimy agents and trad publishers shimmy out of their traditional publisher’s costumes and come to the ball dressed as Indie? Is it just irresistible the idea of taking advantage of the clueless author? Again?

Additionally, every one of these Indie authors was selling copies of their print-on-demand books for well over $15. For a paperback!! When I gave a wandering bookstore owner at the festival a few copies of my book, Toujours Dead, to sell on consignment, she couldn’t believe I was selling them at the literary festival for $7 a piece. I shrugged. “I make a profit on them,” I said.   How? Easy. My Indie publisher (who happens to be ME) does not charge me $10 a book after paying for full production on a print-on-demand book. Before Createspace, Amazon’s print-on-demand arm, made it easier to make a profit on the per-book cost of producing a title, I always produced my print-on-demand books through Lightning Source (LSI). It involved a more expensive setup and skillset, but I come from a marketing/production background, so that was no problem. I decided to ALSO publish my books with Createspace  because Amazon had made Lightning Source books harder to access through them (with ridiculously long shipping times) and I wanted to remove as many barriers as possible for those readers interested in my books. But I also needed to be able to buy cheap copies for myself to sell (which I could  do better thru LSI).  With the new changes implemented at Createspace earlier this year, the per-book cost to produce these titles in print-on-demand is now cheaper than using Lightning Source so I probably will just continue with Createspace.  Toujours Dead, for example, cost me 4.27 through LSI for every copy I bought. If I was selling my books from a booth at a conference, $7 was a nice retail price for me, and I could even go cheaper if I wanted to and still make a profit. Now that the same book cost virtually the same to produce thru Createspace ($4.45) and without the $70 setup fee (plus every change I make after the proof is another $35), I’ll likely never go back to LSI. Note: A few of the authors who had discovered Createspace were happy with the quality and the cost of their books, but one admitted he got a little over his head and said he had to “upgrade” to get the help he needed. When he did, the price shot up like the Titan 1 booster rocket on a clear day.

Okay, but back to our poor, hapless authors, the ones who were totally enjoying their day until they met up with me. They had shelled out over $1,000, some of them, to get a print-on-demand book made—and that didn’t even include the cover design! (Except for one or two, the covers were generally awful, about what you’d expect from a writer who’s an expert at writing but less so with the whole design thing. Unfortunately, these covers had all been created by their so-called publishers.) Then the authors bought copies of their own book at prices that made it prohibitive to re-sell them!

In more than a couple cases, I was told by happy authors (at least they were happy until they talked to me) that putting their books up on any of the online distributor sites like Smashwords or Amazon cost extra! I told at least five writers that it was free to publish a book on Amazon. One of them actually blurted out: “You lie!”

Bottom line: be careful out there! It’s not just the agents and the trad publishers who want a piece of you…sometimes it’s the indie publisher. If you’re going to make this work as a business model, you need to be savvy, snug with your money, and know upfront exactly what you want. To that end, I met a sweet old guy at the festival with cute but, in my mind, largely unmarketable stories about talking hedgehogs and sheepdogs. His publisher, who had a booth near mine, referred to her business as a “hybrid publishing” model, NOT a vanity press, she stressed to me (three times.) This old fellow had paid his “hybrid” publisher $1,200 and received 50% royalties, on his print and e-books.  Am I being too cynical? Is there such a thing as a hybrid publisher? Or is this really a subsidy press by another name? In any case, I can’t remember seeing a happier soul. He spent a beautiful autumn day sitting in front of a sign that said “Author Will Sign” talking to people and chatting with “his publisher,” a pretty young woman who fussed over him as if he were Stephen King. That’s why I say, it depends on what you want out of the experience. Personally, I believe that gentleman was enjoying every penny of his experience. And good for him!

Love to hear what you think or some of your experiences on the conference/festival trail!

Indie Writers Advice #231: Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Like a lot of Indie writers, I can easily get tangled up in the differences between us Indies and trad-published writers. Because we are all still fighting so hard for credibility and to wave away the stench of self-published from our books, we  can tend to spend too much time focusing on the manner or way that we become published.

I’m an indie filmmaker as well as an indie author. I remember waiting at the orthodontist’s office with my middle schooler a couple of years ago and listening to him refer to me to the receptionist as his Mom, “the geek.” It totally surprised me that he would see me that way, but when I really thought about it, it was a correct assessment. As a film editor, I spend a lot of time with the technology to get the project I’m working on to turn out the way I want. I am always on the lookout for the latest software to help me do my job and, of course, I’m constantly updating and refreshing my existing tools. Fact is, because I consider myself an artist, I never saw that I’m also a computer geek. I read an article recently (in one of my geeky film editing e-zines) that was a response to a video editor’s concern that the new, cheaper version of Final Cut Pro (a video software editing program that was extremely expensive and had a big learning curve) meant that everybody would be competing with him now for jobs. The article responded to him by making the point that I think we would all—whether as writers or video editors—do well to remember: our tools are not the things that matter. They are just the method that makes the thing that matters, happen.

What matters is the story.

Strip away all the social media and the promotion, the blog tours and the technology involved in producing the end product—whether it’s a video or a book published through Smashwords—and what you have left is the story. And it is the story that lasts. The story is not platform dependent, it is not technology dependent. It is even, amazingly, the answer to all those authors out there concerned that they will not be able to contribute (and therefore compete) with the new multimedia aspects of fiction coming as sure as tsunamis follow earthquakes. You can stop worrying. Because as much as I love them, it’s not the gizmos, the gadgets, the fads or the gimmicks  that matter a damn in our business.

Have a good story. Tell it well. Period.

Roll credits, fade to black.

Why local book clubs are the single, best way to sell more books online

Drum roll, please.
What is the one thing that all members of our writing/publishing industry—writers, publishers, legacy and indie—agree sells by far more books than any other method?
Word of mouth.
Ahhhh. You knew it wasn’t going to be something you could click on and just get.
No, word of mouth, like all things worthwhile, is not easy to create or obtain.
Marcella Smith, of Marcella Smith Associates, and a former Barnes & Noble executive has been quoted as saying that when it comes to selling books: “Nothing beats word of mouth. Nothing. These days, there is so much more book news in all kinds of media. I think it comes down to, ‘Who do you trust?’”
And we all trust our friends, right? I don’t even bother “sampling” a book if someone I know has already gushed all over it.
The question is: How to you make word of mouth happen? For your book?
I’m going to go with “book clubs.”
Nothing builds a writer’s brand better and faster than talking about her book to a group of people who are interested in hearing about it. All you have to do to make it happen is contact some book clubs in your area and suggest to them that if they read one of your books as a group, you will be happy to speak to the members about the book.
The reasons why a book club might agree are:
1. They are readers and most readers are keen to ask questions of the authors of books they’ve read
2. Everyone likes to be entertained or presented to
3. Most people like feeling proprietary about the books they read and the authors they discover
The benefits to you as an author are:
1. Once an author meets his readers he increases his “buy in” with them and increases the chances that they will talk about the book to their friends
2. It’s been shown that not only does the book club read and buy the book from the author but they tend to read everything that author puts out in the future!
3. Speaking at book clubs keeps books alive. Many books have been resurrected with a new generation or demographic of reader as the result of a book club embracing it.
4. Meeting with your readers opens opportunities for other avenues, related to your book or future books. In the November issue of IBPA Independent, columnist Linda Carlson told about an author who spoke at a club, met an attendee who was a writer for a magazine and ended up doing several keynote speeches and selling many, many more books.
5. Asking your new group of enthusiastic fans to post reviews of your book on Amazon.com, Goodreads and so forth will help boost your sales online.
If you go down this road, here are some things to keep in mind as you add book club presentations to your promotions tasks:

1. Be friendly and focus on connecting with your readers
2. Hand out bookmarks with new-book information
3. Always bring paperback or hardback copies of your book; if members bought it as an e-book, they may want a signed “real” book now that they’ve met you.
4. Bring a signup sheet to capture emails so your new friends will be some of the first to get information on upcoming releases

There is a strong belief in publishing circles today that one of the main things that can save publishing is book clubs.
They can do a lot for the author too, especially if they’re willing to “put themselves out there.”
Nobody said it was easy.
At least now you know what you need to do.

Mixing Writing with Your Life

I once read that Rita Mae Brown, renowned equestrienne and novelist (among other things), said she couldn’t both ride and write at the same time. She didn’t mean she couldn’t balance a book on her pommel, she meant if she was fully engaged in creating characters and plotting storylines, she couldn’t also foxhunt or get very involved with her horses. I assume she still hacked most days but maybe not even that. (Huh! Just caught the pun…hack writer, hack rider?)

Anyhoo, I used to think about that comment when I would see myself totally immersed in some nonwriting project, like putting together my dad’s recipes into a family cookbook, or piecing together the personal history I’m doing for my mother. It’s funny how “real” writing projects would get tabled or worse, put on a shelf indefinitely.   I do see piecing together family cookbooks or creating legacy books or making amusing little videos as major detours to sitting down and finishing my word count. They have their place in my life—just as Ms. Brown’s horses had a place in hers. But she also had a publisher waiting for her next book. Makes temporarily hanging up your spurs a little more bearable.

Before I started indie-publishing, I handled it this way: I stopped writing. Since there was definitely more payoff in creating the perfect chicken potpie than in opening up a vein over my keyboard only to have the manuscript remain a manuscript until it officially qualified as “trunk” material, I allowed myself to just give up. And when I did, I felt such relief at not writing. On the one hand, I was driven to do it, but I’d learned to resist the impulse, kind of like what I imagine crack addicts must go through: you know you desperately want to but, deep down, you also know it probably isn’t going to end well. Spending hours mixing sugar and milk and eggs and vanilla together may not match the thrill of holding your published book in your hands but you can always count on getting at least some cupcakes out of the process and with a book, not so much.

And then came Indie.

Indie publishing helped free me from the question mark that always hung over the effort of writing. I hate to think I have the same validation issues that so many writers have. After all, writing something beautiful should be just as satisfying to read back to myself as it is shared with other people. But you know, it’s just not.  Writers need readers. The fact is, thanks to indie publishing there is now a way to get the hard work, the carefully chosen words, the well-crafted plot and scintillating dialogue in a form that can be shared. And it’s not a crap shoot or a popularity contest or who-you-know or blind luck. It’s simply the logical next step in the creative process.

So now, when I’m baking,  I’m also sorting out character motivation and plot logistics in my head. I’m rerunning the action happening up to now and envisioning different characters doing different things as I sift and zest and measure. If you don’t count a few absent-minded burns here and there, I find that allowing my writing ruminations to infiltrate the rest of my life has been a very good thing—for me as a person and for my writing, which, whether I’m sitting at a computer or greasing baking sheets, I’m now pretty much doing 24/7.

And you know? The rightness of that is so exquisite, I can almost taste it.