L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

By Anne R. Allen

Social Media is both a boon and a curse to new writers. Online writing groups and forums are an excellent source of insider information on the publishing industry—stuff we once could only find at expensive classes and writers’ conferences.

But social media is also a major source of misinformation and dangerously bad advice.

I belong to a lot of Facebook writers’ groups where I see newbies ask questions that get a bunch of conflicting responses. Sometimes when I see misinformation, I jump in to correct it, but often I can tell that resistance is futile. There’s such a wealth of bad advice that I don’t know where to begin.

I know some people can only learn that fire is hot by getting burned. Nothing a more experienced person says will change their minds.

But if you don’t feel the need to jump in the fire, here’s some popular bad advice you can ignore.

1) If You Can’t Handle Rejection, Just Self-Publish.

This is one of the most common themes I see. Somebody asks a question about querying agents, like how long you should wait before you take silence as rejection (about 6 weeks), or is it okay to phone an agency to ask about the status of your query (no.)

Inevitably, somebody pipes up with a variation of: “I could never go through all that. Agent rejections are so painful. I’m just planning to self-publish when I finish my novel.”

I usually don’t say anything to these people. Bubble-bursting makes me feel like a meanie, and I can hope they’ll learn more about the process before they finish that book.

But if the poor dears do self-publish, they’d better pray they never get any reviews.

If you think agent rejections are hurtful, your first Goodreads review will send you into screaming agony.

Rejection is part of a writer’s job description. You’ll get it from reviewers, readers, editors, bookstore owners, advertising newsletters, and your brother-in-law. Get used to it.

In fact, learning to take rejection and criticism well should be listed as one of the top 10 skills every writer needs.

2) It’s Never Too Early to Start Marketing.

Too many writers obsess about publishing and marketing before they’ve had time to master the craft.

I saw a question recently from a writer who was worried about her newsletter. She was just setting it up and wanted to know if it would be all right to only send twice a week.

She added that she hadn’t actually written a book yet, but she’d published a short story, and she wanted to make sure she was ready to publish her novel when she finished it.

So she was sending out a newsletter. I wanted to ask: to whom? Her friends and relations? Her Zumba class? What on earth did she think she had to say about her unpublished manuscript that they would want to read?

If you’ve just published your first short story, you’re still probably five—maybe ten—years from having a solid, polished novel that’s ready to compete in the marketplace.

Put that energy into taking classes, going to conferences, networking on social media, and reading, reading, reading.

Don’t send reader newsletters before you have something for them to read.

On the other hand, it does make sense to start a blog. Blogging is a great way to network with other writers and hone your craft. It also draws in new people and can build a potential readership, whereas a newsletter is only seen by people who are already fans (or Zumba-buddies.)

3) Follow this/that Guru and Learn to Game Amazon.

This might be the saddest delusion of all. There have been some major “bestselling  gurus” who have FB groups or other more secret forums, where they teach new writers the “ropes” of gaming Amazon with book-stuffing, trading reviews, or joining pricey boxed sets that promise to make you a “USA Today Bestseller.”

These “gurus” often end up in court, but not before their followers have lost thousands of dollars and may have been kicked off Amazon for life.

Amazon is run by algorithms and bots, and the temptation to fool robots is high. But even if somebody is making major bux running circles around Amazon’s algorithms right now, you can be sure that Amazon will catch on eventually. Then you can be booted off the site—for life. No shopping. No using that gift card, or even your Prime video subscription.

Don’t tempt them. Amazon is not a videogame. Do not mess with the Mighty Zon.

4) Don’t Bother with Self-Editing: Your Editor will Take Care of All That Stuff. 

I see this terrible advice a lot. And it can make any editor cry. Whether you’re self-publishing or going the traditional route, you need to send your editor or agent the cleanest copy you possibly can.

If you think apostrophes are decorative symbols you can scatter around your manuscript willy-nilly, you’re going to waste a lot of your editor’s time. You can learn basic grammar from a book or online class that is going to cost way less than standard editing fees. And you really don’t want to pay for the hours it will take her to figure out why the characters’ names change every three chapters.

Self-edit until you think that puppy is perfect.

Don’t worry. It isn’t.

5) UnFriend Social Media Followers if They Don’t Stroke your Ego.

Social media can be tedious. So you see one of those memes: “You’re all a bunch of meanies who aren’t really my friends. If you don’t leave a comment on this thread right now, I’ll unfriend you.”

Resist all urges to post this to your own page.

You’ll alienate potential readers and destroy that social media platform you’ve been working so hard to build.

There are many, many reasons why people don’t interact with you on social media.

  1. Not getting your posts in their feed. FB’s algorithms are quirkier than ever. You have NO idea who gets to see your posts, or why.
  2. Lurking. They like to read what you have to say, but don’t have much to “share.” So?
  3. Reading. Some of your fans might not be hanging out on social media because they prefer to READ BOOKS. So you’re going to unfriend them? Think about that.

If you think you do have a bunch of “fake friends,” be a little more careful when you accept friend requests.

Don’t accept requests from the loverboys/gals who send requests in order to set you up for a fake romance followed by a series of dramatic catastrophes requiring major donations of cash.

Women get requests from “widowers” with two (sometimes three) first names, who claim to be in the military or work on oil rigs, and often include a photogenic child in their profile photos

Men get requests from lovely young women, often of the top-heavy variety.

These generally come from a relentless Nigerian scam factory that lifts photos off other FB pages. They’ll groom you for scamming with a coy little “Hey” DM as soon as you accept the “friendship.” Things will get steamy fast, followed by catastrophes.

6) Newsletters are a Magic Bullet for Book Sales and Reviews

A newsletter keeps you in touch with your fans. If you don’t yet have fans, a newsletter does you no good whatsoever. You need to be out and about on social media meeting readers and other writers.

It makes no sense to spam the people who are least likely to buy your book: the ones who already own it.

As you know, I often question the value of newsletters to sell books.  My inbox is a jungle I must battle every morning, weeding out the few real messages from the overgrowth of spam. Cleaning my inbox is my goal. If you send me a blog notice, I can open your blog and visit that tab later.

If you send me a long description of your summer vacation, photos of yourself at all your recent book signings, or sad laments about your writer’s block, I’m hitting that delete button very fast. (Unless I just decide to unsubscribe.)

I much prefer to be able to visit a blog where I can interact with the blogger and other readers. But I’m not everybody. Here’s my post on why I prefer a blog, but many authors prefer newsletters.

I know the entire publishing world is in love with emailed newsletters (except perhaps the recipients) and writers are told they must have a newsletter or they can’t sit with the cool authors at lunch.

Fine. Write that thing. Fill it with selfies and funny photos of your pet gerbil. But don’t imagine it’s going to bring you instant fame and fortune.

Sending more newsletters will not sell more copies of the same book to the same people.

A newsletter is great if you write lots of books very fast. Your emails can announce new releases and provide freebies to your most loyal fans.

But if you’ve only got one title? Spend your time writing another book, not bragging about your fabulous vacation to a bunch of people who already own the book and will soon decide they never want to buy another.

7) Forget Traditional Publishing. It’s on its Way Out.

Harper Collins US earnings are up 23% for the fiscal year. The Big Five are doing fine. If you’ve read the reports that the Random Penguin’s profits are down, notice it’s not by much. And they recently bought a fairly large US publisher, Rodale. Which is also doing well.

The fact that Barnes and Noble is faltering is sad, but it’s not due to a failing publishing industry. It has to do with their own management issues.

Independent bookstores are thriving. And other bookstore chains are expanding.

There are lots of excellent reasons to self-publish, but doing it because you believe the Big 5 are about to collapse is not one of them.

If your writing dreams involve getting reviewed in major news outlets, seeing your book in the windows of big bookstore chains, or being interviewed on NPR, go ahead and try for the traditional publishing route.  And don’t let anybody shame you out of it. Those dreams still do come true.

And here’s a guest blog post from an author who is living those dreams.

8) Don’t Query Agents. They’re all Crooks.

I’m so tired of this one. The biggest “indie” stars like Howey, Konrath and Eisler all have agents—and had them when they “made it” as indies. (They’re also mostly traditionally published now, which is probably why we don’t hear much from them anymore.)

Yes, there have been a couple of high profile bad agents in the news recently. I felt especially sad hearing about the catastrophe of Danielle Smith’s Lupine Grove Agency. She used to be a member of my writers’ club, and I’ve hosted her on this blog a couple of times. She was always gracious, kind and helpful. I considered her a friend. What happened to make her lie to her own clients, I have no idea. I think it has a lot more to do with mental health issues than greed.

But an amazing number of agents jumped in to offer reads to her stunned clients. I saw a Twitter thread with offers  of reads from some of the biggest agent names in the business.

Still, a whole lot of people want to paint all agents as useless greed-monsters. It’s simply not true. Most agents work their derrieres off for their clients.

Most of my friends with agents are making a whole lot more money than I do.

You absolutely want to do some research before you sign and always run a contract by a legal professional.

Yes, there are rotten agents. The worst put “in perpetuity” clauses in their contracts, so your children’s children will still be paying them even if the agent doesn’t sell your book. Some agents evaporate for long periods and refuse to communicate, so talk to some existing clients about communication patterns. And I know there are agents on the conference circuit who haven’t sold a book in years but take money for listening to pitches, so it’s really important to check what they’ve sold recently.

9) Self-Publishers Can Party like it’s 2009.

Back in the heady days of the “Kindle Revolution” we were reading daily reports of how authors were practically printing money by self-publishing these newfangled ebooks for Amazon’s Kindle thingy.

Newly minted “Kindle Millionaires” were telling new writers not to let their books “rot” while looking for representation or getting edited. Instead, they were told, they should run right out and self-publish everything they’d ever written, including last week’s grocery list.

Ebooks were selling themselves and all you had to do was price yours lower than the traditional publishers’ ebooks and readers would scarf them up. Ca-ching! Ca-ching!

Yup. It was grand. I remember when I sold almost 1000 books in one day. Without paying a penny for advertising.

Those were the days.

But guess what? That doesn’t happen a whole heckuva lot anymore. Not without a pricey, hard-to-get Bookbub ad and other expensive marketing.

Things have changed in the last ten years.

a) Ebooks and e-readers are no longer a novelty.

Readers have tons of unread books on their Kindles by now. They won’t even download a free one without a spectacular blurb and cover, and probably not without being nudged by a lot of advertising. I personally have so many books on my Kindle, I have to delete one before I can upload another.

And it turns out most people didn’t give up paper books after all. A recent Publishers Weekly article  put the e-book’s percentage of the trad pub market at less than 13%. It’s higher for indie books, but it’s not growing much.

b) Kindle Unlimited.

Amazon’s KU allows people to read as many books as they want per month for one low fee. The introduction of KU cut the income of many indie authors by 80%, whether or not they decided to opt into KU (which means staying exclusively with Amazon.)

Many KU authors have continued to see their income shrink because of the endless schemes that lowlifes use to game the KU system.  Amazon does its best to fight them, but their robots tend to throw out many babies with the scammy bathwater.  A lot of innocent authors have been punished without a chance to defend themselves. Right now I’m hearing from indie authors who are leaving KU—and sometimes Amazon itself—for fear of these purges. Some writers find they can sell more on iTunes or Kobo than they did on Amazon, if they concentrate their marketing on those platforms..

I don’t know many writers who are making as much on Amazon now as they did before KU was introduced. I sure don’t.

c) Amazon has its own imprints and no longer needs indies.

Ten years ago, when the Kindle was new, Amazon got a huge benefit from affordable indie ebooks. But Amazon has its own traditional publishing arm now. Their own books from Amazon imprints like Lake Union, Montlake, Amazon Crossings, Thomas and Mercer, etc. now get most of the algorithm love and prominent placement.

When you see statistics about how great “indies” are doing, they often include Amazon imprints in the “indie” category.

But Amazon imprints are pretty much identical to the Big 5 publishers except they give better royalties, offer way more online publicity, and send their authors flowers on launch day.

This means you have to spend a lot more money in order to make the same income an indie could make in the boom years between 2010 and 2014. You need to have the money to hire a great editor, a top-notch cover designer and a savvy formatter or interior book designer.

Plus you need a hefty advertising budget for the Amazon and Facebook ads, plus spots in bargain newsletters—none of which even existed ten years ago.

d) Book bloggers are being banned from writing Amazon reviews

It’s hard to get into bargain newsletters without dozens of Amazon reviews. But those reviews are tougher and tougher to get. The reliable book bloggers who used to write 100s of reviews a month are getting banned from Amazon and having their reviews removed.

In the past few months, Amazon review rules have gone from draconian and confusing to certifiably bonkers, as blogger Lissa Gromley reported last week.

A lot of my best reviews have disappeared in the past few months. Many other authors are seeing the same thing. Book bloggers tend to write those long, thoughtful reviews that are most likely to result in a sale. But they’re leaving Amazon in droves because of the purges. They’re either only reviewing on GoodReads or their own blogs, or moving to Kobo.

Amazon will never tell a reviewer why they’ve been banned. But people are speculating that they’re banning Amazon affiliates. (These bloggers get a tiny percentage of a sale if somebody buys a book through one of their links). Others seem to be banned simply because they write a lot of reviews. Because paid review scammers write a lot of reviews, Amazon’s bots learn that lots of reviews=scam.

I wish Amazon would either remove all reviews the way Netflix has done, or make their rules easily accessible and understandable to all. The new rules hurt authors and do very little to fight scammers.

Anybody Who Tells You There’s a Shortcut to Publishing Success is Giving You Bad Advice

The truth is that making a living as a writer is hard. And it’s always been hard, as Ruth told us last week. Learning to write well requires a long apprenticeship. Anybody who tells you there’s a shortcut or “there’s an app for that” is lying or delusional.

Self-publishing is a great alternative to the trad-pub route, and many indies in popular genres make a lot more than their trad-pub counterparts. But it is not the “easier” path.

It’s just as tough in its own way. We live in a winner-take-all culture, and whether you hope to make it to the top on your own or with a trad-pub team, it’s going to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

I don’t mean to discourage anybody. Becoming a professional writer isn’t easy, but neither is any other creative profession. Keep at it, get lots of opinions, and if something seems fishy, use your own nose to see if it passes the smell test.

And always remember that Google is your friend.

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) September 2, 2018

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