2016 – Looking Back and Looking Ahead

For me — like many writers — 2016 was a year of surprises and distractions. It was also a year of learning.

I’ll still be writing in 2017. And, I know I’ll explore new writing & publishing paths, and revisit old ones.

Nonfiction

My nonfiction books continue to sell.  Even topical (“fast”) books I’d thought had short-term value, seem to keep selling.

I expect to write more topical nonfiction in 2017, usually on impulse.

Many people have asked me to elaborate on what makes a good viral topic for fast nonfiction.

I considered writing a book about it, but then I stumbled onto Amy Harrop’s Pop Culture Publishing Profits.

(That’s not an affiliate link. Aside from my own book, no link in this article earns me a cent. That’s so you can trust my advice.)

Recently, I bought that report and I like it. Amy has done a great job explaining a wide range of options and resources, so I see no need to reinvent the wheel.

In my (admittedly biased) opinion, if you’re interested in writing topical, viral nonfiction — books you’ll write in days, not months — you’ll want both:

  • My book talks about the research & writing process, and the things that help the book sell well and earn great reviews.
  • Amy’s report explains how to find — and predict, early — the topics worth writing about.

Nonfiction Niche Selection: Useful Tools

For niche research — when I’m searching for unique ideas that fit my “fast books” writing style — I like KDP Rocket software.

Yes, I also use KD Spy and Ebook Niche Explorer, but KDP Rocket can show where the “hidden” topics are. And, KDP Rocket tells you exactly how much competition you’d be facing.

Of the three, KD Spy is the most simplistic if you need at-a-glance results for categories and keywords you already know. I can click it and see, instantly, whether I’m looking at a good niche… but only if I’ve already chosen the niche or keywords.

Ebook Niche Explorer can be confusing and I don’t rely on the red-yellow-green guide (or the text advice) to tell me if I should bother with that niche. However, as an adjunct to other tools — and strictly for experienced, data-minded writer/publishers — it can be very useful.

For the most in-depth and precise niche research, KDP Rocket may be the best, if you’re serious about nonfiction success. It’ll show you book ideas you may not have considered. And, KDP Rocket is from Dave Chesson. If you’re not reading his website, regularly… start now. It’s a gold mine. And he’s a good guy.

Also, if you’re new to nonfiction, Britt Malka has published a pretty good report that covers lots of basics, stylishly: Write, Publish, and Have Fun: 7-Day Blueprint. It’s best for absolute beginners, but may help others who’ve struggled to understand how nonfiction books can be built, quickly.

Coloring Books

I’m still creating and publishing coloring books. However, after some initial, impressive successes — which I’ve talked about, online — my average coloring book income has remained around $20/month, per title.

210 bold and easy christmas ornaments
This IS a book I co-authored.

The problem, according to fans: within a couple of weeks, competing books — with very similar titles and covers — appear at Amazon.

Some buyers have been confused.

And, unfortunately, the artwork in those other books has disappointed my fans. Then they realized the book was just a look-alike.

But, as long as competing publishers aren’t copying my books, line for line, there’s little I can do.

You can’t copyright an idea, and you can’t copyright a book title.

That’s okay. In 2017, I’ll keep publishing coloring books for loyal fans who’ve learned to shop carefully. The initial weeks — before the imitators show up — are usually very good.

And, frankly, I’m going to step up how bold and different my style can be. There’s no way other publishers can copy the extremely stylish designs I can create. So, that’s (literally) on the drawing board for 2017.

Sure, I’ll still publish very mainstream coloring books. They may bring in only $20/book/month, but it’s reliable income. And, for me, those books are pretty easy to build.

In general, I think the coloring book marketplace remains strong, but only if you’re publishing good books, in very high volume.

(If your plan is to fill coloring books with clipart — or mandalas you generated using a free resource, online — forget it. That may have been successful a year or two ago. Today…? Not the best idea.)

Otherwise, if you’re able to turn out high-quality, unique, very stylish coloring books, standing out in the crowd is key. And, to be honest, income is still a coin-flip.

If I didn’t love creating coloring books, I might not bother at all.

Genre Fiction

In 2016, I returned to my writing roots and worked on Regency romance stories. I also dabbled in other sub-genres that interest me.

I bought and read about 40 books about writing in general, or about sub-genres that I enjoy. And, I read ~2 books/week in those sub-genres.

In addition, I took courses about writing fiction. Lots & lots of courses.

So, 2016 was a very educational year.

Along the way, I developed some great systems for plotting, like using movies for story beats. Also, I discovered superb resources for romance writing.

But… I kept writing flat, boring stories. The few times I actually finished books and published them, I removed them from Kindle within a day or two.

Why?  Well, they were awful books. My policy is: if I’d be embarrassed if my mom or grandmother bought one of them, that book shouldn’t be sold to anyone.

Despite that, I think 2016 was a good year. I started to understand what I’m truly terrible at, and where my weaknesses are.

It was a little humiliating, but I’m pretty sure I’ve passed the oh-dear-heaven-that’s-awful stage of fiction writing. (I hope so, anyway.)

In 2017, I’m ready to write better books. And then, with practice (and reader feedback), write better ones.

2017 is going to involve a lot of fiction. And — since it’s my bread-and-butter — more fiction and coloring books.

Private Groups – Worthwhile?

In late 2015 and throughout 2016, I joined several private groups, usually at Facebook. Most came as part of a membership offer, or they were for students in related (paid) writing courses.

Half of those groups never got off the ground, and went silent within a few months. That’s okay. I’d received good value from the related courses.

In addition, a couple of Facebook groups were tremendous to start with.

One still is. It’s related to coloring books, and organized by Bill Platt. I check-in about once a week for updates, and I learn more each time I scroll through the posts. (Bill and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but when he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant. And I say so.)

Another Facebook group — fiction-related — had a confusing start and not much structure from the beginning. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

Nevertheless, conversations were lively for months, mostly due to member participation. I met wonderful writers, and learned a lot about the sub-genre we discussed. Despite some awkward moments, it was time well-spent. Many group members seem to be moving on to other projects, now.

I have no complaints and feel as if I received good value from each course I signed up for. If the related FB group was helpful, too, I saw that as a bonus.

One Facebook group is still strong and so very good, I wish I could offer you a way to get into it. It’s the group related to Geoff Shaw’s Kindling training. I think it’s by invitation only, or through members authorized to share links to the sign-up page. (Tink Boord-Dill is one of them. Get on her mailing list. Her courses tend to be brilliant, as well.)

Another new-ish one is Paul Coleman’s “tiny books” Facebook group, related to his report/course on the same topic. (I think that was a short-term offer, so I don’t have a link to it.) So far, that’s been a great community.

In 2017, I’ll be selective about which other groups I sign up for, and how much time I’m at them.

Writing and publishing must be my priorities.

Udemy Courses I Recommend

Late in 2016, two Udemy courses helped me grasp what I was missing as a fiction writer.

I recommend both courses.

1) The first one is Jessica Brody’s Writing Mastery: How to Develop Blockbuster Ideas that Sell!

In it, Brody explains four points that are essential to a “high concept” story. They may not be new to experienced authors, but her approach is a little different. Then, she shares several fun ways to come up with unique story ideas.

I feel as if her four points plus the PDFs made the course worthwhile. (And really, anyone who’s written 15 books and at least two are being made into major films… that’s someone to learn from.)

[Still valid in Dec 2016 —> Look for discount coupons for Brody’s courses at her website.]

2) The other Udemy course is Clark Chamberlain’s Punch them in the Gut: How to Write Stories with Emotional Impact. (It’s a price-y course and worth it, but — if possible — look for it on sale or with a discount coupon.)

In Chamberlain’s course, I saw the massive element that was missing from my fiction. I’d thought my stories had emotional impact, but… no, I was clueless.

His course is vital if you’re not getting rave reviews for your fiction, and if readers aren’t telling friends to buy your books.

That course is rather intense, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it for beginning writers. Start with Jessica Brody’s course, instead.

Between those two courses, I have a path forward. I can see exactly what’s been missing, and how to fix it so my stories have the energy they need to sustain my interest — and readers’ — from start to finish.

The PDFs from both courses are pure gold, as well.

(Note: I still recommend every course Geoff Shaw teaches at Udemy. I sign up for them as fast as they’re available.)

Expectations for 2017

I’m far more confident about what I’ll be writing in 2017.

Sure, I’ll still make mistakes. Probably some stupid ones.

Speaking of mistakes, if you haven’t seen the J. K. Rowling clip that’s going around Facebook (from her 2008 address at Harvard University), watch it now. It’s inspiring: https://www.facebook.com/globalinformer/videos/1438123899536951/

In some ways, 2016 was a year of wheel-spinning. But, it was also a year of learning.

With the new information I’ve absorbed over the past several months, I’m sure 2017 will be a very productive year.

I’m not sure how many new courses or books I’ll buy. And, I’ll be so busy writing, I may eschew all but the most helpful Facebook groups.

But, if something is truly worthwhile, I’ll let you know.

My 2017 is going to be a write-write-publish-publish kind of year. I feel as if I (finally) have a good idea of what works (and what doesn’t), and it’s time to put all this information to work.

This is a very good feeling, and I hope you’re looking forward to 2017, as well.

Books, Titles, and Changes

How to Write Fast Books
Click the cover to buy at Amazon.com

A month after moving to our new home, I’m still unpacking boxes and reorganizing closets & cabinets. So, I’ve barely updated this website.

However, a few people (okay, more than a few) noticed the new title & cover on my “how to write viral nonfiction” book. They want to know if it’s a new version.

It’s not. It’s the same book.

I’m testing a new title (thanks to advice from Nick Stephenson, of “Your First 10,000 Readers” fame) and a new cover (designed by vikncharlie at Fiverr.com), to see if that will spark more interest.

The following is my article explaining what worked, what didn’t, and why, thanks to a brilliant suggestion by my friend, Angie W.

This book developed from my article series about writing what I’d called “flash in the pan” books. These books are researched and written in a flash, and focus on a popular topic, usually something appearing in news headlines.

Generally, those books sell well — with little or no marketing — for two or three months, earning me a comfortable four figures, per book. Since I write them in under two weeks, my immediate income can work out to $50 to $100 per hour spent on the book.

Some of those books abruptly stop selling. (If I make “only” $50/hour for the fascinating time I spend on them, it’s okay with me.)

Others, like one I wrote in early 2013, keeps selling at a steady pace… but not even close to its initial popularity (when the topic was in world headlines).

In the past six months, that one book has earned me $209.58 in royalties, just from U.S. and U.K. sales via Amazon.

That’s pretty good for a book I haven’t touched in over three years.

(A few of my other “fast books” continue to sell in a slightly lower range. It’s purely passive income, and stacks nicely.)

Anyway… responding to my site visitors’ requests, I wrote a book (in under 10 days, so people could see what one looks like) explaining how to research and write those kinds of books. I left nothing out.

Write Successful Flash in the Pan BooksIt first appeared as “Write Successful Flash in the Pan Books in 10 Days or Less.” It sold okay… but not great. The “flash in the pan” phrase didn’t make sense to people.

(That’s the original book cover, on the left. I liked it a lot, but I was more interested in sharing my “secret” methods with others.)

So, I went back to the drawing board.

I changed the title, calling my books “viral nonfiction,” and gave the book a new cover. This conveyed the idea, better.

Write Successful Viral Nonfiction BooksAfter that, the book sold well for a long time.

Then, sales tapered off. I hadn’t done any real marketing for the book, and others — writing books on similar concepts, and marketing them in a big way — left me in the dust.

Still… it’s a good book. The information in it can help bright, aspiring writers who enjoy research and need (or at least want) a chance to earn more book royalties, quickly.

Viral Nonfiction - disastrous coverSo, I tried another cover. That’s it, at the left. It closely mimicked a successful, competing book… but not so much to be confused with it.

The new cover was a disaster. Sales came to an abrupt halt. I quickly pulled the plug on the new design.

I went back to the previous cover, and sales resumed, but I felt that the book could do better.

Of course, almost every book will have a gradual sales decline. I was ready to accept that, if I had to. But first, I wanted to do some sleuthing.

I asked a few brutally honest friends about the book. All of them loved what was inside, but feedback about the cover I’d designed myself — and particularly my font choice — suggested that it looked “dated.”

Ouch.

Then, when I started taking a course taught by Nick Stephenson, I saw that my book title wasn’t exactly keyword-friendly. (Understatement.) People search for “write fast books,” not “write viral nonfiction books.”

After fine-tuning the title (using free Amazon keyword sites like Scientific Seller), I paid vikncharlie (at Fiverr.com) to design a new cover.

So, that’s what’s changed. Currently, sales are still in a low range — one or two copies sold, per day — but that’s far better than the previous month (when I still used the old cover).

If you already own this book, the information hasn’t changed. Only the cover and title have.

Links: Book Cover Designing – Free Resources

crayons - artistIf you’re designing your own book covers, the following tips and free resources may be useful. (Most of this list is from my much longer Writing Tools and Links Page.)

Cover Graphics and Illustrations

It’s key to remember that all graphics are copyrighted as soon as they’re created.  Unless the copyrights have expired (generally, pre-1923 works), they’re not in the public domain.

However, some artists and photographers allow their work to be used with some or no restrictions, via things like Creative Commons or Copyleft licensing.

If you search for “free, royalty-free images,” you’ll find many. Sites come & go.

  • Always double-check images at Google Image Search, in case a “free” illustration was copied, illegally. (It happens.)
  • Always check their Terms of Use, to be sure you can use their images on book covers or as book illustrations. See if you need to add a copyright notice for the artist or the website, or both.

The following are free, royalty-free sites I’ve used over the years.

Continue reading “Links: Book Cover Designing – Free Resources”

What Cover Designers Do… and Don’t Do

question markEvery book deserves a great book cover. However, many authors aren’t eager to design their own. They turn to ready-made book covers, like the ones listed at the Author Marketing Club. Or, they post a listing at 99Designs.com, where cover designers and artists present their ideas. (As I’m writing this, packages start at $299.)

Or, if you’re starting with a shoestring budget, like I did, you’ll go to Fiverr.com.

However, many new authors don’t understand what to look for or what to expect from Fiverr and other budget-level options.

Many new authors ask me why most cover designers can’t take a sketch or detailed description, and turn it into a one-of-a-kind book cover. The following is edited from some of my correspondence with readers.

What a Cover Designer Does

Let’s say you’ve hired a cover designer at a site like Fiverr. (Fiverr’s vikncharlie has created several book covers for me. All of them helped sell my books. She’s bright, her work is excellent, and she delivers the covers I need, when I need them.)

First, your cover designer must find a suitable cover graphic for your book. If you’re paying just $5, she’ll probably use a basic graphic she already owns.

Then, she tweaks it slightly, if necessary… but only slightly.

After that, she chooses an appropriate font (or fonts) and arranges your book title and author name on the cover.

Finally, she turns your new book cover into a JPG you can upload to KDP or Draft2Digital, etc.

For around $5, that’s all a cover designer does:

  1. Start with an existing graphic.
  2. Add text in an attractive, appropriate font.
  3. Resize the cover to meet your digital publishing needs.

Cover designers can be great at font choices and cover layouts, using existing artwork. That’s what they do… and it’s all you should expect from your cover designer.

What You’ll Spend

Let’s say you have ready-to-use artwork. Your Fiverr cover designer just needs to select the right fonts, and position your text on it.

A basic, no-frills ebook (Kindle, Nook, etc.) cover will cost you $5 in most cases. That may be all you need.

CreateSpace (printed book) covers involve a front, a back, and a spine. The design is arranged on the correct size template, which you will usually provide. That will cost you at least $10, since that’s like 2 1/2 covers. For a very basic design, anything up to $35 is reasonable, since there will be a lot of extra typing to enter text on the back cover.

And, if you haven’t provided a graphic that’s designed to match CS’s cover template (usually a solid color on the spine and back cover), resizing that illustration will affect the price.

In other words, $30 – $35 is the very least I expect to pay for a high-quality cover that I’ll use for Kindle and CS.

But, all of this depends on a ready-to-use graphic. A cover designer isn’t an illustrator.

Adding graphic design — or using a high-quality illustration — will increase the price.

Some cover designers, like vikncharlie, can find you a great cover graphic at a site like Shutterstock. She’ll provide it for less than you’d pay if you went to Shutterstock and bought it yourself.

However, if you have a very specific cover idea or want something completely unique, you may need an illustrator, graphic designer, or graphic artist. (Those terms can be nearly synonymous, so look for all three of them when you need a unique cover graphic.)

What an Illustrator Does

paint brushesAn illustrator can start with a sketch, an idea, or some examples of other book covers you like. He’ll listen to you and provide a rough sketch or sample. He’ll make sure he understands what you want.

You’ll go back and forth, swapping ideas and samples, until the sketch (the art equivalent of a “first draft”) looks pretty good.

Then, the illustrator will work on the finished cover. He may check with you as he works, to be sure everything looks good. Or, he may just complete the artwork and send it to you.

He doesn’t provide the actual book cover. He creates the illustration for the cover… the graphic that goes behind your title and author name on the book cover. That’s all. You’ll still need a cover designer to create the actual cover. Or, if you’re handy with a graphics program like Photoshop or GIMP, you can finish the cover yourself.

Note: If you haven’t a clue what you want on your book cover, you may do better to trust a Fiverr cover designer with great reviews and a lot of experience. If his or her sample covers look good, hire that person.

If you already have some specific ideas, and you’re flexible about how the artist interprets them, you can do fine on a budget.

However, if you have an exact picture in mind — nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere, but you can sketch or describe it — and you want that precise illustration, expect to pay far more or be disappointed with the results… or both. (Think of all the times you went shopping for an exact clothing item you had in mind — something you saw on a celebrity, or imagined in a dream — and wouldn’t settle for anything less. Your chances of success are similar.)

What You’ll Spend

If you have a good sketch, and your graphic only needs polishing, you can hire a graphic artist, graphic designer, or illustrator at Fiverr. For a simple clean-up, expect to pay $5 – $15.

If you need a custom photo or artwork — something one-of-a-kind — you may find what you want at Fiverr, but you’re more likely to pay a freelance artist $100+ for your unique cover graphic. DeviantArt.com is one of many possible resources.

You might hire an art student. Some of them do spectacular work, and your book cover will help build his or her portfolio. To located a student who freelances, check with local colleges, universities, and art schools. Some high schools have strong art programs, too. They can be great resources.

If that’s not an option and you want a very polished and professional cover, consider spending $299 at 99Designs.com. Many best-selling indie authors use that site for their book covers. When you buy a cover package at 99 Designs, you’re buying both the cover illustration and the cover design.

However, many new authors have a more limited budget. There’s nothing wrong with that.

True story: one of my best-selling books — read by more than 40k people, at this point — still has its original, really ugly cover. I created it myself in about 20 minutes, using a weird little cropped image from FreeImages.com (with permission). For the cover text — the book title and my pen name — I used one of the fonts that came pre-loaded on my computer.

That book has sold so well for the past two years, I don’t dare change anything.

So, while a dazzling cover illustration can make a huge difference to your book’s success, it’s not always necessary.

Always stay within your budget. You can always make improvements, later.

After You Have a Cover Illustration

After you receive your cover illustration, you’ll send it to a cover designer. Expect to pay at least another $5 – $35, depending on the amount of work needed to create a finished cover. (Outside of Fiverr, I’ve paid as much as $50 for that same kind of cover design work… even with a cover-ready graphic, and just for a basic Kindle design.)

Note: Always know exactly where your cover illustration came from. The designer should tell you, and give you the URL if it’s a purchased graphic.

One reason I’ve relied on Fiverr’s vikncharlie for my covers (when I’m starting with a vague idea and no graphic) is because she always uses fully legal images.

Before I discovered vikncharlie, another Fiverr cover designer created a cover for me. It looked great. Then, after a month of selling the book at Amazon, I learned that she’d used a Getty image without permission, and it’d cost me over $250 to purchase the rights to use it. (I was lucky they didn’t sue me. A copyright lawyer recently advised me that the basic fine for copyright infringement can be around $30,000.)

Fiverr can be a great book cover resource, but be sure you know exactly where your cover designer finds his or her graphics.

Typical Fiverr Pricing

When you’re starting out, you can buy a $5 cover design — including the graphic — at Fiverr. Chances are, you’ll see other books at Amazon with the exact same cover illustration and layout. In some cases, there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you want something a little better, but you’re still on a tight budget, expect to pay up to $50 for a cover that includes a tweaked stock illustration and a layout that’s unique to your book. That’s what I did for the first year or two, and it was fine. I never saw a competing book with anything like the covers vikncharlie created for me.

Also, remember this: You can always go back and replace your budget cover with something better, once you have more book income to work with.

Choose the option that makes the most sense for your marketing plans and your budget.

Not Sure?

If you’re on a very limited budget, don’t risk overpaying for your book cover.

But, let’s say you know you’ll want something exceptional, and you’ve found someone at Fiverr who’s both a cover designer and illustrator. He offers a wide range of add-on services at his Fiverr page, but you haven’t a clue which services and options you need.

Ask him.

If you know you’ll need some back-and-forth correspondence to sort this out, respect  his time. You might offer him $5 to explain the costs to you. Many artists are willing to do that. You’ll learn a lot, and he may acquire a loyal customer. Everyone wins.

If you see any weak spots in his presentation — what he promises or his communications with you — look elsewhere. Then, all you’ve spent is $5.

Otherwise, you can go ahead with confidence and a better understanding of what you’re getting for your money.

I hope this helps you hire someone (or several people) to create the kind of book cover you want.

Just remember that the cover illustration and cover design are two different steps in the process. In many cases, you’ll need two different resources for them.

Each time you publish a book, you’ll learn a little more.  That’s the normal path to becoming a confident, professional author.

Cover Designing – Free Grid, Links

Cover Grids

Rule of Thirds illustration
Rule of Thirds – Illustration by Larry Jacobsen, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ljguitar/

In the past, I’ve talked about using a grid to design your cover. (Search on “grid” at this website and you’ll see several references.) Here’s a link to a transparent GIF (I actually use it in PSD layers) to check your book cover layout: http://eibhlin.com/writing/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/KindleCover2500x1563-gridlayers-copy.gif It’s pre-sized for current Kindle cover recommendations (1563 pixels wide x 2500 pixels tall).

Related info on other sites: Rule of Thirds and BalanceComposition, the Rule of Thirds, and Using Dynamic DiagonalsUsing the Rule of Thirds as a Grid OutlineRule of Thirds – Art & MaxHow to Make Your Publications Rock: Graphic Design and the Rule of Thirds

 

 

True Confessions – My Scrivener Issues

Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this article for my 2016 update.

frustrated-woman-computerOkay. I’ll confess: Figuring out Scrivener makes my brain hurt.  Well, it did… until today, when I started watching Scrivener Unleashed. (I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I’ll rant about my history with Scrivener and book formatting.)

I’ve gone through Scrivener’s own tutorials. Some are great. Some only confused me more.

I’ve watched most Scrivener-related YouTube videos. Most put me to sleep, but the good ones are more helpful than Scrivener’s own tutorials.

I bought a copy of  Scrivener for Dummies. That book’s ease-of-navigation wasn’t what I’d hoped. I put the book to one side, to go through — step-by-step — later. (The kind of “later” I never have time for.)

Book formatting has been kind of an obsession for me. Here are some of the formatting tools I’ve tried. (Feel free to scroll down to the part where I talk about Scrivener again.)

  • I do own — and like — Jutoh. It’s a formatting tool designed for geeks and control freaks. Preferably someone who is both. When I absolutely, positively, need something “just so” in a book, I use Jutoh.  However, it’s not intuitive for me. (If you’re a fan of Linux, Jutoh’s tools will probably seem more familiar and easier to navigate.)
  • Over a year ago, I used a WordPress plugin. It formatted an entire website as a Kindle book. It seemed cool at the time… until it quit working and tech support didn’t reply to emails.
  • KDPublishing Pro looked good. Unfortunately, the product didn’t format as well as I’d like.
  • I bought yet another formatting tool at the Warrior Forum, and the book turned out amazingly ugly. I contacted the seller, who didn’t respond. Then I bought one of her books — formatted with the same tool. It was ugly, too. After posting this article — and mentioning the seller by name — she gave me a refund.
  • And yes, I bought another Warrior Forum formatting tool that ran on WordPress. This one was wonderful. It was super-easy to use, also based on WordPress, so I published about four or five books with it. Then, the seller’s updated version — for a new edition of WordPress — was a huge disappointment. (However, I got my money’s worth from the earlier version, so I’m not griping.)

In other words, I think I’ve tried nearly every product sold for book formatting.  Scrivener and Jutoh are still the only ones I can recommend to others.

But, being honest, I was overwhelmed by Scrivener. I knew it did everything I want it to (and a lot more)… but I stare at it and blink. For me, it’s about as “intuitive” as Jutoh.

Well, it was, until this morning.

Today, David Lee Martin contacted me (via the Warrior Forum) to see if I’d be interested in his upcoming “Scrivener Unleashed” product.

I wrote back and told him the usual: I’m an actual author and independent publisher. I don’t pitch products to my readers. I don’t use affiliate links. And generally, I’m a curmudgeonly woman who regularly rants about rubbish products.

He assured me his course wasn’t a “get rich quick” product. It was for real authors.

So, since it’s Monday and I’m already talking to myself because I should be writing, but I’m (obviously) not… I agreed to look at his product.  He provided it to me for free, as a review copy.

I went to his website and started watching his videos.

Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.

Seriously, his videos break Scrivener instructions into nice, small pieces. I actually understand what he’s talking about and showing me in the videos.

I may start using Scrivener immediately.

So, I’ve given him a rave testimonial he may quote in when his product launches. (The countdown clock at Scrivener Unleashed suggests it’ll be available at some point on Thursday, 12 June 2014.)

I’m telling you this because if — like me — you own Scrivener but just couldn’t figure out how to use it, or how to format for Nook, Kobo, etc., this may help you as much as it’s helping me.

(If you already know how to use Scrivener, you don’t need this product.  This is strictly for people like me who can sort-of find their way around Scrivener, but aren’t actually comfortable using it.)

Three points:

1. In David’s original videos, he was demonstrating with the Mac version of Scrivener. The PC version isn’t quite the same. Its features are usually a little older (fewer bells and whistles) than the very latest Mac version… but Scrivener does catch up, and — in most cases — pretty quickly. (Update: The new videos are for PC and Mac.)

2. I haven’t actually formatted any of my books following his video instructions. So, there may be additional tweaks necessary to make your books (and mine) look good in Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and so on. (I’m still going through the earlier videos, practically giddy because someone’s finally explained how all these cool Scrivener tools work.) [Update: I’ve followed his directions and they worked really well.]

3. David’s course launched at $39 as an introductory special. Now (2016) it’s $97.

The $97 price is fair for what David is providing. However, if you’re like me, you base your purchases on how quickly you’ll see a return on your investment.  In my case, if I’d bought this for $97 — and used it to actually add my books to Nook, Kobo, etc. — the extra profits would probably pay for the product within a month, maybe less.

But, this is only a smart investment if (a) you’re actually writing and publishing books (or plan to, soon), and (b) have tried Scrivener and it seemed too confusing.

If you’re not actually writing yet, or you’re still polishing the same Great American Novel you started three years ago, you don’t need this product. Not right now, anyway.

For everyone else, though I hardly ever recommend a product at this website, I’m making an exception for Scrivener Unleashed because it’s helping me make sense of Scrivener. And, as usual, I get nothing for recommending it. I did receive a review copy, but with the understanding that I’d be honest in my review. Mine is not an affiliate link, either.

And, on that note, I’m going back to David’s videos.  This involves lots of “ah-HA!” moments, thank heavens.  I mean, Kobo is outselling Kindle in some countries… sometimes by a lot, and — yes — that includes countries where people buy books in English. (For example, see the Canadian chart at Wikipedia’s Kobo page.)  Most American authors I know well enough to ask, say they earn about 20% of their income from Kobo book sales.

So, that’s why I felt it was important to discuss formatting tools and explain my Scrivener issues… and why this product looks like it will solve them.

UPDATE: David’s course was a career-changer. I learned to use Scrivener. I love it. As of January 2016, I’ve used it for… well, I’ve lost track of how many books. I haven’t used Jutoh again. (I might use Jutoh for a specialized project in the future, but 99% of my nonfiction books & my novels look gorgeous with Scrivener.)

I still give David’s course my highest recommendation, if you want to write and publish professional-looking books as simply as possible.

Outsourcing Books? Bad Idea. Here’s Why.

Outsourcing books? I can’t recommend it to most people.

  • Not unless you know what you’re doing, or you’ve hired a high-quality third-party service that acts as the middleman between publishers and ghostwriters.
  • Not unless you can recognize a really good, unique book that can compete in your niche (for nonfiction) or sub-genre (for fiction).
  • Not unless you’re so familiar with existing books in your category, you can spot a “spun” (rephrased) version of one of them. (Know where your writer is getting his/her information. Be sure they’re not plagiarizing others’ work.)
  • Not unless you’ve hired a truly skilled writer OR you’re planning to use the manuscript as a launching pad for your own rewrite/expansion of what you’ve received. Or both.

In my opinion, outsourcing by amateurs is a very bad idea for many reasons. Any one of these reasons is enough for me to reject the idea. In combination…? I shudder to think of the risks.

Here are my major objections to outsourcing:

1. Quality control.

crossed fingersAmong publishers I know well, too many who outsource their books are clueless about writing, or about the niche/genre they’re publishing in. Or both.

They can’t tell a good book from a bad one.

The worst and most frequent offenders are men who outsource romance novels and don’t really understand what goes into a good romance novel. They may show the book to a few friends, but those friends (including me) don’t have the heart to say, “You wasted your money.”

So, the book is published. The publisher throws time or money (or both) into marketing so the book takes off with good numbers… and then the reviews show up.

They’re awful.

Sure, the publisher may have earned far more than he spent on the book + marketing, but the book will not provide him with continuing income. Once the reviews arrive, the game is over, at least for that pen name.

If you’re only in publishing to see a quick return on your investment, I suppose that’s okay.

I’d rather publish good books that sell and sell, with or without marketing, for years. As an indie, that’s been working for me since around 2006.

In my opinion, if you can’t tell a good book from a mediocre one, outsourcing is especially risky.

But, it depends on your immediate and long-term goals as a writer/publisher.

There are “shades of gray” (no pun intended) between being in publishing for quick, short-term income… and being a passionate, indie author building a lifetime career around a single pen name.

Here are two variations:

A. The “I’m mostly a publisher” business plan

tired woman next to a laptop computerMaybe you’re tired of your cubicle (or asking people if they’d like fries with that order), and you want to build a solid, liberating income, quickly.

You’ll study Amazon carefully. You’ll see where the best odds are for success. Then, you’ll use whatever tools you can find (and afford) to turn out a series of good books (not rubbish) to build a steadily growing publishing business.

It doesn’t matter if your passion is a raw foods diet, or you’ve always dreamed about writing Tarzan novels set in a rediscovered artificial planet launched by the Annunaki in the year 28,000 BCE.

What you’ll publish will be whatever looks like it offers the best income opportunity. That may be something you can write, personally, or it might involve ghostwriters.

You’ll publish and publish, over & over again, fine-tuning your business model as you go.

Eventually, you’ll have a predictable income that gets you out of the cubicle. And, with that freedom, you can finally write what you’re passionate about.

B. The 1000 True Fans business plan

fansIf you’re building a long-term pen name, write what you know about and love reading.  I’ll bet there are at least 1000 True Fans in that same category.

(Check Amazon to be sure good books in your category are selling well. Be sure indie publishers are succeeding in that category. And be sure you can compete, at least enough to break into the Top 100 in that category.)

Write for those 1000 true fans. Trust them to tell their friends about your great books, and you may live happily ever after.

It worked for J. K. Rowling, when agents and publishers assured her there was no money in children’s books.

With those options — and many variations of them — in mind, let’s get back to the challenges of outsourcing when you’re new to the publishing field.

2. Quality, full stop.

But, let’s say you’re confident that you can tell the difference between a good book and a bad one, in your chosen category. My next issue is a about logic:

If someone is smart enough to write a good book, she’s usually smart enough to know she’ll earn more money writing and publishing her own books.

However, there are exceptions.

That’s especially true when a high-quality ghostwriter needs immediate cash for an emergency.

(It happens to everyone, now and then. Whether it’s an expensive car repair, or a vacation the author really needs, right now… the need for immediate cash can motivate a really good writer to ghostwrite.)

Another case might be a ghostwriter who prefers an immediate “bird in the hand,” compared with royalties he or she won’t see for 60 days or more.

In other words, some ghostwriters would rather have $200 for a high-quality novella, right now, than $2,000 (or more) in small paycheques over the next six months.

And, a few are freelancing — living on fast, easy, low-paying writing gigs — until they complete enough of their own books to quit working for clients altogether.

con artistHowever, to be perfectly blunt, some freelancers have a habit to pay for. Usually, it’s drugs. Sometimes, it’s an unfortunate (and expensive) relationship. Even good writers can make poor life choices.

Be wary of freelancers (outsourcers and ghostwriters, alike) who might leave you in the lurch with just half of a book completed. Or, who vanish after writing two very stylish books… of a five-book series.

Consistency is key to your success, and you’re the best writer to deliver that.

3. Consistency.

By now, most publishers know that readers like to see at least three books by the author, in that same niche or genre, before they’ll buy even one.

If you’re not going to publish at least three books under that pen name, in that category, don’t bother at all. I mean it.

However, that means having (or planning) three similar books you’ll publish. The best guarantee of that is to write the books yourself.

If there is any chance your three books might be written by different people, or by someone with an issue that makes his or her writing inconsistent, your readers will rip your books to shreds.

Readers will feel betrayed. They liked one book and trusted your other books to be similar. Your other books were too different.

To your readers, that’s like lying to them.

Dealing with someone online, whether you found them at Odesk, eLance, Fiverr, or through a friend… you’re trusting that person with your reputation and your income.

Be very, very sure you know who you’re dealing with, and that they’re the person doing the writing. (In other words, be sure they’re not outsourcing it to a service like Fiverr or Amazon Mechanical Turk.)

If you’re out of your depth, third-party services are popping up. They’re skilled writers or editors who manage a pool of ghostwriters. They double-check every project before sending you the completed work.

Those services can be an acceptable choice if you really must hire someone else to do some (or all) of your writing.

It’s all about reputation.

Reputation is a tricky thing to manage.  Even Anne Rice has lost readers due to jumping “in and out of the Catholic Church like it’s a swimming pool.” (Obviously, others love her for her quirkiness, but — at her level — readers are far more willing to accept inconsistencies, in and out of her books.)

Until you’ve built a huge fan following, keep your personal life in the background.

Deliver consistently good books, time after time.  That’s key.

You may know why your readers love your books. (Your reviews can provide good insights.)

  • It might be the “voice” in your writing.
  • Sometimes, it’s a particular character (or kind of character) you always include.
  • But, more often, reviews are all over the place. As a result, you have no idea why they love you, but you know you’re doing something right.

If you’re the person writing the books, you have a far better chance of continuing to provide whatever-it-is your readers love… especially that consistent “voice.”

If you’re involved in publishing for hit-and-run profits, and you can shrug and walk away when your books stop selling, that’s one thing.

For those of us who rely on books (and happy readers) for our income, outsourcing is building a career on shifting sands.

If you’re an author, the best choice is to write your own books, if you can.

Authors with Pitchforks – Indie Publishing Uprising

Authors are seizing their own power.  I’ve talked about this before, and I knew it was a trend. I just didn’t realize its momentum until I saw this chart:

Indie authors versus big publishing houses - stats
The green triangles are indie books. The blue diamonds are big publishers. (Graphic from http://brucerousseau.com/AmazonData.html )

Those were Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers in Literature & Fiction — Amazon’s top-selling fiction category — in September 2013.  (Huge thanks to Bruce Rousseau for compiling this and other really helpful charts at his website.)

See all those green triangles on the chart?  They’re independently published books (aka self-published).

The blue diamonds are books from big publishing houses.  The red circles are books independently published by Amazon’s own imprints.

These are just the top 100 best-selling books in Literature & Fiction.

As you can see, at least 50% are independently published.

(While you’re at it, check page count and pricing statistics shown on that graph.  That’s what’s selling, as of mid-September 2013.   I did my own informal survey of the top 50, yesterday. The patterns were similar, but with a higher percentage of indie books succeeding, versus traditionally published books.)

If we indies — with our shoestring budgets and limited experience — can take on Goliath-sized publishers and hold our ground (or better, in many categories)… that’s saying a lot. 

And, we’re earning about 10x more, per book, than we did when we were handing our books to traditional publishers, to edit (or not) and publish when they got around to it.

Here’s my message: You can succeed, on your own, as well as (or better than) you might with a traditional, corporate publishing house.

Publishers aren’t the warm, fuzzy, creative people they were in the 20th century.  Heck, they’re not even as supportive and nurturing as they were 10 years ago.

  • They probably won’t polish your book into the gem it could be. Not without charging you a hefty, per-page “editorial fee.” Worse, that editing may be lackluster. (If you want good editing, hire an indie editor with great credentials you’ve verified. That’s smart advice, even if you’re writing for traditional publishers.)
  • Your book cover may look like 50 other books they’ve published. Those books didn’t sell well, so they’re “repurposing” the template so they get their money’s worth from the design. The question is, do you want your book to look like 50 other books that didn’t sell well? (Alas, most authors have zero input regarding cover design.)
  • If you get two or three weeks’ marketing support from them, it’s only when your book first comes out, and only if they’re pretty sure it will sell well.

(If you want to know why, read Victoria Mixon’s superb article, The 2 Non-Artistic Professions Running the Artistic World of Modern Fiction. Scroll down to get to her explanation about publishing. Then, especially if you’re in fiction, read the top part of that article and follow her links, too.)

So, forget the scenes in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile. Your publishing house editor probably won’t take you out for a drink, or babysit your cat while you’re on a trip.

Forget the fantasy of a publishing house that carefully nurtures you and your books, turning you into a best-selling author with regular Oprah-type gigs.

And, oh yes, forget the hefty advance (up-front payment) that used to cover your bills while you were working on your next book.  Those payments are few and far between, and — even if you do get one — it’s likely to be less than I earn from just one of my (self-published) Kindle books in one month.

Authors are getting smart. Publishing houses are letting us down.

Grab your pitchfork keyboard and start publishing yourself.

Starting a Publishing House – Advice for Authors

infoStarting a publishing house is easy.  Laws will vary from one community to the next, and — as you become more successful — it may be important to meet standards required of “real” publishers.

However, when you’re starting out, it’s usually as easy as using a pen name… with just a few bells & whistles.

If you don’t want to read this entire article, here’s the bottom line:

  • Choose a professional sound name for your publishing house.  Make sure it’s not generic. Be sure it’s not being used by anyone else, and it doesn’t even sound like another publishing house or major corporation.
  • Be sure it sounds like a publishing house. The name should probably end in “books” or “publishers” or “house,” or something like that.
  • Start using that name.
  • (Optional) Use a “TM” (e.g., SuperDuper Publishers™) to protect your new publishing house’s name.

Yes, that’s all you really need to know, when you’re starting small.

I’ll explain more in the rest of this article, but if you’re just looking for an overview (from someone — meaning me — who is not an attorney and cannot give legal advice)  to get started… that’s all there is to it.

Our Story

First, I’ll share a cautionary tale, in case the phrase “publishing house” goes to your head as it did mine.

I’m an experienced editor and traditionally published author.  My husband is a pre-press professional.  (If you live in the U.S., you’ve seen his work. No exceptions. Really.)

A few years ago, we launched our own publishing company.  We began with high expectations, offering our expertise with no up-front costs, and a small 10% royalty (to us) based on books sold each month.  We expected to build a broad, profitable foundation over a two-year period.

It didn’t work out that way.  We didn’t screen books and authors well enough. The monthly bookkeeping was nightmarish.  As our efforts increased, they consumed most of our free time and ate into my own writing time.

After three years, we reluctantly closed our doors to new authors, and simply gave the existing, print-ready book files to our authors.

Since then, I’ve redirected my time & energy into my own books, and built a comfortable four-figures/month income, just from my Kindle books.

So, learn from our experience.  Start by publishing your own books, period and full stop.  Wait at least six months before deciding if you want to involve others, even if your vision is a co-op publishing venture.

Here’s what I’d do now, if I were starting a new publishing house.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. 

If you have questions about what’s truly legal (and not) in your area,
contact an attorney who specializes in patents, trademarks, and business law.

1. Set up the publishing name.

Technically speaking, in most areas you only need to select a name, a lot like you select a pen name. In a nutshell, make sure it’s not already in use or might be mistaken for an entity with a similar name, and (optionally) start using your new publishing house name with a “TM” after the name, like this: Your Company™.

(That info came from Shopify.com, but the original page is gone. So, that advice may not be current.)

Yes, that’s it. You’re all set.

My advice is to add a website for the publishing house, so it looks a little more formal.  Add a Twitter account, a Facebook fan page, etc… and you’ll look pretty good.

However, remember that you don’t already “own” your own name.  So, even if your name is Glenda Kackelmeier, you don’t automatically have the right to call your publishing company Glenda Kackelmeier Books.  You still need to check for competitors, and formally register the name — at least with a TM in the name when you use it — before you’re reasonably protected.  (Important note:  Glenda Kackelmeier is a real author, sometimes better known as Glenda Sands or Glenda Sanders.)

Also, avoid generic, descriptive phrases, like “Really Good Books” or “You Wanna Own These Books.”

Select a distinctive, memorable, and preferably professional-sounding name.  Then, see if it’s already in use.

  • I usually see if anyone has the matching domain name as a dot-com.  If it’s taken, I look for another name.
  • I run a search at the U.S. Trademarks site. (Click on Trademark Search, and — at that page — enter the name you’re interested in, in the form.)
  • I run a search using the name at Google. Can I claim a spot (or two or three) on their search results, or are too many others using similar names?
  • Can I get the name at Gmail, Yahoo mail, Twitter, and Facebook?  I snag them. Whether I ever use them, this prevents others from pretending to be the same company. (This is good advice for pen names, too.)

Many states give preference to any individual or entity already using a business name, whether or not it’s been formally registered.

For example, Florida law says, “Rights to a name or mark are perfected by actual use in the ordinary pursuit of the specific endeavor; rights are not perfected by registration only, and the general rule of ‘FIRST IN USE, FIRST IN RIGHT’ is applicable.” [emphasis added] (Ref. Florida Trademark/Service Mark  Registration Guidelines, accessed from this link.)

Also, in some states and communities, you’ll need a business license if you’re using a fictitious name for your business.  Check your local laws.  In many cases, a home-based business needs no business license unless your customers physically visit you there.  Every community is a little different.  Your town hall can probably advise you.

Frankly, if you’re starting out with just two or three or even a dozen books, I wouldn’t treat it any more seriously than a disposable pen name. (That would probably be horrendous legal advice — if I were giving any, which I’m not — but a lot of people will give writing a try and soon move on to something else.  I don’t see the point of investing much — if anything — in a business you may not like.)

2. Look good.

As a basic step, I recommend a logo for your publishing house.  Make sure it’s something that looks clear and distinctive on the spine of a printed book.

For $5, you can probably get a good logo design by searching for “logo” at Fiverr.com.

Some people include the “TM” in the logo.  I don’t.  As long as I’m using the TM on the copyright page of  my books and in the footer of my book- and publishing-related website, I figure that’s enough visibility.

On the title or copyright page, display your publishing house name. (Logo is optional.) You can do this whether or not you purchase an ISBN for your book, or use the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace.

Many business owners strongly recommend opening a separate bank account (in your own name or your business name) to look professional to the IRS, etc.  That’s up to you.

3. Later, look more formal.

If you’re committed to your writing and independent publishing, you may want to take the next step. You’ll file a fictitious name statement in your community, or even a trade name registration.

That may be vital if you’re planning to accept payment in your business name, open a bank account in that name, and so on.

Tip: Keep privacy in mind from the very start. If your state or community allows you to file paperwork with your P.O. box as the mailing address, do so.  It is never too early to protect yourself from well-meaning fans who may show up at your door.  (On the other hand, if you’re renting or plan to purchase another home when your book income improves, this may not be an issue at this point.)

In many states, it’s super-cheap to register a trade name (usually it’s like a trademark, or even considered a “trademark,” but it’s just the words).

For example, you can register a trademark in Delaware for $35, total.  If you’re registering as a corporation or another formal business structure, it’s $75 to get started.  You don’t even need to live in Delaware. You just need to hire someone in Delaware as your “registered agent.” (Prices seem to start around $49/year.)

In New Hampshire and Florida, many people file trade names (aka fictitious names) at the state level instead of filing DBA (“doing business as”)  notices in their communities.  Fee: $50 at the basic level.

To register your publishing house in your own US state (or one with favorable laws), see State Trademark Information Links.

Filing a trade name on the federal level is more complex and will cost you $325+.  If that’s within your reach, go for it.  Otherwise, you may want to wait until your publishing business is booming.  As long as you’ve taken basic steps, your business name will be protected, locally, and that may be all you need.

4. The ISBN issue is important. Maybe.

Short-term, consider the extra $10 for ISBN use at CreateSpace, etc. It does look more professional if the book’s sales page displays the name of a publishing house.

However, this may limit your distribution options through CreateSpace. As of late 2015, for maximum distribution, my husband & I are publishing our books with the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace.

Later, if the book sells really well, we may change to a “real” ISBN.

Once you’ve independently published a dozen or more books, and know you’ll continue on this career path, look into buying your ISBNs in bulk at Bowker.com.  That will look far more professional.

However, until you’re ready to buy 100 ISBNs at a time (currently $575, which works out to $5.75 each), it’s far less expensive to buy your ISBNs — one at a time — through CreateSpace, etc.  A single ISBN at Bowker is $125.

5. When your publishing house becomes big, expand your options.

If you grow this into a major publishing house, you’ll look at other options.  That might include LightningSource.com or other printing and distribution options.

For the most current information, follow Aaron Shepard’s blog and read his books (in Kindle, so you have the latest news).

Now… let’s get back to basics.

Generally, new authors will choose a unique publishing house name. They might add the TM after the name in some settings. Then, they’ll enter that name (minus the TM notation) as the “publisher” in the forms at CreateSpace, KDP, etc.

It’s that simple.

Choose a unique name and get started. Use CreateSpace’s free ISBNs. That’s all you really need to do, at the beginning.

How Self-Publishing Works

Seven deadly sins, by Bosch.At G+, someone asked how self-publishing (now called “independent publishing”) works.

At the bare minimum, these are the steps.

1. Write a book.

2. Format it for Kindle, or hire someone at Fiverr.com to format it for you. (First, see which formats Kindle Direct Publishing accepts. You may not need extra formatting.)

3. Sign up at (free) Kindle Direct Publishing.  Upload your book, and follow their directions.  Everything’s free. (Optional: Also publish your book at Nook, Kobo, etc. Too much work? Try a free-to-get-started service like Draft2Digital.com.)

4. Optional, but helpful: Promote your book so people know it’s for sale. (As of 2016, this is more important than it used to be.)

5. Watch your bank account in ~60 days for your first monthly royalties.

6. Meanwhile, format the book in a PDF and publish it via CreateSpace.com, as well. (Instructions are at that website.) It’s free, too. (You’ll probably order a proof copy of the printed book, to be sure it looks okay. That’s not free. It’s usually about $5 or so. Worth every penny, while you’re learning the ropes.)

7. Also optional: Tell people the book is available in Kindle and printed formats.  (Recommended: Then, go back to Step 1 and repeat.)

Step one is to write your book.

After that, everything is pretty much by-the-numbers.  It doesn’t have to cost a cent.  It’s not even complicated.

Write the book.  Publish it. Write the next book, and so on.

That’s the path to success.