Category Archives: Writing

Status Update – Are We Still Talking About This?

Mar 27, 2017

image courtesy of goXunuReviews via flickr commons

I don’t know why, but writers seem to be meaner to other writers sometimes than non-writers are. Specifically when it comes to decisions about which course to take with their writing and the results of those decisions. Nothing seems to bring out the claws than someone who chose to follow a different path than someone else.

Case in point… I was privy to a discussion recently about how an as-yet unpublished writer who aspires to be traditionally published said something nasty to a formerly trad, now indie author. The comment was along the lines of “self-publishing is dying” and “only one author is still making 7 figures a year self-publishing.” These snarky comments were incredibly hurtful to the author on the receiving end of the comment.

They’re hurtful to me, in a way, too. First of all, the snarky author in question is wrong on several accounts. There are still MANY indie authors making 7 figures. And while the golden days of being able to self-publish and make a mint without working hard and treating it as a business have indeed passed, there are legions of indie authors—yours truly included—who are still making a comfortable living by writing, even if it isn’t 7 figures. Un-factual “facts” always bother me, whether in business or in history. So I call shenanigans on Snarky Author’s comments.

But what really ticks me off about this comment is what Snarky Author considers “success” as a writer. Evidently, she defines it as having the stamp of approval of the publishing establishment in New York and making 7 figures. Well, if that’s her standard, then only a small handful of authors are actually successful. Because let me tell you, those books that you see at your supermarket check-out are a teensy fraction of the books that have been published. Only the tippy-top of authors get that kind of recognition and placement. The vast majority of traditionally published authors are midlist authors who barely make a living wage. So does that mean they’re not successful? Or could it mean that the midlisters are more successful, even though they make less money than many indies?

(Writing is) Berry Hard Work, by JD Hancock, courtesy of Flickr

Okay, but let’s take it back a step further, because I, for one, absolutely, unequivocally do NOT think that success as a writer has a price tag attached to it. I consider myself a wildly successful writer because writing is my full-time job (which is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream), I support myself comfortably, I pay a friend to be my assistant, thus enabling her to launch her career, and I have enough left over to donate to my church now and then. And I manage to pay my (completely eye-popping and sob-worthy) taxes. Oh, plus I get to travel to places like London, Paris, Cardiff, Sweden, and Australia and call it work.

And I neither make 7 figures nor have any interest in being published by NYC.

So where does this attitude of dismissiveness come from? Why is there still, after all this time, a prejudice against self-publishing? And, to throw an issue that might not seem related at first but is into the mix, why are some people who attempt to go indie crashing and burning and becoming jaded?

Frankly, I think at the heart of it, nothing has changed from the time before self-publishing, when aspiring authors who couldn’t get an agent or a deal poo-pooed their fellows’ manuscripts in critique groups or turned up their nose when someone got a deal with a small press. The simple fact is that not everyone who wants to be an author has what it takes to actually be an author. And by that I mean they don’t have the talent or they don’t have the ambition and drive.

It takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work to sell any books as an indie author, let alone to reach a point where you can self-support on your writing. For the first four years of my publishing career, I worked a full-time, soul-sucking, corporate day job. I woke up at 5:30am and wrote until I had to get ready for work. I ate a quick dinner and sat down to write for hours in the evening before bed. I wrote for hours on the weekend to get stuff done. No TV, no hanging out with friends, no extracurricular activities. (No husband, no kids, and no house to take care of either). For four years. Every day, every week. When I finally did leave the day job to just write, I had to reacquaint myself with the concept of “free time.”

If you’re not willing to do that, you might want to reconsider whether you have the ambition and drive part of what it takes to succeed as an author, indie or otherwise.

But more than that, I figured out pretty quickly that there were things I needed to know that I didn’t. I had to learn about marketing and promotion, not to mention how to format books and network with other authors. Those things don’t just magically happen without effort. Even deeper than that, I knew that I needed to be a better writer. And that’s an ongoing thing. You might be surprised to know how much I study the craft, how much I reexamine my methods and analyze the quality of my output. I attend workshops at conferences and read craft books. All the time. Even now. Always.

Behold! The first book I ever published! And while I like the characters and storyline, I’m embarrassed to go back and read it. I’ve gotten so much better as I writer!

Maybe I’m dead wrong about this and letting my biases show, but I think perhaps the authors who report more disastrous than normal declines in their sales and income are the ones who aren’t bothering to work on their skills. Now, I’m not talking about those of us who are buffeted by the changing market. Sales have gone down across the board for just about everyone. But I am angrily mystified by those authors who insist they have nothing to learn, that their writing is awesome the way it is (in spite of reviews and declining sales), and who make no efforts to improve and grow. No one has anything that they want to hear about changing up their writing methods, improving the tension in their plots, or making their characters more vibrant and three-dimensional.

Because the simple fact is that the market is saturated in every genre. The only way to stand out and attract sticky readers (not the ones with lollipops, but the ones who will join your newsletter and buy everything you write) is to write well. We can’t squeak by on the novelty of eBooks anymore. Quality is king. Furthermore, as readers have said to me personally, we have to be original these days. With so many authors writing so many books, the same plots and characters are being recycled over and over. Each of us needs to focus hard on whether we’re writing the same story as everyone else. Different is king, and in my humble opinion, the authors who are going to make it through the storm are the ones who turn out unique, intriguing stories that readers haven’t seen before on a consistent basis.

So there you go. This probably should have been two posts, but it all needed to be said. The indie world is definitely alive and well, and will continue to be so in a successful and fulfilling way, if we all stay vigilant and put in the work.

Status Update – Why Series End

Mar 01, 2017

In my writing career so far, I have written eight different series (and a few odds and ends). Of those series, I only have two “active” right now (The Brides of Paradise Ranch and Nerds of Paradise). Four of those series are definitely done (The Noble Hearts, Montana Romance, Hot on the Trail, and Culpepper Cowboys). And the other two (Second Chances and Grace’s Moon)? Ugh, that’s where my heart and my head get into serious debates.

But first things first….

Why does an author choose to end a series? If you’re a reader, it might be heartbreaking to say goodbye to your favorite characters and a world you’ve fallen in love with. The same is true for the author too, but sometimes things have to end. Like with my Noble Hearts series. That decision was easy, because I realized Medieval Romance wasn’t the way I wanted to go. Or with Montana Romance, I felt like I’d told all the stories I needed to tell in that world and wanted to move on to other things. Hot on the Trail was a slightly different story, because I just got burnt out of writing about the Oregon Trail. I mean, there are only so many stories you can tell about people headed west in wagons. But you’ll notice, I sort of just rolled that world into Paradise Ranch, so it doesn’t really end, it just shifts.

Incidentally, I’m thinking that later this year, I might spin-off Paradise Ranch into a 3-5 novella series about the girls that Bonnie has rescued, educated, and helped to find a new life. And thanks to Elspeth and Gunn, those lives are as servants in British households…which would be a great transition from my historical westerns to the British Victorian stories I really want to start writing. It’s all organic, and everything fits together!

But I digress. For me, the Culpepper Cowboys books ended because the well went completely dry for those books. I got to the point where I was just blank. I had no new ideas for the length, tone, and atmosphere of that world. But that sort of rolled into Nerds of Paradise, which are longer, deeper, more complex, and deal with more serious issues. So if that’s the case for those books, what about Second Chances, my contemporary series set in Maine?

This is where I start to cringe on an emotional level. Because I LOVE those Maine books. I love Maine! And I’m very proud of what is now a trilogy. I have people asking me if I’m going to write more in that series all the time. And I hate to say it, but the farther away I get from the last one of those that I published, the less likely I am to continue the series. Because the thing about writers is that their writing brains are not static. I am constantly coming up with new ideas, new worlds, and new characters. Which is a wonderful thing! But the consequence is that other things can be left behind because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Also, when other series and types of books start to pick up in sales, it’s really hard to forego that income to write something that will need a bigger marketing push. We gotta eat!

And finally… Grace’s Moon. *epic sigh* So, so few people have read my Sci-Fi books or even know they exist. The thing is, I love that genre. I love the books that I’ve already published in that series, and I love the ones that are still floating around in my head. And I keep saying that someday I AM going to come back to that series and write more. Unlike Second Chances, I’m unwilling to say, willingly or grudgingly, that I’m done with Grace. Because I have generation after generation of those characters already planned out. In my mind, that world is epic! Someday I’ll get back to it. Someday!

Status Update – Contemporary and Historical

Feb 26, 2017

Psst! Here’s the next historical, coming out next month!

Funny, but several times in the last week or so I’ve found myself in conversations with other writers about which genres we like to write the most, which come more easily to us, and how these days, it’s necessary to write more than one genre. This is shop-talk at its finest for me! I love talking about this stuff. So I’ll share with you.

First of all, yeah, a lot of writers agree that it’s really important to write more than one genre right now, especially if you’re an indie author. The market has become so unpredictable (especially these last few months, whew!) and readers read across such a wide variety of genres and subjects. In past years, one genre or another, say, paranormal, would be popular for years (remember all those vampire novels about ten years ago?). Reading tastes would stick around for years as opposed to months.

Months, like now. These days, genres rise and fall, become popular, then lose that popularity on much shorter cycles. One month you might find that your motorcycle gang books are selling like hotcakes, and three months later, you can’t give them away. It’s funny how genres work like that.

Personally, I’m still waiting for historical romance to gain the ascendancy again. I prefer writing and reading historical romance. It’s funny too, because a lot of people say they can’t identify with the problems and plots of historical people, but I find that I identify with them more and feel more comfortable in those worlds. But I’m also weird. We all know that. And even though I’ve been writing historical westerns for the past five years, guess what? I really long to write British Victorian novels! Yep! And by the end of this year, I’m gonna start writing and publishing them too, so watch out!

But here’s the thing. I’ve had some amazing reactions to the contemporary romance novels I’ve written. A lot of them have sold better than my historicals. And that’s primarily because contemporary just sells better than historical. That’s the way the market is right now. And while they’re not my favorite, they’re a very close second. I do like writing them.

The funny thing is, I never thought I had any contemporary romance stories in me. I didn’t think I could write them at all. But I kicked myself in the pants a couple years ago and wrote Summer with a Star, and the rest is history. I really enjoyed writing that book. (Although I ended up publishing it at an incredibly stressful time in my life, and yes, it has a lot of typos. Alas.) Since then, I’ve found a contemporary voice that I’m comfortable with. I kinda think I write contemporary stories the way I would write a historical one, if that makes sense. But there’s a lot you can do with contemporary characters that you can’t do with historical ones.

Although I’ll get out my soapbox and say that the range of activity for historical heroines is WAY narrower than life really was for those ladies in many of the novels I’ve read. People in general don’t quite understand what life was really like back then (understandable, since very few people have degrees in history) and many people believe the myths about what life was like, even when someone points out the reality to them.

But that’s a post for a different day!

Going Wide – A Post For My Author Friends

Oct 18, 2016

I’m going to start this blog post with the thesis statement. If you read nothing else, read this:

Going wide is not a magic bullet means of staging a protest against Amazon because you don’t like recent KU payouts! It’s a long-term strategy for diversification that requires long-term effort, patience, and above all, a plan.

There. Whew! As long as we understand that, this blog post is going to go well.

I am a firm believer in the idea that it’s better to have as many books in wide distribution as possible than to keep all of your eggs in one basket. Lately, I’ve been hearing more and more of my fellow authors either thanking the heavens that they are and have been wide from day one, or wishing and lamenting that they didn’t owe so much of their career to the mostly fickle whims (and occasional cringe-worthy errors) of The Great and Powerful ‘Zon. Building a career in which your books are available on every platform where readers want to read them is ideal, but there are some definite things to watch out for if you’re about to jump into the wide transition.

THIS:  Don't do it!

THIS: Don’t do it!
Courtesy of Madison Gostkowski, via Flickr Creative Commons

Facts are facts. Amazon just IS about 60% of the eBook market. On a good day. Now, that number might be way higher for some and way lower for others, but on average, I think it’s still about 60%. Maybe even more. Honestly, I think for me, Amazon represents about 85% of my book sales. The key is that those are flat-out sales, not page reads that net a fluctuating amount of money based on other people’s page reads or are subject to bizarre technical problems (like the one that seems to be a problem right now). Sales are much more dependable than page reads, and depending on the length of your book, net you more income than all the pages of your book would.

So if you have been exclusive to Amazon and put your books wide, you will no longer collect on page reads, but you will have the steadier income of Amazon’s 70% (or 35%) royalty rate per buy.

Sounds obvious, but I feel the need to state it. Because one key factor to consider in the decision to take your books into wide distribution is to do a little math and figure out if the total income from your page reads is more or less than, say, 15% of your sales royalties. If the amount you are making on page reads is less than 15% of what you’re making overall for royalty sales, you might not find yourself screaming at the end of the month when all the sales numbers come in.

Different genres perform differently on different devices. As a general rule, historical and sweet do better on Amazon, and contemporary and spicy do better in wide distribution. Though my recent personal observations are that they all do about the same on Barnes & Noble. (But B&N these days is a whole other, weird story). If you’re a sweet historical western writer, you might find yourself with a bit of an uphill struggle if you’re going wide. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

I have a theory about why this is the case. It has to do with audience demographics. Amazon has made Kindle eReaders really affordable. You can get a Kindle Fire for about $50 if you catch a promo. Conversely, iPads cost around $399 for the cheap models these days. Barnes & Noble has sort of given up on the Nook—although you can get one for about $129—and are pushing Samsung tablets, which start at $139, on their site. You can get a Kobo eReader for as little as $89, but Kobo does most of its business in Canada and other English-speaking countries. Things being what they are, in a general sense, readers who love sweet and historical books are often from more rural areas and have tighter budgets, whereas readers who indulge in the steamy contemporary stuff tend to be from more urban areas where people are into flashy gadgets.

That’s a HUGE generalization, btw. Another factor in Amazon’s market dominance is that they started the eBook revolution and have strategically marketed Kindles for years more than the competition. Plus, if iPad owners are anything like me, they spend more time playing games on those puppies than reading books.

So whether everything I’ve heard and am assuming is gospel truth or not, the facts remain—sweet and historical do well on Amazon, steamy and contemporary to well everywhere else.

Courtesy of Susan Schultz, via Flickr

Courtesy of Susan Schultz, via Flickr Creative Commons

If you build it, they will come…as long as you put a LOT of effort into getting them to go there. Which of course is the thing that everyone wants to know the most about and figure out. How do you get readers to find your books on other platforms besides Amazon?

Man, I wish I had a perfect answer for that! I can only start by telling you what other platforms don’t quite have the same way Amazon does—algorithms. Sure, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo (and maybe Google Play, but I know virtually nothing about them because their pricing policy scares the *%#^$%#! out of me) DO have “Also Bought” sections, but I don’t know if they work quite the same way as the ones on Amazon do. They have categories that you can search through, but books don’t end up ranking the same way they do at Amazon, and for some of those sites, searching through the categories is an exercise in frustration.

So if you can’t rely on the sites themselves to position your books in such a way that readers can find them, how do you get readers to find them?

In a way, the answer is “The same way you get readers to find them on Amazon.” Through targeted promotions, newsletters, and Facebook ads. You have to target them specifically for each of the other retailers, though. For example, with a Facebook ad, you’ll want to have a specific Facebook ad that targets iBooks readers (or B&N or Kobo, etc.) and you’ll want to make those links available. And as with everything else, scoring a BookBub ad with links to all of those retailers does wonders for your visibility on those platforms. Same goes for those other promotional sites and newsletters.

Now, there’s one new thing that Kobo is doing that may or may not end up being helpful there. They’ve recently started beta-testing a promotions tab, which will lead to select books being featured on a special page on their site. It’s something you have to ask them for, though. My friend Angela Quarrels wrote a whole blog post about that, so I’ll send you over to her. (P.S. Her post is part of an entire series about, you guessed it, going wide!) But I can tell you that I emailed them, they put me in the program, and I have my first test in those waters at the end of November. I’ll let you know how that goes!

One other thing that is probably going to get me in deep trouble with someone… If you happen to find yourself at a conference and are able to set up an appointment with the iBooks rep, that’s always worth a shot. But honestly, I met with them a couple of times, they promised me the moon, and I got literally nothing. It hasn’t endeared me to their process all that much.

But really, at the end of the day, it’s a long-game. As I said, I highly, highly recommend going wide with as many books as possible, but it takes exponentially longer to build up a fan-base on other platforms than it does on Amazon. If you’re thinking of going wide because you’re fed up with Amazon and you imagine that the moment you put your book up for sale on other platforms you will see a similar amount of sales immediately…um, it ain’t gonna happen. I know one writer who got fed up with Amazon, pulled her books from KU, put them wide, and then was massively disappointed when she “only” sold a couple dozen copies elsewhere on her first day wide. (This was a few years ago) I had a hard time not laughing. Selling any copies wide right out of the gate is a very good thing!

Yes, go wide. But go into it with lower expectations. Remember that it takes longer to build an audience on other platforms than it does to build one on Amazon. You have to put the effort in, seek out promotions, and invest time in making them work. But once things do start to work, the benefits are awesome. No more reliance on Amazon’s page counts and the corresponding snafus! Higher royalties for the books that you actually sell on Amazon instead of page reads! And sales from other platforms which can serve as a buffer for the Weirdness of the ‘Zon! But it is work, and it’s not right for every book every time. I still have my sweet historicals in KDP Select. But one of the reasons I’m trying to move away from sweet is so that the books I’m writing will have greater sticking power on those other platforms.

It’s an ever-changing business, and those who survive are the ones who seek out opportunities and change as everything else changes.

If you have questions about something I didn’t cover, feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer!

Writing Spicy and Sweet

Sep 20, 2016

sweet-spicyA lot of people who have read my Brides of Paradise Ranch series have been intrigued by the fact that I’ve been doing both a sweet and a spicy version of each book. People love the idea of being able to choose which heat-level they’d like to read, but I’m often asked “How do you do that? How do you write two versions?” 

The first and most important part of the answer to that question is that I start out knowing that I’m going to be writing two versions all the way in the conceptualization phase.  

But let me back up a little bit further to answer the question of why I started doing this in the first place.  

I generally write spicy. I like to write spicy. I like to read spicy. Not erotica, mind you, but sizzling. When I first started reading romance novels all those years ago, I read spicy pirate romance novels. That level of spice just seems natural to me. But as I started writing historical westerns (and I never intended to write historical westerns when I started out, it happened by accident—but that’s a whole other blog post), I came to see that a lot of readers preferred the sweet stuff. And I’ll confess, I looked at the success of my sweet historical western-writing friends and thought, “Well, I’m trying to make a living off of this, and I’ve got to pay the bills somehow.” 

So I decided to give sweet a try…without sacrificing the spice. Because anyone who knows me knows that the spicy side is a huge part of who I am. =D 

Back to how I do it… HisHeartbrokenBride_Libby

Like I said, I know going into a spicy/sweet novel that it’s going to have two versions. I thought about going back and rewriting some of my older books in sweet versions, but it didn’t take long to realize that it wouldn’t work. In so many of those books, major elements of the plot and the characters’ journeys center around what happens in the bedroom. It’s impossible to take that out without changing the focus of the plot entirely. 

So keeping that in mind, when I set out to write books with both sweet and spicy versions, I knew I had to include the spice in such a way that it wasn’t the pivot point of the plot. The major thrust of the action (no pun intended) had to focus around something that could still be told without following the characters into the bedroom. In other words, the tension of the plot needed to be something other than “will they or won’t they.” 

I think that plotting this way has actually made me a better writer. In the past, I’ve always considered external plots to be the weak point in my writing. Well, here I was writing stories that needed to depend on external plot rather than just the relationship between the hero and heroine. At the same time, that relationship has to play a major role in the story. After all, the spicy version wouldn’t work if the schmexy scenes felt tacked on or superfluous. 

That leaves me with a complex dilemma for each book. How do I write one version in which sensual scenes play a major part in character development without the entire plot hanging on them? And how can I remove those scenes and still maintain an intimacy between the characters while keeping the story sweet? 

HisTemptingBride_Miriam_2coversI think the answer lies in my process of writing. When I draft each of the Paradise Ranch books, I draft the spicy version. The first draft is spicy. Actually, the second and third drafts are too. Once I have everything just the way I want it, I send it off to my editor. And then I go back and start working on the sweet version while she works on the spicy one. 

The sweet version is all about subtracting and adding. I go through and take out everything non-sweet. Gone are the schmexy scenes, gone are any swear words or even references to alcohol. I have a kind of silly list of words that I do a search for when I’m writing that sweet version. But of course, most of the time if you take something out, you leave holes. That’s when I go back through and add many more Christian references and rewrite any sensual scenes to be emotionally powerful, fully-clothed, upright scenes. 

This is another area where preplanning is key. When I’m writing the schmexy scenes in the first draft, I always have a point where the action will veer off into the sweet scene in later drafts. I build that jumping off point into the draft to save myself the work of rewriting tons and tons of words later. I keep both versions in mind even as I’m spicing it up. 

Once the spicy draft comes back from my editor, I go through and make all the changes she suggests in both versions. After that, they go off to various proof-readers and beta-readers I have, depending on which draft they prefer. Once those come back, I make final changes and corrections, and voila! Two versions. 

I’ve had a lot of positive response from readers about the fact that two versions are available, even though they prefer one or the other. And I also get a lot of questions about whether I will be going back and writing sweet versions of my older books. The answer to that is no, it would be way too much work, and I’d rather focus on writing new books.  

HisBewilderingBride_Wendy_2coversThe second question I get is “Will you be doing sweet and spicy versions of new books/series?” That’s a much harder question to answer. Harder not because I have to think about my answer, but I’m afraid my answer will disappoint people. Because the answer is no. No, this series has taught me that I really do prefer writing spicy. It comes more naturally to me, and so I’ll be sticking with just the spicy in all new series. BUT, I’m going to continue to write both sweet and spicy versions of the Paradise Ranch series, and that has many, many, MANY more books to come! 

I want to add one final note before ending, though, based on a few private comments I’ve had from readers. I do not think sex is dirty. That’s why I will never refer to a sweet novel as “clean.” I take offense to that term. I don’t think sex is shocking or scandalous or evil, and especially not dirty. It’s a natural part of human relationships and intimacy. I don’t think it should be treated as an unmentionable topic, because I believe that that way lies dysfunction and fear. So all those 1-star reviews that say “This book has too much sex in it?” Those are like 6-star reviews to me! For those who like to leave those reviews, just know that those kinds of reviews sell more books than the best of the best 5-star reviews.

Check out all of the books in The Brides of Paradise Ranch series on my “Other Works by Merry Farmer” page!