Build a Space Battle

Build a Space Battle: A Workshop

I’ll be conducting my new workshop, “Build a Space Battle,” at Capclave 2017 tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s the official description of my the workshop:

So, you want to include a titanic space battle in your military SF novel or your galaxy-spanning space opera. But…who’s fighting? Why are they fighting? You’d like to make the battle realistic…but what tactics and strategies make sense? In this workshop, you’ll learn by doing as we collaboratively build an epic space battle.

My accompanying presentation is already complete and uploaded to SlideShare.net.

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Amazon Kindle Tiers

Amazon sells books in both print and ebook formats, but, frankly, most indie writers generate the bulk of their revenue from ebooks. Since most indie writers make the majority of their money on Amazon, this means the most indies are generating income from Kindle sales, borrows or page views through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.

Over time, as various authors have compared notes on sales, some general statistics have been developed to indicate what the different Kindle sales rankings actually mean in terms of the number of units sold. I’ve broken those sales rankings into seven distinct tiers, which are described below.

Note that these numbers are approximate, and may vary from day to day. Nevertheless, they provide a useful model for understanding Amazon’s sales and may be useful for planning purposes, as well.

Tier 1: 1 – 10

You’re selling an ungodly number of books and probably making six figures per month from just a single book. You’re also killing it in borrows and page reads from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.

Sales: More than 60K books per month.

Tier 2: 11 – 100

You’re selling ten thousand or more books and probably making mid to high five figures per month for an individual title. Again, borrows and page reads will kick in additional revenue. The highest charting indies may move into this territory briefly, but generally won’t be there for long.

Sales: More than 16K books per month.

Tier 3: 101 – 1000

You’re selling thousands of books per month. At best, you’re doing low five figures. Even at the high end of the ranking, you’re still making a few thousand per month. Best-selling indies who end up in this territory for even a relatively short period may end up making more money than most traditionally published writers ever see. Borrows and page reads are a significant revenue stream.

Sales: More than 3K books per month.

Tier 4: 1001 – 10,000

You’re a real writer making real money, selling hundreds to low thousands of books per month. Borrows and page reads are still a significant revenue stream. This is where best-selling indies tend to hang out, especially if they have a large portfolio of books for sale.

Sales: More than 400 books per month.

Tier 5: 10,001 – 100,000

You’re selling 1 to 10 books per day, which adds up over time. At the lower rankings, you may be getting some revenue from borrows and page reads, but most of that will have dried up at the higher rankings. A lot of indie books settle into this tier and steadily earn money for writers. This is probably the bread and butter tier for most indies. Once again, having multiple products is the key to success when books are in this tier.

Sales: More than 35 books per month.

Tier 6: 100,001 – 1,000,000

You’re making a few sales per month. Don’t quit your day job.The settling place for indies that need to learn more about marketing.

Sales: About 2 sales per month.

Tier 7: 1,000,000+

You’re basically not really selling at all. This is not a good place for a book to be. Ever.

Sales: A sale every once in a while, maybe.


Why are tiers important?

During an intense marketing effort, such as a launch, an ebook tends to naturally reach a particular tier in terms of sales. Amazon’s own internal algorithms even take into account different factors, such as honoring slowly rising sales more than temporary spikes, and try to optimize where the book should be in the sales rankings.

After a time, generally at the 30, 60 and 90 day marks, an ebook ages enough that sales generally fade a bit and it drops to a lower tier. What you’d really like is a book that, even on auto-pilot, settles into a high-enough tier that it continues to bring in significant revenue with little or no ongoing marketing.

Best-selling author Hugh Howey’s book, “Wool,” after five+ years in publication, has settled in at the high-end of Tier 3. This means that he makes money month after month with little to no advertising. The books also leads readers in to the next two books in the trilogy, which means that the sell-through makes him even more money.

If you’re marketing your ebook, what you really want to do is to create a campaign of some sort that generates slowly rising sales rather than a sudden spike. Likewise, you want your ebook to reach the highest level possible so that 1) you make a boatload of money, and 2) your ebook eventually settles at a lower tier in terms of sales, but continues to generate real revenue.

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Writing Tips: Sprints vs. Marathons

Marathon RunnerI’ve been in two writing groups for the last four years, both of which are open to new writers. At this point, I can’t tell you the number of times a new writer has arrived and said something like…

  • “I’m writing a dystopian YA novel…”
  • “I’m writing a werewolf urban fantasy police procedural novel…”
  • “I’m struggling with an SF thriller conspiracy novel…”
  • “I’m working on a post-apocalyptic novel…”

The common element here is “novel” and, more specifically, their first novel. Ever.

Folks, writing a novel is like a marathon. For those who aren’t overly familiar with marathons, it’s 26.2 miles long. I’ll come back to this momentarily…

In the last four years, none of these new writers have published any of these novels.

Let me repeat this. None of these new writers have published any of these novels.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Because writing a novel is hard. In order to reach the finish line for a good novel, a writer has to do a lot of things right. The story concept has to sustain a novel-length work, the characters need to be well constructed, the plotting needs to be crisp, the scenes have to move the story forward effectively, etc.

Only a few of these novels were ever finished. Even when they were finished, I haven’t seen any of the writers do the kind of ruthless editing and rewriting that would be necessary to bring the novels I saw up to what I would consider a professional level.

Admittedly, my writing groups are a relatively small sample of the overall writing pool, but all of the beginning writers had the same thing in common. The novel they were writing was the first significant work they were seriously trying to get done.

On the other hand, the writers who have achieved some degree of success seem to have a few things in common, too. They’d honed their craft by working on a bunch of different works over time before they successful completed a (publishable) novel. In the case of one author, he had a string of novels he’d either 1) abandoned part-way through, or 2) finished but had decided that they were unpublishable first drafts (that he didn’t know how to fix). Other authors honed their craft on short stories and novelettes before embarking successfully on longer works.

Now, obviously, there are people out there who have been successful with their first novel (although we don’t know how many drafts they went through to get the novel to where it needed to be). There are people who write very fast and finish novels in two weeks. But, based on what I’ve seen, that’s not the way I’d place my bets.

Runners typically train for marathons by participating in shorter races before moving up to marathons. So, if you’re a new writer, I want you to consider honing your craft on shorter works before trying to write that masterpiece of a novel that you have in your head.

And if you do choose to develop your craft with some short stories and novelettes, go for some diversity. Write that emotional story that doesn’t have much action in it. Write the origin story for the character that’s going to be the hero in your eventual masterpiece. Do an urban fantasy mystery short story. Do a…well, you get the picture. Stretch your boundaries so you’ll be ready for that novel when the time comes.

OK, your mileage may vary. I understand this. Starting with shorter works might not be the right path for everybody. But…at least consider it. I’m getting tired of critiquing trunk novels.

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Mission Statement

Mission StatementI’ve been reading books on the craft and business of writing lately. One of the authors I’ve been reading is Susan Kaye Quinn, a successful, indie-published writer who creates YA fiction (and also writes a few craft-related books on the side). In particular, in her book, 10 Step Self-Publishing Boot Camp, she suggests that writers create a Mission Statement.

The basic idea is that the act of crafting a Mission Statement forces you to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing. It’s something you can revisit each year and modify as needed if your goals change. But it also becomes a metric by which activities can be measured: Does this task that I’m contemplating further my mission?

So, here’s my Mission Statement.


As a writer, I want…

  • To create compelling heroes who, through no fault of their own, are underdogs and are forced to evolve, because these are the types of heroes that inspire me.

  • To create stories about crimes, because people will always be people and somewhere, whether it’s a fantasy realm or a far-off planet, there will be evildoers who need to be brought to justice.

  • To craft genre-bending mash-ups with twists and turns that defy expectations, liberally infused with humor but still deeply rooted in the realm of drama, not outright comedy.

  • To continually seek out new ways to improve my craft.

  • To be a leader and member of a supportive writing community.

  • To create a body of works that reaches a large number of readers and explores the reaches of my creativity.


That’s it. Six bullets.

The first three are focused on what I want to write. I like mash-ups. I like mystery/crime stories set in exotic SF or Fantasy settings. I like stories with humor, twists, surprises, as well as sudden violence tempered with emotional moments.

This tells me that I’m going to have a harder time really establishing my brand than other writers who may just stick to one narrowly focused niche. Because my brand is “hard to define, cross-genre mash-up crime stories.” So be it. But it also means that my stories won’t be just like everybody else’s stories.

I’m OK with that. It seems to have worked well for people like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin and others.

The fourth bullet is about always striving to improve my craft. Yes, absolutely. I want to write stories that move people, not just solely entertain them. To do that, I need to keep pushing my limits as a writer.

The fifth bullet is about being part of a supportive writer community. The way I see it, a rising tide lifts all boats. Help others if you want help yourself. In giving to others, I receive far more. And it’s fun, too.

The sixth bullet is about a writing career. I don’t want to be that “one and done” writer, the one who only ever writes one novel… I want to create a body of works that are worth people’s time.

Now you’ve seen my Mission Statement. I hope it makes sense. It does to me. I think Susan Kaye Quinn was right—it is a good exercise to find out exactly what you’re striving to do as a writer.

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Writing Tips: Signing Books

Signing Books Shortly after you start publishing books, you learn that writers have another duty. When you appear at events, people want you to sign your books. More than that, they often want personalized dedications, often to a child or other loved one.

Screech!

Now, they paid for the book, so you really, really don’t want to mess it up. And doubly so, when they ask you to personalize it.

Here’s my tips related to signing books…

  1. Always have books to sign. Always.

    When somebody stands in front of you asking to buy a signed copy of your book, pull a copy out of your pack, suitcase, or carrying bag and sell it to them. At worst, take their money and tell them you’ll be right back, you’ve got some copies in a box in your car. It’s not just money, it’s an opportunity to turn somebody into a true fan, the kind of fan that will buy all of your books if you’re lucky.

    Note: This works best for indie writers. Trad-published writers don’t have copies to sell (but all of my other tips still apply to them, too).

  2. Always have multiple pens around, and good ones at that.

    Look, they bought your book. They’ve asked you to write in it. The least you can do is make sure that you not only have a pen, but a good pen so you can scrawl smoothly and legibly. Show them you’re prepared, easy-going and professional.

  3. Practice your cursive writing…in advance.

    If you’re like me when I published my first book, except for your signature, you haven’t practiced cursive writing in years. Years, I say. Basically, you’re going to need to do some practice. My first few dedications were wretched…and really slow to write.

    Practice. It’ll pay off for you.

  4. If they ask you for a personalized dedication for a child, always ask if the child understands cursive writing.

    Not all schools are teaching cursive writing anymore. It’s in the process of becoming a dying art. So you can’t know for sure whether the person’s child will understand a dedication written in cursive. And I honestly think that a dedication that can’t be read by the intended recipient…er…loses a bit of its potential impact.

    Print it if you have to, but make sure it’s understandable to whoever is going to receive the book.

  5. For each of your books, have a set of standard phrases you use for personalization.

    Take it from me, phrases are a pain in the butt to try create on the fly. Have a set of stock phrases for each of your books. Be prepared to accessorize on them as needed, but you’ll have a much easier time if you have something to start with.

    As an example, my story, The Good Book, is about a man who has lost all hope, and a magic book (with a bad attitude) that changes his life. Here’s an example dedication:

    Cherlyn,
    There IS magic…never stop looking for it!
               David Keener

When somebody cares enough about your work to want you to sign it, take them seriously. Give ’em something worth caring about. It’s a great way to connect with your fans.

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David Keener’s Writing Life

David Keener's Writing Life

I want to be able to post about my writing on Facebook. But I don’t want to be that guy who does nothing but spam his erstwhile friends and family. When faced with a dilemma, I look to other writers for solutions. Professional writers like Susan Kaye Quinn and others.

What I decided to do was to create a Facebook group called David Keener’s Writing Life, in which I can post information about my publications, upcoming events, my various activities, etc. And anything else that might make sense for my audience.

This makes it an opt-in sort of thing. I’ll post occasionally under my non-group Facebook account, as well as updating this web site regularly. But the Facebook group will get the daily stuff, the “where I am” type of stuff, etc. This way, people who want to know more about my upcoming stories and my life as a writer can follow me as they wish…but others don’t have to if they don’t want to.

Honestly, I’m also trying to recruit a core audience to help me achieve success as a writer. I’ve run smack-dab into that discoverability problem that writers talk about. Nobody really knows who I am, or what type of stuff I write. Most of the successful indie authors end up establishing a “Street Team” of committed fans to help them with pesky things like sales, reviews, word-of-mouth advertising, etc.

So, if it’s your cup of tea, feel free to follow David Keener’s Writing Life.

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Hourlings at Work: A Dynamic Writing Group

Hourlings At WorkIn 2014, I became a charter member of the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, a spin-off from a more general-focused writing group. With weekly meetings every Sunday morning, the group has been like bootcamp for the SF/Fantasy writers associated with the group, including myself.

Participating on Meetup as the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, the group is more informally known as “The Hourlings.” This is the name under which the organization has published two anthologies, with a third on the way. The name is a bit of a takeoff on the “Inklings,” a legendary writing group in England that included J.R.R Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and others.

To demonstrate how the group has progressed, I’ve compiled a list of all the publications that the members have made available for sale on Amazon since 2013. I’m pleased to add that I am amongst that writers who have begun releasing work to the public.

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Writing Tips: Anthology Roles

Creating a quality anthology is a complex project, especially an indie-published anthology. Through painful experience, I’ve learned that it is most effectively accomplished by a dedicated team. I thought it would be useful to others if I defined the roles that I think are necessary for the production of a successful indie-published anthology.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to these roles, other people may provide services for a project, such as a cover artist, a photographer for author biography photos, an illustrator, etc. In practice, I’ve also found that participants may swap some tasks around a bit. Still, the roles are generally as I’ve outlined.

Project Manager: Manages the anthology as a project, starting with the creation of a project plan that defines the activities necessary to create the anthology and a realistic timeline for those activities. Ensures that all necessary roles are filled on the project. Responsible for ensuring that content contracts are signed and rights are properly secured, by contract or by usage agreement, for other elements such as graphics, photos, illustrations and the cover. Often referred to as the “Chief Cat Herder.” Sometimes functions as the “Bad Cop.”

  • Contracts
  • Timeline
  • Project Management

Editor: Responsible for the content of the anthology, including story selection and editorial input on stories. Also writes the “Call for Stories,” which publicizes the anthology theme, payment plan and submission guidelines. Writes the “Introduction” for the anthology. Responsible for nagging contributors to get their stories or edits “done by the due date or they’ll face the wrath of the Project Manager.” Sometimes referred to as the “Good Cop.”

  • Call for Stories
  • Provides an “Introduction” for the anthology
  • Provides Editorial Input on all stories

Copy Editor: Does an exhaustive scan of the anthology content for typos, text problems, grammar mistakes and other issues that would detract from the content. Also responsible for copyediting related content, including back cover text, blurbs, advertisements and author biographies. Often referred to as “Donna Royston.”

  • Edits content for typos and grammatical issues

Book Designer, Print: Professional-caliber books are designed, especially indie-published books that need to stand out from competitors. The book designer lays out the copyedited content in a pleasing and effective design, which can be painstaking work.

  • Designs the print edition, including layout, fonts, graphic elements, illustrations, photos, etc.
  • Orders proofs from Amazon as needed to verify print quality.

Book Designer, Ebook: The ebook designer lays out the copyedited content in a pleasing and effective design, emulating the print design as much as is feasible due to the limitations of the Kindle’s mobi format.

  • Designs the Kindle ebook edition.
  • Tests the design in HTML, in the Kindle Previewer, the Kindle Reader and any
    Kindle devices that are accessible to the designer.

Marketing: Creates any necessary marketing materials for the anthology, including the back cover blurb, the Amazon blurb, etc. Sets the pricing strategy for the anthology, including pricing for the various editions as well as any pricing for marketing campaigns.

  • Back Cover Blurb
  • Amazon Blurb
  • Pricing, for all editions including ebook, print and audio (if any)
  • Marketing Activities
  • Initial Wholesale Order

Author: There is no anthology without content. Authors provide the content, as well as edits to that content and approval/rejection of copyedit changes. Authors are expected to deliver their stories in a timely manner and respond to editorial input and copyedit changes in a timely manner.

  • Provides a Story
  • Provides an Author Biography
  • Provides an Author Photo (or allows one to be taken)
  • Signs a contract for any content provided
  • Responds to Editorial Changes
  • Responds to Copyedit Changes
  • Assists in promotional activities for the anthology when published
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State of the Publishing Industry in 2016

Author Earnings is a (free) web site run by best-selling writer Hugh Howey and the anonymous data analyst known only as Data Guy. For the last few years, they have spidered Amazon’s online bestseller lists, as well as other sites, on a quarterly basis. Basically, using some pretty advanced data collection and analysis techniques, they’ve assembled the best look at what is really going on in terms of sales of books in the United States.

Last week, Data Guy was invited to do a keynote presentation at the Digital Book World conference, which is now online for everybody to view. I have taken some time to digest his presentation, which includes some startling findings. Especially in light of the fact that the October 2016 Earnings Report showed a slight, but unexplained, downturn in ebook sales.

The best graphic from the presentation was this one, which illustrates what Amazon did to traditional publishers in 2016:

Slide 13: Amazon Eats Traditional Publishers and Retailers

For easier discussion, I’ve divided my takeaways into distinct categories…

Market Size

The traditional publishers have virtually no understanding of the size of the book market in US. And the data vendors they depend on are only slightly better. Data Guy’s collection/analysis techniques are not rocket science, but the principles they’re using are alien to organizations like Bookscan, Nielsen and others that the traditional publishers relay on to make business decisions.

  • Even 15% of traditional publisher sales are not being recorded at the point of sale.
  • For traditional publishers, 49% of their sales are digital, but their pricing strategies are designed to preserve the profitability of their print products. Despite the fact that they make more money per sale off ebooks. So they’re using a more profitable format to bolster up the sales of a less profitable format.
  • Overall, Adult Fiction is 42% non-traditional. And 70% of Adult Fiction sold is digital. For the record, digital formats aren’t sold in brick & mortar stores, so this means that 70% of the action is online. As an author, do you even have to be in bookstores to be successful? Especially if you’re a debut author or a mid-list author?
  • In 2016, 14% of all ebook sales were Kindle Unlimited (KU) full-read equivalents. KU is Amazon’s subscription service for online books. Nobody else has tracked this area of the market except Data Guy.

Print is Back

  • In 2016, US print sales grew 3.3%. BUT all channels declined except for Amazon. So “Print is Back” really translates into “Amazon is eating the lunch of Traditional Publishers and Brick & Mortar Retailers.”
  • Ebook sales are not shrinking. They only stopped growing for traditional publishers because of stupid pricing ($14.99 for an ebook!) and Amazon print discounts.In actuality, Amazon’s ebook sales grew 4% in 2016. Traditional publishers are losing market share to indie published writers and Amazon imprints./li>
  • Print sales ticked up in 2016 because of Amazon. Unable to discount ebook prices thanks to publisher-enforced contract terms, Amazon discounted ebooks so they were often lower than the (ridiculously high) ebook prices set by traditional publishers. This caused publishers to sell more print books…instead of more profitable ebooks, which in turn affected their overall earnings.
  • 43% of all print sales occur online, with the majority going to Amazon.

Should Authors Go Traditional or Indie?

  • Print-book customers are migrating away from venues where indie authors cannot compete effectively toward venues where indies can compete effectively, with less risk, with digital upsells, better pricing and outlearn traditional authors on every sale.
  • Overall, Adult Fiction is 42% non-traditional. And 70% of Adult Fiction sold is digital. For the record, digital formats aren’t sold in brick & mortar stores, so this means that 70% of the action is online. As an author, do you even have to be in bookstores to be successful? Especially if you’re a debut author or a mid list author?

Where Did the Coloring Books Go?

Coloring Books emerged as a major new profit area for traditional publishers. Then it disappeared almost overnight. Where did it go? Data Guy has the answer…

Well, it went indie. It seems that indie authors and artists can produce coloring books faster, cheaper and more effectively than traditional publishers.

Conclusion

If you’re a debut author, it’s probably better to start indie, build an audience and go hybrid if a publisher provides a sufficiently lucrative contract (this includes potentially being picked up by an Amazon imprint).

If you’re an indie author, the market has gotten both better and tougher at the same time. The bad news is that, in order to be competitive, indie products must be comparable…or better…than products from traditional publishers. The good news is that most sales are happening online, and in digital formats, so authors with traditional publisher support getting into bookstores are increasingly on a level playing field with indie authors.

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Writing Tips: Your Amazon Author Page

With both the Uncommon Threads and Reliquary anthologies now out and available on Amazon, and “Worlds Enough: Fantastic Defenders” in progress, I recently set up my Author Page on Amazon. It’s really easier, and one of the best things you can do to help promote yourself as a writer.

Go to the following Author Central URL:

     https://authorcentral.amazon.com

You can login using your regular Amazon.com login. The site will allow you to upload an author photo, provide a brief biography and claim any books that you already have published on Amazon. For example, Martin Wilson and I have already both claimed the aforementioned anthologies.

This also means that when your name is listed as an author next to a book image, your name will have a rollover that shows your bio picture and links to your Author Page. Likewise, you’ll be listed as an author, with bio image, further down on Amazon’s product page. Martin, as the first to claim authorship of Reliquary, is currently the only author listed in this area. I’ll be there shortly (I’ve “claimed” the book, but it takes time for Amazon to regenerate the product page with new information).

There are several reasons I think your Author Page is important. First, having an Author Page makes you look more professional. Second, it facilitates some cross-promotion to your other books and stories. Third, Amazon’s “Follow” feature is layered on top of this, which allows people who like your work to “follow” you and receive notifications when you have new stuff coming out.

So, it’s a good thing for general PR, and it’s trivial to set up. Go make it happen.

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