Top Sales Categories, Most Common Prices, Box Sets, And Other Useful Indie Sales Data

This Friday I recommend checking out Smashwords survey results for 2017 regarding sales by independent (self-published) authors. Smashwords is the world's largest distributor of ebooks by indie authors.

The slides below summarize and show graphs of the survey results. Slides 29-30 show Top Categories for fiction sales on Smashwords (the top three are Romance, Erotica, and Fantasy) and non-fiction (top three are Self-Improvement; Health, Wellness and Medicine; and Business and Economics).

The slides also cover the most common prices ($2.99, but Free for Book 1 in a series), facts about box sets, the value of pre-orders, and the word counts of best selling books.

There was a little bit here that gave me pause, as a pie chart on Slide 32 shows of the Top 200 Best Selling Smashwords titles, 73% were Romance, which I don't write, and only 1% mystery, and I just finished a first draft of Book 1 in a new mystery series.

But it's important to look at more than one of the slides, and to look at the big picture. Despite the 1%, Mystery and Detective is No. 3 on the list of pre-order books capturing an outsize share of the market (Slide 78). Looks like I'll be doing a pre-order of The Worried Man.

Until Sunday, when I'll write about Kobo, an ebook publishing platform that can help you reach readers all over the world.


L.M. Lilly



On Not Doing It All Yourself

Whether you self publish your writing or plan to seek a traditional publishing contract, there are related tasks you can pay someone else to do. Often the people you could hire have more experience and can produce a better result than you, such as when you pay a graphic designer to create a book cover or a professional developmental editor to review your plot.

Yet most of us struggle with the idea of paying for services we can, at least in theory, do ourselves.


Here are three reasons that come to mind:

  • Your time is “free”
  • It’s too hard to train someone
  • You’re not earning enough

Let’s talk about each one.

Why Pay Someone When I Can Do The Task For Free?

The problem with this question is that it contains an assumption: that your time is free. It's not, even if you are earning zero right now at your writing.

At the very least, if you have another job or profession, your time is worth what you currently earn calculated by the hour. So if your annual salary is $70,000, you earn about $35 an hour if you work 40 hours a week. If someone else can do a writing-related task for less than that, you're coming out ahead, assuming you have the resources to pay.

Even if you pay someone the exact hourly amount you take home, odds are you’ll come out ahead.

First, an expert can work faster and produce better results. For example, as I wrote about in Your Book Will Be Judged By Its Cover, I recently designed two covers myself for nonfiction books. My guess is that each one took me at least 10 hours, while I bet a professional could have created them in 1-2 hours. So even if the hourly rate were equal, I overpaid for those covers.

Second, if you are earning at least some money at your writing, whatever you pay someone else generally is tax deductible, but the time you devote is not. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s say I earn $1,000 in royalties on those two books and earn the salary in the example above at my other work. I spent $700 (20 hours X $35) to design the covers, but I can’t deduct that as an expense because my time was “free.” So I’ll still pay taxes on $1,000.

If I had instead paid a cover designer $200, I not only would have freed up 20 hours of my time, my profit would be $800 ($1,000-$200), and that’s what I’m paying tax on, not the whole $1,000. (Obviously, this is a general example. I’m not a tax attorney or accountant, and if you need specific tax advice, you should talk to a professional.)

Third, by spending your time on something that’s not your area of expertise, you incur what businesses call “opportunity costs.” If instead of spending 20 hours on covers I’d spent it finishing the second non-fiction book, that would be out there potentially earning royalties right now. Instead, I’m still making last revisions.

Okay, I better move on soon, because I’ve convinced myself that designing those two covers really wasn’t the best move and I’ve lost 20 hours.

If you find yourself in the same position, though, and you no doubt will at some point, don’t worry too much about it. With any endeavor there will be missteps and money or time you wish you had spent differently. I think of it as “tuition”—money or time that's required to learn a new area, a concept I borrowed from Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad Poor Dad fame.

It Takes Too Long To Train Someone.

This is the objection that applied most often in my solo law practice because there was a steep learning curve with a lot of the work I needed help with. In the beginning, training a new lawyer or an assistant would have taken more of my time than it saved. But I was being shortsighted. Even if it had taken me four or five or ten times as long to train someone, once they were trained, my time would have been freed to do tasks that only I could do, or that I could do best.

The many hours I spent learning all my clients’ different billing programs, for instance, could have been devoted to legal work that paid me by the hour or to finishing my novels more quickly. In other words, it would have been well worth it over the long haul to spend some time training.

In writing, the case for outsourcing is even stronger. if you self-publish, it's almost certain you could be paying someone to do something that you aren't that skilled at. Most writers are not also graphic designers, they don't know how to convert word processing files to Kindle files, they don’t have web design experience, and they aren't usually terrific editors of their own work.

Also, when you outsource work, you get the benefit of an outsider's perspective. The graphic designer may propose a wonderful concept that never crossed your mind because you are so immersed in your story. Recently, my virtual assistant typed in some edits for me that I’d handwritten on a manuscript. She spotted a few awkward sentences I’d read right past because I knew what I meant. When she flagged them, though, I realized she was right.

I'm Not Making Enough At Writing To Justify Paying Someone.

Even if you are earning money at your first profession or job, it can be hard to justify to yourself paying someone to help with your novel if your fiction writing isn’t generating a lot of income.

But no matter how little or how much your fiction earns right now, time and money can always be exchanged for one another. As I talked about in Tips For Writing Novels While Working More Than Full-Time, by paying someone to do anything that you could do yourself, you are literally buying time.

Also, when it comes to financial goals such as paying your bills, saving for retirement, or paying down debt, the overall dollars matter, not where they come from. So if I can pay someone $200 to do a writing-related task and that allows me to spend time doing something that earns me $300, hiring someone makes financial sense regardless whether I earned that $300 through royalties, practicing law, or selling vintage Barbies on eBay.

Another way to think of this is that lots of people spend money on hobbies and leisure activities, most of which don’t have the potential to earn them any money. Supplies and equipment are needed for activities as diverse as building model airplanes, kayaking, and playing golf. Even birdwatching requires purchasing binoculars. In contrast, whether or not your writing earns you money now, it has the potential to do so.

Finally, think about why you’re writing and how long you’re willing to devote to the business side of it. If you want to sell books, it will take time to find your market (whether you intend to do that on your own or through a publisher).

Also, to establish yourself, you will need more than one book. In fact you'll probably need at least four or five. The faster you can write those books, the better for your career, assuming your quality remains good. So paying someone else to do things so that you can write more in the long run will almost certainly earn you more and help you get your career off the ground.

I hope these points persuaded you at least to consider some tasks you could pay someone else to handle, assuming you have even a small amount of funds to do so. Next week I'll talk about how to decide which tasks make the most sense to outsource. (There’s no one-size-fits all answer. What’s best for you to do yourself will vary from writer-to-writer.)

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly

Freelancer Or Entrepreneur?

This Friday I recommend the first episode of Seth Godin's Startup School: Freelancer or Entrepreneur? The entire series of 15 episodes is worth listening to for insights on starting a business regardless what you plan to do with your writing. But this first one is particularly eye opening for someone like me, who has one profession (law) where I typically charge an hourly rate and one (writing) where I earn money selling products I create.

Before listening to this podcast, I didn't quite grasp why some of what I learned starting my own law firm, which I thought made me an entrepreneur, didn't quite translate to the business side of my writing. Now I know that as a solo lawyer, though it was my name on the door, I was still much more like a freelancer than an entrepreneur. For one thing, I still mainly sold my time and expertise. That's not bad, but it does explain why I ultimately found the experience less satisfying than I expected. I'd kept the same model I had at the large law firm–the reward for good work is more work. That's good for the short-term bottom line in a financial sense. But in the long run, you never get off the treadmill.

Whether you are paid now by the hour or not, I think you'll find this discussion of being a freelancer versus an entrepreneur both enlightening and practical.

Please let me know what you think!

Until Sunday, when I'll write about doing-it-yourself versus hiring freelancers–


L.M. Lilly

The Cost To Create An Audiobook Edition Of Your Book

Releasing an audiobook edition of your novel or other book is one way to earn more income from a manuscript you've already written. Those of you who know the story of how The Martian sold know that's a big part of its success. 

One question I get a lot is how much it costs to have an audiobook edition of your book produced. 

Just as there are traditional publishers for print and ebooks, there are companies who will produce your audiobook. Podium is the one that produced The Martian. Just as with traditional print publishing, the publisher, not the author, pays the up front cost.

You can also create and release your novel as an audiobook yourself, in partnership with a narrator/producer. That what I did.

Doing It Yourself

So far, I’ve used ACX for my audiobooks. ACX is an Amazon company. It operates as an exchange where authors and audiobook narrators/producers connect with one another. The author supplies the manuscript and the narrator/producer records and produces the audio and uploads it to ACX.

Shiromi Arserio produced the second and third books in my Awakening series, and is currently working on the fourth. Here is her recording studio modeled after the Tardis on Dr. Who:

Different narrators have different sounds and styles. For a good example of two different professional narrators in the same genre, you can listen to Shiromi in the sample for The Unbelievers and to Jewel Greenberg, who narrated The Awakening.

Your audiobook, once finished, will be available through Amazon and iTunes. (And any other platform ACX publishes on. As with other terms, this can change, so you need to check the terms on ACX when you’re ready.)

ACX pays a percentage of the sale price as a royalty. This, too, can change, and it has gone down since ACX began. This is part of why some authors are now using Author Republic. I haven't tried that platform, so for now I can only tell you my experience with ACX.

Paying Your Narrator/Producer

There are three ways to pay your narrator. The first is to pay per finished hour (PFH) of audio. The second is a royalty-share deal. The third is a hybrid option.

Paying up front means that once you as the author pay the narrator/producer PFH, the royalties you get through ACX are all yours. 

To give you an idea what the cost might be, my second novel (a supernatural thriller), The Unbelievers, was 84,400 words, which resulted in 9.1 finished hours of audiobook. If a narrator charged $300 PFH, that would be $2,730. Some narrators charge less than that, and some more.

With the royalty-share deal, you pay nothing up front as the author. But when the audiobook sells, ACX pays you half the royalty and the narrator half the royalty.

A hybrid deal is where the author pays less–usually around $100 PFH–toward editing, proofing and mastering costs, but royalties are still shared. It's a great way to attract good narrators if you can't afford their usual PFH rate.

Which Way Is Best?

Deciding which to do depends on your budget, your long-terms goals, and on what terms the narrator you want is willing to work.

Pluses to paying full price up front include:

  • Long-term, if your book sells well, you will earn more because you won’t need to split the royalties.
  • It may be easier to find a good producer/narrator because you won’t be asking that person to bet a lot of time and expertise on your novel, you’ll be paying up front. For royalty-share, you need to sell the potential narrator on the value of your work, usually by showing a track record of good print or ebook sales, or best seller rankings.

The minuses are what you’d expect:

  • Not everyone has the funds to pay up front for an audiobook, and even if you do, you might want to invest those dollars some other way.
  • You don’t know how long it will take to earn that money back.

The positives for authors of royalty-share deals:

  • No up front money to invest.
  • The narrator/producer has a lot of incentive to help promote the audiobook so she or he gets paid.
  • You may be more motivated to promote knowing someone else has taken a chance on your work.

Minuses of royalty-share for authors:

  • If the book really takes off, you will be splitting the royalties with your narrator for a long time, so you may spend much more than you would have had you paid up front.
  • The narrator you most want to work with may not be willing to do a royalty-share deal.
  • To do royalty-share, you’ll need to agree to keep the book with ACX and that narrator for a number of years (check ACX for exact terms). 

The hybrid deal threads the needle. You'll still need to pay some up front costs, but it's a lower investment. For my 9.1-hour book, that would be $910 instead of $2,730. While you'll still be sharing royalties, a good narrator/producer makes a tremendous difference. Poor sound quality or an unprofessional narrator can mean that no one buys your book at all, as most people listen to the sample before buying. In my view, better to have a good narrator with whom you share royalties than no royalties at all.

Other Costs

In addition to the dollars you spend, whether up front or through splitting royalties, you’ll also need to invest time. Your narrator will spend the most time producing each hour of audio, but you’ll need to listen to it and check to see if it is accurate and sounds good.

Though I didn’t track the hours, my best guess is I spent at least 15 hours listening, taking notes, and corresponding with the narrator on the 9.1-hour Unbelievers recording. And I had a fantastic, super-competent narrator who rarely made errors and whose production quality was excellent. In the long run, that is not a lot of time, but I mention it so you know it's not as simple as just handing over your manuscript and watching royalties roll in. 

You'll also need an audiobook cover. You can start with your ebook or paperback images, but the covers on Audible are square, so at the very least, you'll need to resize your current book cover. It's best to pay a designer to do this, because she or he can make sure the quality of the image remains and rearrange the elements so they are balanced for the square size.

Other Benefits

Not only will you have another edition of your book to sell, you’ll learn a lot by hearing your book read aloud by a professional. With my first supernatural thriller, The Awakening, I discovered there were words I overused in my writing. Despite that I’d read much of it aloud to myself when proofreading, I simply didn’t hear that until I heard a narrator read it. Other people tell me they don't notice, but it jumped out at me.

With The Unbelievers, the second in my Awakening Series, I discovered nuances in the characters that helped me as I was writing the third.

The Tough Question — Profits

How much you’ll earn on an audiobook through ACX is hard to say. First, while you are paid a percentage of the sale price, the sale price varies, and it’s set by Audible, not you.

For example, right now, the regular price of The Unbelievers on Audible is $19.95. But an Audible member can buy the book using a credit, and typically members pay $14.95 a month to belong and get 1 credit per month (though sometimes Audible gives you extra credits).

A member also can buy the book for the purchase price, which might be $19.95, but other times is less. People who already own the Kindle version of the book can buy the audiobook on Amazon for $1.99. Also, sometimes the book is just priced at a sale price of $1.99.

You do get a bonus if a person signs up to Audible for the first time and chooses your book as a free download. That’s only happened three times with The Awakening.

As the author, you have limited ways of promoting the audiobook beyond telling your own email list about it and including it on your website and social media. Because you don’t set the sale price or know when it’ll be on sale, you can’t purchase listings anywhere featuring a sale.

Sometimes Audible includes your book in its own sales email. Once I saw The Unbelievers for $1.99 in an email with five other books. I was happy about that, but I had no control over it.

Sales of the ebook edition can help sell the audiobook, because of the low price for people who own the Kindle version. Lately, I’ve had a lot of audiobook sales of The Awakening because I’ve made the ebook version free to generate sales for the rest of the series. That means the buyers are likely getting the audiobook for $1.99.

That’s a worthwhile strategy when you have a series, as it usually prompts sales of the later books. But if you are selling only one audiobook, it will take a lot of those sales to generate much income.

The Bottom Line

An audiobook edition can definitely be a nice added source of income for a book you've already written. On a royalty-share deal, you’re investing only your time up front, but there are caveats, including that  you are tied to the narrator. If you like working with that person, as I do, that’s fantastic. If not, you will be less happy.

On the other hand, if you are paying up front, it might be quite a while before you recover the cost of your audiobook edition, so you’ll need to weigh whether you believe your book will sell well enough and for long enough to justify that.

I’ve been happy so far with my audiobooks and I think it's been worthwhile. If you decide to do one, or if you have experiences to share or other questions, please post in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. 9/15/17 Update: KOBO is now offering audiobooks. If you're interested, check out Listening To Jim and Bryan Talk About KOBO And Audiobooks.

Social Media For Authors

Figuring out when and how to use social media as a writer can be overwhelming. It's easy to while away hours checking Facebook or clicking on links to articles or videos and then feel guilty because we “should” be doing something else, like writing or promoting our writing.

Also, many people dislike everything about social media. It can seem like a place people go to toot to their own horns endlessly or tell everyone that they had eggs for breakfast, and who wants to be “that person”?

Having Fun And Being Who You Are

Over the coming weeks I'll offer some tips on social media. Today I'll share a bit about how I use social media as an author (and a person).

My main rule for myself on social media is that I need to enjoy what I'm doing and genuinely want to connect with the other people there. Which I guess is two rules. If you follow those two, you'll have a happier life and be less likely to come off as, or to be, that person who's just there to try to sell people things or say how great you are.

As part of that approach, I stick with a few social media platforms I like and use for reasons other than my writing. I do sometimes make a few of them do double duty, which is a good way to get a little bit more exposure without more effort.


I got on Facebook in the first place because my nieces and nephews lived in other states. I liked being able to occasionally see a post about how they were doing and see photos of them, and they were nice enough to accept my friend requests.

After I started publishing my writing, I  started posting about it occasionally on my personal Facebook page. I try to share only big news or something particularly exciting. Recently, I shared that the first book in my Awakening series, which is temporarily free to publicize the series, reached number five on the Amazon Best Seller List for free books. I figured that qualified as pretty cool, and my friends were excited for me.

I also post articles on my Facebook page that I think might interest my friends or anyone else who stops by my page. My Instagram account (more on that below) also links to Facebook, so if I post a photo of my parakeet on Instagram it also shows up on Facebook.

I also periodically update a separate author page. There, I am more apt to list day-to-day developments in my writing.

When I use Facebook, I rarely read the newsfeed. Instead, I look at Pages of people I want to keep up with. That limits my time on Facebook and ensures that I enjoy it.


As you probably know, Twitter allows you to post very short comments (which is called tweeting) as well as photos. I love Twitter for connecting with other writers and people who share my interests.

This is the banner I use on both Twitter and Facebook.

I have occasionally bought or sold e-books through Twitter, but mostly I like it for the people and for finding articles on helpful topics. I met the producer/narrator who later went on to produce the audiobook editions of the last three books in my Awakening series on Twitter.

I also started learning about self-publishing there, as I searched for #self-publishing and found tweets and articles by authors Joanna Penn and Melissa Foster. Neither was very well-known at the time and both were generous about sharing what they learned as their author businesses grew. Now I tweet about the articles on this website, as well as about what I'm reading or watching. I still connect with and learn from other writers on Twitter.


Pinterest has online bulletin boards where you can tack photos virtually. I used it quite a bit for a year or two. I have several boards, including one for whenever I finally decide to remodel my bathroom and one of fictional female heroes.

I still visit For When I Remodel My Bathroom as I try to decide what to do and when. I haven't been to the other boards very much lately because I have stepped up my writing schedule and that's the social media platform that fell by the wayside. I still like it though and I'm sure I'll go back at some point.

Pinterest posts can be linked to Facebook and other social media, so if you like it, it's a good way to post on multiple platforms at once.


As I wrote about Friday when I recommended Goodreads For Authors, I love this social media platform. As a reader, I use it to track books I want to read and to review books or place them on my virtual shelves by category. I have an author biography there and I've made sure my books are listed.

As an author, I like reading the reviews of my books by Goodreads users. They generally include a lot more information about why they rated the book as they did and what they think about it. I've also done giveaways of paperback editions through Goodreads, I created an author blog, and when I review books, I include a paragraph at the end for other writers talking about what they might learn about fiction writing through reading that particular book.

Goodreads also can link to Twitter and Facebook, so every review I do also is posted on those social media platforms, which is nice. Reviews can be automatically posted to the author blog on Goodreads. So, it's another nice way to do one thing and have it appear in multiple places.


Wattpad is a writing social media platform. Many people write chapter-by-chapter and post as they go. Others post finished work one part at a time, which I've been doing with The Awakening since last summer.

I also really enjoy seeing what other writers are doing. The platform skews younger, so for me there's an added advantage in seeing what's engaging to readers and writers in a different age range.

Whether Wattpad helps sales is hard to say, but I don't see much downside to doing it. Once I spent a couple hours setting up my bio and learning the platform, the time commitment became minimal. It takes me only about 10 minutes to post a chapter each week. I usually spend another 10 minutes or so looking around the site and answering any messages.


Instagram is pure fun for me. So far as I know, nothing I do there helps me sell books. I mostly connect with people I already know personally or have met through Facebook.

My oldest niece, who told me about Instagram, once said that she loves it because everyone's happy there. People typically post photos that make them feel good, and there is relatively little in the way of political commentary. I most often post photos of my parakeet or of really nice sunrises or sunsets or beautiful photos of Chicago streets and buildings.

You can put links to websites or products on Instagram and you can buy advertising, but I haven't looked into doing either one. I like having a platform that is just fun.

Instagram does also link to other platforms, so mine was linked to Facebook and Twitter. Recently, though, I had to update my passwords and I actually haven't figured out to how to make that connect again with Facebook and Twitter. Once I do, my Facebook page will have a lot more photos.

I hope this overview has been helpful. Please share in the comments what social media you like and whether you use any platforms I've missed.

Until Friday-


L.M. Lilly

One Author’s Challenges With Assisted Publishing

This Friday I recommend a post by an author on her experience with assisted publishing. As I wrote about in Do You Need A Publisher, Part 1, these types of publishing services assist with the tasks authors who self-publish do on their own, such as uploading books to different platforms, finding a cover designer, and editing. Some charge a flat up front fee and others get paid through a percentage of royalties.

Author Maggie Cammiss thought this sounded like a reasonable deal when offered by a division of the traditional publisher who'd published the first novel in her series. Some challenges arose, though, with the paperback edition that led her to wonder.

Read about her experience here:

Getting Back on the Horse

See you again Sunday, when I'll talk about creating time to write as you manage your first profession.


L. M. Lilly

Hitting Publish: Why Your First Goal Isn’t To Sell Books

You’re publishing your first book. Your main goal is to get a lot of sales right away, right? Wrong.

Okay, not exactly wrong, as who doesn’t want a lot of sales? But starting out focusing on how many books you sell can lead to feeling discouraged, which can lead to failing to do what you need to do to get those sales.

In the beginning, you need reviews:

Good, bad, and indifferent, you need reviews of your first book. Once you have a decent cover and a solid book description, reviews are what convinces people who don’t know you to consider buying your novel. A large number of reviews shows a lot of people have bought the book, which cues readers it’s worth giving it a try.

Quantity matters:

It’s more about how many reviews than whether they are all good. In fact, most readers who see ten five-star reviews figure those are all the author’s friends, which is probably right, at least with a first book. So you actually want that person who likes one part of the book and not another to review your novel.

The occasional one-star review is not bad either. It shows your novel evokes strong feelings. It can especially be helpful if the reviewer says why she or he didn’t like the book, if it’s something that would draw in your ideal reader. For example, I had a so-so review from someone who commented “Think plot,” as a criticism of The Awakening. I was happy with that. I write thrillers. Thrillers need strong plots.

Ways you can get reviews:

Getting reviews can be a challenge. Think about how many times you read a book, watch a movie, or buy a product compared to how often you review one. While I don’t have a magic formula, here are some suggestions:

  • If someone you know emails you to say something positive about the book, politely ask that person to cut and paste the comment into a review wherever the book was bought.
  • Choose a week to list the book at 99 cents and purchase ads in enewsletters that will accept new releases in your genre. Assume you won’t earn this money back, so spend only what you can afford. Remember, the goal is to generate sales and get reviews that will help sales in the long run, not to earn money right now.
  • Ask your friends on Facebook to read and review the book if they like books like yours. (So if your novel is a horror novel, write a post asking that friends who like to read horror read and review the book.) Let them know how important reviews are to a book’s success. Don’t do this all the time, obviously, but there’s nothing wrong with asking once and asking again a few months down the line. These are your friends, they want to help you out.
  • Be active on Goodreads, a social media network for readers. By active, I mean be active as a reader. Review other people’s books. Eventually as people start seeing your reviews and get a sense of who you are, they will check out what you write and hopefully post some reviews.
  • List your book on Goodreads and, if you have a paperback edition, consider running a book giveaway. This gets your book in front of a lot of readers. Ideally, the people who win the book will review it, though they may not. You can see some examples of current giveaways here. (One caveat—if you’re cost conscious, offer the book only to people in your own country. It can be very expensive to send books internationally.)
  • On author platforms that specifically allow it (such as some author/reader Goodreads or Facebook groups), post a link to your book and ask for reviews. Be sure to check the group's guidelines, though, before posting about your own book. If it’s a group that doesn’t allow that, you may find yourself banned.
  • Do an Internet search for book bloggers in your genre and contact them to ask if they would like to read and review your book. Keep in mind that bloggers get lots of requests, so check their guidelines, contact them by their preferred method, and send a short, polite request.
What not to do:
  • Don’t pay for reviews. Services that charge to list your book and make it available to reviewers are probably okay, but if you’re paying for a review, that review may get taken off the book sales platforms where it’s posted. Amazon in particular is vigilant about paid or shill reviews, some authors say to the point of taking down valid reviews that inadvertently raise flags.
  • Be wary of review-for-review exchanges with other authors. It can be tricky because whether it’s stated or not, the implication is good review for good review, as unless you’re kind of a jerk, you probably won’t feel right posting a bad review of someone’s book who praised yours.
  • Don't push friends and family members who aren't interested to post reviews. First, while it'd be nice if everyone supported what you do, people are busy, and if they're not readers, don't like the type of book you wrote, or feel awkward about telling you they didn't love the book, you'll only succeed in making them avoid you. Second, and more important for your career, it could be harmful to your novel's success to have reviews from people who usually don't read or buy books in your genre.

As author Chris Fox explains in The Six Figure Author, Amazon uses data to determine to which potential buyers to show your novel. If you write hardcore science fiction and three-quarters of the people who buy your novel the first month read mostly cozy mysteries and diet books, Amazon will likely suggest your book to strangers who read cozies and diet books. Based on their reading preferences, those people are highly unlikely to buy your sci fi novel. Which can then result in Amazon not showing it to anyone anymore, undercutting your long-term goal of selling novels. (So cheer up–when friends and family members make excuses for not reading or reviewing your book, they may be doing you a favor.)

In the end…

It takes time, but remember embarking on a career as a novelist is like building any other business. In the beginning, you spend a lot of time letting people know what you're doing and trying to bring in work. You know every single source of business personally and can trace it back to the specific pitch you made. Eventually, though, someone tells someone who tells two more people who pass on recommendations to their friends and you start getting reviews–and sales–from people you've never met.

Good luck and best wishes for productive week.

L. M. Lilly

Buying The Job Of Writing

The first time I published a novel, I took part in an on-line book release promotion that included nine thrillers, each priced at 99 cents for the ebook edition. That was in 2011. The promotion brought me to my first 200 sales for The Awakening, which was very exciting at the time. Over the next few years thousands of copies sold but I was running a busy law practice and didn't release Book 2 in the series for another three years. Not the best marketing plan, but that's a topic for another day.

One of the other thriller writers who took part, Russell Blake, was writing full time. He published thriller after thriller, became a New York Times and USA Today best selling author, collaborated with Clive Cussler, and now has an Amazon world devoted to one of his series. (OK, I'll stop now because I'm getting depressed.)

In 2015, Blake wrote a great post about what he would have told himself as newbie author. It's a funny and informative article, the main thrust of which is that if you're successful as an author, you've bought yourself a job. You can check it out here. Please share your thoughts on it in the comments.

Have a great weekend.

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 2: Prestige And Recognition

One factor, maybe the most important one, in deciding whether to seek a publisher or to self-publish is what you want out of writing. (For a discussion of types of publishers, see last week’s post.) If your goal is to make a living writing, how much money each method is likely to generate might matter most. But even if that is your goal, prestige or recognition is almost always part of the motivation.

Most of us who write, especially if we’re over forty, dreamed when we started out about book signings, being interviewed on Oprah or C-SPAN, or winning awards. It’s a great feeling to publish a book and be recognized for it or simply be able to see it on a bookshelf. So let’s start with talking about prestige and recognition. Don’t worry, I’ll get to money next week.

Prestige and Mahogany Desks

John Gardner once said, in his book On Becoming A Novelist, that there’s nothing less prestigious than being an unpublished novelist. Today he might substitute “self-published” or “independently-published.” While publishing your own work is becoming more accepted, if you opt to do so, you’ll still need to be prepared for the people—whether or not they’ve ever written a word of fiction—who will look down their noses at you.

Others simply won’t see you as a “real” writer. A colleague once told me how much she’d liked The Awakening, which she’d borrowed from a friend. When my second book in the series came out, she couldn’t make it to the book release party, but she asked me to bring a copy to her office. When I handed it to her, she said, “I don’t have to pay for this, do I?” Had I been published by Random House, my guess is she wouldn’t have asked that.

This view that a traditionally-published novel has more value or that it’s more impressive to be a traditionally-published author is known in the indie world as the Mahogany Desk Syndrome. Many see it as nothing more than a form of snobbishness. It also reflects the fact that when a company unrelated to you chooses to publish your work, it shows the world that someone other than you is willing to put money, time, and effort behind your writing.

My own mahogany desk and bulletin board–the old fashioned kind.

I understand those who feel that way, but I personally am more impressed by people who stand behind their own work. When I left a large law firm to start my own practice, people congratulated me on being an entrepreneur and having great confidence. I view publishing my own work the same way.

Awards and Best Seller Lists

Many literary awards, including some for genre fiction, are open only to novels published by traditional publishers. For instance, self-published books are not eligible for the Edgar Award, which recognizes mysteries. The Man Booker award, a literary fiction prize, also is not open to self-published books. This is starting to change, however. The Deep, a self-published novel by Michaelbrent Collings, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 2015. And in researching this article, I learned that self-published books, so long as they are available in print, can be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.

Many awards exist that are specifically-targeted to indie/self-published authors. (A few are listed in this Publishers Weekly article. ) Being able to say your book is award-winning is a plus, but there is definitely a Buyer Beware factor, as some indie awards have hefty entry fees.

As to Best Seller lists, both the USA Today and New York Times best seller lists are open to both traditionally and independently published works. In addition, Amazon continuously lists the Top 100 books overall and in numerous categories regardless of publisher. The Top 100 lists update hourly. Getting your book into the Top 20 of any category helps sales because it means people see your book. Being in the Top 100 of all the books is a huge sales boost. As far as prestige, though, because the lists update hourly and it takes fewer sales to qualify, they don’t have the cache of the USA Today or New York Times list.

Speaking Engagements

One novelist I met at a conference, who was also a former attorney, said in-person events were the main plus of having had his novel published by a small publisher. While he didn’t have much of a marketing budget, his publicist got him onto panels of traditionally-published authors at fan and reader conferences.

Most speaking opportunities I’ve seen that are open to indie authors are limited to conferences specifically directed at writers interested in self-publishing, not at readers. Likewise, when I joined other self-published authors at a local book expo, the traditional publishers were on the first floor and the indie authors were relegated to the twelfth. There were no signs posted telling attendees that there were more books on the twelfth floor, so there was almost no foot traffic.

There are exceptions, of course. The Martian started as self-published, and I’m certain Andy Weir is welcome to speak anywhere he likes.

What Readers Think

Most readers don’t care how a book is published. Few people check the publisher when they buy a book on-line or in the bookstore. They look at the cover, the summary, and the first page or so. Also, the more books you publish, the less people scoff. Those indie authors who hit the USA Today or New York Times best seller lists also add a stamp of approval to their books and careers.

At the same time, if a book is free or 99 cents–both strategies indie authors employ to boost visibility and sales of other books in their catalogues–or the cover looks unprofessional, a reader may hesitate. A book from almost any traditional publisher has been edited and proofread by professionals, which is not true of all self-published books, so readers may have had a bad experience and be skeptical of indie publishing. I’m convinced that’s why one 5-star review of The Awakening after I started offering it free said, “I actually liked this book,” as if the reader were quite surprised. A professional cover and well written and edited book summaries and sample chapters will usually override any reader concern about your work, though.

In short, my view is that if what matters most to you is prestige and being recognized by peers as an author, some type of publisher, be it small, medium, or Big 5, is at least somewhat more likely to provide that. All the same, if you prefer to self-publish, fear not. The world is changing quickly, many awards are open to indie authors, and many people no longer make a distinction between one type of publishing and another. In fact, I predict that in another five years, how you publish will make no difference at all.

Best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Please share your views in the comments, as a reader or writer, of indie versus traditional publishing.

Writer’s Block – Overcoming the Myth

I don't believe in writer's block. Before you tell me I'm wrong because you're suffering from it right now, let me explain.

Most of what gets labelled as “writer's block” isn't what's actually stopping you from writing.

Barring physical or mental illness or injury (which I talk about more in Writing When Injured Or Not Well), if someone pointed a gun at you and insisted you write something, anything, unless you have a death wish you'd write.

Beyond that, if ordered to at gunpoint, you'd write a short story, even if you've never written one before. It might not be a good short story. It might lack conflict, or have a cardboard cut out for a main character, or have a terrible ending or no ending at all, but you'd write it.

Likewise, if you've ever had a job you didn't like (and if you haven't, kudos to you), my guess is most workdays when you were well enough (and possibly sometimes when you weren't) you got up and went to that job anyway. You worked whether you felt like it or not, whether you were inspired or not, and whether you wished you were doing anything but going to work or not. Because you couldn't call in sick with bricklayer's block or office clerk's block or middle manager's block.

If you're reading this blog, you like writing more than you liked that job. If you could do that job despite everything else, you can write.

Dealing With The Issues Behind The Label

So what is writer's block?

It's a label that can be used for a variety of issues, making them sound insurmountable when most of them are not.

Here are six issues that once you've identified you can address so you can start (or continue) writing:

Generating an idea

You want to write a novel or a short story, but you don't know what to write about. So you sit in front of a screen or page and do nothing.

The problem here is not inability to output or write.

It's lacking enough input. You likely need to feed or nourish your creative mind or spirit.

Listen to music that you love or hate, either live or in person. Visit a museum and stare at the most compelling paintings. Walk in nature if you're usually in the city or take a train from a rural area to a city and watch the landscape change along the way. Read novels of a type you don't normally read or read a non-fiction book that catches your interest. All these things stimulate your mind. While you do any of them, don't search your mind for ideas. Just immerse yourself in the experience.

Once you've done that for a while, ideas will form.

If you still need a jumpstart, use specific writing prompts. Buy a deck of Tarot cards, choose one at random, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write about the card, or any thought that card sparks, until the time ends. Sit in silence for 10 minutes (set the timer again). Listen to every sound and let your mind wander and imagine what or who caused the sound. Make up a story to go with it. When the 10 minutes ends, write down what you imagined. You can similarly use magazine pictures, travel guides, or Instagram posts to prompt your writing. Or choose the first line from a favorite book and write your own story with that start.

Too many ideas

Sometimes we have so many ideas it's hard to pick one, which again leads to staring blankly at a screen.

Make a list of your ideas. If there are several you already think would make good stories, pick one at random, set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes (yes, I love timers), and write about it. That timer frees your mind because if it turns out you don't like this idea or it doesn't work, you've “wasted,” at most, 30 minutes. If you feel pretty good about this idea when you're done, next time you write, continue with it. If not, pick another and repeat.

Another approach is to simply choose the idea that involves the most conflict.

As I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel, stories need conflict. If you main character gets everything she wants and has a lovely day, there's no story there. Your main character must want something, even if it's only a glass of lemonade, and need to overcome obstacles to get it.

If your ideas all lack conflict, try this:

Write down one of these four words: man, woman, boy, or girl. Write down an active verb like run, jump, hit, play, touch, throw, or swim. Again write down man, woman, boy, or girl. Add any necessary prepositions to create a sentence. You'll be left with a basic sentence such as “Woman slaps girl.” or “Boy runs into man.” These are almost guaranteed to generate conflict. Write for 30 minutes about that. (Remember, you don't have to love the story or the idea. This is all about getting words on a page.)

Where to start

If you have an idea for a story or novel and you can't get yourself to start writing, you're probably unsure where your story starts.

The good news is pretty much all first drafts are bad, so you can start anywhere and fix it later.

If it raises too much anxiety to do that, start wherever your main character first wants something and can't get it, even if it's as simple as wanting that glass of lemonade when the refrigerator is empty and the grocery store is closed.

Don't worry about whether there are other scenes that should come first, you can always add those in later.

Also don't worry if the lemonade turns out not to matter because the real story is about her dad never coming home from the war. The lemonade issue might stay to draw us into the piece or you might drop it. Again, the point is to get rolling. Later you can decide what you need and what you don't.

Overcoming your fears

If you have another career or job, my guess is you had to write something at some point for work. A business email, a note to a supervisor, a schedule of days you can or can't work. You probably didn't freeze up at the keyboard, so why does it happen when you try to write fiction?

Fiction is more personal than most jobs. You also may have a lot invested not just in being a writer but in being a good writer. You may fear writing something bad, your writing being rejected, or other people looking down their noses at how you spend your time.

Here's the thing. All of that will happen.

You'll write something bad. I've written bad stories, bad poems, bad novels, bad blog posts. You'll have your writing rejected. No matter what you achieve or don't with your writing, someone–probably a friend or family member–will sniff at what you did and tell you a story about a friend of a friend who is a “real writer” because he won a Pulitzer Prize. The good news is, none of that will kill you and none of it needs to stop you from writing. Don't tell anyone what you're doing and give yourself permission to write a very bad first draft that you will never ever show anyone. That's all you need to get started.

Lack of inspiration

For many people, this is the easiest part of writer's block to get past because  you don't need to be inspired to write.

When I write first drafts, I write whether I'm inspired or not. At the end, I can't pick out the passages that flowed from my fingers easily from the ones where I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I enjoyed one more than the other, but there's no quality difference. And if there were, I'd revise to improve the quality.

Your Writing Routine

The best way to write regularly and not depend on inspiration is to create a routine.

If your schedule is predictable and your physical and mental health allows, pick a regular time in your week when there are few other things to distract you. Choose a small amount of time to start.

For instance, rather than aspiring to write an hour three times a week at 8 p.m., you might decide to write for half an hour Friday morning before you go to work. Then sit down at your desk for half an hour every single Friday even if all you write is “I don't know what to write. I don't know why I am sitting here.”

Do that for half an hour every Friday and you'll get into a habit. Eventually you'll start to write something that you want to keep.

If a routine time is impossible due to your schedule or your health, you can try setting a routine through triggers.

Creating Triggers

Each time you sit down and write, you might burn a scented candle, or drink a particular type of tea, or wear your red socks. Those things can trigger in your mind and spirit that it's time to write and can help you make the transition to writing from other parts of your day.

If you otherwise are able to do the things you want or need to do in life (such as going to work, caring for loved ones, reading, going to movies, etc.) and you never feel like writing, if it always feels like trudging through molasses (uphill), consider why you want to write.

Do you enjoy having a finished story or novel enough to go through that? Does being a writer have its own rewords despite not loving the process? If yes, keep those rewards fixed in your mind and trudge.

Finding time to write

There are times in life that might not be the best ones for writing a short story or a novel, or at least not for finishing them in a defined time period.

When I was working full-time and attending law school at night, I didn't write fiction. I wrote poems and journal entries during the odd few minutes here and there.

If you have a two-year-old at home and you're working full-time or also caring for an aging parent, this might not be the time to set a six-month or one-year goal of finishing a novel. Or…

Write In Smaller Bites

But if novels are what you love to write, you can still do that by writing what you can when you can and letting yourself be okay with finishing some unspecified time down the road. (See Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time for ways to fit in small bursts of writing.)

Aside from life circumstances like the above or physical or mental health challenges, for many writers it's about finding the time, not having time.

Finding Time

Nobody has extra hours in the day or the week, and nobody starts out getting paid to devote hours to writing. So notice what you do with each hour of your time for a week or two. Decide what activity or activities you could skip so that you can write instead.

For instance, if you can afford it, and you currently spend two hours a week cleaning your house, pay someone else to do that while you write. If you spend half an hour a night watching the news, make a deal with a well-informed friend to tell you anything you really need to know, turn off the news, and write for that half hour.

Once you figured out what you can miss, create a schedule or goal and stick to it.

Keep in mind that if you have a cyclical worklife or a chronic physical or mental condition that affects when you are well enough to write, that schedule/goal may need to be more flexible.

You might set a goal of hours per month or word count per month (or per six months) rather than per week or per day. Or you might simply set an overall goal of finishing a novel or poem or story without a timeframe so that you can leave room for stretches of time when writing's not possible.

That's okay. Even if you don't write as much as you hoped, you'll write something.

In closing

To sum up: (1) If you're stuck, don't worry about writing something good or what will happen after you finish, just go ahead and write something bad. (2) Stories are about conflict, so start with a main character who wants something and is having trouble getting it. (3) You can always fix it later. (4) Timers are your friend.

I hope these suggestions help you get started or move forward if you've been feeling stuck. Have other questions? Feel free to add a comment or email me at [email protected].

Best wishes for a happy, productive week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Still feeling stuck? Write On: How To Overcome Writer's Block So You Can Write Your Novel might help. It addresses ways to get started, get past slumps in the middle of your manuscript, and get across the finish line.