Archive | February, 2011

Crowdsourcing The Fiction E-book Market

As e-books continue to take the world of publishing by storm, it’s natural to wonder how any good books are going to be found by readers in the rising river of e-books. Won’t they be lost in the flood?

Heather posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have lately been doing lots of reading on the e-pub buzz and thinking about marketing implications as they relate to fiction. I think to aid the ‘average’ ebook reader in making good fiction selections there will be a rise of some type of ‘recommendation medium’ (like blogs or an offshoot of social networking) that judges/reviews fiction ebooks. Do you see something like this currently developing and if so how as an author do you intend to take advantage of this marketing tool?

Randy sez: Yes, this sort of thing has already developed and will continue to grow. The basic idea is known as “crowdsourcing” and you can Google this word or search for it on Amazon to learn all that you want to know about it.

What is crowdsourcing? For the case of selling e-books, there are three fundamental elements: an open market, word-of-mouth, and a “similarity measure.” Let’s look at each of these in turn:

An open market is necessary for crowdsourcing to work. You make a sea of products available to anyone at reasonable prices, without unnecessary constraints. E-books fit this description exactly. There are hundreds of thousands of e-books available on Amazon now, and many more public domain e-books available at places like Project Gutenberg. This is in sharp contrast to the field of traditionally published books, where publishers and their marketing people make decisions about “what will sell.” The market of paper books is only somewhat open, because the economics of book production require that gatekeepers refuse most books for publication. They have to do this. They couldn’t afford to publish them all.

Word-of-mouth is also important to crowdsourcing. People like to talk about the books they read. They don’t talk about the books they don’t like. What happens is that good books get talked about and they tend to get read by more people who also talk about them. Good books get a chain reaction of word-of-mouth. Bad books don’t get talked about and they tend to get read by only a few people. Reader reviews are essentially word-of-mouth on steroids. This is one thing Amazon does very well — it encourages reader reviews. I read the 5-star reviews and the 1-star reviews of any book before I buy it. I also look at how many reviews there are and what fraction of them are 4 and 5 stars. If a book has many 1-star reviews and many 5-star reviews, it tells me that it’s a controversial book, which may well mean that it’s a very good book. If it has many 1-star reviews and few 5-star reviews, then it’s probably not very good. All those reviewers out there generally do a good job of sifting the good from the bad.

“Similarity measure” is one thing Amazon gets stupendously right. For any book on Amazon, you can see a list of several other books with the caption: “Customers who bought this item also bought:” For example, people who bought my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES also buy Jim Bell’s book PLOT & STRUCTURE. No surprise there. The two books cater to the same reader. Amazon wisely gives readers a choice to buy them both as a bundle. When an online store tells customers what other people are buying, it’s a terrific way to let people know which books the masses of customers believe are similar.

When you create a completely open market with word-of-mouth in the form of reader reviews and then show customers what the market believes are similar products, the cream rises to the top. Quickly. The junk falls to the bottom. Quickly.

How do you take advantage of this? By writing your best possible book and by getting it out there on the open market in the online stores that do reader reviews and show similar products best. In our current world, Amazon mastered those skills sooner and better than anyone else. Barnes & Noble is making strides to catch up. Competition is good, and we should all hope that several excellent online retailers gain market share by putting these key elements together. Right now, Amazon and B&N are the big players because they deserve to be.

Quality matters, now more than ever. Write a good book. Write a great book. Then get it out there to the online retailers that have mastered crowdsourcing.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Putting Storyworld Information Into Your Novel

So you’ve got a GREAT Storyworld for your novel and you can’t wait to tell your reader all about it. How and when do you do that for maximum effect?

Dre posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a problem transferring vast amounts of information to my reader in an interesting manner, like the history and the natural laws of a Storyworld.

-Footnotes seem a cheap way to do this.

-I’ve considered excerpts from made-up chronicles or study books, but typical for such texts is that they’re not compelling.

-Simply interrupting the narratives with informative lectures gets disturbing and is a violation against the MRUs.

-And weaving the information through a dialog doesn’t always make sense.

So I’m lost. How do other writers cope with this?

Randy sez: Writers always believe that the reader is dying to know the entire life history of every character and the full history of the Storyworld and exactly how the Storyworld works in all its infinite complexity.

The reader is and she isn’t. Let’s take those in reverse order.

When you pick up a book, you’re looking for a story. Something happening here and now. Characters doing things that matter right now. If you don’t get that right away, you’re going to put the book down. You just will. And your reader is just like you.

As you get into the story, you begin to realize that these characters weren’t born yesterday and the Storyworld in which they live has a long history. Some things in the story just don’t make sense unless you have some context–some backstory or some description of the present world.

So when do you put in that context and how much do you put in?

The answer is simple: Just when you need it and no earlier. Just as much as you need to make sense of the action and no more.

You have many tools to do this:

  • Exposition or Narrative summary. A block of it to fill in the past.
  • Dialogue. One character explaining the past to another.
  • Interior monologue. One character thinking about the past.
  • Flashbacks. A scene set in the past, connected to the present.
  • Diaries, chronicles, or other written texts found by a character.
  • The Pensieve. Works if your name is J.K. Rowling. Works very well. Essentially a flashback.
  • Description. Works best if it’s filtered through the senses of the viewpoint character.

Those are your tools. You can even use footnotes, as Stieg Larsson did in his Millennium Trilogy, although this is pretty rare for a novel.

The important thing is to not give backstory or description to your reader until she’s begging for it. She’ll be begging for it when the main story gets confusing and can be easily clarified by a few snippets of backstory or description. Give it to her then. Just enough to answer the questions, and NO MORE.

You may believe that you are the amazing exception to this rule, and that your readers will find you uniquely gifted at telling backstory or description and therefore you can heap it on and let the pace of your story go to zero.

No you can’t. No more than your brother-in-law the tax accountant is amazingly gifted at explaining arcane 19th century tax laws to his enthralled friends. He isn’t. You aren’t. Don’t do it.

Tell your story. Save the backstory until it’s screaming to be told. J.K. Rowling held off on giving her readers the full backstory of Severus Snape for thousands of pages — until that information was desperately needed late in Book 7 in order to advance the plot. Take a lesson from the master. Tell no backstory before its time. Less is more.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Can You Have Multiple Storylines in Your Novel?

If you’re writing a novel, how many storylines should it have? How many is too many? How do you handle them all?

Josey posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been using your Snowflake method to organize my idea for a fiction novel. (I really like it by the way). My question is this: In the process of character sketching and writing the synopsis, it has occured to me that each of the main characters could possibly have their own story. Is that normal? And should I consider doing that or keep going with the story I’ve planned?

Also another question. (I hope it’s ok to ask two) If your category is mystery, does the snowflake method still work? I have a few ideas for a mystery type of story, but in thinking through the snowflake method I’m finding it hard to work the story into that model. I haven’t actually sat down and written anything out yet so I don’t really know if it will work or not. I’m just curious right now. The idea is in it’s beginning stages and I haven’t thought it completely through yet.

I have Writing Fiction for Dummies and I think it is great!

Randy sez: It’s normal for each of the main characters in a novel to have their own storyline. In fact, if you don’t, the novel is going to feel very thin. It’ll feel like the characters are tacked on to play some role in your story.

In real life, everybody thinks they’re the lead character in the story. Think about it. You’re the lead character in your own life, aren’t you? You don’t exist merely to play the role of “humble minion” in your boss’s story. You don’t exist so as to be the “spouse” in your spouse’s story. You don’t exist to play the role of “wicked step-mother” for your step-daughter Cindy.

It’s possible that you do actually play one or more of those roles in other people’s stories. But those aren’t your main role. Your main role is to be the hero or heroine of your own story.

Likewise for every one of your characters. Each of them is the lead character in the novel of their life.

So Josey, what you’ve found is that your characters are real people, and that’s good. I’m not sure I understand part of your question, however. There’s an ambiguity in your question, “And should I consider doing that or keep going with the story I’ve planned?”

If you’re asking whether you ought to write a separate novel for each of those characters, the answer is no. If you do that, you’ll have a cast of main characters for each novel. Each of those main characters will have his or her own story. Then you’ll want to split out separate novels for each of them. And that process will never end.

If you’re asking whether it’s okay to have multiple storylines in your novel, then the answer is yes. That’s good. That’s the right way to do things. Your primary storyline will belong to your lead character. But each of the other main characters will have a storyline, and you’ll assign some amount of space in your novel to develop that story.

But your novel is NOT six different novels in one book. Your novel should be one novel, with separate threads for each of the main characters. You can have as many of these as you have main characters. The amount that you write for each one will depend on how important each thread is to your main thread — the storyline of your lead character. If a thread is closely tied in to the main story, then it should get a lot of airtime. If it’s a peripheral thread, then it should get a little. If it’s not related at all, then yank it out of your story, because it doesn’t belong.

As for the question of whether the Snowflake method works for mysteries, the answer is yes. The Snowflake method is designed to be useful for any kind of story. I’ve never written a mystery myself, but I have some ideas in mind for stories that might be mysteries. I would use the Snowflake method to design those stories, just like any other novel I’d write.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Is There A Price For Self-Publishing?

If you self-publish your work, do you risk anything? Will publishers consider you damaged goods?

Andrew posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Thank you for all the great information provided on your site! I’ve recently signed up to receive your emails.

I have one quick question that has come to mind while reading your “The Future of Publishing” article.

My question is this: As a amateur writer with a book self-published on Lulu.com, do you think it is valuable to use this self-publishing site to begin to get my name out there, or would paper publishers potentially look down on the fact that I’ve self-published and already reaped sales?

Thanks for your answer!

Randy sez: The publishing industry is changing rapidly. The correct answer to this question three years ago would have been, “No, self-publishing almost always won’t help you in your venture to get published — unless you’re one of those very rare few who manage to sell a few thousand copies of your self-published book.”

Even a year ago, most authors, agents, and editors would have felt this way.

But a funny thing happened in the last year or so. A lot of self-published authors started doing extremely well on Amazon with their e-books.

If you want to see the honor roll of authors who’ve managed to do Xtremely well, I’ll refer you to Joe Konrath’s blog, where he’s been interviewing them practically daily.

Joe himself earned $42,000 in January from his self-publishing efforts. You read that right. Those aren’t yen Joe earned. Not lira. Not pesos. Those were dollars.

It’s easy to blow off Joe’s success as the result of his “platform.” After all, he’s got a very widely read blog and he published a number of books in the past with New York publishers. Joe’s got a name. He’s an established writer. So way too many people say, “Sure, yeah, Joe’s easy to market, because he’s Joe. I’m not Joe. I’ve never been published. I have no blog. So I can’t sell near as many copies as Joe.”

The problem with that is that it’s nonsense. Several of the folks Joe has interviewed lately are writers who haven’t been published by traditional publishers — or writers who just didn’t fare well with traditional publishers, even though they did get a book or few out. Some of these good people are selling better than Joe.

And there’s the case of Amanda Hocking, 26 years old, never published by a traditional publisher, who sold about 100,000 copies of her books in December. Way more than Joe did.

You might believe that Amanda benefitted from the Christmas shoppers in December, that there’s no way she could repeat those kind of numbers in the dead month of January.

Heh, heh. Amanda sold about 450,000 copies in January.

The moral of the story here is that all the rules changed sometime in the last year or so. If you want to self-publish, you can make an amazing success of it — if your stuff is good. If it’s not good, then that’s a problem and you aren’t going to sell thousands of copies, but that’s always been true.

What has changed is that authors can now make an end-run around the “gatekeepers” — the marketing people who decide what will sell and what won’t. Increasingly, readers are becoming the new gatekeepers. That’s the way it should be. The market should decide what sells and what doesn’t.

This is not to put down those marketing folks. In the past, they were necessary because publishing was an expensive venture to get into. A mistake could be enormously expensive.

With e-books, that is no longer the case. No need for a big production run, a big laydown on launch day, and big returns if the book doesn’t sell. Returns for e-books are almost non-existent. Shelf space is unlimited, so there’s no reason for a bookseller to return unsold copies, so the only returns are those from disgruntled customers who bought a book they didn’t want.

But the need for gatekeepers is fizzling. Soon there will be no need at all.

So no worries, Andrew. Market that book. If it catches fire, it’s all good. If it doesn’t, it’ll be lost in the flood. You can always withdraw the book, or rewrite it, or write something else.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.