Four Things To Consider Before Self-Publishing

Last year, at a writer’s conference, most of the people I encountered had a very negative attitude towards self-publishing.  “Ugh.  Self-publishing.  Only loser writers who write crappy books would do that.”  I admit that I didn’t want to self-publish because of this stigma.  But that was before I stumbled across a book called Wool this year.

For those of you who haven’t read this book yet, it’s a fascinating story about a post-apocalyptic society that lives in underground silos.  The author’s name is Hugh Howey.  His amazing success has turned him into the poster child for self-publishing.

As a business person, I am completely intrigued by Howey’s success.  It would make a great case study for a business school.  Howey developed a great product (a novella), priced it at $0.99, and then released it directly to customers through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.  Then he just sat back and waited while pure market forces took control.  Sure enough, over time, Wool gathered steam on Amazon.  In fact, it gathered so much steam, that Howey was prompted to write more installments for this series.  He eventually sold enough books to quit his day job and focus entirely on writing.

This is every new writer’s dream come true.  If this is what happens when an author self-publishes, please sign me up!  But wait a second.  Before all of us stampede over to Amazon and unleash our precious works of art on the masses, here are a few things we should consider:  (The 4 P’s, if you’re a marketing person.)

PRODUCT:  Obviously, your story has to be really good.  Like, really, really good.  No one will buy a bad product.  But from a marketing perspective, the product should satisfy a customer’s need.  So what need did Howey satisfy for his readers?  Well, if you’re a writer, then you’re a reader.  What are YOUR needs as a reader?  I think that Howey just wrote a story that he himself wanted to read.  Fortunately for him, there were many readers who shared his interests.  So satisfy your own needs as a reader and trust that on a planet with 7 billion people, there are other readers who will share your interests.

PRICING:  This is an interesting dilemma.  So many authors are using the free/$0.99 strategy to get their books into circulation that they may be sabotaging themselves.  Customers buy stacks of ebooks and let them sit unread on their Kindles.  Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, I don’t want people to just buy a book I wrote.  I actually want them to READ IT.  So, I’m not sure that the free/$0.99 strategy is something I would pursue for all of my content.  HOWEVER, I do think that an unproven author will have to give away some content for free.  But how much?  One chapter?  Two chapters?  The entire first book in a series?  I think it depends on how many books you’ve written.  Howey essentially gave away the first installment in his Wool series and then raised the price in subsequent installments.  This may be the path I pursue, depending on what my finished product (book) is.

PROMOTION:  Let’s get this out in the open.  The dream for any undiscovered author is for his or her book to go viral.  So how does that happen?  I wish I knew the answer to that question.  But I can tell you how it will NOT happen.  By pestering people to buy your book.

No one wants to be pressured into buying something.  How do you feel when someone tries to push a product on you through Facebook or other social media channel?  If you’re trying to sell your book, you probably don’t want to irritate a potential customer.

The most enthusiastic customers find the products that they want on their own.  I think as new authors, we have to send our best efforts out into the universe and then let the readers find us.  This is where I really think “magic” happened for Hugh Howey.  His stories were aimed at entertaining himself, his friends and his family.  Any readers who stumbled across his book were pure gravy.  Obviously, now he’s swimming in a boatload of gravy.

Believe me, this is easier said than done for a control freak like myself!  But I think when you focus all of your energy on selling your book, it takes away energy from actually WRITING your book.  So I’ve been trying to tell myself to trust the universe.  Once I write the book, my readers will find me.  And they’ll find you too.

PLACE:  In marketing, this is really about distribution.  How does a reader gain access your book?  I know this will seem as if I’m contradicting what I said above, but hear me out.  I still think we have to trust that our readers will find us.  But as new authors, we also have to make it as easy as possible for them to find our books.

In Howey’s case, the place was Amazon.  He self-published his first novella in July 2011 and kept on writing other stories.  By October, he noticed that sales of Wool surpassed anything else he had written.  Howey quickly wrote and released four more installments for this series.

So how does this apply to us as new authors?  I know that I have to retrain my middle-aged brain to reevaluate what I consider the optimal location to sell my book.  I have to replace “shelf space” at a bookstore with “footprint” on the web.  And in a cluttered cyberworld, that means creating a series of works instead of just one.  The more works you have, the larger the footprint you’ll have on the web, and the more likely it is that readers will find your work.

TO MY FELLOW WRITERS:  So, that brings me back to the dilemma many of you may face as authors.  The publishing world is changing.  Has the stigma of self-publishing changed too?  Have you self-published your book or are you considering it?  Do you have any helpful suggestions for other new authors out there who are still swirling in this new publishing world?  Please share your thoughts!  I would love to hear them!   

I Am The Daughter Of Foreigners

On the day I went to the Secretary of State’s office to renew my driver’s license, the room was packed with people.  I took a number and then chose the first vacant seat that I saw in the waiting area.  Most people in the room were visibly unhappy about the wait.  An older couple sitting across the aisle two rows in front of me was very vocal about it.  Their loud complaints about the “lazy” and “incompetent” people behind the counter were annoying.  I tried to tune them out by reading a book, but after a few minutes, I put the book down and glanced at them.  The man was leaning over and complaining bitterly to a woman who I assume was his wife.  The woman was in a wheelchair.

In that moment, they reminded me of my own parents.  Not because of the complaining, but because of their postures.  My father used to lean over and speak quietly to my mother during her time in a wheelchair.  Waiting at the doctor’s office in a wheelchair for her appointments had been grueling for her.

I felt a pang of sympathy for the older couple.  I wasn’t in any hurry.  My husband was watching our two small children at home.  If anything, the alone time was like a vacation for me.  So, I walked up to the older couple and offered them my place ahead of them in line.  They didn’t thank me.  The man just snatched the ticket out of my hand and threw his ticket at me.  As I walked back to my seat, they continued to loudly complain about the people who were working behind the counters.

I just shrugged off their discourtesy and went back to my book.  And that’s when it happened.

“How many of them do you think are foreign?” The woman asked.

The man glanced at the five women behind the counters.  “Two.”

The woman shook her head.  “No, the one in front of us is just black.”

“What about that other one?”  The man pointed to the lady with dark hair and an olive complexion on our right.

The woman nodded in agreement.  “She looks foreign.”

“Yeah,” the man snorted.  “She probably doesn’t even speak any English.”

“That’s why the line is so slow.  She can’t help anyone,” the woman shook her head with disgust.  “She’s incompetent.”

“Why do they keep hiring these lazy foreigners?”  The man scowled in her direction.  “They should get someone who can speak English,” he stated loudly.

A woman sitting directly across the aisle from me looked at me, eyes wide.  We both exchanged horrified glances.  The couple continued their racist tirade, completely oblivious to the apparent distress on the “ethnic” faces of the people in the room.  When I thought about my own “foreign” parents, something inside me snapped.

Oh, HELL NO.

I thought about my father and his solitary struggles as a young foreigner in a strange new country.  On good days, he had a can of soup to eat or a kind friend would invite him over for dinner.  On the bad days, he went hungry.  He worked on the assembly line and bussed tables to put himself through school.  My father ultimately acquired three degrees and became a university career counselor who helped students find jobs after graduation.

I thought about my mother leaving everything she had ever known and loved in India to come to this country after marrying my father.  An angry woman welcomed my beautiful mother to New York City by calling her an “ugly foreigner” and trying to spit on her.  My mother struggled to balance raising two children, managing our household, working and going to school for two degrees.  She ultimately became a clinical psychologist who helped the mentally ill.

I thought about my parents, younger sister and me living in a cramped 900 sq ft townhouse in a low-income neighborhood.  I remember wearing the ill-fitting clothes my mother made by hand instead of the designer clothes my friends bought at the store.  There were so many toys that I couldn’t have because we were saving our money for a small home in a neighborhood with a good school district.  After a decade of saving, we moved.

I thought about the summer days when I studied while my friends played outside.  My father gave me his own version of math homework that put me years ahead of my classmates.  When I complained, he reminded me that a good education was my ticket to better things.  I ultimately graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went on to acquire a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA.  My younger sister also has two engineering degrees.  Both of us worked as engineers in the automotive industry.

I thought about all of the struggles and the sacrifices that my foreign parents made for their U.S.-born children and I got mad.  Very, very mad.

I sprang from my seat and walked towards the couple.  The man stopped complaining for a moment to look at me.  I stared him right in the eye, trembling with rage.  The people behind him stopped talking and stared at me.  I wanted to scream at him, but the only thing I could coherently get out was, “I’m the daughter of foreigners and I just tried to help you.”  I snatched the ticket out of the man’s hand and snapped, “Maybe you’ll remember that the next time you want to spout off about foreigners.”

I turned around and stomped back to my seat.  The couple remained silent.  They were still waiting quietly in their seats when I was called up to the counter.  A “non-foreign” lady behind the counter smiled and thanked me.  Needless to say, she waived my driver’s license fee that day.  She said it was on her.

Eris and Manthara: Two Intriguing “Villains” in Mythology

My first exposure to mythology was during a family trip to India.  I was about seven years old when I discovered a stack of comic books called “Amar Chitra Katha” in my cousin’s room.  From the first time I picked one up, I was hooked.  The stories about heroes from Indian mythology were mesmerizing.  All I wanted to do was read as many of those Amar Chitra Katha comics as I could before we returned to the U.S.

I stumbled across Greek and Roman Mythology the summer before eighth grade.  There was a well-worn copy of Edith Hamilton’s book, Mythology, at the library.  The timing of my discovery was fortunate, because my eighth grade English teacher discussed the subject for a large portion of the school year.  I’ve been addicted to Greek and Roman mythology ever since then.

Decades have passed (literally, because I am that old!) and I still can’t get certain characters out of my head.  Two female characters in particular have always intrigued me:  Eris, the Goddess of Discord, and Manthara, the servant of Queen Kaikeyi.  They originate from two very different cultures, but their stories bothered me for the same reason.  Both women were vilified for causing wars.  But the stories rarely discuss what spurred these women into setting the wars in motion.

ERIS AND THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS

In Greek Mythology, Eris was the Goddess of Discord.  There are two explanations of her origins.  One is that Eris was the daughter of Zeus and Hera.  The other story, which I am more inclined to agree with, is that she was the daughter of Nyx (Night).  Either way, Eris wasn’t known for being fun at parties.  She left mayhem and destruction in her path, so the Olympians tried to avoid her.

All hell broke loose when Eris discovered that she wasn’t invited to the wedding of Thetis, a sea goddess (or Nereid), and Peleus, a mere mortal.  She showed up at the reception and tossed a golden apple inscribed with the words “For The Fairest” into the middle of the banquet hall.  This caused the chaos that she wanted among the goddesses in attendance.  Eventually, three major goddesses were left standing:  Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), Athena (Goddess of Wisdom) and Hera (Goddess of Marriage).

The three goddesses asked Zeus to decide who was the fairest.  Zeus, who didn’t ascend the throne of Olympus by being stupid, refused to make the judgment.  He told them to find some poor schmuck named Paris, a royal prince of Troy, since he was an excellent judge of beauty.  The three goddesses appeared before the unsuspecting Paris, who was tending his father’s sheep.  Instead of asking him to judge their beauty, the goddesses offered him a variety of bribes.  Hera offered to make Paris the ruler of Europe and Asia.  Athena stated that Paris would lead the Trojans to a glorious victory in a battle with their archenemy, the Greeks.  Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world.  Her name was Helen of Sparta.  Apparently, Paris was a lover, not a fighter, because we all know which bribe he selected.  And thus began the Trojan War.

On the surface, this story never made sense to me.  Why would the Olympians intentionally antagonize their resident “shit stirrer?”  Zeus had to know that Eris, of all goddesses, was going to get revenge.  Sure enough, after a little digging, I came across a site called Mythogora that finally provided me with a satisfactory answer.  According to this site, Zeus wanted a war that would eliminate the demi-gods, who were “unholy” unions between gods and mortals.  He used Eris (and his own demi-god daughter Helen) to ignite the events that would lead to the Trojan War.

MANTHARA AND THE RAMAYANA

The Ramayana is one of the two most influential epic tales in India.  (The other one is the Mahabharata.).  At a very basic level, it is a narrative example of how men and women should conduct themselves when pursuing dharma or the “right” way to live.  The Sage Valimiki, who is also a character in this story, is given credit for writing this 24,000 verse Sanskrit poem.  For me to say that the Ramayana is comparable to the Odyssey and the Illiad probably underestimates the influence that it has on current Indian culture.  Both the Ramayana and certainly the Mahabharata are closer to the Bible in terms of influence on Indian society.

The Ramayana, or “Rama’s Journey” is the story of one of the Lord Vishnu’s avatars named Rama.  (NOTE:  An avatar is a earthly incarnation of a god in Indian mythology.)  I won’t discuss the entire story in this post, because it is LONG, but this is the ultimate tale of good prevailing over evil.  Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.  An epic battle ensued between Rama and Ravana.  Rama ultimately won the battle, slayed the beast, and saved the girl.

One of the most pivotal characters in the Ramayana is Manthara.  She was the loyal maid to one of the King’s three queens, Kaikeyi.  When Rama’s father, King Dasharatha, decided to coronate his eldest son Rama by Queen Kausalya, every person in the kingdom of Ayodhya was happy.  Well, almost everyone.

Manthara, who was a servant and had nothing to gain or lose by the coronation, was outraged by the news.  Her mistress, Queen Kaikeyi also had a son with King Dasharatha.  Manthara, in a fit of misguided loyalty, states that Kaikeyi’s son Bharata should be crowned king instead of Rama.

Although originally happy about Rama ascending the throne, Kaikeyi slowly succumbs to Manthara’s insidious henpecking.  King Dasharatha once granted Kaikeyi two “boons” for saving his life.  Manthara convinces Kaikeyi to cash in those favors with the King.  Kaikeyi uses the first boon to seat Bharata on the throne and uses the second boon to banish Rama to a forest for fourteen years.  Rama’s loyal wife Sita follows him to the forest where she is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, thereby setting the events in motion that led to the war.

This story has always wanted to make me pull my hair out of my head for MANY, MANY reasons, but I’ll just discuss one in this post.  If Manthara had never meddled, Rama would have sat on the throne and Sita never would have been kidnapped.  What on earth provoked Manthara’s behavior?  Were Rama or Sita ever cruel to her?  Not likely, since they are supposed to be the human embodiments of everything virtuous.  Was she trying to please Queen Kaikeyi?  No, because until those Manthara’s poison dart whispers started, Kaikeyi was happy about Rama’s coronation.  So what was it?

Fortunately, before I succeeded in losing all of my hair, I found a reasonable explanation in comment sections on a few Indian websites.  I still have to verify its accuracy, but this explanation makes more sense to me.  Once again, the gods were behind the scenes, pulling the strings and letting a woman take the fall.  The Devas, or gods in Indian mythology, were alarmed by the prospect of Rama ascending the throne.  Rama’s sole purpose as an avatar was to come to earth and slay the demon king Ravana.  Apparently, if Rama was coronated king of Ayodhya, it would have interfered with his demon-slaying.  So all of the Devas went running to Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, who came up with a plan.  Saraswati tampered with Manthara’s thoughts and Manthara infected Kaikeyi.  Rama was banished to the very forest where Ravana was lurking and the rest is mythology.

My Three Revelations About Storytelling

I’m starting to realize a few things about writing and storytelling that I wanted to share in this post:

Writing vs. Storytelling

There’s a difference between being a good writer and a good storyteller.  I used to believe that the two were always interlinked, but recent book successes (cough, cough, 50 Shades of Grey, cough, cough), have proven otherwise.  I haven’t read Fifty Shades.  The subject matter doesn’t interest me, but I do admit that I was intrigued enough by the hype to read a preview of this book on Amazon.  I couldn’t get past the first few pages without growing irritated.  Why on earth is this book selling?  The 1-star reviews on Amazon were written more eloquently than the book itself.  (Plus, they were hysterical.)

But, obviously, the international sales figures for this book speak volumes, so who am I to judge?  E.L. James did something right.  If you can look past the questionable writing and subject matter, which I admit was difficult for me to do, she’s a genius when it comes to connecting with her audience.  Readers identify with her characters.  There are plenty of well-written books gathering dust on the shelves of libraries and bookstores across the nation.  I have to give credit where it’s due.  E. L. James is a phenomenal storyteller and I can learn a lot from her.

Scene Construction

My last post on this blog, I Am The Daughter Of Foreigners, received the most response.  People actually read it and sent me positive comments.  That’s huge compared with the crickets chirping after some of my other posts.  So, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out what I did differently on this one so that I can replicate it in future posts.

The bottom line is that I focused on the story.  I wrote for myself.  I had a clear picture of the scene in my head, since I actually lived it.  This post took all of 15 minutes to write.  I spent another 45 minutes polishing it, which included walking away from it and returning to it a few times.  But that post almost wrote itself.

When I went back to analyze it, I noted a few points about how I constructed the scene:

1.  Title:  A few friends told me that they stopped to read it because of the title.

2.  Setup:  The first paragraph setup the story at the Secretary of State’s office and introduced the main characters.

3.  Framing:  I didn’t start the scene too early and I didn’t drag the story on for too long.  I got to the point.

4.  Conflict:  There was an obvious confrontation between me (the Protagonist) and the older couple (the Antagonist).

5.  Resolution:  The “story” had an emotionally satisfying conclusion.  “Justice” was served.

6.  Emotional Premise:  The “racism/immigration” theme of this post would make most anyone’s blood boil.

7.  Information Exposition:  I knew the point that I wanted to make with this post without even thinking about it.

I’m not sure if I can replicate this each time I post something.  Every day of my life isn’t a conflict (thank goodness!).  But I think the takeaway from this is to have a clear picture in your head of the scene and the point that you want to make before writing it.

Selling A Book Will Be Harder Than Publishing A Book

Okay.  Let me be up front about this.  I don’t have a finished manuscript.  I’m nowhere near publication.  But only two months into this blog, I’m starting to realize that it’s hard to get people to read what you write.  There’s so much noise.  How does a person cut through all of that?

As challenging as writing a book is, publication is harder.  As hard as publishing a book will be, selling it is the ultimate challenge.  If I can’t get people to read the FREE content on a 900-word blog, how will I get people PAY MONEY and read 300 pages in a book?  (NOTE:  The assumption is that the free content on a blog is technically well-written and emotionally evocative.  That’s the minimum requirement in this market, and I’m still learning the craft.)

Let’s assume that I’ve written the next Harry Potter book and that it’s been published.  (I know that this is arrogant, but hear me out.)  So what’s the next step?  How do you get readers to actually look between the covers of this supposed jewel if you’re an unknown author?  How did J.K. Rowling, who had her struggles getting HP published, get people to read her book before she became a writing legend?  At some point, no one knew who she was.  How did she break through the barriers to entry?

I’m an engineer.  I like to figure out puzzles and to me, this is the ultimate marketing puzzle.  I will definitely share any insights that I uncover, so stay tuned!  Happy Selling!

Post 14: My Moral Dilemma About A Child Left Alone In The Car

To the lady who left her son alone in the car,

I don’t know you. I only know that I was angry when I saw your little boy alone in the blue minivan that was parked next to mine this morning.

At first, I didn’t even realize that he was there. I had just dropped off my four-year old son at summer camp. It’s his third day of camp with a new group of kids and he’s still adjusting. So when I walked back to the parking lot, pushing my daughter in her stroller, all of my thoughts were with my son.

As I carried my daughter from the stroller to the parking lot, I glanced over my shoulder. I saw a pair of large brown eyes peering at me from inside the blue minivan parked next to ours. I didn’t really think about it. This school is populated with helicopter parents. I assumed that there was an adult in the car with him. I buckled my daughter into her car seat, before closing the sliding door and turning around. And that’s when I realized that the little boy was alone in the blue minivan.

Your little boy looks like he’s close to my son’s age. Maybe one year younger. All of the tinted windows in your van were rolled down 2-3 inches. You obviously know that today is going to be a hot summer day. It was after 9 A.M. when I saw your son. I could already feel the sun beating down on me as I stood between our two minivans.

Your boy was also standing up. He poked his nose out the window. Maybe he was hot. I didn’t know how long he had been left alone in the car, so I asked him, “Where are your mommy and daddy?”

He didn’t answer me. I found it ironic that you’ve probably taught your son not to speak with strangers. I tried again. “Are they inside the school?”

He hesitated, and nodded. “My mommy is in there.”

Slightly relieved, but irritated, I asked one more question. “Is she dropping someone off ?”

He said something I couldn’t quite make out, but I was under the impression that you, Fellow Mommy, were there for the same reason I was. To drop off an older child at camp.

I told your little boy that I would be in the car right next to him if he needed something, and he nodded again. Then I slipped into the driver’s seat of my minivan and turned on the air conditioning for my own daughter. Because it was already getting that warm.

I admit it. I was pissed off at you. Who would leave a little kid unattended in the car like that? He wasn’t even buckled into his car seat. He was climbing over the front seats like a jungle gym. My knee-jerk reaction was to call the school’s security office and let them handle it.

Yeah, it’s hard having more than one kid at pick-up and drop-off time. I get it. It would be a lot easier if I could just leave my one-year old daughter in the car by herself for a few minutes while I drop her four-year old brother off at camp. And I admit that I’ve thought about it during milder weather. But I wouldn’t do that. Because even though the likelihood of something bad happening is small, it still exists. And I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to my daughter the one time I took the easy way out.

But that’s my choice. And this morning, you, Fellow Mommy, made yours.

So there I sat, in judgment of what I should do about your choice. And that’s the core of what bothered me. Why did you put me in this position? I didn’t want to judge you, but I did. I thought that you did something incredibly stupid. I thought that you took an unnecessary risk. I get that you’re tired and you want one thing to be easy in your incredibly difficult day. Believe me, I understand. But this isn’t the thing that you should make easier on yourself. Get fast food for lunch today. Turn on the TV a little longer this afternoon. But, for God’s sake, don’t leave your kid in the car unattended.

Fellow Mommy, I was torn. The easy thing for me to do would have been to just call campus security and wash my hands of this whole situation. But I didn’t want to do that to you. Because what if you’re actually a really great mother?  What if you would normally never do this?  What if today you just felt tired and overwhelmed? What if you were so close to the breaking point that you made this incredibly stupid decision? Do you deserve to have your children taken away from you by the CPS for one stupid decision? Because these days, something like that could happen.

After ten minutes of waiting and watching, I didn’t think so. You don’t deserve to lose your children. But you do need a warning. So I picked up the phone and called the front desk of the school. After explaining the situation, I told the front desk assistant that I didn’t want you, Fellow Mommy, to get in trouble with the authorities.  The school should warn you not to do this again.

While I was speaking with the front desk, you, Fellow Mommy, approached your minivan, quickly got in without a glance in my direction and drove away. I didn’t get the chance to talk with you, but I did report what you looked like.

Should I have minded my own business and just left your little boy alone? Some people may think so, but it didn’t feel right to just drive away. Did I do the wrong thing by not calling the police? I hope not. Only time will tell. I hope that when the school contacts you and gives you a warning, you’ll do better next time.

MY COMMENTS:

This piece was rejected by both Scary Mommy (Rejection #7) and The Mid (Rejection #8).  The lady who rejected it at Scary Mommy called it “thought provoking” but said she didn’t have a place for it.  The person at The Mid just rejected it.  I’m not sure where to go from here.