“Shoemaker, Stick to Thy Last!”

“Shoemaker, Stick to Thy Last!”

I always try to help my fellow indie authors by passing on my experiences. Among the most important, in my mind, is don’t be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find your niche, and stick with it.

This might not be the greatest advice if you’re already a best-selling author published through a major publishing house. But it might. Look at a couple of the reviews of J.K. Rowling’s first “serious” book after Harry Potter.

The Casual Vacancy fails to conjure Harry Potter’s magic.” – Los Angeles Times

It pretty much explodes towards the end, losing shape in its fury at the dirty, unfair England that we Muggles have made for ourselves.” – The Daily Telegraph

Even some of the positive reviews damned the novel with faint praise, using language like “not bad at all” and “pretty good.” Not exactly an ideal critical reception for a book that went to #1 and sold over a million copies.

 

Nobody Likes A Negative Review, Right?

Of course, I understand this is the literary equivalent of a first-world problem, or even white privilege. I’m sure many among us would be indifferent to those reviews if we sold a million copies of anything and hit #1 on Amazon. But it’s important to remember these results came to a world-famous novelist with a hugely successful career. 

Rowling had already steeled herself for the backlash, saying, If everyone says, “Well, that’s shockingly bad—back to wizards with you,” then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I’ll live. Still, few writers would welcome that kind of negative response to their work. 

Now, this is no apology for anything Rowling has said or done. She’s courted controversy in recent years, and I’m dimly aware of it, but I’m also neither fan nor foe. I’ve never read her, and my limited experience with the movies doesn’t count as a pro or con. I am Rowling-agnostic. Nor do I subscribe to the school of thought that says she should have limited herself to a certain genre.

 

And That Says It All

If you’re already a well-known author, and you can afford to take some critical and/or financial hits, I say do whatever you want. But if you’re in the process of establishing yourself as a widely-read indie author, then consider the headline of today’s post: “Shoemaker, Stick to Thy Last!”

For a cobbler or shoemaker, the last is the main tool, a block made of wood or metal around which shoes or boots are repaired. The “stick to thy last” proverb can mean “don’t get above your area of expertise,” but a more positive spin is do what you do best. It’s not exactly the same as “do what you love and the money will follow,” but it’s not far off, either.

I may deviate myself from this on some level, because not all of my novels fit comfortably into the same genres or sub-categories, as I wrote recently. But whatever I have to do on Amazon to find new readers, my novels do fit the same criteria I’ve had on my website’s homepage since 2015:

I focus on character in my work, marrying the comedies and tragedies of modern life.

I still haven’t found a better way to put it.

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If You Don’t Write in a Serial Format, Good Luck With Amazon Classifications

If You Don’t Write in a Serial Format, Good Luck With Amazon Classifications

This week’s topic is one near and dear to my grizzled, cynical old heart—adjusting to the nightmarish landscape of book classifications.

Some writers have no problem with this stuff, and hey, more power to you. But as I wrote in What I’ve Learned In Six Years of Growing An Indie Author Business, “If you don’t write serial fiction, be prepared to adjust your sales expectations accordingly.”

I know serial fiction is all the rage these days. I get it. But I’ve never been a genre guy. I grew up on Dickens, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Faulkner, Balzac, and other writers who wrote Fiction. No one ever suggested that The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins should be categorized as Detective Fiction or that A Tale of Two Cities was an Unrequited Romance novel.

 

 

Classifications And More Classifications

Over time, something weird evolved, or rather, devolved in my beloved bookstores. The categorization fever that overtook my favorite record store began to overtake the publishing world, too. Where once was only Fiction, now there were shelves and shelves of Detective and Romance and Mystery and…well, you get the idea.

If you write something that falls into categories similar to what I write (literary, metaphysical, and so on), you can’t expect every reader to get that your fiction doesn’t comfortably fit into a genre.

I’ve written about this before, but ultimately, here’s what happened: I added Time Travel Fiction and Action and Adventure Literary Fiction to my IngramSpark listing for Whizzers, but Amazon didn’t seem to go for it, and sub-categorized the ebook as Metaphysical Fiction and Metaphysical Science Fiction ebooks—straight from the Department of Redundancy Department. Then they sub-categorized the paperback as Fantasy Action & Adventure and Time Travel Fiction.

 

 

And the Winner Is….

Here’s how the categories and subcategories ultimately stacked up for my books: 

Whizzers – Metaphysical Fiction, Metaphysical Science Fiction, Biographical Fiction

Brothers’ HandHumorous Literary Fiction, Psychological Literary Fiction, Dark Humor

Miles of Files – American Humorous Fiction, Humorous Literary Fiction, Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Literary Fiction

Jana – LGBTQ+ Genre Fiction, Gay Fiction

Again, not a satisfactory result, but that’s about as good as it ever got. And the reason all this stuff is so important? If you don’t categorize your book, Amazon will do it for you.

Even in my example, I still don’t think they got all the sub-categories right. Imagine the mess they would have created if I hadn’t got my IngramSpark listing dialed in properly. When books aren’t categorized properly, the wrong readers find them—readers who dislike that type of book, maybe even feel they were misled into buying your book.

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Who Gives A Damn About Your Book?

Back in April, I wrote a blog post called What I’ve Learned in Six Years of Growing An Indie Author Business. Since I have  those six years of experience, I figured I’d list six things I’d learned—not necessarily one per year, but one for each year.

The response was pretty good: quite a few people on Twitter appreciated what I had to say, and many shared their own experiences as indie authors.

Fast forward a couple months, and I’ve found myself under the gun with writing projects. My current freelance workload keeps me busy, and I’ve got enough family issues (see last week’s post) to push this blog onto the back burner.

I can still bang out a quick post every Monday for the next six weeks, though, by delving into each of the six points from April’s What I’ve Learned list. And with that, let’s jump right into the first topic, Who Gives A Damn?

 

Finding That Audience

Here’s what I wrote in the April blog, in case you didn’t read it the first time around:

Nobody cares about your book except people who like that kind of book—and even a lot of them don’t give a damn. It’s easy to say, but hard to comprehend. The wonderful book that cost you years of sweat is not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably only going to be found, bought, read, and loved by, a select audience. Find that audience.

This really is hard for most authors to swallow. When you’re so deep into your work that you can’t see anything else, you feel like it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Hell, it’s greater than sliced bread. It’s a damn masterpiece!

I’ve often said writing a novel is like scaling Mt. Everest alone with nothing but a spoon for climbing gear. You can read all the books you want, join support groups, get beta readers…but when it comes down to it, it’s you and that blinking cursor. The road map is yours to create.

So it’s not surprising many of us think the writerly equivalent of “If you build it, they will come.” If I publish, they will read.

They won’t. Trust me, building a readership is like trying to corral cats.

 

Forget The Friends And Family Plan

Even though every knowledgeable person tells you that your friends and family aren’t going to be your best readers, most of us don’t listen. “I’m different. My book is different. My family and friends are different!”

They aren’t. Seriously.

I get it: you want to invite every damn person you know to your launch party, right? I’ve been guilty of it, and I’ve lost money on those events. The best thing I got out of them was a few in-person paperback sales, and some nice photos for social media posts.

I’ve even continued to use launch party photos over the past two years since publishing Whizzers, and they look pretty good. Somewhere between 15-20 people showed up, and if they’d only all  been there at the same time, I could have had some impressive pictures.

But here’s the thing: I got a crowd of maybe 20, but I invited over 100 people.

That’s what you face when you’re dealing with the friends and family part of your launch plan.

 

Where Are The Superfans?

If you’re wondering how and where to find superfans, I’m afraid I can’t provide a definitive answer. What I can say is there’s little to no chance any of them will come from among friends and family.

How did I find my best readers? Some were through social media, some through advertising, and some were probably just plain dumb luck.

As I mentioned above, people who like your “kind” of book are the most likely to love your book. It’s not even personal. People like what they like.

I’ve thought about this from numerous angles and had to learn to view it objectively—not easy when thinking about those books. They’re my babies.

I’m not a big fan of horror films or books. That means you could recommend the best ones out there, and I’m still not going to love them. Movie? Won’t watch it; I’d have nightmares. Book? Hell, I barely have time to work on my own WIP. Not gonna read a horror novel. Ever.

Now think of all the people who might read your book. What kind of book is it? Look at the comps, like in real estate. Check Amazon. “Customers who bought this item also bought….” Think of Netflix: “Because you watched X….”

And then the part that’s even harder: where do those readers hang out? You gotta go get ‘em.

I’ve been absolutely bowled over by the reviews and comments from my best readers. These are people I don’t know, have never met, and yet my work touched their hearts in a profound way—so much so, they took time to tell the world.

If nothing else made all the hard work worthwhile, that would. In fact, it’s more than enough.

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Rolling With The Changes

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Last Monday was my wife’s and my seventh wedding anniversary, and it was also Memorial Daynot a holiday we were considering when we got hitched, I’ll admit. I chose to take time off from work, and that worked out well. My wife ended up being able to get the day off too, so we actually got to spend our anniversary together. That’s not always an option for us. 

But as the week progressed, my family was dealt a massive one-two punch.

 

Good Thing They’re Divorced

You’d think it would be tragic that my parents divorced after 33 years of marriage. In reality, it was probably long overdue.

That divorce was just one of many landmark life changes they endured, and it was a good 30 years ago. Today, both are in their mid-80s, with Dad living out west and Mom in an assisted living facility right up the road from me.

They haven’t had a relationship for all these years, and it’s inevitably fallen to me to help them with the aging process. My father’s an old-school dude (think Clint Eastwood in all those spaghetti westerns), so he hasn’t exactly accepted much in the way of help. Mom, on the other hand, planned for the worst, and wisely got the long-term care coverage she’s ultimately needed.

The reason I entitled this section Good Thing They’re Divorced is because we’re not that archetypal close-knit family with kids and grandkids. So this past week’s events affected us somewhat differently than they would in a more, er, functional family.

Long story short, my father had a major health event last week, and within a day of that, I got word that my mother had received a major health diagnosis as well. The cliché “when it rains, it pours” exists for a reason.

 

And How Are You, Doing, Mike?

In addition to all the phone calls I had to make and receive in the past several days regarding my parents, I also reached out to some of my own circle to talk about all this traumatic stuff. And one of the best things I heard from a friend was, Make sure you’re taking good care of yourself.

I’ve never been a big fan of large, unexpected changes, especially unpleasant ones. But I also recognize that changes are about the only guarantee in life, and there will always be a hell of a lot of them. So I’m taking care of myself as well as I can without shirking responsibilities, doing my best to roll with the changes.

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