Thursday, December 19, 2013

What I Learned From Publishing My First Novel





Readers are your best friends 

Yes, they are. Think about it, you are an unknown writer. It takes either, love, a keen interest in the author, a commitment to helping other authors, openness, or else, a genuine attraction to a book's premise and setting, to dare read a novel from an unknown writer.

In the last eighteen months, I have been blessed with friends, some strangers, who have supported me in, this, the beginning of a long journey, by simply daring to pick up my novel and enter an unknown world.

The number one factor in influencing book purchases is what psychologists call normative influence: a recommendation by a friend. This is why, having someone read your novel and enjoy it, can be a catalyst for a chain reaction of events that defeats any form of marketing. Its value is priceless. Without the support of a massive marketing campaign to increase the author's visibility, or impress value in a potential audience's mind, the only real promotion a new author has left is the reader.

So thank you to my readers. You rock!

Your cover needs to attract the right audience

Would be readers who discover they chose the wrong book based on personal taste can be your worse enemy. I have received reviews that made me wonder, "well, what did you expect?" and again, some have made me think, "isn't it obvious that it would be THAT kind of book?"

Well no. Perhaps it was not that obvious.

As a self-published author, I take on the responsibility to properly promote the book so as to target the right audience.

How do you ensure you are attracting the correct audience?

The Ming Storytellers has an undoubtedly beautiful cover. Last November, it won a eBook cover design award and designer, Caryn Gillespie, will soon produce the cover for my second novel.
According to studies, aside from a friend recommendation, the cover is one of the most important factors in luring a reader to purchase a book.

So what went wrong?

I think the nature of The Ming Storytellers, with its multiple character points of view, its multiple narrative threads and its balanced set of male and female characters, would definitely seem 'boring' or 'too long' or 'confusing' for those readers who were inticed by the splendid Chinese female on the cover, and who imagined the novel to be set exclusively in the feminine sphere with a single point of view.

It could be argued- and I am doing so intuitively without any quantitative evidence- that the plurality of The Ming Storytellers may have been more strongly conveyed if the focus of the cover had not been on just one character. Truer still,  the 'epic' nature of the novel (to repeat the term used by many readers) would have been emphasized if the cover emulated the imagery in traditional epic novel covers...which ultimately are sort of boring anyway. Or less sexy!

I would not change this cover for the world. But I think in this case, the blurb of the book may require rethinking. It might be rewritten to better convey the important facets of this novel to a reader who may otherwise be misled by the imagery.  

Giving away your book for free is not always a good idea

I think giving away your book for free has advantages, the main one being to increase an author's visibility over a couple of weeks. However the volume of downloads does not convert as expected.

Sure, you'll generate thousands of downloads in a few days, but how many of those ebook hoarders are genuinely interested in reading a 600-page novel set in the Ming Dynasty? With eunuch male characters? And with foreign names? Very few.

They will like the cover (and who doesn't), add it to their shelves, increment the number of books in their social reading platform and, ta da - end of story.  I've had a sinking feeling whenever I have seen my book tagged in Goodreads as "freebie" or "free ebook". It likens my 'omnibus' (as described by a wonderful reader from India) to the worse junk that exists in the digital self-publishing world.

At worse, the impulsive hoarder's tastes will turn out to be horribly mismatched to your book.
And they will leave a review.
Just because they can.

And let's not mention the trolls - individuals who have produced nothing literary in their entire lives and whose sole sense of worth is derived from destroying an author's reputation by happily downgrading the said author's book ratings - at No cost! Do not indulge them.

Trolls exist. I thought they did not, but they do. I was naive.


Negative reviewers are poor psychologists

In life, you can choose to be happy and you will be... Or, you can choose to be miserable and that too, will be your lot. Your preconceived attitude will cloud your perceptions of others, your interpretations of events and, if that is not enough, will horribly skew your sense of measures.

There are negative reviews that are genuine just as there are those that reveal deep seated issues in the reviewer. What remains perplexing about the latter is how they can feel so comfortable making certain judgments in public when the attitude behind their words is so evident. I worry sometimes.

Nevertheless, considering the democratic nature of digital publishing's rating system, an author will always have to deal with the masses. And one does not need to be a psychologist or a historical novelist, to understand that the masses, often, are led by idiots.

If you publish to US audiences, don't be a freaking snob, use US English

I made the mistake of using UK English for a full year, only to have a couple of reviewers rant about the spelling mistakes that were rampant. (This was simply not true.) Considering that the US is my primary market at the moment, I should have known better.

Living in Australia, where both spelling forms are known (or more or less known and accepted), I could not imagine how intolerant the majority of US readers are. The more educated would not complain but that is not the case for the majority.

In the end, I resolved the 'rampant spelling' problem. To be fair, I did identify 10 spelling errors that were genuine, but in a book of 600+ pages, I felt that the judgment made upon The Ming Storytellers as being 'obviously self-published' was grossly disproportional. My fellow indie authors will agree.

Again, reviewers are not the best psychologists. And they are not good at maths.

Your Best Reviewers are people who understand what you were setting out to do.

To me, this encapsulates what I seek in reader feedback. To be understood. Not on the surface, not at the narrative level, but deeply and completely. When a reader has understood my meaning - not my words, but my intentions - I feel at home.

It gives such joy to strike a chord with a reader. It's like tapping into this collective essence that is humanity. When a reader shares their reaction and I deem it the 'correct' one based on what I sought out to do, there is this symbiosis, as though both our mirror neurons were activated in tandem.

Crazy analogy...
You must forgive the social psychologist in me. The writer in me would just say "fuck yeah".

For those moments, I am grateful.

I made mistakes

I take objective feedback seriously.

Some of this feedback related to editing of The Ming Storytellers which might be slightly improved.
Yet further feedback related to the multiple voices within the narrative which jarred certain readers or rendered the novel more difficult to read for some. Then again, there were readers who enjoyed the novel's complexity and saw it as a challenge and a reward to complete.

All this, I take seriously.

According to the more objective feedback, The Ming Storytellers could have been slightly better edited...even though I spent a total of 6 years on it. It was not an easy task. Sure, I could do it again - revise flow and complexity in certain passages, strip a couple of sentences, use alternative words... But I shall keep that lesson for the second novel which I can promise, as a self-improving author, will be of higher standard from an editing perspective. It will also be shorter.

As for plurality of voices- well, judging from George R.R. Martin's success, and his books' multiple points of view, I may not want to change my approach. I believe there are readers who enjoy multiple voices. I know I do. In fact that is what I most enjoyed in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Perhaps I might best apply this feedback to attracting suitable audiences by injecting more thought into my future covers.

Self-doubt is here to stay

No matter how pompous or joyful my Tweets, no matter if I rave about a five-star review, no matter the thought that I'm now published, still, the self-doubt is there to stay.

My partner, who has been a writer for over twenty years, and is a respected screenwriter in Australia and abroad, has many a times advised me that self-doubt is the lot of writers. But not just all writers: those who care about growing and those who are not complacent about their art.

Based on this, I am grateful for self-doubt and the motivation that it imparts to me. I also know, through the enormous talent I see whenever I pick up a book by my favorite authors- some of who are my friends-, that I still have much to learn.



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