MJG’s 2014 writing roundup and lessons learned

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2014 has been a huge year for me, on many levels. A lot has changed with my writing, life, travel, qualifications, job, and overall existence. There’ve been lots of transitions and new developments. This post is all about my writing developments, and all the lessons learned:

The story so far (up to 2014)

At the end of 2013 I put out two trial balloon short story collections on amazon, self-published. The last time I dallied with such self-publishing was probably 2011, when I put up a single short story, which was also available for free on the internet in various places- Killin Jack.

Back then I knew nothing about book promotion, made no effort to push the book beyond listing it in this site’s sidebar, and as we might expect I don’t think I ever sold or gave away a single copy:

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On the left is the first cover I made for it, in MS Paint. Woohoo! I thought it could be cool as this child-like kind of style, but then quickly opted to go with something a little more polished, from my pal Canadian Mike on the right.

It’s neat, but I look at it now with my more-experienced-at-making-covers eyes and see it gives very little hint as to content or genre, and the lack of color and texture makes it look pretty dull. It is of course what I asked for, so none of that is the artist’s fault. Anyway, that was 2011.

At the end of 2013 I put out these two books of short stories, Bone Diamond and Bells of Subsidence:

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That was a big learning curve, getting into ebook layout, hiring a cover artist off the Internet, editing short stories into their best format, coming up with back and front matter, starting a mailing list, working out the typesetting for a print book, learning the websites for both amazon ebook and createspace print book system, paying for various promotions and watching the free copies fly out the door, hanging on tenterhooks watching for reviews to slowly trickle in. I even made a little money- though not enough to pay for the promotional ads I’d run.

Still, it was an exciting and successful weather balloon, and boded of much bigger things in 2014. I’d gotten over the automatic dismissal of self-publishing as a vanity thing to do- and now (after being rejected by agents and traditional publishers for my fantasy novel Ignifer’s Rise multiple times) was in a position to just want to get my stuff out there, where it could be read.

Sure, there was the risk the tsunami of self-pubbed crap would over-flood it and very few people would ever even SEE my books. But, whatever, at least it was POSSIBLE for them to be seen. In my hard drive nobody was going to see them. On amazon, maybe.

Ruins book

So, I got to work editing, and in January 2014 I put out the first iteration of my long-awaited ruins/haikyo book- Ruins of the Rising Sun – Adventures in Abandoned Japan. I say long-awaited, really that was more me than any ‘fan’ response. A few people had suggested I put out a print book. I’d been approaching publishers with the idea for years- getting a meeting with an editor in 2011 in Tokyo, and even getting as far as signing a contract with a French publisher in 2013.

Both of these fell apart. I decided to do it myself. I looked into typesetting a print book, but the complications of that far outweighed my ability to do them. Hiring a pro would have cost thousands- and how many copies of a $40+ coffee table book could I expect to sell, with only my limited distribution? A few, I expect- far from enough to pay for the cost of getting it done.

So I went ebook. I debated the book’s structure plenty- was it a guide book, a travel book, a photo book, what? I settled on a travel/memoir/photo book, and got down to it. My story of being miserable and finding fulfillment through going to ruins became the narrative backbone. I gathered in my best explores and photos and put them all together, drawing from this site but adding and changing lots of stuff. I made a cover myself, fixed the price at $9.99, and put it out there with minimal promo (I spent nothing on ads- it was a bit too niche to work well with scattershot ads I felt).

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The first cover at left was what I started with. Imperial flag of the rising sun seemed fitting considering how many ruins I’d been to that dated to WW2. But I got feedback from some Japanese folks that they found the flag offensive. To Japanese who are sensitive to such matters, it reminds them of the past in a similar way to the Nazi swastika. OK, so I didn’t want to be offensive. Added to that, many people might not even know that this flag signified Japan. So there was a chance my cover and title meant nothing at all to many people.

I flipped to the one at right, adding Japan into the title and making the flag the more widely known risen sun. But now this looked a little bland. I’d thought since the start that- since this was a photobook- it should really have one of my photos on the cover. But which one? Which place summed up what ruined Japan was?

In the end I decided to take the focus off Japan, which is niche, and focus on adventure/ruins, with a Japan flavor. I changed the title and cover to reflect this, bringing us to the latest iteration:

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I like it best. It reflects the book’s focus on adventure well, hints at Japan, and shows some of the grunge readers are in for. I also upped the photo count, from 200 photos up to 300, because why not? I’d tried to trim it down to manage the megabyte count, since amazon charges a delivery fee per megabyte, and the book was already 20mb. But yeah, let it be a premium product. I bumped the photo count up to 300, 30mb, and set the price back at $9.99 (after experimenting with various lower prices).

I barely changed the inner content at all. I streamlined it a little, in line with a bit of feedback, but it remained basically the same throughout. So far it’s been my most profitable seller- especially since I never spent promo, cover, or editing money on it. I did it all myself. I think I paid $5 to use the background flag image, that’s it. It’s sold a few hundred copies and is nicely in the black. Maybe I’ll do a little promo on it in the future.

Ignifer’s Rise

After putting out this massive collection of my blog’s back catalog, I decided it was time to put out the big dog, my epic fantasy novel, Ignifer’s Rise. I’d sent it to big rounds of agents twice, perhaps 100 in total, over the last 3 years since writing it. I was still not confident it was the best it could be, so I acceded to general advice and went looking for an editor. I hired one for $1000 dollars, but they ended up being incredibly negative, critical, and unhelpful. I could take criticism, it was the whole point- but it really felt like their heart was not in making the book better. They pointed out flaws but made no suggestions as to how to fix those flaws. They essentially proof-read the book and gave it a poor review.

I canceled that editing job 20% of the way through, getting back most of the money. I went for another one, ultimately paying $400 to an editor who did a very minor bit of proofreading and basically sung the book’s praises, saying she couldn’t cut a thing.

Garbage. Wasted money. I suppose you get what you pay for. They say a decent editor will run you thousands. I’m not prepared to spend that kind of money though, so I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the book myself.

It was 150,000 words. I cut it down to 130,000, and more recently down to 120,000. I proofread and spell-checked, and roped in a friend or two to assist me. I then hired a new cover artist, a chap I’d gone to university with, and he produced a cover I was really smitten by. All in, I spent almost $1000 on the editing and cover.

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On the left was the original cover and title, launched in March. We have Sen the main character and his patterned scars, wearing the hood he has to wear to go out in public. In the background is the volcano erupting.

I liked this a lot. I still do, but I also see flaws. The title was a real mouthful, so I decided to elide it to Ignifer’s Rise. Nothing really is lost, and the title fits on the book cover better and more visibly. I thought his cape was taking up a lot of space though, and we couldn’t see the city much. In fact with his face and scars, city on fire, eye and volcano, it was a bit too busy. I’m not sure now, but whatever.

I’ve decided to split the cover into the two original images. Book 1, Ignifer’s Rise, gets the full-on face. I think this is striking. It probably broadly suggests fantasy. Now, Book 2, Ignifer’s War, due out at the start of 2015, will get the background image, with the volcano amped up.

This is great for numerous reasons, but chiefly because I avoid the time, effort, and expense of getting new covers done. I love the original images still, so aim to get better mileage out of them.

Next came promotion. I spent the most on this book, with two rounds of promotion totalling maybe $400. I gave away maybe ten thousand free copies, sold hundreds of copies at a discounted price, and got some nice reviews. I have not made my money back though- and am still a fair ways from doing so. That’s a shame, and maybe a lesson of 2014 for me. This business can be expensive, if you let it be.

Ruins Sonata

I’d had the idea of a semi-vampire story set in future ruins, potentially even in Tokyo, interweaving with an action-packed mind-dive like Inception for over a year. It would be called Mr. Ruins. After putting out Ignifer’s Rise, I decided to just go for it. In March and April I wrote the whole thing. This was a massive uptick in speed for me. Ignifer’s Rise had taken 4 years to perfect (though in honesty I probably wrote the first draft in about 3 months), but this one came out in very clean form in less than 2 months. I outlined it pretty clearly, which I’d never done with Ignifer- so there was no need to go back over it again and again, adding and removing bits. It was what it was. I proofread, hired a friend to proofread for a very reasonable $100, then sent it out to agents.

I had intended to self-publish immediately. My dad read it though and suggested I give traditional publishing one more shot, so I did. I sent it out, and while I waited, I had a cover made up, and started writing the second in the series, King Ruin. No agents came back to me, so I published it in August.

I’d never had any intention of a sequel. Mr. Ruins stood alone, but at the end there was a naturally evolving hint of a wider world. I wanted to explore it. I dashed off King Ruin in May, paid for proof-reading, and hired the same cover artist. I went straight ahead and started writing the trilogy closer, God of Ruin. Here real life got in the way though, and I got only halfway before I had to go off to the UK (more later).

I had most of a trilogy. Each book required a cover. I came up with a cover design I thought was really clever and intriguing, with half a brain, and half a molten core world. I repeated the basic design for each book, in love with the idea. Here are the covers:

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What do you think? I paid for serious promotional ads of book 1, Mr. Ruins, but it shifted really poorly. I spent $230 dollars, and I think sold maybe 80 copies for 99 cents, at all of the best ad sites. Others who promo-ed at the same time from the same standing start had much more massive results. To rub salt in the wound, expecting interesting results I live-blogged the whole thing on kboards writer’s cafe.

It was a shock, really. People theorized it had to be my covers and my blurbs. I solicited feedback, and got it instantly: the covers were not what I thought they were. Maybe for someone who had already read the book, they were cool little puzzles. For someone who hadn’t? The first book looked like an eyeball covered in maggots.

Ugh. Gross, and far from my intent. Many people said this. No one said they liked it. At the same time, people said the blurb was impenetrable. After reading it they had no idea what the story was about. Too many made-up words, not enough clear concrete stuff.

So I labored. I altered. I shifted and twisted. At the same time I did the same for the opening chapters of book 1, simplifying so they could be read and understood more easily. I did this three of four times, with me each time surprised that it was STILL not clear to follow. Major ouch. But, at the same time also, good reviews were coming in. People who liked the puzzle style, the slight challenge inherent in the writing, enjoyed it.

I enjoyed that too. I continued, and continue, to try to strike the balance. A little bit puzzling/intriguing, but also eminently readable. I’m definitely getting closer.

I also commissioned new covers, adapting ruins images from the concrete side of the story- hoping they would give a post-apocalyptic feel. I think they certainly do that. To get across an idea of thriller as well I should probably incorporate a figure somewhere, maybe holding a weapon of some kind, but I’ll think about that more going forward. Here they are:

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I’m sure they’re better than before. Maybe they could be better still- but that’s something for me to figure out later. With two rounds of covers, and two rounds of proofreading, and two rounds of promotional ads, I spent around $1000 on this trilogy. Again, I haven’t made it back yet. I finished God of Ruin in October and put it out in November.

My first trilogy!

I learnt a huge amount from this experience- about my own writing speed, ability to self-edit (pretty good), the power of an outline, the importance of following general genre structures when making a book cover, the importance of a clear, accessible blurb, and clear accessible opening chapters. I also juggled the structure of all the books, and altered the chapter headings.

At the start they were all alternating, so one chapter in the real world, one in the dive world. This led to mentions in reviews of the story being disjointed, taking a long time to get going, and being unclear. I totally get that. I agree it’s better to fully set the hook on one character/setting before jumping to another. So I altered each book to have 3/4 chapters in the real world contiguously, followed by 3/4 in the dive world, before I get into alternating.

I’ve heard nothing back on this yet, but I think it’s a move for the best. It gets the story moving faster, reduces uncertainty, and helps an already complex narrative structure a bit simpler.

And sales? Well, I’m still a good ways off paying down the $1000+ I spent on getting these books out there. But really, they’ve only been out for a few months, so things are just getting started.

Stats and Book bloggers

I decided to get on top of things financially, and with my wife SY’s help, put together a spreadsheet of all my book finance data, along with reviews, sales figures, costs, and subscriber counts. SY’s job is in managing data so she’s a whizz at doing this. Together we made all kinds of graphical representations, of monthly totals, book totals, cumulative graphs, and etc..

The result was shocking. I’d known I was in the red on this book business, but hadn’t realized how much. In total I’d spent about $2000 so far. I’d earned back around $700. That is a long way from paying for itself. The peaks of sales came unsurprisingly at the same time I did paid promotions, but not one of those paid off, and afterward sales tailed off, so there was no chance of them paying off later via residual effects. They were money sunk and gone.

This was painful, but good to see in hard real data. It was undeniable. The way I was doing it seemed unsustainable. I didn’t want this to be my hobby, I wanted to make money. Maybe that doesn’t sound clear, though- I wanted it to be clean. The more money I spent without getting money back, the more it felt like self-indulgence, vanity publishing, and a descent into distasteful unreality.

I never wanted vanity publishing. I don’t want to pay people to read my books, and that’s what it felt like to see those numbers. I want people to want to read my books, and value having done so. Of course you can’t force that, you have to grow it slowly, and hope the books are good enough.

So I’m taking another approach now. I’m sending free copies of my books to book bloggers, in the hope that they’ll read and review them on their blogs and on amazon. On their blogs could theoretically lead to sales of interested parties. On amazon leads on social proof and more guidance to potential buyers.

This has already started paying off. I got 4 reviews on Mr. Ruins in the last month, taking it up to a milestone 20 reviews. Hopefully more will come in. I’ve also had a very amazing discussions with readers who offered me their thoughts on how to improve my books. These have been more valuable than anything any editor has offered me.

Bard Bloom, a writer himself, gave really great and detailed feedback on how I could trim Ignifer’s Rise for pace. Randie Creamer offered great tips on how to make Mr. Ruins more readable without losing the sense of itself. Bethany Graycat has been so supportive, offering huge props, pitching my books to friends, and always getting back to me with opinions realy quickly. Katy Page has been a huge help, sharing her thoughts and fiction with me in turn, inspiring me forward when I might be feeling down myself. Rob Nugen has tirelessly read everything and offered detailed notes whether I paid him or not.

Thank you to these folks, and to everyone else who has offered their thoughts and reviews in 2014. The help has been really valued. I’ve mentioned all the above folks proudly in the achknowledgements sections of my books. I hope I can show my gratitude for your help in other ways too- principally by writing great books that you want to read, that will keep you interested in sharing your opinions with me.

Summary

What a writing year. I got serious about self-publishing, and I put out 5 books. I’ve got two more in my pocket, that I’ve been working on for the last 2 months, which will come out Jan 2015. I’ve got a zombie novel, potentially series, in the works. I’ve hired for and made 10 book covers, had editors, proofreaders, and beta readers go over my stuff, spent money and made money, refined my writing and my promotional style, and am super excited about the opportunities going forward.

2015

I aim to out at least 6 books next year. I’ve got 2 mostly done already, so maybe I’ll make that goal 8 books, with 6 all-new novels.

I’ll try to get into the black across my writing business. If I can do that, then I’ll have no qualms reinvesting whatever profits I have back into select promotional ads. If I can get on an in-the-black roll, who knows where things could go? That is of course the dream.

More content. More contact with readers, other writers, and if I can count myself so luck, fans.

I also want to get into reading and reviewing other indie books too. It’s a community, and I want to give back too. Not in the sense that I’d ever ‘trade’ reviews, but in the sense that I dedicate more of my reading time to other people trying to up and come like I am. Readers have a lot of power, and it’s only the decent thing to do, to try and wield my power as a reader for good :). Besides, reading indie books and discovering relatively unknown gems has got to be a bit like going to ruined places and taking photos, then sharing those impressions with others.

It’s all exploration. Bring on 2015!

And I didn’t even mention here that I moved country, got a job, got an MA, was best man at a wedding, went to 4 Michelin-star restaurants, and traveled in 4 new countries. I’ll get to that soon though 🙂

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