Tag Archives: writer’s journey

Getting Work- and Other Forms of Happiness

I wanted to limit posting on this topic, partly because I’ve been so unsure, partly because I was always hoping, and partly because I kept expecting the news to be about something other than creating cool fantasy tales. You know, something with put-on-a-tie and make-a-plane-reservation in it, and maybe a lot to do with building a spreadsheet, and then later on getting paid. That kind of work, the kind I’d been doing since the twentieth century before this past February.

Long and short– I became “displaced” as they say, a person on the business-end of “right-sizing” a company. Twenty-two years and change is a good run in this day and age. But as they say sixty is the new forty, so I looked over at my lovely wife and miracle daughter, and just behind them the two mortgages, the broken heating system and all six of our cats, and I thought the same thing Donkey thought at the end of Shrek 2:

“I gotta’ get a job!”

Editing and Writing, Those are Jobs

I applied in areas where I thought I could make a contribution. And I found that lots of people need technical writers, but they need them to have remarkably specific experience that I did not have. And yes, consultancies and government agencies and staffing firms and publishing houses all need editors. But they have them, see, and it’s just a guess but I’m getting the impression that once someone gets a gig as an editor, they keep it until they die.

And they don’t die very often.

At First, Keeping Busy

Looking for work is all electronic these days. The recruiting boards have boatloads of jobs you can’t do waiting for you in the Inbox practically every day. Applications take a few minutes, and if they have an assessment test, maybe another half hour twice a month. I was in a severance period, a great blessing, and I wanted to use the extra time profitably, at least to stave off boredom and the sense that I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I wrote a novel this past spring, and kept on narrating audio-books for marvelous colleagues like Gilbert M. Stack and M.R. Mathias.

I never thought of it as a job. It was too much fun.

But the summer burned off and the number of books I had narrated piled up and slowly I began to unravel that little knot in my head– the one that keeps me stupid– by asking “do I have the right to be happy in my work?”

I honestly can only think of one job that I was aware of being unhappy doing, and that was working for my Dad. Long story but every other job I’ve ever done seemed just fine to me. I liked the people, I liked the challenge, and I certainly loved getting paid.

But Narrating Was REALLY Fun

And It Was Starting to Make Money

So I kept looking for “real” work and I set myself the goal of winning an “upfront” narrating gig.

Audio-books Get Made on One of Two Business Models

{Yes there are others these days, but don’t interrupt:}

Royalty Share- the author hires you and pays you nothing. You finish the work and he still pays you nothing. The A-book goes out and starts to sell and THEN a) the distributor takes a cut, and b) you and the author split the rest. (This is sometimes referred to as passive income.)

Per-Finished-Hour (PFH)- the author hires you and pays you nothing. You finish the work and THEN he pays you based on an hourly rate for the length of the finished product. The A-book goes out and starts to sell and THEN a) the distributor takes a cut, and b) the author gets the rest. (You’ve already been paid, calm down.)

(Or narrate yourself and get paid twice!)

Royalty share is great for independent authors and those who haven’t “made it” yet, especially those who don’t know how well the book will do. Established authors or those with a bit of money, who know their book should sell XXX or X,XXX copies should want to pay the narrator up front, just like the cover artist and the editor, because then they reap the reward after that. Danielle Steel would be a fool to pay royalty share on her next sure-to-be-blockbuster. But if she did, narrators like me would probably commit murder to win the audition.

Bills to Pay- Cats and Mortgages

For a narrator, royalty share is nice because you just go on with your life and the money shows up like a bonus. I’m getting what I’d call “cat food money” from the titles I’ve narrated now. And with a half-dozen indoor cats who love people and food, maybe in that order maybe not, the amount represented by “cat food money” is not insignificant.

But you can’t budget against major expenses that way. You don’t know what to expect.

Now to get PFH on a steady basis, if I could achieve such high demand from up-front-paying authors that I virtually had my calendar blocked out full-time… THAT could pay the mortgage. One of them, anyway. I’ve kicked back and done all the math.

Full-length fantasy novel ~15 hours of finished audio (let’s just say)

Narrator on PFH Model e.g. $200/hour

Record-Retain Rate ~90%– that’s my estimate of how much out of each hour of recording time survives into the final product. It’s a pretty good rate- I throw out a few bad takes in each chapter, couple stumbles with accompanying curse words, or I have to go back and punch in a paragraph because somebody flushed the toilet and that comes over PERFECTLY of course (epic fantasy books almost never describe the hero in a garderobe, unfortunately. I did once!).

Record-Production Ratio ~3:1– i.e. it takes me around 3 hours of cutting, trimming, noise reduction and locating/implementing sound effects to “finish” each hour of good recording.

Bottom line, I could probably produce about 15 hours of finished audio, maybe a full-length fantasy novel, each week if I did it full time (recording each day for 2 hours and editing for around 6 more).

I would be able to pay the mortgage. Probably both of them.

And I’d be IN HEAVEN. Are you kidding me, narrating A-books for a living?

But there’s no point hoping about it unless I at least get started.

Which brings me to my announcement.

I’m a Contracted A-Book Narrator

Around the end of November I was invited by Findaway Voices to participate in a competitive audition for an A-book; there were five of us altogether. I sent in my sample, five minutes of reading from a portion of the book. I’ve auditioned two or three dozen times for A-books over on Audible, without success so far.

This time, I got great news. I am preparing now to start narrating Team Newb by M. Helbig. It’s a marvelous tale in the LitRPG vein, that whole playing-a-cool-game-WHOOPS-now-I’m-IN-the-game thing. It’s got humor and obviously that game-feel, and terrific rankings. It’s an official contract, it’s PFH and it’s signed. The book should be done in late January and appearing at retailers shortly after that.

I’ll post more about the book itself later over on the Media of Mien, but for now I just wanted to reflect on a sign of hope, coming to me at this time of year and after such a long time of trying and searching. I am deeply grateful, and need I add STOKED.

I still don’t know if I can grow this into any part of a living. But I have the chance to prove myself now, to a new audience for an author who never heard of me before he heard my voice. And did I mention one of the best parts? The sub-title of the book contains the two magic words any narrator hungers to hear:

“Book One”

So if anyone needs me during the day I’ll be at my desk as usual, looking for a job and sometimes with the headphones on. But early mornings I’ll be in the studio, recording a Fantasy RPG epic and loving every minute of it.

The blessings of the season to all who read this. May your work bring you happiness, even as it quickly feeds the cats and slowly retires the mortgage.

 

B(u)y the Cover: Two Things to Judge

This is the second half of my library-series redaction on the importance of having a good cover for your genre fiction book. As indies, we have a lot of control–read that as responsibility– over many aspects of the soup-to-nuts production of our tales. Don’t shy away from working on the cover just as hard as you did on the mystery reveal or that incredibly cool plot twist halfway through. Give the reader a powerful image, to help them get there.

Send a Message

Last post I put up two covers by authors I know and who I think did at least a fair job. Don’t bother to click back, here’s the first one again:

 Patrick Rockefeller writes a spooky, intellectual brand of horror that is really tight and effective. He hit a no-doubt home run with that image.

This is a horror story.

And that’s the first goal of your cover, to send a message.

About genre. Damn it, yes!

But, But, Unique!

Yes I know, your story crosses genre lines. It brilliantly bends all such staid distinctions drawn ages ago by stuffed shirts from Big Pub. Listen, I don’t doubt that, it wasn’t sarcasm (I use italics for sarcasm). EVERY story worth the read is going to tip-toe into other genres. Horror with a touch of romance, fantasy epics with mysteries to solve, spy novels where the gear starts to look sci-fi. As they say in court, the state stipulates to the facts in question.

And it doesn’t matter at all, my friends. Remember Africa?

Bookstore categories will not reflect your subtle genius. Customers, readers never answer this question with “I need my historical zombie romance to have a spice of the paranormal with a strong underlying theme of alternate genders, and preferably set in the third world”. (See? Sarcasm!)

Those readers do just what you do- they take all their fond memories of masterpieces they’ve read, the admiration for those specific, original moments and every ounce of their personal tastes in reading… and they head for the sign that says “Fantasy/Sci-Fi”. Or “Horror”, “Mystery” or one of the other aisle titles they’re used to seeing.

Messaging Helps the Reader TARGET You

Your cover needs to show them that center of gravity, the best place out of the whole store it belongs. Once you get them in the right area, THEN you can start to entice them to YOUR specific book. As long as you think you’re up against every title from the Bargain Bin to the reptile magazines, you have no shot.

Look at these images. They’re JUST IMAGES. But if they were the primary artwork on the cover of a book, one you found on the floor of the store, could you put them in the right section?

I won’t belabor the point with writing: if you want to give me blow-back, come at me in the comments. But I think it’s clear what I mean.

Sending the Signal Starts with Embracing a Genre

Don’t make selling this tale harder than it already is. The impact of Big Pub is never going away: they’ve put certain stereotypical images into the market and you can’t change that by running at them yelling “booga-boogah!” Study your “home” genre’s best selling covers and keep that closely in mind. You want to sprinkle in some of your book’s unique flavor? Sure, but realize you’re taking your chances. Save it for the blurb. Or better yet, Chapter Six.

A Professional Look: Is Truth-Telling More Important than Book-Selling?

If you’re reading this and asking yourself “who wouldn’t want to put a professional cover on their book?” I need you to go back and look at some of the examples in the previous article again.  So yes, a professional look is crucial though it’s not a guaranteed home-run. I have examples from my own history to use here, but first, let’s gaze once more on the work of Ms. Le Roux:

I think this is a marvelous cover, great execution, font, all the elements in a good place and also very attractive art work. Ms. Le Roux, a South African author, was disappointed with the initial sales results of this YA fiction piece, and was very much aware that she was asking for genre confusion because as she admits, “I don’t have a kickass girl or a brooding male on the cover.”

But it’s a GREAT cover! I asked her if the existence of Big Ben in London was important, and she replied not only that it was but that the rainbow is also precisely drawn from the tale. To my knowledge she is sticking to her guns- the next tale in the series moves to Paris and will have a picture of Notre Dame on the cover. All the best Sunee!

Because When is a Good Time to Show a Bad Cover?

Years ago, when Kindle was taking over the world and print was supposedly dead, some pundits quipped that you didn’t need a great cover because it was only a thumbnail online. And I listened to those people… But engage the brain a sec. Forget about just online e-book sales through Amazon, you want to go narrow that’s fine. But people can grow the screen- you do realize that, yes? And if you pursue the local marketing, what will the radio station put on their website to advertise your interview? What will the indie bookstore have on its posters to draw people in for your author day? Your photo, sure maybe. But if not your cover, then what, all of chapter 1!

Read This- If You Can

Here’s a cover I think illustrates the point very well.

It’s called… um, the title of the book is, ah… it’s Details of Deception, right by, um… it’s by…

See the point? Of course you don’t! Did this person deliberately decide it was a great idea to give us all vertigo just trying to see the first words? I mean, the genre is fairly clear- this is some kind of robbery/embezzlement/hoax thriller where there’s a shortage of honor and oversupply of thieves. But apparently there are no eye-charts because, hooey! That’s a trial.

BTW, imagine how much fun the thumbnail-size of this would be!

Don’t bother, here it is:

 

 

Looking Professional Takes… Wait, Let Me Think…

It’s in the name, people. Pro work involves spending. If you have the talent, great, then your money is time and that’s fine. Otherwise… find someone and get this job done.  As an indie author you will probably take on the writing (in fact, I assume you will be pretty good at it!). Editing? Lots of authors accept the responsibility to edit their own work, and I could go on another blog post just about that–don’t tempt me, I might. Formatting for publication, choosing platforms, arranging the business models, deciding to buy ads, using social media and a zillion other things to push your platform: all of these present you with a choice of DIY and Hire, with variations between.

But the cover– that’s one area I would say is close to non-negotiable. Maybe you’ve schmoozed an aspiring artist. Possibly you can swap services with your confidants. Perhaps you can find a royalty-free image that speaks to you. You could possibly get the software and learn to do it.

But you can’t let the reader wonder whether you’re telling a joke or not:

This cover sends a clear (enough) genre message. It’s paranormal romance. It might also be hilarious, and I rather hope it is. However…

When do two people ever stand like that? Is he going to propose? Or maybe start eating… or was there a crucial moment when she asked him to help find a blackhead.

The title font color? I mean, is it SUPPOSED to look like chewed-up fiance, is that part of the intent? Or is the idea just to make it harder for someone to read it, because you figure if they hold the book long enough they’ll buy it?

Finally, I’ll give you a quarter if the name Ms. Hart’s parents put on the birth certificate was spelled “Crymsyn”. Thanks to Nerine Dorman for pointing out the online treasure that is the Changeling Press for covers like this.

Telling the Truth, and Losing

But enough of laughing at other people’s mistakes, let’s get this blog back to where it belongs, humiliating me.

Like I said, I fell in with a bad crowd at first. I wanted to spend zero money on this new hobby, and I believed the know-it-alls of 2011 when they said I could. I arranged to swap beta-reading for cover art help with a colleague, but I retained full control of the idea for one of my first tales, The Ring and the Flag. In all its glory, here it is from 2011:

So wow, yeah, so many problems. It’s not formatted to the right proportions of a book (too square), the writing is all over the place. And worst of all it’s hard to read. The map looks faded. Here’s the bad news- that was intentional! The original is much crisper and has straight edges. I ASKED for the burn-marks and the smoky effect.

Because that’s the truth. There’s a precise moment in the tale when my hero has a vision of this map bursting into flames, representing a civil war that will rend the North Mark, unless his desperate mission succeeds. Which is cool, the truth is always cool.

It just doesn’t sell any books. But I was only thinking of e-books, and thumbnails, and nothing else back then. Because stupid.

There is Always Hope- For Your Cover

But then the unsinkable Katharina Gerlach sent me the greatest, most author-friendly one-page contract in the history of doing people favors. And as soon as I had signed it, she spilled her plans to redo the covers on my books. Which ones, I asked? Basically, all of them was the response. But let’s start with this one. Here’s how Kat punched up my cover in 2014:

Now that’s what I’m talking about, yeah? Clear contrast, better placement of various title phrases. Actually MORE words on the front. And now, notice the branding elements: this is the often-lost part of good cover design. The Lands of Hope logo in the upper right, the publisher’s imprint in the lower left. Nothing seems in the way, and the mysterious monster is also telling the truth for that’s another theme in the tale.

This is a very proper cover in my view- love to hear your thoughts. But I’m not done.

A few years ago I met online a nice lady named Erin Michelle Sky, who wanted to try doing marketing work for indie authors. She offered me a free marketing plan in return for honest feedback. Last things first, I loved the plan: and my publisher loved it even more. Erin observed that the books in the Shards of Light series were novellas, fairly short and less expensive. Also they are well paced with strong action elements reminiscent of playing a RPG. So, why not try to sell them in the gaming stores! And the cover could even reflect this, maybe a collectible card game look.

Great idea, my publisher cried. BTW, what’s a collectible card game? I gave her some pointers and she ran amok again. Take a gander at the THIRD iteration of my book:

Boom, baby! Now there’s a bit less of a mystery to the monster, but the cover art is the definition of “jumps out at you”. And note the branding elements, essentially suggesting that this is a playing card from M:tG or some such, yet puts all the important information out there.

One important aspect of branding as part of a professional cover design is that it can emphasize the series-look, which circles back to sending a message to the reader that here is a tale they can trust. The two feed each other in a virtuous cycle that drives more people laying down more coin to pick up more titles. That’s the idea. See what you think:

Two Things to Judge the Cover

In summary, the cover of your book deserves your time and your money, if anything does. It tells the first thousand words of your tale whether you like it or not: make sure you’re the author of those “words”. Because people make judgments on less.

Send a Message: Embrace the home genre of what you’ve written. Let the uniqueness and the category bending, the brilliant deconstruction and form-inversion be something they discover in the, you know, writing that comes later.

Look Professional: Or at least not like a collision between MS Paint and your refrigerator art. Not that your kids don’t draw really well, but I think you know what I mean. Use whatever you must to get it right. Including money.

Give me your thoughts! Link to your covers, critique mine, go for it.