I’ve been thinking about my policy of giving away my fiction and how I could reconcile that with actually making a living from my writing someday. Turns out, you can’t give your product away and expect to stay in business or even thrive in business. Who knew? This year I’ve changed course a bit and re-trimmed my sails. What follows is the shop-talk about how I will operate in 2010.
As a writer, I’m someone who creates a product be it a short story or a novel. The one unique thing that I have to sell is my fiction. Nobody else can write my stories for me, I’m the sole producer of stories written by Ken McConnell. Nobody can write my stories in the same manner as me, for better or worse. Therefore, the product that I sell is original and can only come from me. I am the brand name of my fiction. If my name is on a story, you know that I wrote it. You don’t always know it will be good, but you know that it came from my mind, my imagination. If you like my stories, you have to come to me for them. There are no store-brand versions of my stories that you can get for cheap. There is only the original, brand-name fiction that I create.
But without knowing who I am, without anyone knowing my Brand of fiction, you can never find my books and I can never sell them to you. Heck, I can’t even give them away, if nobody knows who I am. When people talk about branding and platform, what they mean is, does anyone know who you are? If nobody knows I’m out here, writing these awesome stories, I will never have the opportunity to sell them.
My first mystery novel, Null_Pointer, has been on Scribd for half a year now. Scribd is a web site that showcases writing. Most of the content on Scribd is free. In that time, N_P has been looked at over eleven thousand times and downloaded nearly nine-hundred and fifty times. That’s a pretty large audience and it’s an indicator of how popular the novel was, for those who did not have to pay for it. To date, N_P has sold far less than a hundred physical and digital copies. That is about 5.9 percent of the total number of people who have read it for free. A complete and utter business failure. Right? Well, maybe not.
You can’t become well known as a writer, unless you write. Then you need a product to sell. The next thing you need is to get the word out that you have this really awesome book and that everyone needs to get it and read it. Just putting the novel out on the internet and then sitting back and waiting for the world to find you on their own, simply won’t work. You have no brand recognition. Nobody knows you are there. How do businesses let the world know they exist? They advertise. It is up to the new writer to advertise his book and his own name as a writer of books. Nobody else is going to do it for you. You have to push it on everyone you know and everyone you meet.
How do you make the world aware you exist? You get a website, you get connected to every social web site you can find and you start making it known that you have a book and that people who have read it, actually like it. For N_P, I put the entire novel on Scribd for free. I made up bookmarks and magnets and passed them out to everyone I met. I did book signings in my local book store. I did interviews with magazines and podcasters. I sent the actual book to anyone who would review it. I blogged about the book and I blogged about writing. I Twittered about the book and I sent digital copies to everyone I could think of who would enjoy reading it, especially to members of the Information Technology field, where the story is set.
Has any of that paid off? I have no idea. It’s only been half a year since it became available. I still hear from friends of people I know who have read the book and loved it. I sometimes get mentioned in a blog post by someone I don’t know. The sales have been very, very dismal. But I’m not the least bit concerned about it. Because I’m too busy turning out new products. I have three books coming out this year. One is a reissue of my first SF novel, the second is an EBook only anthology of my short stories and the third is a completely new SF novel. You can’t sell books unless you have new books to sell. Make new widgets before trying to sell more widgets. I’m also writing the second mystery book in the N_P series for publication in 2011.
Null_Pointer has a few fans, but nobody with a bigger platform than myself has picked up a bull horn and touted it. So I’m not sure there is much else I can do for it. I have plans to record it and put out as a free audio book. But finding the time to do that is proving very difficult. I will continue to send out free copies to tech people and I will try and market more to the mystery genre readers. But the single best thing I can do to increase sales is to write and publish the next mystery book and get it out there.
In the meantime, I have adjusted my plans for selling books. This is called an audible in football, where the quarterback changes up the play based on what he reads in the defense. So after seeing how my first and second novels did, I am altering my business plan a bit. I will no longer give new novels away for free. Everything I publish from here on out, is for profit. You will still be able to get free versions of my first two novels. I still believe the best way to get new readers is to let them sample your work first.
Here are my revised plans:
First novel should be available for free.
Subsequent novels for a price. Give away a chapter, charge for the whole book.
Short stories should be available for free.
Anthologies for a price.
Blog posts should be available for free.
Non-fiction books base on the blog posts for a price.
Jason Fried from 37Signals has said that most businesses really have two products, one you sell and a secondary one you may not be aware you have until you find a use for it. He says you should try and make a point to find that other product and sell it. He uses the sawmill as an example. Sawmills cut trees into wood and sell the wood. But they also make sawdust and that gets thrown away, until you realize that things can be made from the sawdust. In writing a novel your primary product is your story, but you may write many thousands of words about the story as you create your novel. You may write about something you learned about the craft of writing in a blog post. You may even write short stories using characters or situations from your novels. These are your secondary products. Find a way to use them and make money.
It is still my policy to give away my short stories. I can afford to do this, because nobody buys them and nobody knows who I am. If you read a short story of mine and then later decide to pick up my novel, that is a win. Like a Baker giving away free samples of his bread. But after I complete a pile of short stories and if they are any good, I can bind them up into a book and sell them as a anthology. All of the shorts are available free on the web, but some people prefer the convenience of having them all in one spot and in the form of an EBook or a paperback.
The same can be said about blog posts, although to this stage in my career, I don’t believe I have had much interesting to say about the business and craft of writing. But someday I will have enough posts and that will be the day I can put together a non-fiction book about what it took to be a fiction writer.
People are always looking for a quick buck and a fool proof way to become a working writer. But the truth is, it’s not that easy. Not everyone can do it and it takes more time than most people want to put into it. I expect that at some point down the line, probably five to ten years from now, I will gain an audience for my writing and my name will have sufficient brand recognition that I will be able to write for a living. Until that time, I will be plugging away, writing and learning and experimenting. Because when it gets right down to it, that’s what I love to do.