One of the virtual community-building events about which I was most skeptical but which has ended up paying the greatest dividends for me has been online writing sessions.
I had heard about writing sprints and couldn’t imagine participating in them myself. How could writing in a group be any better than writing on one’s own? In fact, how could it not be worse, with the self-consciousness engendered by the group setting and the possibility of a competitive environment in which each writer bragged about their word count.
Then I interviewed Julie Duffy of StoryADay.org for The Indy Author Podcast and she mentioned that the Story A Day writers participated in online writing sprints. I was even more skeptical. Wouldn’t such an event combine the worse of an in-person session with the added downside of the awkwardness of online interaction?
However, I was curious, and not long after that, Julie opened a series of Story A Day online writing sprints to guest participants. I felt I couldn’t dismiss the technique without giving it a try.
I called in to a couple of Julie’s sessions … and it was great! The sessions began with a few minutes of socializing, then Julie would begin a series of timed writing sprints, during which participants’ microphones were muted, and in between which participants would share their progress, their challenges, and their support for their fellow writers.
For me the power of the sessions was that I was honor-bound not to step away from my work during the sprints to let the dogs out, put in a load of laundry, let the dogs in, make a cup of tea, let the dogs out … you get the picture. The fact that I had committed to the writing session kept me in my seat writing, and that commitment often extended beyond the session itself.
The fact that the session was online meant that a daily sprint was possible, whereas it would not have been feasible for me to travel to a physical location on that same schedule. It also enabled me to continue sprinting on my own without interruption, rather than having to travel home, during which time my mind would no doubt wander to other subjects.
I believe that one of the keys of Julie’s Story A Day sprints was that the participants knew each other from other interactions. I decided that I wanted to create my own writing sessions with people with whom I was already friends, and whose approach to their writing I knew to be similar to mine. I put the word out to my authors’ group and two members expressed interest. We have been holding daily writing sessions ever since.
I continue to enjoy the benefit I had experienced from the Story A Day sprints, which was that at a specified time each day—for us, it was 2:00 p.m.—I have to stop whatever else I am doing, open my work in progress, and work on it in a concentrated manner at least through the end of the session. This has been a tremendous help because before we instituted the sessions, I tended to get bogged down in marketing, promotion, and administrative work, and didn’t have a trigger to extract myself from it to focus my attention on my writing.
The added benefit with my own group was that our familiarity with each other enabled the sessions to function not only as writing sprints, but also as opportunities for plot brainstorming, career counseling, or general moral support.
Even if you are skeptical, as I was, I strongly recommend you give the online writing session a try. I’ve provided below some practices which have worked well for the group I participate in.
There are three roles that come into play for writing sessions: moderator, facilitator, and participant. Depending on the formality or informality of the group, these could be quite structured roles or more fluid, with one person sharing more than one role or multiple people sharing one role. Adapt as makes sense for your situation.
The moderator, perhaps the founder of the group, establishes the schedule for the sessions, the tool to be used, the goals of the sessions, and the ground rules to be observed. They or the facilitator will also sends out the invitations or post the sessions on a calendar, depending on the group’s scheduling approach.
The facilitator is responsible for managing a specific session. He or she greets participants as they arrive in the virtual room, provide technical assistance during the sprint if needed, manage any socializing within the established ground rules, time the sprints, and remind people to mute as necessary (or mute them him- or herself if the tool and ground rules allow).
The participants are responsible for complying with the ground rules and not monopolizing conversation during the pre-, intra-, and post-sprint chats.
Ground Rules & Logistics
Here are some ideas for ground rules and logistics that will smooth the way for successful writing sessions:
If you are establishing / moderating a new group, you have the benefit of being able to choose the participants.
Although I’m generally a believer in the benefits of casting one’s net wide in cultivating relationships in the writing and publishing communities, for writing sprints I believe that commonality among participants is helpful.
I recommend Zoom; it is becoming ubiquitous, it’s easier for host and participants to manage than Skype, and as of this writing a free account gives you unlimited time with one other participant and a forty minute limit with multiple participants. (Since my writing sessions generally last longer than forty minutes, I just spin up another Zoom session.)
If rather than forming a new group you are considering joining an existing group, ask about their goals, ground rules, and logistics ahead of time and assess them once you’re in a session. If the group isn’t right for you, don’t feel bad about letting the facilitator know that it just isn’t a good match and looking elsewhere. Invest the time to find a group that is a good fit; I believe you'll benefit from the practice.
Thank you to Julie Duffy of StoryADay.org for introducing me to the concept of the online writing sprint, and thank you to authors Jane Kelly and Lisa Regan for being my daily online sprinting partners.
One disconcerting thing about ACX is that, unlike with print or ebook, the author has no control over the price of the product. In general, audiobooks on Audible are priced based on length—for example, a book less than one hour is generally priced at less than $7, a book over 20 hours is generally priced at $25-$35. However, this is a guideline only, and “Audible retains the sole discretion to set the price of the audiobooks it sells.” (https://www.acx.com/help/what-s-the-deal/200497690)
In addition, there are a couple of ways an audiobook customer can purchase your book beyond the a la carte option described above. One is via credits if he or she is an Audible member. This results in a lower cost for the book and, I believe, a lower resulting royalty. Another way a customer can purchase an audiobook on certain eligible books is via Whispersync, meaning that a customer who has a Kindle version of the book can purchase the audiobook for a deeply discounted price. (See my April 9, 2016 blog post "Audiobooks - Part 2 - Picking a Platform" for more information.) In its “What’s the Deal?” write-up, ACX says, “The royalty you earn <on Whispersync sales> will be the royalty rate based on your contract times the Whispersync upgrade price.” I gather this to mean that both sales to a customer using Audible membership credits and sales to customers eligible for the Whispersync discount will result a lower price and thus a lower royalty.
Audible doesn’t control how iTunes prices a book, but will pay a royalty as if the sale were an Audible a la carte sale.
For an overview of ACX royalties, I’m going to rely on this clear and concise description provided by the Author Marketing Institute:
… there are different potential royalty splits depending on how you created your audiobook. If you selected Pay for Production by paying up front for your book, then you’ll have a 60/40 royalty split. Audible will receive 60 percent of each sale, while you collect 40 percent. You must choose to be exclusive to Audible for seven years to get the 40 percent royalty, which drops to 25 percent if you go non-exclusive. …
If you’ve used the Royalty Share option to get your book produced, then you’ll split the 40 percent royalties in half. Audible will take 60 percent of exclusive books, your narrator will take 20 percent, and you’ll get the remaining 20 percent. Non-exclusive contracts are not available through Royalty Share. All contracts with ACX are for seven years. If you sign the exclusive contract, you won’t be able to sell your audiobook on any other platforms for at least seven years.
I used the Royalty Share option for The Sense of Death and the Pay for Production option for The Sense of Reckoning, and have pros and cons for each that I will share in my next blog post!
In my last post, I discussed how you can Maximize Your Reach by adding audio in addition to print and ebooks formats in order to cover all the ways that your audience may want to consume your content. In this post, I'll discuss picking a platform.
This was actually a pretty easy decision for me. As in so many areas of independent publishing, Amazon is the leader through their Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). Amazon owns Audible and has more than 90% of audiobook market, so the reach is great. And from an indy publisher point of view, using an Amazon platform offers desirable benefits in terms of links with the print and ebook versions. For example, here is the Amazon product detail page for The Sense of Death showing all three format options—print, ebook, and audio:
In addition to displaying all the formats together, you can see that Amazon also gives customers who click on the Audible option easy access to the reviews posted by readers of other formats.
Another cool feature of using ACX / Audible / Amazon is Whispersync:
Whispersync is a program that allows readers who enjoy both ebooks and audiobooks to sync up their reading experience when they purchase both versions. These readers get a significant discount on the audiobook when they buy the Kindle edition first or they already own it. The discount can be over 80 percent when they want to buy both.
The jury is out over whether Whispersync is a positive or negative feature for authors. On the positive side, you’ll likely sell more copies of your audiobooks and fans can get immersed deeper into your world. On the negative side, 40 percent (or 20 percent on a Royalty Share deal) of $1.99, isn’t all that exciting to see on your monthly royalty statement.
I’m definitely willing to sacrifice some royalty money to build a more engaged audience, so Whispersync was a draw for me.
ACX is such an overwhelming presence in the industry that it’s difficult to find information on alternatives, but here is an article by Jane Friedman on CD Baby:
I was quickly sold on using ACX—my next area of investigation was pricing and royalties. Stay tuned!
When I published my first novel, The Sense of Death, in print and ebook formats, I thought I had all my bases covered. Then my mentor, Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, encouraged me to consider audio, and I discovered a whole new way to Maximize My Reach to my potential audience!
(My three guiding principles of independent publishing are Focus Your Goals and Efforts, Professionalize Your Product and Presentation, and Maximize Your Reach and Exposure.)
When I began considering audio for my own book, I thought I should first familiarize myself with the current state of audiobook listening—it had been a long time since my Books on Tape days, back when they really were on tape. I got an Audible membership and began using my credits to download books. I listened on my way to work and realized one of the great benefits of audiobooks—fitting more book consumption into an already packed day.
One of my favorites was The Martian; Andy Weir’s very funny writing is supported by R. C. Bray’s equally funny narration. I’m glad I listened to the book rather than reading it because I would have been tempted to skip over some of the more technical sections that turned out to be integral to the story. (It also made me appreciate the art of effectively-used profanity—maybe I should add more swearing to my third book!)
A less well known but equally fun listen was James Hynes’ Kings of Infinite Space, a story that manages to be both amusing and creepy, bolstered by a fantastic narration by Adam Grupper.
Becoming an audiobook listener made me enthusiastic about pursuing that platform and set me up for the next steps of audiobook production—picking the platform I would use. Stay tuned!
I was in the middle of Tom Harper’s Zodiac Station, a thriller set at a research station in the Arctic, when The Blizzard of 2016 hit Chester County, Pennsylvania. What better time to be reading a book with scenes like this?
The wind roared like it was sucking the life off of the planet. Damn near carried us away before we got down the steps. Ice crystals peppered my goggles. I thought I’d covered up pretty good, but the wind cut through cracks I didn’t know I’d left. Fine snow filled the inside of my goggles and froze my eyeballs.
I thought I’d post a recommendation for Zodiac Station and went to Amazon to get a link.
I was shocked to see that the Kindle version was $10.99, not much less than the paperback at $13.59. (I had gotten it for $1.99 through some now-expired promotion.) I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it at that price.
I thought about dropping a note to Mr. Harper letting him know that I would be happy to recommend his book (as I have other books on my Matty Recommends page) if he dropped the price to be more in line with the competition. Even Dan Brown and Michael Crichton’s ebooks, to which Amazon compares Zodiac Station, don’t cost that much.
Then I saw this note next to the price: “This price was set by the publisher” (HarperCollins).
What could be more frustrating than knowing that you're likely losing potential readers because your publisher chose to price your book way above market norms?
One of the benefits of independent publishing is the ability to determine what price you want to charge for your book. For example, I’m thinking of pricing my ebooks in India at 99 rupees (about $1.50 USD). That’s significantly lower than a straight currency conversion, but some industry experts recommend setting a low price in India as a means of getting known in a country where ebook sales are expected to rise dramatically.
The ability to set your own price for your books is a key to the principle Maximize Your Reach, one of the five guiding principles of independent publishing that I am developing as part of The Indy Author platform. To see the full list of guiding principles, sign up for my monthly email newletter here!
I just signed up for a promotion through The Fussy Librarian, which proved to be an eye-opening experience.
The Fussy Librarian has an interesting spin on the business of providing readers with book recommendations—readers can sign up to receive email notifications of ebooks based not only on genres of interest to them (à la BookBub), but also based on content preferences for language, violence, and sexual content, rated as None, Mild, or Extensive / Extreme.
Before you read further, if you’re a reader, think of a book you read recently and decide how you would assess the content based on these ratings; if you’re an author, consider one of your own books.
Based just on the terms None, Mild, and Extensive / Extreme, I filled out a form submitting The Sense of Death for consideration (it will be featured for $0.99 on 1/1/16!). Then I started questioning my responses. The assessment seemed so contextual—for example, an assessment of the level of violence will differ depending on whether one is using Arthur Conan Doyle or Thomas Harris as the point of comparison. So I wrote to the Fussy Librarian asking for guidance, and got this:
Extensive profanity. Frequent use of the f-word or any use of the c-word (either of them) or mother-******. R.
Mild profanity. Occasional use of hell, damn. The f-word once or twice. PG-13.
No profanity. G or PG.
So I had to change my rating from “Mild profanity” to “Extensive profanity” since I use the f-word 17 times in The Sense of Death. I’ve only ever gotten one complaint about the language in my books, and that was from a friend who, I think, was wishing I would be a little more lady-like in my language. (That said, it did take me a minute to figure out what the second c-word was.)
Explicit descriptions of violence. Reserved for deeply unsettling scenes, including scenes of torture, rape. or incest. Think “American Psycho,” "Hannibal," or most of Chuck Palahniuk’s work.
Extensive violence. If a character dies a violent death, it should get this rating. Suicides also merit this rating. R.
Mild violence. A little gunfire is okay (includes setting below). Fistfights, some gunfire. PG-13.
No violence. G or PG.
So I had to change my rating from “Mild violence” to “Extensive violence” since a character dies a violent death.
Explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Scenes that describe a couple having sex. All erotic romance automatically gets this rating. R or unrated.
Mild sexual content. Non-explicit scenes of sex are fine. Characters have sex but it’s off the page. PG-13.
No sexual content. Kissing and affection but nothing steamy. G or PG-13.
(I did wonder about them specifying that the Explicit rating applies to couples having sex. If it’s a threesome, does that somehow merit a different rating?)
I got to keep my rating at “Mild sexual content.” I once had a potential reader ask me if my book had a lot of sex in it. I told her, “Only one passing reference,” and she said, “Then I’m not interested.” Hoping I’m not discouraging any potential readers with that admission!
I thought the exercise was an interesting illustration of the different expectations a book’s author and its readers bring to a book! (Plus it made me think that The Fussy Librarian needed a “Moderate” rating between “Mild” and “Explicit / Extensive.” And that maybe there’s a space in the market for the Slovenly Hedonist site with a different rating scale!)
Did your assessment of your book’s ratings match up with The Fussy Librarian’s guidelines?
I recently participated in a writers group meeting that was attended mainly by traditionally published authors. One attendee mentioned that she had asked a self-published writer how she knew when a book was ready without the input of a publisher. The response was that she published when she felt she was sixty percent “done.”
Sixty percent?? That was horrifying, but I couldn’t come up with a way to express why.
Then I attended a charity event in Maine where one of the items being auctioned was a beautiful hand-built dory (that's David Rockefeller, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, admiring it). And I found the metaphor that expressed why sixty percent was unacceptable, and that encapsulated my own approach to writing: writing is a craft in both senses of the word, and the author owes it to the readers to send them off on their journey in a well-built, seaworthy vessel.
Then, in a serendipitous coincidence, a link to this video--“Artistry on the water: Wooden motorboats”—appeared on my Facebook feed. Does the boat-building metaphor hold up?
Sanding? Check. That’s every word I wrote and then had to strip away to allow each sentence to run smoothly.
Fastening? Absolutely. That’s ensuring that each chapter has a logical and solid place in the frame of the story, and links seamlessly to those on either side.
Varnishing? As they say in the video, many circumstances must align to ensure a high quality finish: not the least, a talented editor. (A gorgeous sheen can be most elusive without a second pair of eyes on the craft.)
That sounds like more than sixty percent to me.
So did I end up with the nautical Steinway that the “Artistry on the water” video rhapsodizes about? I think my books are more like the pleasing and trusty dory that earned Mr. Rockefeller’s approval.
I feel that there’s a lot of value to plumb with this boat-building theme. To provide a platform to do so, I have established The Indy Author Facebook page to engage with you--please Follow me on this voyage!
Whether you are an author, creating the craft, or a reader, making a voyage in it, does the boat analogy ring true for you? Please post your thoughts at The Indy Author!