12 for ’12: Writing a Dozen Books a Year

Matt Forbeck is an award-winning game designer and freelance writer living in Wisconsin.  In addition to being one of the nicest guys in the business–in any business–Forbeck sets a new standard for diversification.  He’s designed collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures games, board games, and logic systems for toys and has directed voice-over work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, screenplays, and computer game scripts and stories.

Last spring, I had this crazy idea that I could write a dozen novels in a year. I spent much of my summer chatting with friends about it and hoping that one of them would do the right thing and talk me down from that ledge. Instead, as I explained it in greater detail, they lined up to either encourage me to jump or to push me off.

Maybe they just wanted to watch the show, which was guaranteed to be a fantastic stunt or a total car wreck, complete with blazing tires flying into the helpless crowd. Either way, it worked.

I’m a fast writer, and I’ve been at it full-time for a long time: twenty-three years this summer. When I’m on a writing roll, I can knock out 5,000 words in a day without too much sweat. Tackling a novel the size of a National Novel Writing Month book — about 50,000 words — then should only take me about 10 days, right? That’s short compared to most novels these days, which often clock in around 80,000 to 100,000 words, but it still qualifies as a novel by just about any major award committee, for which the cutoff is usually 40,000 words.

So, technically I could do it. The trouble was I couldn’t afford to just take off a year to write a dozen books, as much fun as that might sound. I’m the father of five kids, including a set of quadruplets, and my wife’s salary as a school social worker alone can’t cover our bills. It seemed my insane dream might be grounded on account of finances, but then Kickstarter came along.

Kickstarter is a popular crowdfunding platform on which creators can post a pitch for a project and ask for pledges. If you hit your goal, you set to work. Otherwise, everyone gets to walk away, no harm done. I’d seen a couple friends have big hits there with their roleplaying game projects, so I thought I’d give it a try with the first trilogy of books for my 12 for ’12 project: Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World, based on an RPG I wrote back in 1999.

We beat the goal and raised over $13,000, and I set to work. A couple months later, I launched a second Kickstarter for a new trilogy of fantasy noir books I wanted to write, set in a world I call Shotguns & Sorcery. That raised almost $13,000 too.

This week, I launched the third Kickstarter in the series, this one for a trilogy of thrillers called Dangerous Games, set at Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in this hemisphere. Will it fly too? I’ll let you know in about a month.

The real question, of course, is how the writing went. I managed to complete the first three novels on time, but then fell ill for a week at the end of April. (Having all these school-age kids around provides lots of disease vectors.) That bumped me wrapping up that novel into the start of May. Still, I got it done and had time to move on to my next novel — which is actually a full-sized tie-in based on the Leverage TV show that I’m still hoping to finish this month.

Meanwhile, I revised the first novel and got the ebook out to my backers in April. That means I took a novel from an outline to a published book in under four months. The others are underway as well, and I just this week released the first ebook — Brave New World: Revolution — to the general public too. So far, I’m thrilled with the results.

Note that I’m self-publishing the books. No publisher would touch a plan like this. It’s too crazy, it involves too many books from a single writer, and it would be impossible for them to release the books so fast. That’s why I had to do it myself.

Of course, I wanted to do it myself. I’ve been eyeing self-publishing for a while now, having been a game publisher myself back in the late ‘90s. I’ve seen a number of my author friends do well at it, but mostly because they were able to bring old titles back into print.

I’ve had 16 novels published before this, but 13 of them were tie-ins for things like Dungeons & Dragons and Guild Wars, which meant the rights to those books would never revert to me. The only way I could build up a critical mass of titles to publish myself would be to write them, and I didn’t want to have to wait for the years that might take to pull off.

So I decided that this would be the year instead. So far, so good.

Do I Have to Have a Facetwibblogger+ Page?

Jim C. Hines is the author of the forthcoming Libriomancer, about a magic-wielding librarian, flaming spider, motorcycle-riding dryad, and other miscellaneous fun. He’s written seven other books and more than forty published short stories. Jim hangs out at www.jimchines.com and other online sites, but occasionally pokes his head back into the real world. (Mostly for the ice cream.)

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably encountered the common wisdom about social media. These days, in order to succeed, a writer has to have a website and a blog and a Twitter and a Facebook and a Tumblr and a Pinterest and a Google+ and a Goodreads, and if you don’t, you will plummet into obscurity, a forgotten FAILURE forever and ever!

Do me a favor. Since you’re already online, open up another window and do a search for Suzanne Collins’ blog. Nothing? Try searching for J. K. Rowling’s blog. Stephenie Meyer’s?

Wait, Meyer does have an update feed on her website … which mostly seems to be updates maintained primarily by someone else. Rowling has a Twitter feed, but it has only a handful of updates from the past few years. It seems like these authors have somehow managed to do all right for themselves without being active on all the social media. I could name more, but hopefully this is enough to make my point that you really can succeed as a writer without spending every free second updating various websites and feeds.

This might sound odd coming from someone who’s active on Facebook and Twitter, made a Tumblr feed for a goblin advice column, and spends a lot of time blogging. I do believe these things have helped to get my name out there, and have led to more people finding and reading my books. Social media can be a useful tool. But it’s not a requirement, and it’s not as easy as folks sometimes make it sound:

  1. Build your Facetwibblogger+ page.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Most of us can point to authors who have become online superstars, folks like Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi, who get tens of thousands of hits every day. Over on LiveJournal, authors like Catherynne Valente and Seanan McGuire have thousands of followers and routinely generate hundreds of comments.

The thing is, these people have spent years building their online presence. It takes a great deal of time and work, and none of them are doing it because they’re “supposed” to. Nor are they doing it just to promote their books. I’ve studied these authors and others to try to learn how to improve my own blog, and one of the things I noticed is that the most successful author-bloggers are those who, the majority of the time, aren’t talking about their own books at all.

Compare them to Author X, who joins all the sites because that’s what he’s supposed to do to promote his book. He posts reviews of his stuff, links to Amazon and other sites, and … nothing happens. Eventually, he gets frustrated and gives up. Virtual dust soon blankets the Twitter feed. His Facebook cover photo is a tumbleweed, his wall empty save for those Happy Birthday wishes from six months ago. Because, while most of us will tolerate the occasional ad or self-promo, very few of us want to tune in to watch a neverending infomercial.

I believe every author should have a website with their publications and a way to contact them. Beyond that, if you decide to build an online presence, do it because you want to. For me, I spend time online for the people. For the community and for the conversation. I hate playing salesman, and the last thing I want to do is spend my time and energy pushing books on people. I’d much rather geek out about Avengers or Doctor Who, or jump into a conversation about sexism in the genre.

You build a name by being interesting, not by hard-selling yourself and your work. People can and do succeed with a minimal online presence. If you choose to get active online, remember you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to share things that make you uncomfortable. You don’t have to do what That Other Author did – just because it worked for her doesn’t mean it would work for you. If it’s something you choose to do, then find the way you can enjoy it. The rest will follow in time.

(P.S. – I wrote this from the perspective of a “traditionally” published author. For someone who is self-publishing e-books, I do think it’s a lot harder to succeed without more of that online marketing presence. As always, everyone’s experience is different, and there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice.)

Happiness as a By-Product: An Interview with Jessa Crispin, Founder of Bookslut.com

Back in August of 2009, Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut.com (I wrote a comics column for them for a year) posted a short essay on The Smart Set about writing and the writing life that referenced Booklife, largely in a negative sense. This caused me quite a bit of anguish, to be honest. It’s one thing to get a negative review on a novel; it’s quite another to think, even for a second, that you might have written something actively harmful to people.

I intended Booklife as a helpful guide that combined advice on how to navigate your way through the myriad of potentially distracting and useless tools and opportunities provided by the internet with modern advice on a host of more personal issues related to writing and being a writer, based on 25 years of experience. Crispin saw it at least in part as potentially manipulative or cynical, and placed it in the context of the many new “get-rich-quick” books that detail how to do internet marketing and the like.

After a more careful examination of her essay, however, I came to the conclusion that a difference in defining terms like “contact” might be part of the problem–that, in fact, whether you were to call someone a “contact” or an “ally,” the same points applied: in all of your dealings with other people, whether about your work or generally, be a sincere human being.

Of course, there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers. Nor do I think Booklife is perfect–part of the point of the book is to continually test it, to not only use it but to also define yourself as a writer by what you disagree with in the text.

That said, I decided it would be interesting to interview Crispin about issues related to the modern writer’s life and Booklife. The results are great—rock-solid advice and insight.

At least one of her answers deserves special emphasis, since I think it’s becoming a major problem in the largely hierarchy-blind world of the internet: “I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.”

There’s also nothing in her answers that I would disagree with; indeed, there’s nothing in Booklife that would intentionally contradict the idea of focusing on the craft and art of fiction over the need to promote your work. Does that mean I won’t be making some changes in the second edition? Not at all, and one of those changes will be to add an introduction to the Public Booklife section that references Crispin’s Smart Set essay, and makes doubly or triply clear the context in which I am providing that information.

So, without further preamble, an interview with Jessa Crispin—with sincere thanks to her for doing the interview.

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E-Books and Issues of Entitlement

By now, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. That dispute and its resolution is important, but a larger issue has come to light: namely the sense of entitlement some readers have with regard to getting e-books dirt-cheap. Part and parcel of this attitude is a basic misunderstanding of the breakdown of costs associated with publishing a book.

For example, one of the biggest faux bits of logic I’ve been seeing is that “If the mass market paperback is $7.99, why can’t I get the e-book version from the get-go at that price?” Well, the fact is $7.99 for mass market paperbacks only works if you’re printing tons of books. It’s also important to note that many authors never get their books published in mass market format because the publishers rightly have estimated that based on hardcover and trade paperback sales, that particular book won’t sell enough copies in mass market. So they don’t reach the $7.99-a-book threshold, which includes the print-a-crapload-of-copies threshold.

Other examples show a basic misunderstanding of distribution, or of the fact that the actual physical printing of a book is a fraction of the cost of producing a book.

But what I find most inexplicable is the level of venom directed by some readers at publishers, and by extension writers, like some kind of scam is being perpetrated upon them. It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

What’s led to this sense of entitlement? Here are some possible factors, beyond the basic fact of there being lots of free content on the internet.

—The proliferation of free book downloads offered by publishers and writers.

—The constant attacks on copyright, and thus the overall idea of “ownership”, on highprofile blogging platforms and websites.

—General attacks on software limiting a user’s ability to copy an e-book, especially attacks that don’t do so in the context of respect for the creator’s wishes or need to make money from their work.

—Deep discount pricing of e-books by entities like Amazon to encourage the sale of e-books.

—Google’s book scanning project, which, under the guise of “fair use”, has made significant portions of hundreds of thousands of books available online with no regard for the rights of the writers of those books.

Have these factors led to this sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s also worth noting that we often cause problems for ourselves as authors by thoughtlessly adopting whatever hot new media idea pops up on the internet. In some cases, I think we begin to contribute to our own disenfranchisement in doing so.

If this sense of reader entitlement proves to be pervasive or becomes the norm, then writers will be in a tough position, and the only way to make money on e-books will be to retain the rights yourself and self-publish–meaning you will also have to become your own editor, your own typesetter, your own distributor, etc.

Although you can self-publish more easily today than in the past, it’s not going to help you that much unless you are a celebrity like Wil Wheaton, someone with an existing high-profile platform like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, someone who is already a bestselling author, or unless you are prepared to basically become your own publishing house (involving a series of skillsets that most people don’t have).

In such a scenario, if e-books do eventually dominate the marketplace and physical books have only a fraction of their current market share, it’s entirely possible that unless this situation resolves itself into a compromise whereby readers actually show respect for the creators of the stories they love that we will see one of the largest mass extinctions of published writers in the history of literature. They’ll still be writing–but they’ll be largely invisible, and also unable to even dream of writing full-time.

My feeling is that it won’t get that bad, but we as writers have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t–by educating readers and doing our part as writers to make sure that our actions don’t contribute to the problem.

(For the best series of posts on the subject, including the Amazon-Macmillan fracas, visit Jay Lake’s livejournal.)