What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You… Crazy.

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“Could have been better.” I’ve been enjoying a modest handful of ratings lately. But, here it is, the inevitable cruddy review. Sort of. I mean, it’s not a categorical thrashing. And at least there is a review. Because to endure merely a two-star rating, sans any explanation, would’ve cast me adrift. Here, I’m fortunate – yes, fortunate! – there’s a context. Anybody who reads this can review the review, as it were, for themselves and make an intelligent decision and not merely write TC off as worthless based on the stars. “The basic story was quite good.” And, “I would have liked the story to have continued….” How this reading experience translates into two-stars I’m not at all sure, but so be it.

Surname inked out to protect the innocent. Otherwise, there are several things that can result from this type of rating:

  • Sales in the U.K. are negatively impacted because this has thrust the average star rating into the realm of apparent mediocrity – that is, the generally positive review itself will be ignored.
  • Sales continue upon their modest trajectory as if nothing ever happened.
  • The social proof that reviews and ratings of any type tend to bestow can help drive more of them, hopefully much more convincingly positive.
  • It can rally tribe members to defend the book (it happens) and the “controversy” can drive sales.
  • Worst case, formerly tentative critics may smell blood and be inspired to pile on, shifting the average rating to overwhelmingly, fatally, poor.

All I can do is keep publishing. With only three widely varying ratings the jury is still out in the U.K. at least. In the USA, I’ve got five ratings at an average of 4.1. What about Goodreads? Four ratings, all five stars. Winning this reader over might happen if they spring for the second book. Or not. Authors who manage hundreds of mostly positive reviews that ultimately neutralize the negatives are fortunate. The goal, as I’ve said, is to achieve a legitimacy and relevance that transcends the type of early critique that cripples an otherwise worthy contribution to the genre. In other words, is the book good enough to be granted entry? Or must it be cast into oblivion by the threshold guardians as a failure and a misfire and something that hasn’t passed the test of authenticity? Ought I to quit and get out of the way?

I’m convinced there are two ways not to appreciate the mythology within TC. Namely, you can recognize, know, and understand it and just have the opinion that it doesn’t belong – you can argue that it doesn’t work as a novel, that it’s perhaps all affection and contrivance, that the execution fails. Or, you can fail to understand the imbedded mythology to being with, find it “confusing,” for instance, and your confusion itself “distracting” within the context of something you otherwise appreciate. I’m negotiating, after all, with unconscious energies to a large extent – attempting to evoke and invoke and activate and express. I’m writing in metaphorical terms while attempting to not get lost within the metaphors. Or to bore a reader with them. It’s a strength – mythology – in a novel that can lead directly, as with all things, into its weakness.

What is an example of a weakness of myth or mythology? The very metaphorical power that it unleashes. It can be overbearing. It can appropriate. It’s image based, after all, hence there is a risk when writing overtly self-aware mythology that it can’t get past itself; that the narrative doesn’t have any room to play out in text, on the page. Here I find myself writing the review of my own novel in a sense: that if it’s flawed, it will be flawed in this way. Besides the writing.

Hey, since publication, I have not had more than these handful of ratings and reviews and perhaps that’s telling: folks either get it and hate it and don’t feel inclined to waste their time criticizing it or they don’t get it and toss it aside, likewise uncompelled to put forth the effort of a rating or a review. This would be the worst case, the not-even-worth-complaining-about version of obscurity and oblivion. It’s got to at least inspire participation or you’ve nothing at all to continue to work with. If you cannot inspire critique perhaps you ought to be doing something else with your energies.

Here, it would have been worse if the reader argued that my subtext ruined an otherwise decent story, replete with examples and analysis. “Could have been better.” Well, how, exactly? In other words, folks ought to strive to provide a thoughtful, proper review versus an opinion. But a well-written review, one that contributes its own measure of creativity and insight, isn’t easy to write. I write them, believe me, I know.

And you cannot ask readers to professionalize their reviews in this way. As long as the thing isn’t abusive – and I imagine Amazon spends quite a bit of time managing this definition – one has to allow it. The system allows for all levels of mindfulness, so to say, and the lack thereof. It used to be on Amazon that you had to write something to get your rating posted. Not anymore. So, again, I’m glad to have a little context provided in this case – it rescues what would have been mere negativity.

Timing is everything, too. Very importantly, if this 2-star would’ve been the first and only form of feedback back in February or March of 2020, say, I would’ve been forced into a very different place. Perhaps a place of no return. I may never have sold another book and been done as an indie novelist before I even started. As it happens, I’ve just barely enough ratings and the nice review, arguably of course, to support sticking with the experiment. Sales limp along but they nevertheless limp along. Compared to the millions of books that aren’t selling at all. In short, I’ve achieved the bare minimum amount of evidence that enough people are interested to keep me motivated to keep going.

Motivation goes hand in hand with the economics. Or rather the resources. Statistically, it’s a money loser to write novels and always will be. I have to be prepared, that is, to complete the entire TCT series (and even more episodes after that) on the family dime. At a loss. A significant loss. I’ve talked about the hard numbers in previous posts. My Amazon advertising bills arrive every month and between the US and UK I’m spending something like $700/month. Tack on Australia, Canada, Germany and France (all exponentially less expensive) and it doesn’t take a genius, as they say, to understand that I’m losing my ass. My advertising cost of sales, the so-called ACOS, sucks.

What to do but tough it out? I allowed my US campaign to tap out a handful of times last month, for a day or two but then guilted myself into upping my budget because I convinced myself that if I’m not going to continue to advertise the book then I may as well quit writing books. Here I’d not had an ad click-through in the US for a month or more (I had sales but they were not directly linked to the ad campaign) so I was losing heart along with the money. I started feeling foolish. But then when I’d boosted the budget, sure enough, the last day of the damn month, an ad click-through and a paperback sale in the US. A sale that never would’ve happened had the ad not been live.

So, it’s that simple: if you are not an author who has achieved a level of public consciousness or awareness, let’s call it, so that your name sells itself and enough readers across the globe are searching out your work, then you’re skirting the edge of oblivion like me and depending upon every possible means to stay visible and viable. You must literally pay to play. There is no way around it. In fact, the first thing I would advise somebody to do who is considering becoming an indie novelist is surrender to the idea of spending $15,000 or more in your first year of getting your authorpreneurial business established. It may cost me less this second time around but frankly, not much less.

Why does it cost so much? There are the production costs, of course, which I’ve discussed at length in other posts: professional editing, professional book cover design, professional interior formatting, professional audiobook narrator. Then, the incidentals like buying ISBNs and gratis copies – the little things that add up to big things. Finally, the marketing costs. Which never end.

The marketing never ends? Huh? Well, and this the second thing a new authorpreneur must surrender to: nobody gives a shit about your book. Not even your mother. You can read a version of this assessment just about anywhere folks are blogging about publishing. It’s crazy because this fact of life runs utterly counter to our intuition as writers and readers. Starting out, I had the impression, crazily, that folks are clamoring for the next new novel and new author and if you’re good, they’ll gobble up your work. The painful, very harsh reality is that nobody cares. Because they don’t have to.

We forget that there is more than enough – exponentially more than enough – to read in a lifetime as it is. It’s not that your new novel is a drop in the bucket. At something like 5 million English language novels available, your little effort is more akin to a drop in the ocean.

The numbers begin to make the whole enterprise of writing and trying to get read seem like an exercise not so much in futility as f*cking lunacy. Recalling the arguable data claiming that “most novels don’t sell more than a hundred copies” the 30 copies/day required to establish yourself as an authorpreneur in the eyes, say, of ALLi, seems an impossible aspiration. And it mostly is. The success stories you read about are statistical outliers. Which is to say they essentially don’t count. Your life, my life, as an indie author is nothing like having a paying a job as an author. No. The long game, as it’s called, doesn’t begin to describe it. Really, it’s no game at all.

Nevertheless, we play at it. With an audiobook sale yesterday (in the USA, yay!) TC1 is at 128 sales after fifteen months in publication. And all the money spent. And I feel in many ways very fortunate to have achieved what most folks may consider an otherwise pitiful number. That’s almost zero, they might say. And sometimes it feels like it, believe me. But those 128 sales are hard won. That is to say, I am not one who sold fifty or more copies to friends and family, for instance. No. My sales are to the public. And at this point I’m averaging something like two sales per week. It adds up. Not as profit. Rather, as tribe. Readership. The fraction of folks who have bought the book and liked it, they are gold to me.

What am I saying? That 128 sales is both psychologically and statistically so far from zero that I can’t begin to explain it. And that TC1 is, for the past several months, selling two copies/week is the most important statistic of all. Because that means it’s active. The audiobook moved up 303,000 spots in sales rank with just a single sale. It hadn’t sold in the USA for five months. (Of late, it was doing better in the UK). Likewise, when I sell a single paperback or an eBook in a day, the novel’s ranking makes a 1.5M leap. From what I can tell looking at the Amazon numbers, if you’ve sold a book within six months or so, you’re bottoming out at the 3M mark – at least that’s as far as TC1 seems to fall even on a bad couple of weeks. Well, what about the other 2M books that are below that? How many copies are they selling? One or two a year, perhaps, or more likely, zero. My Amazon case laminate version of TC1 which has sold a single copy since its introduction a couple of months ago is ranked at 5M+, that’s very near the bottom.

Here’s are my lifetime Amazon sales charts for the format of TC1 that has sold the most copies, namely, the paperback in the USA and UK, respectively:

I aspire to charts like this for a single day’s sales rather than sixteen months. But so be it. Again, this combined data shows at least one sale per month, every month since publication. Which remains my worst-case goal. That I’m doing much better than that, in relative terms, makes me feel blessed.

I always talk about Amazon because that’s where the overwhelming majority of my sales come from. They provide pay-per-click advertising opportunities and access to data that helps track my marketing efforts. Love them or hate them, it’s where the action is. As an indie author, I love them. Because everywhere else? Well, I checked Ingramspark yesterday for the first time in a few days and I find they’ve posted, surprise, three cloth hardcover sales for April, all in the USA! That’s great! Any cloth version will necessarily be manufactured and shipped by them. But the data shows one sale came via Amazon anyway – nobody buys TC1 from Barnes & Noble or a bookstore or anywhere else except perhaps on a handful of occasions. That’s the reality. That somebody somewhere in the USA – two readers – apparently purchased the cloth format somewhere besides Amazon is amazing. It never happens.

After all, it’s Amazon who routinely drops the price of the Ingram hardcover to less than the price of the paperback. Which is to say, Ingramspark never lowers the price. A sale price meanwhile understandably prompts a sale of that format. Amazon tracks a book’s sales timeline in this way and it helps. Meanwhile, with the onset of the sale of their own case laminate hardcovers, Amazon now buries the cloth version deeply within the “see all formats” section of the book’s page. You have to further click on a “down arrow” to see the cloth/Ingram version as available. Such is the nature of the beast. They prioritize their own product, I get it.

What’s the takeaway? That authorpreneurship is not glamorous. Rather, it is a cage fight for survival and legitimacy and relevance. Outside of what it takes to write a good enough book to begin with. One that nurtures an audience. A tribe. I swear I feel as if I’m always a desperate week or two away from never selling another book and getting trashed in the ratings and having to give it all up. Rejection and refusal of one’s boon. These are the risks, the trials to be overcome when you’re on the adventure. We authors require so very little to keep going, to be sure. But we nevertheless require something.

Rate and review books, then, especially books with few ratings and reviews. Because especially in the beginning of a book’s public life, it matters. Be enthusiastic. Be disappointed. Be honest. Be mindful, too. As an author I’m not asking for sugar coated feedback. But know that thoughtful feedback is priceless. Sometimes a rating is all that we have in us, the idea of writing a review seems a bridge too far, so to say, I get it. But reviews, bad or good, tend to humanize things by way of putting things in context. Sometimes I fire off a two-star rating and nothing else. Otherwise, “Could have been better.” Again, I get it. It’s tough out there. But professionals can take it. They have to. I’m a professional. Time Crime 2 is going to be published if it kills me. Perhaps it’ll help transform that 2-star into something more…, well, starry. Perhaps not. Either way, what doesn’t kill you makes you… crazy. Thanks to my reviewers and thanks to all my readers so very much for reading. It means everything.