Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Open Savannah: Amazon Is NOT Evil (Or "Want vs. Have")


Another day, another new series on the blog. Every Wednesday, we'll take a look at current news, trends, and events in the book industry in a feature we like to call "The Open Savannah." This week, we discuss all of the recent Chicken Littlery over Amazon's latest earnings report.

Last week, Amazon announced its latest round of quarterly earnings to much hand-wringing and consternation in the publishing world. Essentially, Amazon fell short of earnings projections by $30 million--obviously a ton of money, just not necessarily to Amazon--and posted a 2 cents per share loss as opposed to a projected 5 cents per share profit (the horror!).

And yet, Amazon's stock price jumped above $310 per share before settling down into the $306/share range.

A lot of folks in the publishing world seem to think that this is bald-faced evidence of predatory pricing by Amazon; after all, if Amazon isn't turning a profit, why are people buying their stock? It must be that they're planning on monopolizing everything, then really jacking up the prices, giving authors less of the sale price, and making everyone extremely unhappy in the process!

Uh...no.

Let me back up; in another life, I was an antitrust lawyer. Hard to believe, I know, but I used to deal with all kinds of FTC, DOJ, and even foreign antitrust merger clearance issues on a daily basis.

I say that just so you know that I have some idea of what I'm talking about when it comes to monopolies and all of that good bread-and-butter antitrust stuff.

One huge misconception is how difficult it is not only to run a predatory pricing scheme on a worldwide scale, but also how rare such schemes actually are. Back in the day, it might have been easy for Smith's General Store in Padooka, Kentucky, to lower prices to run Jones's General Store out of business and then jack up the prices on all of the goods: what exactly was the alternative for Padooka residents? Drive to Otherville? Hardly!

Hypothetically, let's just say Amazon is in a predatory pricing scheme; they aren't lowering prices for the benefit of consumers, but rather are doing so just to jack prices back up "someday," in the future.

Okay, what's the endgame then? 

I say that in all sincerity; I still haven't heard a viable answer.

Let's say that Amazon runs a bunch of companies out of business, as they may have already done (Circuit City and Borders say hi). Let's say Amazon chews through pretty much everyone in retail, if you're willing to go that far--again, this is just a thought experiment.

Amazon still has to contend with the likes of Wal-Mart, Target, and other stores that serve an important need: "I need this right now." And that's without thinking about global "sleeping giants" like Alibaba and the like, who can undercut Amazon to near-supply levels of pricing.

As much as I love Amazon Prime, there are still some things that I either need right now, or simply prefer to drive over to Target, Wal-Mart, or the grocery store to get due to convenience and immediacy; sometimes I can't wait the two days. I'm not a logistics master; I can't plan ahead for every purchase because quite simply there are things that I want at a given moment, and my wants are always shifting.

Amazon is constantly looking to decrease the time between "want" and "have;" they've started their Amazon Fresh program for groceries, and continue to build new fulfillment centers around the country. In fact, these expenditures were a large part of their reason for missing on earnings this past quarter; groceries need refrigerated warehouses, and a lot of them.

You know what doesn't need millions of square feet of warehouse space? Or cost but mere fractions of a penny per copy to maintain?

Ebooks.

I would argue that Amazon already enjoys very fat margins on ebooks; even on bargain bin $0.99 titles, after paying the $0.25 or so credit card transaction fee, if Amazon takes 70%, they still clear about $0.55 per copy, or 55% of the sale price, all but maybe a penny or two of digital "infrastructure" pure profit. The total amount per copy only goes up as prices rise.

Not only that, but in terms of digital sales, Amazon has an important distribution advantage; the time between "want" and "have" can be measured in fractions of a second. Though there is a potential inefficiency to be exploited by an enterprising company that can create a quick "open source" solution to delivering content to mobile devices of all types, currently loads of folks have Kindles and Kindle Apps, and Amazon can get them Kindle books in the blink of an eye.

The margins are already great and the time between "want" and "have" is ideal on digital sales, so assuming a monopoly, which would you rather do if you're Amazon: decrease the take that authors get, which (1) would piss off authors, (2) could cause authors and publishers to raise prices, which would alienate customers, and (3) cause a huge PR hit that might open the door to an enterprising new distributor;

OR

Try to sell even more digital goods on current terms and prices? This incentivizes content providers (in our case writers and publishers) to continue producing more content, which should keep people buying digital "goods."

That's another upside for Amazon; "goods" is in quotes because they aren't selling "goods" at all--rather they're selling limited licenses to access content. That means that theoretically, each person will have to buy their own copy, thus increasing potential profits down the road.

Maybe my glasses are a bit too rose-colored. Maybe I drank too much kool-aid delivered to me in a smiling Amazon Prime box. But from a competitive standpoint, it just doesn't make any business sense for Amazon to spend the resources to monopolize the market (dodging the FTC and DOJ all the while), drive competitors out of business, and then jack up prices. Far better to sell more of the high-margin goods you already have on current terms while expanding infrastructure to decrease the space between "want" and "have."
That is, until Amazon-branded 3D printers are available to produce any good one can think of at a moment's notice, thus utterly changing our concept of "commerce" and remaking our economy completely.

But that's for another post entirely...

What do you think? Amazon: friend or foe? I've heard arguments from the other side, but for the life of me, if you're a reader or writer, I'm not sure why you'd buy into them. Nevertheless, feel free to air your grievances in the comments.

Happy Hunting!

-D.J.
D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading Into the Numbers: Genres



Another new series on the blog is a feature we like to call "Reading Into the Numbers." With good reason, a lot of book retailers out there don't necessarily like to share their data with folks, for good reason; it's proprietary business information that gives them a leg up on their competitors.

However, here at Hunt to Read, we're all about the open and honest discussion of our book data, provided that we don't give away specific user information.

No, what we envision this feature being is a look at some of the trends in our data on our site that may give authors insights and ideas as to how better to use the site.

In the inaugural piece in the series, we're going to talk about genres. Genres can be both a boon and a bane to authors; like many of you, I dislike my work being "pidgeonholed" into seemingly random categories that may or may not perfectly correspond with my book's subject matter. (If only there were a way to not have this be the norm...Hmm...:))

At the same time, genres help readers as a shorthand for the types of books that they're looking for, and can help authors build their audience.

In the short month or so that Hunt to Read has been up, we've already compiled hundreds of books from our authors, and each book can be in up to three genres.

We thought that readers and listers alike might enjoy seeing how the genres currently break down on the site.

Interestingly, the top five genres make up a full 55% of the genre listings on the site!

Fantasy: 12%

Sci-Fi: 12%

Romance: 11%

Thriller: 11%

Action-Adventure: 10%

"Wait a minute--that adds up to 56%!" Yeah, that's the problem with rounding...

One genre that I think is almost criminally underrepresented is Horror; at the moment, it accounts for slightly less than 3% of all genre listings. If you authors or publishers have any Horror books you're sitting on, now would be the time to list them, as we slowly begin to bring readers to the site through our marketing efforts, and thus there's a little bit of a potential to become a "big fish in a small pond" as the site inequalities naturally balance out.

The same goes for a lot of the non-fiction categories; many of them are right around 1% of genre listings, if not below. It's a very ripe and enticing opportunity for those with non-fiction books in their collections to target interested readers.

Both Mystery and Young Adult are right around 5%, which we expect to see increase as the site gains more traction among authors.

One other thing for listers to keep in mind: we're nowhere near "capacity" as far as genre listings go. If you wrote a cross-genre, Sci-Fi/Action-Adventure/Humor thriller, why not put it in all three categories to increase the number of hunts you appear in? We obviously don't want people trying to "game the system" in that regard--I assure you, our readers will tell you if the cover isn't "genre appropriate" given the genre(s) your book(s) are in, but if multiple genres do apply, by all means, go nuts!

As you can see, with a young site such as Hunt to Read, there are plenty of opportunities to "get in on the ground floor," and leverage that opportunity to both improve your product and sell more books.
As readers, know that as you search for new books, these authors who are our early adopters care enough about their craft and books to put themselves out there. All we ask in return from you is for honest feedback in the form of ratings and comments, each of which help you rack up HTR Points and (eventually) unlock free books.

Any questions or notes? Feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading, and Happy Hunting!
-D.J.

D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Trail Guide to Hunt to Read: Basic Book Data Interpretation



Over the course of the last few weeks, it's been exhilarating to hear everyone's fantastic feedback about Hunt to Read and our analytics. By all means, please keep all of the comments and questions coming, no matter how "harsh" you might think them--each one helps us build a better site for authors and readers alike.

It got me to thinking: here we have this perfectly good blog sitting around. Yes, we tell you about all of the great new updates to the site, and sure we've given you a little bit of a look behind the curtain at "our analytics," but let's be honest--so far, it's been a lot of us tooting our own horn. "Look at HTR! Look how great we are!"


We decided it was high time that we started providing you all with a reason to visit the blog more regularly, which means providing value. It's something we're going to try to do by implementing a number of regular series, which should help you use the site, inform you about trends and changes in the book business, help authors peddle their wares a bit, and even give you some analytical insights based on the data we've collected to date.


To start things off, we're going to launch our "Trail Guide" series of posts. The Trail Guide is meant to be a tool to help readers and writers alike get the most out of their Hunt to Read experience. We'll give you tips on how to interpret data, shortcuts to better navigate the site, and some ideas for new things to try out.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, because the vast majority of site users at present are authors, we thought it would be prudent to do a post on how to interpret all of that delicious data we're providing.

Data is one of the most important sales tools an author or publisher has. Anonymous data of the type that Hunt to Read provides, can be used to get honest opinions from others on covers, blurbs, and overall book presentation.

If you don't know how to properly use this data, though, it's useless as a marketing tool. So we're going to go through quickly, number by number, and show you folks what all these powerful pieces of information can do for you.

Showed on Hunt Page: This tallies up the number of times people have seen the book on their "Hunt" page, scrolling through books.

Book Detail Page Hits: This isn't necessarily the same as "Click throughs," as users might favorite your book, or stumble upon your listing directly as opposed to finding your book through a hunt. So this is the aggregate number of times your book detail page was shown.

Average Hunt Time: The average amount of time someone spent on your book while in the "Hunt" page. Longer times here (upwards of a couple of seconds or so) may indicate an initial fascination with the book's cover, or at least some interest in your book.

Average Book Page Time: The amount of time that people spend on your book detail page, on average. Again, the higher this number is, the more they may be checking out your blurb, rating, commenting, etc. However, if you're getting low book page times but a lot of affiliate links, your book presentation is likely so good that people want to head to retailers directly to get it--congratulations!

Page Hits Per Day Graph: This shows the above information in graphical format for those who prefer a visual presentation.

Number of Click Throughs: This is the number of click throughs your book has received from the Hunt.

Click Through Rate: The percentage of people who click through to your book detail page from the Hunt. What we've seen thus far is that double digits is fantastic, 6-10% "pretty good," and 0-5% your cover, title, etc. might need some work to draw more readers in.

Comments: This shows the comments that other users have left on your book, complete with the number of HTR Points that they have so that you can gauge how heavy of a site user the person is. Comments can be upvoted or downvoted, gaining the commenter more points in the process.

Book Ratings and Graph: The number of ratings that your overall book presentation has received. The higher the "Average Rating," the better your presentation is. We also give you the number of total ratings so that you can account for a "small sample size" bias.

Cover Ratings: Same deal with the ratings for your cover. How many, how high, average, number, etc.

Description Ratings: Ditto for your book description.

Affiliate Links: The bread and butter: how many people clicked through from your book detail page to get to a retailer? Try to match this up with your sales data to see if there's been a spike. If you aren't selling any extra, consider the things on the retailer page specifically that might be impacting your sale; if you get consistently high cover, blurb, and presentation ratings, maybe you have bad reviews, or your "Look Inside" isn't as good as it could be. Take an objective look at this data, eliminate the knowns, and work on the unknowns.

Activity: This shows you the "click log" of activity on the site. You can see recent clicks on your books, and the approximate location of where they came from. Eventually, we want to collect this information into a map format so that you can get regional ratings of your book. This should eventually give you information on where to plan promotional outings and advertising opportunities. Folks don't care for your book in the south but it's a hit out west? Schedule more booksignings or conference visits out there.

In going through all of this data, you can see a few trends developing:

Isolate What You Can, Explore the Rest: We can give you a lot of data on a bunch of specific things that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the other big reatailers can't even give you; Amazon can give you the buying patterns of their customers going back to inception, but they can't tell you why customers bought your book outside of "it's linked in our algos to some other book."
We allow you to parse this information out, to see if you have a good cover and/or blurb, and then to eliminate that as a potential factor in lower sales. We plan on a lot more customization for power users in the future, but for now, those are two huge variables in the bookselling world.

Once you've either determined that those aren't the issue, and/or have fixed them up, then you can look at the other variables on a retailer's site to see if the "Look Inside," author bio, keywords, etc. need some work. We're working on exciting new ways to help you do all of that on HTR in the future, but for now, you can cut down the uncertainty of what's "wrong" with your book (or just what's "not as good") quite a bit.

You Can Test! Book not published yet? Book is published but you're thinking about putting up a new cover? What's to say that you can't test one book presentation against another on HTR and solicit feedback that way?

No one's stopping you; go ahead and create another version of your book. I did it with my novella, Rogue, when I changed the cover and blurb. I'll have more about this concept in a future post; we're working on some cool stuff here at Hunt to Read in this regard.

Actively Solicit Opinions: If you click on your User Name in the black menu bar, and then click "My Listed Books," you get to a list of your items on HTR. Click the "Manage" button next to any given book, and you can see the direct link to your listing on Hunt to Read.

We're working on making this link shorter and more manageable now, but you can direct fans, friends, family, etc. to visit your book link directly and give you honest, anonymous feedback on your various book marketing materials. Maybe your sister liked your book, but hated the cover--now she can tell you so without you being able to see so much as a user name, the only "identifying information" being the approximate location in the click log, which is good for pinning down regions, but not so good for specific cities, etc.
Experiment and Have Fun! When my Co-Founder, Rick Tucker, and I started Hunt to Read, we were hoping that people would start experimenting with the site organically. That's part of the reason (aside from our personal beliefs in free speech and expression) that we made so few rules for the site; want to A/B test? You don't need our permission!We're giving you extended free access to these powerful tools so that you can play around with them and use them in ways that we never dreamed of. We have a lot of ideas for ways to expand the anonymous data available on the site to authors and publishers, and means to use the already-existing suite of data, but there are a lot of ways to use these numbers that we haven't even thought of yet. Though we have a plan for the site, we're not fortune tellers by any means--we give you the tools to sell more books and some visibility, but it's up to you to use them!

Go ahead, play around with our analytics a bit--as long as it's legal, it's pretty much fair game on Hunt to Read (semi-literally).

Go out there and hit the trail! Happy hunting...

-D.J.

D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Introducing Hunt to Read Release 2!


Here at Hunt to Read, we're always working on ways to make our service bigger and better for users, both by enhancing the reader "hunt" experience, and by providing more services to authors and publishers who have chosen to list books on our site.

Sometimes, that means that we have to go into "mad scientist" mode. While I do apologize for the "radio silence" over the past week or so, it's not like we were sitting around, sipping cream sodas and watching Law & Order reruns all day.

No, we were able to fit in just a couple of improvements to the site during that period of time.

And, pardon my candor, but they are AWESOME.

We're proud to formally introduce Hunt to Read: Release 2!

My co-founder, Rick Tucker, and his tech team deserve a huge hand for implementing these big changes as quickly as possible, and really doing so in a way that is functional, intuitive, and really improves the site.

So What's New?

This might take a while. We're just now starting to get into some of the "cool new features to attract readers" (which will in turn help out our authors and publishers) that I've been promising for quite some time. Here is a list of the improvements made in this release, starting with one of our coolest innovations yet:

The Points System

If you log in and look at the black menu bar at the top of the screen, you'll see a new entry in the menu: "HTR Points." Anyone, including readers, authors, and publishers, may accumulate these points. Users get points for rating covers, blurbs, and book presentation, as well as making insightful comments that can continue to earn points depending on the number of up votes they get.

For now, you can earn a limited set of privileges with points, including the ability to upvote and downvote comments (for which you can receive more points), as mentioned above. In the future, we're going to offer things like greater customization for user pages, book discounts, free books (!) and even ways to make some cash if you accumulate enough points (!!).

While many of these features will find their way into Release 3, you can start accumulating points now, knowing that not only will their value increase in the future, but they can serve as an indicator of investment in the site and authority as a user--after all, the more points one has, the more they've used the site.

If you want to read about the program in greater detail, here's a link to our Points Information Page.

This is a very cool program that we're extremely excited about--like I said above, we already have a number of ideas for points in the future, but if you have any suggestions on ways that you'd like to see points used, or things for which points could be redeemed in the future, please don't hesitate to contact us at contact@hunttoread.com.

Improved Hunt Interface

This was more than a project for Rick; he was near-pathological with regard to integrating the user feedback we received about the Hunt with his own fantastic ideas. The result is a number of Hunt improvements, including:

-A Tracked Hunt: No more annoying repeats within the same Hunt! Each book appears once, then appears in the:

-Cool new header bar that keeps a list of the books you have hunted, in graphical format. When Rick showed off this function, my jaw dropped before I started laughing like a schoolchild with glee. Now you can see where you've been in the Hunt, scroll through, and select a book that you may have seen a dozen books back with ease. It really spruces up the site and improves the Hunt experience--I love it!

-The ability to bookmark favorite books: If a reader finds a book that they like, but don't feel like rating it or clicking through to a retailer at the moment, they can add it to the list of books in "My Bookmarks", available under the "User Name" tab in the black menu bar, for easy access no matter what device you use.

-Reshuffle feature once you reach the end of the Hunt: When you have gone through all of the books given the filter options you have implemented, you're offered the option of reshuffling the Hunt and going through it again, browsing that Hunt's history through the header bar of covers, or picking a new filter and starting a new Hunt.

User Account Pages

We have increased the functionality of our user account pages. You now can upload a custom picture, include a URL to link to your own site, write more about yourself, and see how many points a user has earned. Additionally, for users who have listed books on the site, we have provided a convenient table in the user profile with links to the other books listed by that user, so as to allow readers who like a user's work to discover more of it.

Like I said, we want to do much more with these in the future, but this is a great second step in user page functionality.

Adult Filter


This is probably going to be our most controversial change, one for which we even had to update our Terms of Service. First of all, I want to say that we here at Hunt to Read remain stridently committed to individuals' freedom of expression.

We are also proud to host a sizeable (and growing) number of erotica titles on our site. However, we understand that having these titles appear as a default part of the Hunt may adversely affect younger readers, folks at work, and even Erotica authors and publishers themselves, who may receive knee-jerk, judgmental feedback based on preexisting biases as opposed to the merits of a book's display for that genre.

Because of all of this, we have implemented an Adult Filter as a default on the site. There are two ways to get around this:

1) Simply set the genre filter to Hunt specifically for "Erotica." Because the reader makes the choice to do so, we assume the reader is in a place where they feel comfortable perusing those books, where they will take the time to offer honest feedback.
OR

2) You may disable the Adult Filter by clicking on your user name in the black menu bar at the top of the page, clicking on "My Account", and then click the button for "Off" next to "Adult Filter." This will allow Erotica books to display on the home page, as well as in the default Hunt.

Tech Updates

Additionally, we made a lot of technical updates that should improve the experience for all users. These include:

-Optimized the menu bar for larger displays

-Updated FAQs for Readers/Writers with info about Points system

-Books that are clicked through in the Hunt now open in a different tab, preserving your Hunt history

-Site architecture has been improved to load books faster

-Paginated a number of features for heavy users so that user pages load faster.

-Made site navigation easier and more intuitive

Marketing

With these improvements, we're planning on expanding our marketing efforts to include highly-targeted groups of readers! This addition to our strategy should start showing up in your analytics in the coming weeks.


We hope that you agree that all of our hard work over the past week-plus has been worth it. If you have any questions or comments, as always you can contact the Hunt to Read team quickly and easily at contact@hunttoread.com.

Also, thank you so much for your continued support; we truly could not do this without you. Rick and I and the rest of the team have a great vision for not only what Hunt to Read has become, but what it can be in the future. Thank you for your continued feedback as we strive to make HTR the absolute best it can be.

Thanks again, and Happy Hunting!

-D.J.
D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

Friday, July 12, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...How to Write More Words Per Day


 Our co-founder, D.J., is syndicating his "So You Want to Write a Book..." series of posts from his personal blog on the Hunt to Read blog, to show aspiring authors that it's not nearly as difficult to get a book into print as they might think. This post deals with tried-and-true methods to write more words per day. Enjoy!

-The Hunt to Read Team

Previous Posts in this Series:
#1: Before You Start
#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!

You've finished the prep work. You have your tools. You even managed to sit down and start writing; it might not be Hemmingway, but hey, at least you have a jumping-off point.

Yet if you're anything like I was, you're struggling. Maybe you've inched your way through 10, 15, even 25 or so pages. Well done! My guess is that unless you really have a story burning a hole in your brain (it happens) or if you're just naturally juiced up about writing (also happens), you've probably hit a bit of a lull.

I should know; when I quit my previous job, as an attorney at a large law firm, it took me a while to really get going as a writer. Keep in mind that most of my work as an attorney was writing! I often had to churn out incredible numbers of words on very short deadlines, proof my own work, and deliver it to partners or clients.

And yet, when I no longer had that structure in place, those quick deadlines or nudging emails from eager clients, I struggled.

It didn't help that I bought in to a lot of the myths I heard about creative writing: that it's hard. That you have to write, then re-write, then re-write again, send off the manuscript, get rejections, re-write again...etc. I would sit down, focus for a couple of hours, look at the page progress in my double-spaced Word document, and figure, "Well, five pages is pretty good for the day. Maybe I should write a blog post to build my all-important 'platform.'"

It's amazing how young and naive I was only two short years ago!

Even if I wanted to write more, it was about that time of day that the "brain fog" seeped into my mind. I could hardly think, let alone conjure up how a "scene" with these ridiculous "characters" was supposed to go. Much easier to do some "research" to figure out how the characters would react!

[Blood boiling...can't resist...urge...to strangle...self!]

Dean Wesley Smith does a fantastic job of laying out a lot of these myths and chopping them down in his fantastic Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series of posts. His post about "Writing Faster" absolutely altered the course of my life.

Let me back up; in law school, my last "class," if you can call it that, was a sixty-page independent study paper under the fantastic Professor Anne Coughlin. Call it a thesis of sorts. It was about how law and trials had served as entertainment for the masses from Ancient Greece through the Lizzie Borden trial and beyond; what was so compelling about the law that turned us all into slack-jawed lookie-loos, even in ancient times?

It was a decently fun paper to write, but it was also very research-intensive. Fortunately, the school gave us an extra week after graduation to finish up the project.

Unfortunately, I was my immature, younger self. Instead of doing the responsible thing and finishing the paper up by graduation, I left campus with a grand total of 20 pages written.

With three days left, I had 25.

I wrote the rest of that paper, all 38 pages of it, in three days, heavily researched, writing about ten hours per day. Proofread, edited, the whole nine yards.

Yet there I was, three years later, struggling to write more than five pages in one sitting.

Of fiction.

Something wasn't right here. I knew I had the capacity to write more, but how in the heck was I supposed to get back to that level that I was at when I finished my paper in those manic three days?

More importantly, how could I keep that pace up, or even surpass it for long stretches of time?

Here are some of the tips I've gleaned along the way to do just that.

Get a Job Writing


This is easier said than done, but nothing helped me more than becoming a beat reporter covering the St. Louis Rams during the 2011 season.

I wrote six columns a week, each one at least 1200 words and often closer to 1500. One of those columns each week was my colorful "Power Rankings," which contained clearly fictional, outlandish scenarios involving teams that developed a bit of a cult following.

Those Power Rankings columns averaged 5000 words.


I wrote them in a single day, on what was supposed to be one of my days off: Tuesday.


I went above and beyond first of all because I loved what I was doing, but also precisely because I wanted to push myself, to get back to that level of stamina that I previously was at.


Not only that, but by writing so much, my ancillary skills (thinking up topics, editing, researching) all developed a lot during that single season of football.

But even more than that, I was getting paid to write; it made it seem like more of a profession to me. Though my work outfit was often a polo shirt and jeans instead of a suit and tie, I still learned to put fingers to keys and write, write, write.

That said, it's very tough to earn an opportunity like that. I'll be the first to admit that I was very lucky to land that gig; if I hadn't quit my job two months before, I would've seen the posting, fantasized about applying for it, then shook my head as I went back to tedious legal work.

Even without such an opportunity, there are things that are entirely in your control that can help you write more words per writing session:

Start a Blog, or Better Still, Write for an Established Blog


Anyone can start a blog. It's free and easy on sites like Blogger and Wordpress. I prefer Blogger because it's what I'm used to, but a lot of folks swear by the functionality of Wordpress; to each her own.


I tried turning my personal blog into a "platform" in the early going, tried posting to it every day back when it was about self-actualization. This was pre-Rams gig, and the results were less-than-thrilling; I churned out post-after-post, with no comments and minimal traffic.

I was going about it all wrong, and would have absolutely done things differently if I was starting up now (but that's a different post entirely). It did help me get into the habit of writing every day, so I guess that was helpful.

However, I would suggest writing a blog for a while and then use that blog as writing samples to book a regular guest post gig on another, more popular blog. It's sad, but if you know that more people are reading what you write, and you have a regular schedule, even if it's once a week, I guarantee that you'll take your writing to the next level.


Once you guest post a few times, try to leverage that into a role as a regular contributor. It might scare you now, but remember, this is about increasing your word output.
Mastered that? Maybe pick up another gig as a regular.

I'm just trying to have you replicate what I did as best you can. It'd be great if you could get a gig where you were expected to write 12,000 words a week all in one place. Until then, though, try to replicate the quantity and commitment of that output as best you can.

Write a Long Form Piece on Something You're Passionate About...Then Do It Again


Pick a day. Clear your schedule. Plan out and write a 5,000 word piece on  something that you're passionate about.

I wrote the Power Rankings because I enjoyed writing them on my old blog. They allowed me to mix my natural affinities for football, humor, and fiction. In short, I was passionate about all of those topics, and created a way to combine them.


I'm sure there are similar things that cause you to smile, that put a little more bounce in your step and wind in your sails. Maybe it's a hobby, or politics, or sports, or food. There are literally millions of topics that qualify.

Pick one of them and write a 5,000 word essay, all in one day. You can take breaks, but be careful; the break is a fickle creature that you have to be careful with until later in your writing career. I don't care if it takes you until early the next morning to finish, but write those 5,000 words no matter what.

Then, the next weekend, do it all over again. In fact, keep doing it until you're comfortable banging out those 5,000 word essays. If they're any good and on related topics, consider collecting them into an ebook and throwing it up on Amazon (I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here...)

The lesson behind this is that not only does it feel good to write those 5,000 words in a day, but you prove to yourself that you can do it multiple times. It's not just a one-time thing because you were writing on your favorite topic; if you do it twice, then why not a third time? Then a fourth time? And so on. Prove that you can write the sheer volume, then repeat it over and over again until you're comfortable with it.

Use the Tools!


By now, surely you have Scrivener. You don't? What!? We covered this two posts ago! Yes, yes, absolutely go get it now!

One of the great things about Scrivener is that it has a "Project Targets" tool that tracks the number of words you've targeted for the day, as well as the entire manuscript. It's under "Project" - "Show Project Targets" in the Scrivener menu bar.

It's absolutely a great way to both hold yourself accountable and also see the steady progress that a 4,000 or 5,000 word day will bring. Use the tools that you already have.

Limit Distractions


Doing all of the above, but still not writing much? Why not try writing at home instead of at Starbucks, or turning off the internet while you write? I'll admit it, because I'm part of a team running a website now, it's incredibly tough for me to turn off the internet at any point during the day or evening. That said, when I started out writing, there were long stretches of days that I forced myself to go without internet to make sure that I didn't just "hop on" a site. Then you type for a while, and before you know it, you're thinking "how did those 3,000 words get up there?" It's amazing what a little forced focus can do!

Don't Edit As You Go


I'm not one of those people screaming "Never edit...NEVER SURRENDER!" from the rooftops. I think a lot of folks think that this is what Dean Wesley Smith advocates under his "don't rewrite" philosophy. It's not at all. No idea why so many people misread that post...

Editing (meaning copy editing and cutting excess fat) has a place in the life of every book.

Just not while you're writing. Re-writing (changing scenes, characters, etc.) is even worse; you start questioning your own work and spinning your wheels.

Get that first draft out on paper. Odds are that you'll think your first draft of your first novel is a lot better than it is. That's fine. Trust me, each subsequent first draft will get a little cleaner, look a little neater. For now, get the words on the page. Don't let an impromptu editing session ruin the flow.

Take a Walk


I used to think that traditional "writer's block" was something. Now, I think it's just me being lazy. Don't get me wrong; I still give in to it from time-to-time, but I do so knowing full well that I'm making it up; if I want to know what happens next, I just need to look at my mind map.

What I usually mean by "I have writer's block" is that I think my dialogue is too boring, or my characters sound too flat at the moment. If this happens, I go for a nice long walk of at least two miles. I always throw on a comedy podcast while doing so; my current favorite is You Made it Weird, with Pete Holmes, but I also really enjoy Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend, The Adam and Dr. Drew Show, and The Adam Carolla Show. They may or may not be for you; there are literally thousands of other podcasts out there to choose from. The important thing is that you pick podcasts that have elements of improv within them.

DO NOT steal their jokes; that's absolutely wrong, and NOT the point of this!

DO absolutely imagine that you're the third person in the room, and think what you would say if you were there. This gets your brain back in "improv mode," which gets you closer to being able to be in the moment, writing as the story comes to you. It could be one-liners or bits or whatever, but I've found that listening to improv-y podcasts gets my mind flowing, and gets my "dialogue brain" back on track. Similarly...

Get into Sudoku


I picked up Sudoku on a lark probably about a year-and-a-half ago. I usually do USA Today's puzzle pretty much every weekday; it's always solvable without guessing, and the Thursday/Friday ones can throw you some real curves.

It doesn't have to be Sudoku, but think of other ways to get your mind moving, keep it nimble, and solving problems. After all, solving problems within a set of rules you've created for your characters is absolutely what fiction writing is about.

Learn to Touch Type


If you can't, I'd strongly suggest learning how to touch-type. The crazy thing is, my parents tried to get my brother and I to do so as kids, first through the boring Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and then through the slightly-more exciting Mario Teaches Typing.

It never really took until I was in college, and simply had to find a way to type more quickly than via hunt and peck alone. Since then, just by writing a lot, I've gotten to the point where I can touch type as fast and accurately as pretty much anyone I know.

Some people need a course or software to learn it, though; my brother was one of them. He took a class over the summer one year in high school, and for a while he could type a lot more quickly than I could. There's absolutely no shame in it, and it'll be money well spent. Remember, you're aiming to be a professional; treat your training accordingly.

Summary


All of these activities boil down to a few simple lessons:

-Write. A lot.


-Create a set of circumstances that forces you to write a lot.

-Stretch out your sessions by writing long-form pieces on topics you enjoy.

-Use the tools in your toolkit.

-Limit Distractions.

-Use physical and mental exercises to break through so-called "writer's blocks," which are often a creation of our own minds.

-Increase your physical typing speed so that when you're "in the zone," you capture all of your thoughts more quickly, and thus capture more words in a shorter period of time.

I know it was a long piece--2,500 words or so. Total time it took me? 90 minutes, start-to-finish. Sure, it helped that I had some idea of what I was going to write ahead of time, but it was largely "just write, dummy!", with purpose and dedication.

Follow these steps, and some day, you'll be able to keep this pace, as well.

Have any tips on how to get more words out on the page per session? How to fight through writer's block? Leave them in the comments.

Previous Posts in this Series:
#1: Before You Start
#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!

D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...Sit Down and Start!

 
 Our co-founder, D.J., is syndicating his "So You Want to Write a Book..." series of posts from his personal blog on the Hunt to Read blog, to show aspiring authors that it's not nearly as difficult to get a book into print as they might think. This post deals with sitting down and finally starting your book. Enjoy!

-The Hunt to Read Team 

Post #1: Before You Start
Post #2: The Idea Hunt
Post #3: Tools of the Trade


In this series, I've already written about questions you should ask yourself before you start writing, as well as ways to capture the ideas that you have at odd times, and tools that I use to write and publish my books.

"Yeah, yeah--that's all well and good, but when do I get to start writing?"

Right now.

[Silence]

Not so easy, is it?

This may be the most difficult part of starting a book: your first opening.

A lot of people stress about the start to their book for good reason: it's arguably more important than ever to hook a reader in the first few pages. Amazon and other retailers allow people to "Look Inside" the book at the first several pages. If they don't like what they see, you can imagine they'll just move right along to another, more interesting book.

Believe me, I know. I asked a buddy of mine to read a rough draft of what will eventually become the Debt of Souls series of books. The first comment he made was, "You kept saying the same thing over and over again for the first ten pages, but after that, it got a lot better."

You know what? He was absolutely right. A lot of folks get bogged down in the academic mindset of describing every...little...thing in a room in excruciating detail. My first attempt at a short story back while I was in law school was ten pages of a guy waking up, followed by me cataloguing his apartment as he brushed his teeth and showered. I know--really original!

The same goes for non-fiction books; no one wants to read a dry summary of the rest of the book up front. After all, if you boil the book down to a few bullet points, what incentive is there to read the rest of it?

Here are a few tips on how to avoid these common pitfalls.

Non-Fiction: Know Your Audience and Start With an Engaging Anecdote

I'm still plugging away on a non-fiction book about wine. I could have gone on some flowery rant about how wine is the drink of the "civilized person," but my goal is to write about the opposite; how someone who thinks that wine is for snobs can come to enjoy and appreciate wine without all of the brow-beating and condescension usually associated with it.

I should know; I used to be one such person, until [aha!] my first trip out to Napa. I quickly dashed out the story of the first time I had an educational wine-tasting out at Cakebread. There's a protagonist (me), a villain (a snobbish fellow tour-goer), and a surrogate for some of the wine knowledge I wished to impart (the wine professional in charge of the tasting).

In so doing, people hopefully get a chance to see a bunch of things; that I'm not fond of wine snobs, that I'm all about opening up wine to a broader audience, that I have some expertise and facility with wine-related terms, and that I'm setting an at least partly humorous tone from the get-go.

Think about starting your non-fiction book similarly, even if you have to fudge facts a little (but just a little) to make the story fit your purposes.

Fiction: Action, Emotion, and Intrigue

I was an avid Lost watcher back in the day. I tore through the first season DVDs in a matter of days while killing time studying for finals. I couldn't believe how hooked I was; whenever each DVD was finished, I drove over to Blockbuster for the next disk (yes, yes, if you're under twenty-five, you likely have no idea what I'm talking about. Just imagine that you actually had to go somewhere to get TV and movies back in the day instead of downloading it immediately. I know: we were barbarians.).

Even though the ending was ultimately a huge let-down, Lost drew everyone in with a combination of action (Plane crash! Pilot is dead! Trees sucked out of the ground!), emotion (Character-based flashbacks! Ooooh, they have to do with what's going on on the island!) and intrigue (What killed the pilot? Why does it sound so weird? Why is this John Locke guy so creepy?).

I think my openings have gotten better with each successive story. In Jesus Was a Time Traveler, I was still a bit verbose, chewing through a bit of backstory in the first chapter, though I stand by it because it's absolutely what the narrator, Phineas Templeton, would do.

Hack was a little more straightforward and to the point; an old guy gets bad news in a hospital right away. By chapter three, he's made a big, life-altering decision and is caroming around in an enormous old car without any regard for pedestrians in his way.

Rogue is probably my best yet: a man, waiting in another man's apartment for some unknown reason. They have a conversation. "He" is upset (who is "he?"). There's a big day the next day, a lot is at stake, the two men are friends, but they fight (why?). It's basically the penultimate scene of the book up front; then the book goes back and catches the reader up to that point until the third act. It's an old trick called a framed narrative, that's been employed by writers for ages; find an intriguing scene toward the end of the book, put it up front to create mystery, and work up to that point.

If you get too much into a character's surroundings, unless there are active chainsaws being dangled from the ceilings and swung from one side of the room to the other as a character desperately tries to dodge them, you probably need to fast-forward to another scene for your opener. Once you have a solid, action or emotion-packed scene, then you can go back and determine if your initial description-laded scene still fits later on in the book; odds are that it doesn't.

Sit Down and Write

I'm going to be honest: unless you're some kind of freakish prodigy (it is possible, but unlikely), you'll look back one day on your first opening and think, "Man, I really could've tightened that up."

That's perfectly fine; writing is a constant learning process. It's okay to experiment a bit with your openings until you get one right.

The important thing is that you try. No book was ever written because someone kept mulling over problems with an opening in her head. Especially for your first book, any opening will be "good enough." By "good enough," I don't necessarily mean "publishable;" rather I mean  "good enough" to get you writing. Once you have something down on the page, everything gets a lot easier, and you can go back and cut-and-paste as necessary.

Do you have any specific tips for starting books? Anything that gets those words to flow onto the page just a bit easier? If so, leave them in the comments.

Previous Posts In This Series:
#3 Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Indie Publish Your Book For Cheap")


Next Time: Write More Per Day


D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Email him at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

So You Want to Write a Book...Tools of the Trade (Or "What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book For Cheap")

 Our co-founder, D.J., is syndicating his "So You Want to Write a Book..." series of posts from his personal blog on the Hunt to Read blog, to show aspiring authors that it's not nearly as difficult to get a book into print as they might think. This post deals with collecting ideas out of the ether, and organizing your book before you start. Enjoy!

-The Hunt to Read Team 

Previous Post #1: Before You Start
Previous Post #2: The Idea Hunt

Post #3: Tools of the Trade (Or "What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")

So you've thought about what it takes to write a book, and you have a killer idea, as well as some prep work done on that idea. Great! Congrats on making it this far.

I know you're itching to "start writing, damn it!", but before you do, there's a good reason why you should pause and take a personal inventory before you begin.

I mean that literally; inventory all of the writing tools currently at your fingertips. It might be something as simple as "Laptop, Word, notebook, pen." That's pretty much what I started out with, but I'm going to tell you right now, especially if you plan on writing more than one book, you'll be better served by beefing up your toolbox a bit before you start. While it's possible to, say, convert a manuscript from Word to a program like Scrivener after you start, it's much, much easier to just start in Scrivener and go from there.

"What's Scrivener?" We'll get to that in a minute. For now, even though this post is sub-titled "What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book For Cheap," I think the advice equally applies to traditionally-published authors, with the exception of some of the design software.

The Tools

Idea Notebook: This is the small notebook you should be carrying around with you at all times. I prefer the Moleskine Ruled Pocket Notebook, especially since I tend to be pretty tough on stuff in my pockets and Moleskine has some of the most durable products in the business. I've also had success with the thinner Moleskine notebooks, which you can get in a pack of three for a little less cash.

Budget Option: Pocket notebooks can go for as little as $2 for a two pack at a place like Target.

Larger Notebook: I also like to have a larger notebook that I can use for mind-mapping, free-writing, and ideas. I usually go with Five Star Three-Subject Notebooks, since, again, they're durable and high-quality. But anything from a legal pad to one of those black-and-white-covered Composition Journals that everyone remembers from high school should be just fine.

Budget Option: A cheap notebook or legal pad is available for under $1.

Pens: Ever since grade school, I've been a bit of a pen snob. I don't have any idea why; I just like the "flow" that a superior rolling ball gives me. Though back then I preferred the trusty old Pilot V5s and V7s, I since had a mishap with a cap on one of those, so now I favor retractable gel-based ink. For my money, there's nothing better than the Uniball Signo Blue Pens. They're a bit expensive, but like I said, I'm a pen snob--feel free to use cheap pens or even ones you "conveniently forget to return" at hotels. Keep in mind, I like blue ink for versatility's sake, since you might want to use these for editing proofs of your paperbacks, as well.

Budget Option: You can't beat free pens that are given away at any number of events. Barring that, you can find 60 more than adequate ballpoint pens for a little over $6.00, and can probably do better than that if you're hunting for deals.

Computer: Even if you write out every word of your book longhand with a quill pen on parchment, you're going to need a computer to publish your book, or get it ready to send to a publisher. If you have the money to splurge, I strongly recommend the MacBook Pro. I got the most budget-conscious 13" edition almost two years ago, and it still runs like brand new, despite how many different programs I constantly keep open on it.

Budget Option:
If you're working on a budget, or don't feel comfortable with a Mac, I'd suggest looking at sites like Tiger Direct, New Egg, or Buy Dig, as they run sales on cheaper laptops quite frequently. Be sure to look up reviews on CNet or a smilar site to make sure that you aren't getting a lemon. Also keep in mind that if you want to do your own covers in inDesign, you'll need a machine capable of handling that beast of a program. The best I can do for something that is "functional" (but likely can't handle inDesign) is a $199 refurb from TigerDirect. The link takes you to their current refurb deals--that's going to be about as good as you can do.

Scrivener: I can't sing the praises of Scrivener enough. When I started out as an indie writer, I thought for sure I'd have to spend a ton of money formatting books, not to mention the headaches that become apparent with Word once you get over 30,000 words or so in your manuscript.

Scrivener is the one product that absolutely is not optional for the writer starting out today. It's only $45, and will pay for itself by the time you finish your first book. For now, just know that a formatter will charge you $50 to get your book properly formatted into a single file type (.MOBI, .EPUB, or even .DOCX--you'll likely need at least two of the three). Scrivener will do it quickly and painlessly for no additional charge once you've bought the program. You can try it for free at the link at the beginning of this paragraph; I did, and had bought the full version within an hour.

Additionally, Scrivener can format your document into manuscript form painlessly and easily if you want to submit it to publishers as a short story (why you shouldn't submit novels and longer works directly to agents or publishers anymore will be dealt with in future posts).

Budget Option: There is none here. Even if you have to scrimp and save, do it to get Scrivener.

Scrivener for Dummies: Gwen Hernandez has done a wonderful job of putting together a resource to help you fully harness the power of this wonderful, powerful program. Get a copy of this book and start reading it, cover-to-cover, in your free time while writing. Even if you have to put it in your (ahem) "reading room" to get it done, if you catch my drift.

Budget Option: You can go through the Literature and Latte tutorial site for free and Google various Scrivener support options for nothing. I still prefer Gwen's book, though, since she has all of the info in one place.

Microsoft Word: I know, I know: "Word's so expensive! I thought you said that this Scrivener did everything for you!" Scrivener does a lot, but as I've discovered more about advanced formatting of paper books, I've found that having a copy of Word helps a lot. I still write blog posts in Word, for what it's worth. If you're only putting up ebooks, then I think you can get away with Scrivener just fine. If you want to have your book available in print, or even if you want to start a blog as a promotional tool, you're going to have to bite the bullet and get a copy of Word.

Budget Option: I really, really dislike Open Office, but some people swear by it. It's likely "good enough" if you just want a Word substitute for blog posts and such. I cannot speak to its functionality as far as blocking and formatting a print book, though. It's free, so have at it.

Adobe inDesign: inDesign is a tool that separates the pros from the wannabes. A lot of folks see that I'm paying $20 a month for a piece of software (the horror!) and think that I've lost my mind. While I have lost my mind for other reasons entirely, I can't tell you how often I use this program to make covers for books and short stories (like the cover for Rogue, at right), for articles that I put up on Scribd, for header and footer pictures, for title pages; the list goes on-and-on. Sure you might be able to get by with a Photoshop facsimile like GIMP, or you may think it's cool to pay $50-500 per cover, but I've already gotten the $240 of value from this program so far this year and then some. On a side note, if you are going to use inDesign to make covers, I'd highly recommend taking a class like Dean Wesley Smith's cover design course; it may seem like a chunk of cash, but consider that the (admittedly awesome) cover for Jesus Was a Time Traveler cost me $349, and would now cost $549. DWS's cover class has made it so that I feel comfortable enough making my own covers for the cost of some good art off of Dreamstime.

Budget Option: Hire a cover designer who's starting out to do your cover on the cheap. This can run anywhere from $20 to $50 (and higher, if you want a pro). These folks used to be all over the KDP boards, but they haven't been too active as of late.  Still, Google searches are your friend here. I cannot stress this enough: if you don't know how to make a pro-looking cover, outsource it to someone who does.

A PDF Reader: Finally: something for free! I love using Preview on Mac, but Adobe has made some upgrades to their free Reader program that make it a worthy rival to Apple's product. You don't necessarily need it at the start, but when looking at print covers and formatting your book proof for print, it will be invaluable.

The Kindle Reader App for Your PC or Mac: You need this to make sure the formatting in your book looks okay; no weirdly-spaced lines or hanging orphans, if possible. The good part is that the Kindle apps for computers are the absolute worst that your book is going to look. Sure, the spacing might get a bit wonky on your phone reader from time-to-time, but I think folks are more forgiving of that because it still happens with the big-time publishers, as well.

###

I think that about covers it. Did I miss anything that anyone else uses to write and/or publish? If so, let me know in the comments.

Next Time: Start Writing!

Previous Posts in this Series:

1) Before You Start

D.J. Gelner is the co-founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Contact him at djgelner@hunttoread.com.