Monday, 18 March 2013

After the holiday

I've taken off nearly 2 weeks to show LA Witt and her husband London. We've seen a huge amount of stuff that I haven't seen in the nearly 8 years that I've lived here (Cutty Sark, National Maritime Museum, Tower of London, Churchill War Rooms, Hunterian Museum, Stonehenge, Roman Baths in Bath and SalisburyC cathedral) and some reliable crowd pleasers that I have (British Museum, Templar Church, St Bartholomew's, Museum of London, Natural History Museum, Science Museum). Also my usual book haunts and cafes. Essentially, we got up early, grabbed food and walked a lot. A LOT. Resulting, despite all the food and coffee breaks, in quite significant weightloss - that's how extreme we got.

Today is the first day I'm shifting down. It's the dude's birthday, so he got a new phone and new leather wallet and a Templar helmet-shaped penholder. We went into the town center and also finally addressed a couple health issues (we both have weak lower backs), and plunked down the cash for a memory foam mattress, which should get delivered next week. Dude then insisted I get a Swiss (aka: exercise) ball to sit on as a write, and I bought that one. Between ourselves, we managed to inflate it. One day I'll be able to stop bouncing on it as a listen to music, but that day isn't today.

Then I've been nominated for the DABWAHA tournament, where I start in the same category as Abigail Roux and Anne Tenino, which means there's no way Dark Soul is going to win, but that's okay. (I'm just breaking the rules; I'm supposed to trash-talk, but that's probably the one thing I don't like about professional boxers - though it sells tickets. It would also feel weird to trash-talk friends and authors of my publishing house.)

All that sight-seeing has refreshed my brain for writing, which is important. It's also led to some re-thinking with regards to how I measure success versus approval. See, I've blogged before on the difference about "critically acclaimed work" and "selling work" in our genre. It's nice to have extremely high ratings for a book, but my best work (Skybound, hands down, which seems to be universally loved by the - few - people who read it) barely sells at all, whereas sales of lighter, sexier reads are huge (well, huge by my standards).

(BTW, that's not meant to guilt-trip anybody - I'm just speaking about my experience here.)

That confirms a suspicion I've had for a couple years, but now I have cold, hard numbers to back it up. My best-selling stuff has sometimes extremely mixed reviews on Goodreads. Books that sell 40-50 copies a day on Amazon alone might even draw a lot of hate and derision, whereas books that have sold less than 500 copies in six months or more (say, one copy a day) get all the five-star ratings.

One suspicion is that Goodreads is great to connect to new readers and your target audience, but ratings there seem little correlated with actual sales. That's kicking some social media truisms out of the window. Essentially, Goodreads matters a lot less to sales than many book gurus seem to think. It's a place to connect, a great platform to be visible, but sales seem largely divorced from it.

Another suspicion is that obsessing over reviews is counter-productive in the clearest sense of the word. Negative reviews kill any desire to write. I know that makes me a thin-skinned speshul snowflake, but the line between happy and productive author on one hand and depressed, self-hating couch potato watching TV or sleeping on the other is often drawn by a reviewer. I'd never tell reviewers to shut up (essentially, a book is out of my hand when it's published, and no book pleases everybody - and if it does, it sells for shit), but I seem happier and more productive if I'm unaware what people are saying about my work. It took LA Witt plucking the phone out of my hand to realise that - she's totally right. No point ruining my writing session, my mood and my day by allowing negativity to hurt my desire to write. Essentially, I'm only answerable to the Muse and the story and then the editor. Beyond that, it's out of my hands.

So, the best I can do is to stay away from reviews. Checking reviews is also a huge time-sink, so not reading reviews from now on sounds like a big win-win. Of course I'll stay active in my various groups. I like the people there too much to just "vanish".

Which leaves me with some thoughts about career-planning. Luckily, I can write the light books that sell and the heavy books that don't but Must Be Written and Take So Much Time To Write It's Laughable. And I enjoy both, or I wouldn't be writing them. As I'm entering contented, financially stable middle age, my outlook and overall "mood" is much lighter and much more optimistic, which enables me to write more light-heartedly. The years of teenage angst are over, thank gods.

My main goal remains to quit my day job so I can do more writing, and that means I have to write books that sell enough to support me on a level that allows travel and US/UK conferences and no financial anxiety (nothing kills my writing faster than money-based dread).

Right now, my total monthly royalties are about 1/4-1/5th of what they have to be to even entertain that thought. And once I've hit that goal, the big issue is to maintain that cashflow - for 30 years, or the rest of my working life. I think I can realistically hit the level in 3-4 years, but that's a damn long time in the industry, and gods know what indie publishing looks like by then. So, there's the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns, and the latter are really the scary part.

So I'm thinking about branching out, hitting the mainstream the old-fashioned way (agent, Big Six publisher), writing the dark and the light as the Muse demands. There will be non-m/m books from me, there will be mainstream books, there will be experiments that sell "fuck all", as Brits like saying, and crowd pleasers that do and pay my mortgage (and entertain me in a total "free-for-all" way). I'm a trickster among writers - I can't say what I'll do next, and my range encompasses the grim and the gritty and the fun and easy (tricksters aren't always fun - they can be scary as hell). Not everything I carry around in my head is deep and demanding - I sometimes just like to have fun. Sometimes that laughter might be dark and painful, other days, it's that belly-splitting silliness that clears out the brain and lungs.

But what I do know is that reviews give me performance anxiety, and I can't find a better way to deal with that fear and doubt and self-hatred than to stay entirely away from reviews. If I want to feel awesome as a writer, I'll read some of my favourite Amazon five-star reviews. But from now on, I'm filtering my reality to protect the Muse and that fragile spark of "hell yes, let's WRITE!" It's not against reviewers at all, it's just something that works for me and is the best I can do. I may yet have a relapse, of course. It'll take discipline to break such a long-established habit.


  1. I feel like this is a break-up letter lol =(
    I totally expected it to end with "It's not you [all], it's me."

    But you should write whatever you feel, and we'll keep reading (even though we may neglect to leave reviews *points to myself*).

    Also, I've noticed that the tidbits I know about the real lives of my fave authors tend to be as interesting, or even more so, than the characters they create. So a book about a hedge fund account manager that moonlights as a romance writer, and tries to juggle his day job with his rising fame and his relationship, sounds like a bestseller to me. (I'm just saying...)

  2. Hi Aleks
    Congratulations on the nomination.

    Walking is definitely the way to shift weight. I should do more of it myself so I'm planning an assault on Offa's Dyke for next year. I really enjoyed your tour of the sights, albeit it vicariously via the photos but hey I didn't know about the Templar Church. Any time you feel like doing another tour of the church I'd be up for that. Did you know about the Merchant Navy memorial close by Tower Hill?

    Well done to LA for stopping you reading reviews and to you for taking a vow not to read any more of them. Are you going to be able to stick to that? Perhaps what you need is someone else to check them for you and to only let you see the good ones! You may have to remind me about how not reading reviews is good for the soul when we get to May.

    Contented financially stable middle age sounds great to me.