Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: April 2014

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Indiana

I've noticed, as I do the Skype calls with Soulwoven's Kickstarter backers, that a question keeps popping up: How are things in Indiana?

I don't know why the question surprises me; after all, most people don't live here. And most people I tell that I live here don't seem to have ever thought much about the place. I know I didn't before I came.

So I thought I'd take a moment to share. It's windy. Very windy what seems like every day but is probably much less often than that. It was also beastly cold this winter, but I think that can be said of most places in the U.S. this year. The soil is full of clay, at least where I am, which makes it very squidgy and a little hard to work with if you're planting things. But things also grow very well once you get them in the ground.

And the spring times are beautiful. This weekend was particularly gorgeous, and I spent most of it outside doing springly things around the house. I took some photos while I was at it, some of which are worth sharing.


This is the tree that hangs over the deck in my backyard. It has burst into enormous clouds of white flowers that smell a bit like fish, or, to my mind, something less mentionable in polite company. But when you're upwind of it, it's gorgeous.


This is the other tree in my backyard. There's a cardinal in this picture, a bright red one that looks just like the cardinals that serve as sports mascots. It's in the lower-left quadrant, where two branches come together, and it's much harder to find in the photo than it was in real life.


Same tree, different bird. This photo has a woodpecker in it, just about dead center, perched on top of the knobbly bit in the tree. It's very difficult to spot, even knowing it's there. There are many kinds of birds here. It rained this morning, and in the afternoon there were robins, woodpeckers, and a third kind of bird I'm not familiar with bathing in a puddle on the street.


This is what it looks like almost every afternoon and evening looking west from my deck, unless it's cloudy or raining.


This is my cat, who is queen of the stoop and guardian of the steps that lead to the deck.




Near my house there is a Wal-Mart. And near that Wal-Mart there is a pond that was full of birds this weekend. There were several of these herons.


This is my cat's idea of helping me clean the deck, which had a rough winter and fall. Or maybe she's just waiting for me to finish so she can go back outside and stalk birds and squirrels a little more.

And that's what life in Indiana is like, on its best days. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes it's cloudy for days on end and drives me crazy, but there are always good bits to balance out the bad.

Work on Soulwoven: Exile continues. I am still in the midst of researching deep dark things, but I should be out of it and applying my hard-won knowledge to scenes soon.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Marketing Soulwoven Part Two: The Kickstarter Launch

Okay, time for part two of the ongoing series of posts on how I'm marketing Soulwoven (you can read part one here).

The second stage of marketing Soulwoven came with the Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter, like Wattpad, was a thing I found out about via the news. I started backing projects on it in 2012, with Amanda Palmer's album Theatre is Evil. Over the next year or so, I backed several projects and got a chance to see firsthand how they worked---what was exciting about the process, what wasn't, what other people did well and poorly, etc.

Kickstarter, for those who don't know it, lets people pledge money to support a creative endeavor. For authors, it's a way of funding all of the many expenses related to publishing a book, like editing, marketing, and cover design. In the traditional publishing world, your publisher foots those expenses in return for a large slice of the profits of the book. When you Kickstart, your audience foots those expenses in return for various backer rewards and the fun of being a part of your creative process.

Launching the Kickstarter was the first time I began actively marketing Soulwoven to anyone. I knew from backing other projects and from reading up on it that having a good video was extremely important, so I turned to a friend of mine from high school who runs a small video production company in Denver. He did a bang-up job on the video, which more than paid for itself.

I also reached out to my Wattpad followers, of which there were several thousand at the time, and asked them what they'd be interested in getting as rewards from a Kickstarter. I built a survey using Survey Monkey and asked them to rank my ideas in order from most exciting to least exciting, and then to write in any ideas of their own. I didn't get a ton of responses, but I got enough to correct some misconceptions I'd had about what would be the most exciting. I also realized that I wasn't likely to have people from Wattpad pouring thousands of dollars into the Kickstarter.

So I set my goals low. I knew I couldn't adequately copy edit a book of Soulwoven's length (because I'd already copy edited Three Dances myself, and it was a bear of a job even for a book so short). So I told myself I needed $550 to hire a copy editor I'd worked with through my freelancing for Carina Press, and I set up my reward tiers pretty aggressively to hit that goal. I was reasonably certain I could convince 25 people to pledge $25 each to back to the book, and I filled the $25 reward tier with all the goodies my survey respondents said they wanted most. I also set a number of stretch goals for the campaign, which would add interior artwork and additional editing to the publishing process if they were reached.

It worked well beyond my wildest dreams. My core fans were extremely excited to back the book, and I hit my funding goal about 12 hours after the Kickstarter went live. I eventually received 660% of my goal, allowing me to bring on an interior artist and developmental editor, as well as to launch with a pretty significant marketing budget.

There were a few other marketing tricks I pulled out for the Kickstarter that are worth mentioning. I noticed that being part of a successful Kickstarter was a lot more fun than being part of one that wasn't going very well. I also knew that if the book funded quickly, I'd have another flashy hook I could dangle in my marketing copy. So I set my funding floor low with that in mind. I also set up my reward tiers in a way that encouraged interaction between me and my backers. I wanted to get to know these people, who were making my dream a reality. I also knew that the more contact we had, the more likely they were to remember me.

This is getting long, so I'm going to break it off here and talk more about the process of fulfilling the Kickstarter in another post. But first I want to mention another marketing caveat. It's true of anything you do marketing-wise on the Internet, but it's especially true of Kickstarter:

It's never about what they can do for you. It's always about what you can do for them.

Marketing actively to people can make you come off as a sleazeball at relativistic speeds. The world is full of people and companies trying to separate readers from their money. Don't do that. Don't be desperate. Don't be needy. Don't be pushy. Your needs are unimportant to people who have never met you, and if you put your needs above the needs of the people who have met you, you'll start to push them away pretty quickly.

So find out what your readers want and what you can give them. Then offer it to them. When you ask for something back, do it humbly and with a smile on your face that says, "I'll still like you whether you help me out or not." Let the money question ride quietly and unobtrusively in the backseat of your relationships with readers and fans, because that's where it belongs.

And watch Amanda Palmer's TED talk. It will help you put things in perspective.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Backstory

This is a very scattered blog post. Because the "log" part of "blog" comes from a time when blogs were more or less public, online substitutes for journals, and sometimes I like to use mine that way still.

Backstory is a very interesting thing. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, it's the part of the book that explains the things that happened before it. Like in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf tells Frodo about the Ring. It's a very old thing; the Greeks used to do it with choruses of singing people in plays.

When you learn how to write, particularly if you write fantasy or science fiction, one of the first things people are likely to tell you to do is to cut out extraneous backstory. Done poorly, it bogs down a narrative and confuses readers. This is especially true if it's not immediately relevant and triple-dog-dare true if the reader isn't sure who and what the story is about yet.

But a lot of authors use backstory pretty intensively nonetheless. I'm reading Among Others by Jo Walton for my local SF/F indie store's book club, and I just finished a whole long passage of backstory. I've noticed others in Neil Gaiman (American Gods) and Scott Lynch (Lies of Locke Lamora) recently as well. I've noticed it in a whole lot of other authors too, but I can't remember whom or in what books precisely.

And it has occurred to me that when backstory is done right, you can get away with an awful lot of it.

The trick is to focus on the story part of the word.

When backstory works best, it's structured as a little miniature story within the story, almost like flash fiction. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. There's an important event that starts it and an important event that finishes it. The people or things being discussed change in the middle in interesting ways. And ideally it tells you something about characters you already know about and has some kind of impact on the plot.

Of further note: once you've demonstrated that when you use backstory it has an impact on the plot once, readers will trust that anytime you use it from that point on it will become important later, unless you betray them.

Y'know, in case you were curious.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Stephen Deas on Dragons

You may have realized by this point that I spend a lot of time crawling over Fantasy Faction these days. It's a good website, if you're into fantasy.

And today I want to bring you, care of Fantasy Faction, some thoughts about dragons from Stephen Deas, who apparently has been sipping from my cup of tea despite the thousands of miles that separate us geographically.

In his article, Stephen takes the time to break down a few definitions of dragons and ends up with the following:

dragon, n, Something very formidable or dangerous.

That sounds about right to me. He goes on to explain how when fantasists go too far in explaining where their dragons come from, when they humanize them too much, they take the power away from them. I couldn't agree more. Don't get me wrong, I loved How to Train Your Dragon, and I cut my teeth on the shapeshifting, human-loving dragons of Dragonlance, but to me a dragon...a real dragon, one worthy of the word, is one so alien and terrifying that it cannot be understood. The primary purpose of the dragon myth is to put a face on the horrible unknown. And the further your dragons stray from that, the more watered-down they become.

If you've read Soulwoven, you know that's the direction I took with the dragon in the book. But there are people out there who do this even better than I do. One of the authors I edit, John Tristan, has a book coming out that has the most primal, awful (in every sense of that word), alien dragons I've ever seen. If you can imagine what it might be like for a preindustrial civilization to encounter a star destroyer from Star Wars---well, that's more or less what I envisioned when I read his dragons. I'll follow up on this post once we've got a shareable release date on that book, but if you love dragons of the Old Testament sort, keep an eye out for it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Marketing Soulwoven Part One: Wattpad

I realized after I promised another marketing post on Friday that talking about the commercialization strategy for Soulwoven was going to take up several posts' worth of space. Figuring out how to share this book with the world has taken, literally, years. Not as long as it took to write it, but a long time.

The story starts in 2012.

If you've read any of the promo material for Soulwoven, you've seen me trumpeting the success it's had on Wattpad. For those of you who don't know, Wattpad is a story-sharing site. You sign up for an account, and you can post stories on there and read the stories that other people post. The whole thing is free. I'm not sure how they make money, or if they are making money (it's a tech startup; they often go a long time without making any money).

I heard about Wattpad through Publisher's Weekly, a trade publication I used to read every day and wish I still had time to read every day. They ran an article about an author with a huge Wattpad following in late 2011. Shortly thereafter, she got a huge deal. I took notice, signed up for a Wattpad account, and started lurking and thinking and thinking and lurking.

At the time, I wasn't sure how to use it. I still wanted to publish Soulwoven traditionally, and I was afraid that putting it on Wattpad might trounce its chances. So I started asking around. Six months later, after I asked several literary agents about Wattpad and they asked me back, "What's that?" I decided that this was going to be The Next Big Thing and I ought to get involved before it hit that point (I was partially right; it's bigger now, and I think it's much harder to catch their attention).

So I started revising Soulwoven and posting chapters of it on Wattpad. I had enormously high hopes, as I always tend to. The results didn't live up to them. People read it. People liked it. But it didn't go gangbusters and generate huge word of mouth and suddenly shoot to the top of Wattpad's rankings (it did crack the top 25 at one point, but it dropped off from there pretty quickly).

I blogged about the experience though, and my blog posts caught the eye of a Wattpad community manager, and she contacted me and asked if I was interested in having Soulwoven featured on the site.

One of the principles of book marketing (and writing, for that matter, because it enters into how you construct your first page) I cottoned on to pretty early on in the process was the importance of setting reader expectations. I noticed that I gave authors extra slack if I had seen their work before or it came with laudatory quotes from authors or reviewers I trusted (or best yet, from friends). Neil Gaiman's American Gods took most of the book to hook me, but I stuck with it because it was Neil Gaiman, and I had faith it would get there. I put A Game of Thrones down after the first chapter because I didn't like it, only to pick it up later, read farther, and fall in love with it after it was recommended to me repeatedly by friends.

Marketing a first novel, especially if you're self-publishing, is difficult because you don't have any of that credit with readers. They bring no positive preconceptions to your book, which means you get very little slack from them. I wanted to do as much as I could to set readers up to enjoy the book before they even opened it, and having Soulwoven featured on Wattpad let me do that.

It worked in two ways: first, I could plug the fact that it was featured. A lot of readers haven't heard of Wattpad, but they know the word "featured" and that it's a good thing. Second, before I launched Soulwoven, it generated over 500,000 reads on Wattpad (Wattpad's "reads" are essentially page views; Wattpad is cagey about how it calculates things, but as far as I can tell, it counts a read anytime a user opens a new chapter of the book). Again, you don't have to know Wattpad to see "half a million" and think "good thing." When it came time for the Kickstarter campaign, I could point to my success on Wattpad and say, "You should fund this book because people already love it," and that was immensely helpful.

But on top of giving me some means with which to make myself sound good, having the book up on Wattpad gave me a wealth of useful information about it. I got to see who was reading it and liking it (at least as much as they shared with me), and I got to see what people were saying about it and what they liked about it. I learned that about half of people who were starting the book weren't reading past the first chapter, and I could compare that to the numbers of other successful books on Wattpad and see that it stacked up pretty well. I could also see that Soulwoven wasn't the kind of book that people JUST HAD TO SHARE OMG. I eventually concluded that it was a middling success on Wattpad and was likely to be a middling success commercially. So far, that's exactly what it's been.

I still have the book up on Wattpad. The sanity of that decision has been questioned, but I'll talk more about that when I get to the pricing part of this series (much in the future). But put shortly, all the evidence I've seen shows that Wattpad users aren't big book buyers, and that big book buyers aren't Wattpad users. The ecosystems exist more or less independently, and I benefit immensely from having Soulwoven up. It crossed 750,000 reads this weekend. When it hits a million, I'll update my promo info with the new, flashier number.

Plus, people are reading it who otherwise wouldn't be, and in the end, that's more important than anything else. I don't write fiction solely to make money. I make a hell of a lot more money writing things that aren't fiction. I write fiction to move people and make a positive influence on the world, and the only reason I'm after money for it at all is because if I can make a living at it, I can do more of it and do it better.

And that's worth keeping in mind whenever we talk marketing. There are dueling goals of art and commerce for every author, and I do my best to privilege the artistic over the commercial whenever I can.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sales Rankings

Hello, dearest readers.

Sorry this is a day late! Yesterday went far, far off the rails and blogging slipped my mind. Anyhoo, today it's time for a BUSINESS post. How exciting. Because my head is back on straight and I'm back to working on Soulwoven: Exile again and it's all very hush-hush, big secret, oh my God the things I wish I could tell you, etc., etc.

Also because people are asking me how Soulwoven is doing, and because at times I have absolute, panicky, mind-crushing anxiety about that very thing. This post about Amazon and its sales rankings has helped me put that into perspective. Come Monday, I'll crack the door open a little more about what my marketing and sales strategy has been with Soulwoven, what's worked, what hasn't, and what the next step is. It'll be a long one, or possibly a series, so consider this the primer.

And then enjoy your weekend. It's springtime in Indiana, and whatever else I may say about this state when it's -50F after wind chill and I haven't seen the sun in days, this place has beautiful, beautiful springs.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Little Tease

My head cold has not gone away. It's abated a little bit. We're fighting them on the beaches, etc. But the battle's far from over and I'm finding it immensely hard to focus. In that environment, blog posting tends to be a backseat kind of endeavor, and once again I'm finding myself without the mental wherewithal to come up with something interesting to share with you.

So I'm going to cheat and share the first few paragraphs of Soulwoven: Exile with you instead. Because I want to talk about what I'm working on, and since I find myself unable to do that coherently, it makes sense to me to just let it talk for itself.

This is a third draft, I think. Maybe a fourth. I expect it'll change a little between now and the final version, but not too much. Like I talked about last week, it's now in line with the ending, and it introduces the themes and atmosphere and general direction that Soulwoven: Exile is going to follow.

I hope you enjoy it.

--
Prologue
I
One hundred and seventeen days before the destruction of Nutharion City

            What was left of the light was fading.
            It was the gray time between sunset and full dark, when the world falls deeper into shadow second by second, and things lose their shapes. The time when you cling to the last shreds of light you can find, looking for shelter or a way to create your own illumination to keep the oncoming darkness at bay.
            Litnig grabbed for a root and missed.
            Cole caught his wrist and kept him from falling.

--

Feel free to discuss the directions you think the book might be heading in. I'd love to know.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sick

Red coat. Ring toss burble farwing on the young tines of worldly squiggles. Whereby Smedley's ghost under toss the seabirds scraps of tiny h-u-ll gobbles goblins thunder in the tiniest of manors. Outside chance of pockets of rain in under the choice tree, overbearing under bearing the ball bearings are the place to be.

I have a head cold. The preceding paragraph is a brief sample of what's happening inside my head right now unless I expend a great deal of energy to turn those ramblings into coherence. Chaos is running amok, and I can master it only by effort of will.

So I hope you'll understand why there's no blog post of substance today. I tried to write one, but it turned out terribly. You can reread the first paragraph of this one a few times and probably get more joy out of it.

I shall now close with an old picture of me, taken during college, that I feel is a proper illustration for the preceding work of artpoetry headcoldfiction, which is the name of the new literary magazine I'm going to launch just as soon as I'm feeling better. Good night.