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The Case Against Beta Readers

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      Beta readers are treated like a necessary step in the self-publishing process. But are they worth it? Essentially, you’re turning over the development of your story to a total stranger. That is, if you can even find a beta reader who actually finishes your work and provides useful feedback.

Here are some of the most common problems with using beta readers:

You don’t know who they are

      Anyone can claim to be an experienced editor offering beta reading for free. They’re not all lying, but they’re not all telling the truth, either. Personally, I’ve encountered several people who claimed to be professional editors in one thread, then admitted their lack of experience in another. Don’t count on the qualifications of someone hiding behind a screenname.

They don’t know what you’re capable of

      Beta readers can’t push you to be your best, because they don’t know what your best looks like. I have a small group of close writer-friends who serve as my beta readers. If they find something they don’t like, they just write “Really?” and I go back and rework it. You simply can’t have that level of familiarity and understanding with someone who’s never read your work, barely knows your name, doesn’t understand your style, and has no idea of your goals.

They’re not always reliable

      This is probably the number-one complaint about beta readers. A significant number of beta readers fail to provide feedback, make your deadlines, or even read your work. Some simply stop responding to your emails after the initial acceptance. It’s frustrating, but to be realistic, your work is never going to rank highly for an unpaid stranger who has her own life. 

The feedback you get might not be what you want (or need)

      Everyone has their own ideas about what counts as useful feedback. You might want someone to comment on the realism of your dialogue, but your beta reader is more concerned with looking at your punctuation. You can ask your beta reader to focus on specific areas of improvement, but that has a catch: if your worldbuilding is awesome and your dialogue is terrible, yet you ask your beta reader to concentrate only on the world, who’s going to help you out with the dialogue?

      So how can you find a helpful beta reader? Start by not looking for one. Going into an online forum and soliciting beta readers is like dating in middle school by asking every boy “Will you be my boyfriend? Will you be my boyfriend?” Solid writing relationships, like any others, come out of trust, familiarity, honesty, and compatibility. Get to know other writers and readers before asking for favors.

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Increase Your Writing Productivity By Breaking Down Your Day

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     “As a freelancer, do you ever have the time/energy to work on your own writing projects?”

     Joe asked this question on the blog about two weeks ago. I thought about it during vacation and decided to write a new post with my answer.

     As a full-time freelancer, it often gets difficult to slog through thousands of words every day while sitting at the dining room table. Unlike a proper office, I never get to pack up and leave. Even when I’m not working, I’m still in the same house, in the same space, and I can still see my work area.

     These are my top tricks for breaking up the day and maintaining focus while working on multiple writing projects. These tips are for all writers, not just full-time freelancers.

Time

     The easiest way to break up the day is with time. Don’t just set aside time to write: set aside a specific time. Make it a permanent part of your calendar and as non-negotiable as your job. Work from 9-5. Spin class 6-7. Write 8-9.

     If you have an unpredictable schedule, you can still use the clock to increase productivity. Set aside 15-minute chunks multiple times a day or week. Even the busiest person has at least 15 full minutes a day to devote to working on a story, whether you’re writing in a notebook during lunch, typing on your phone on the subway, or talking into a tape recorder as you drive.

    I start every morning by checking out Twitter and replying to email. Then I make my coffee and work for two hours. I take a break to play with my dog and take her outside. Then I work for another two hours, and repeat until I’ve finished my to-do list. For me, the placement of the time chunks is not as important as the number of them. I might finish my work early and have time to work on a non-writing project. I might have a morning appointment, so I simply work later into the night. My two-hour chunks allow me to focus on my work because I know I’ll have a break to take care of other stuff.

Space

     Multiple studies have shown that you get the most restful sleep when you use your bed for sleeping. Not reading, not eating, not watching TV. Use the same principle with writing.

     Set aside a space just for writing. Be serious about it. Don’t browse the web or eat lunch in your writing space.

The deadline chair

     Half of my dining room is set aside as a work station. In my living room, I have my deadline chair. I only use the chair when I need to work in a hurry.

     Separate furniture isn’t a necessity for a writing space. Turn your favorite chair sideways when it’s time to work. Choose one seat at your kitchen table for eating, but sit in a different place when it’s time to write. This small change in perspective kicks your brain into writing gear.

Entertainment

     Use multimedia to get yourself into the writing mood. Runners have a running playlist. Put together a writing playlist that suits your current project. Grooveshark lets you create playlists without purchasing each song. You can play movies or TV in the background instead if music isn’t your thing.

     I have multiple playlists on Grooveshark. Strangely, I do my best editing work to loud, fast, angry music like Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. If I’m working on dreamy poetry, I’ll play Sarah Fimm and Tori Amos. If I’m just plodding away on a general assignment, I try to pick songs and artists with upbeat, dancey music, like Beyonce, the Pussycat Dolls, Ke$sha, and Shakira.

     One caveat with using a multimedia playlist: check your final draft to make sure no lyrics or dialogue sneaked into your work.

Topics

     This one is a bit controversial and harder to pull off. If you find it difficult to balance your work with your own writing and your personal interests, you may want to pitch articles on topics separate from your favorite areas.

     As a freelancer, I write a lot about writing, editing, social media, businesses, technology, and taxes. I specialize in the intersection of these topics. 

Costume and crafts

     However, I also have personal passions for video games, arts and crafts, and making costumes. I choose not to write professionally about these topics. I don’t need to monetize everything I do or like. Everyone has multiple interests: reserve a few just for fun.

 

 

What are your tips for breaking up the work day and increasing your productivity?

Three Important Lessons Learned from Freelance Writing

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      When I tell people that I’m a freelance writer, they immediately have a bunch of questions for me. Where do I work? What do I write? What kind of money do I make? Can I get them a job? Everyone (from cab drivers to business owners to drunk tourists) wants to know.

      I see the light in their eyes as they imagine putting words to paper, seeing their books in stores, and receiving praise while the money rolls in. Every time, that bright light turns into careful consideration when I explain the reality of a freelance writing career.

1. It’s not you, it’s them. But it’s on you.

      This is something I didn’t figure out until I began my freelance writing career: your ideas are only half of writing. Whenever you are writing with the intent to publish, you are writing for other people. These mysterious and faceless people determine the success of your work. They must be able to understand your writing.

      Reader comprehension trumps personal expression. Do I hate it when my carefully constructed sentences are deleted or shortened or ripped apart? Of course I do. But I just shrug and move onto the next assignment. It’s nothing personal. 

 

2. Being your own boss means kicking your own ass.

      My income comes entirely from freelance writing and copy editing. I literally cannot afford to take it easy. Sure, there are mornings when I want to lie in bed and watch TV, and days when I want to ditch work and go to the zoo. That’s the worker side of me. The boss side doesn’t allow it.

My boss is like a separate character in my head who tells me what to do. If there are a ton of deadlines coming up, she tells me I need to stay in and work late. An article I really don’t want to write? The Writer can whine and cry and sulk at the keyboard, but the Boss stands over her shoulder with a grim smile and says, “Write.” She’s not mean, though. I do get vacation time and days off, but I have to earn them. Just like time off from any other job.

3. Panning for gold means throwing out a lot of dirt.

      It doesn’t matter what I write: I throw out material every time I create something. If I’m lucky, I’ll just ditch an introduction and a few sentences, then write new material. If I’m having an off day, I end up throwing out more words than I use.

      Right now, I’m writing in WordPad. I put the good material at the top. If I don’t think a paragraph fits here, but it might work somewhere else, I put it at the bottom of the document in a sort of writing graveyard. This article has 378 words in the graveyard, not counting the few paragraphs I scribbled by hand and the sentences deleted forever.

      When I’m writing for myself, I don’t mind a big graveyard: I can work the material into another post. If I’m writing for someone else, it’s time-consuming and counterproductive to have a graveyard bigger than the finished document. However, I have no hesitation about killing off paragraphs. The more you write, the less attached you are to individual sentences.

Ready to be professional about your writing? Grab a free copy of The Weekend Book Marketing Makeover by our friends at Duolit by tweeting about it or signing up for email updates. Toni has graciously allowed PopularSoda to provide an exclusive preview of the book’s contents. Take a look!

Preview from The Weekend Book Marketing Makeover by Duolit

8 Common Types of Scam Reviews (with Real Examples!)

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There’s been lots of talk about fake reviews in the ebook world in the past few weeks. Here are the eight most common patterns found in scam reviews. 

1. No Mention of the Contents

This should throw up an immediate red flag. A reviewer who praises a book without mentioning any specific details about the story has likely never read it.

2. Generic Superlatives

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous pattern. Best book, fantastic, masterpiece, these are some strong words. They’re weakened when there’s no evidence to support these claims. More

What the Guardian (and Ewan Morrison) Got Wrong About Ebooks

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      A recent Guardian article titled “Why social media isn’t the magic bullet for self-epublished authors” has been making waves in the ebook world. While many disagree with Morrison’s opinion, there were also multiple factual mistakes in his article. We understand ebooks and social media can be vast, overwhelming fields, so we’re here to correct some of the most glaring inaccuracies.

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“Self-styled eSpecialists such as Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media.”

      We have been unable to find any articles on Penn’s site which espouse this particular 80/20 rule. To the contrary, Penn has an article detailing ways to fit writing into your schedule. In another post, she outlines time management strategies (with no mention of spending 80% of your time marketing).
      The 80/20 rule may have been a rewording of the Pareto principle. In business terms, it’s linked to the idea that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers. It’s about refining your business to achieve better results, not a breakdown of an average day.

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“She claims that when tweeting and Facebooking you should spend ‘80% of your time posting about things other than your book, and 20% selling’….Margulies advocates that authors blog and tweet about hobbies and personal activities: things you like, and which you think will draw other people to you. Essentially, 80% of your tweeting should be about cats, food, sport, what’s happening outside your window – all the things that millions of non-writers tweet about.”

      This 80/20 rule is one of the principles of social media marketing. Morrison misses the boat on this one by implying 80% of the tweets should be about your personal life. This isn’t true; tweets don’t have to be only promotional or personal. With this rule, the 80% refers to tweets within your industry. For writers, that could be tweeting about the writing process, asking and answering publishing questions, participating in ebook-related Twitter chats, linking to industry news, or using hashtags such as #writetip to share advice. Certainly, talking about your pets and vacations can put a human side to your account, but those things are far from the focus. 80% of your tweet should serve to establish you as a credible figure in your field; 20% of the tweets should be links to your products.
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“Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.”

      This paragraph is based on a misquoted principle. These numbers are entirely irrelevant.

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“If you want to learn their methods, you can attend one of the hundreds of new courses that have sprung up, and pay hundreds of pounds to master your 140 characters.”

      True, there are sites which charge a lot to teach you about social media. There are many sites which offer free advice on tweeting and self-promotion, PopularSoda included. Our personal favorites include DuolitWise Ink, Jane Friedman, and Joanna Penn, as well as the Twitter accounts of Writer.ly, Jonathan Gunson, and Porter Anderson.
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“Book Tweeting Service will write your tweets for you. Its tweet plans start with a one-day plan at $29 (£18). While this frees time to actually write, the downside is that your tweets may not come across as particularly “you”, which might alienate any followers you already had.”

      Book Tweeting Service is just that: a service which will tweet about your books. They don’t write personalized tweets for private accounts (at least, not yet). The service is more like a billboard and less like a ghostwriter. They’ll blast sales links to your books on their accounts, which may be useful in conjunction with other social media tools, such as book tours and guest posting. They’re not intended to be a year-round service, which makes the exorbitant figure of £10,000 completely nonsensical. If there’s any confusion about the distinction, their Twitter profile should clear it up: “We promote your latest release, author website, book blog, book trailers etc to 60,000+ genuine followers on our Twitter accts. Please book early!”

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“3. Get family, friends and Facebook friends to post reviews on Amazon”

      The section under this bullet point starts off talking about Amazon, then shifts to Facebook, and inexplicably ends with a paragraph about social media in general. Let’s talk just about Amazon right now:
      It’s true that receiving a bunch of reviews at once will bump up your book in the Amazon rankings. However, we’ve not seen pleas for fake five-star reviews met with anything but derision. On reddit, a thread from last year involved a self-published author soliciting positive reviews for his ebook. Because of the backlash, he deleted his account.
      However, it’s possible to use these reviews in a legitimate way. In practice, we’ve seen writing communities band together in workshopping a piece, then reviewing the finished ebook as soon as it goes live on Amazon. We can’t think of better reviewers than people who are genuinely interested in it.
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“But does giving your books away for free work? A test case is another author I know who went on to the Amazon free deal for a day and entered the top 10 Kindle Free Chart. He had 700 downloads within four hours. However, over the next day, when the price had gone back to £4.99, and in the three weeks that followed, the total number of copies sold was zero. He had, somehow, failed to build his platform.”

      Morrison doesn’t mention the writer involved, so we can’t check his back catalogue. And the back catalogue is the yin to free ebooks’ yang. Yes, it used to be that offering a book for free was enough to stimulate sales. As the market became saturated, that’s no longer the case. These days, offering free ebooks is a strategy best employed when you have other ebooks which aren’t free. It seems strange, but it makes perfect sense. If you give away a book for free and impress your readers, what does that reader do next? If you have multiple ebooks in your back catalogue, the reader may go searching for more. But if you’ve only one book, the reader has no choice but to move on.
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“In publishing terms it has recently been revealed that 10% of all self-epublishers make £75% of all the money; that 50% of self-published ebooks make less than $500 a year (£320, or 87p a day); and that 25% doesn’t cover the costs of production.”

      We’ve spoken with dozens of authors who realize they will probably not become rich (or even solvent) through ebook sales. Besides that, though, these statistics don’t differentiate between high-quality ebooks and error-ridden (yet published) first drafts. Quality control is another issue entirely, but the point remains: not everyone should be making money from self-publishing simply because they have the ability to self-publish.

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“A small number of writers make a lot and everyone else wallows in the doldrums of minuscule sales. The only difference is that those at the top are selling 100,000 copies at 99p, not at £4.99, or £8.99 – which in real terms represents a massive shrinkage of the market.”

      We’re wondering what he means by “shrinkage of the market”. The sales seem to be the same. Only the price has changed, and that’s for the better. PaidContent has a great breakdown of author percentage profits using the example of Eric Goldman and Rebecca Tushnet. Goldman is quoted in the article:

            “[A] $150 casebook may have a $110 price wholesale (or less). At 10% royalties to the authors, Rebecca and I would share $11. At the $10 download price, Scribd takes $2.25 a download, leaving us author royalties of $7.75.”

      On the smaller scale of £8.99 and 99p, we can use similar math. It’s not uncommon for a writer to receive 15% from the sale of an £8.99 traditionally published book. This is about 60pp profit for the author. An ebook selling for £1.49 would net the author £0.97 from Amazon’s 70% royalty plan. The author makes more money per sale with the ebook.
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“A new study by Reuters shows that four out of five Facebook users have never bought a product or service as a result of advertising or comments on the social network site. Facebook. Facebook can’t prove that it can monetise its 900 million-strong base of users, and as a result it has lost 26% of its value since the IPO launch.”

      Facebook is only one site in the social media constellation. Besides Facebook, sites like Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, Smashwords, Tumblr, and independent forums provide online social opportunities to connect with potential readers or other selfpub authors. Besides Twitter and Facebook, no other social media sites were seriously discussed in this article.
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“There may be hundreds or thousands more Kindle authors out there who are not reporting their astronomic sales, but given that Kindle authors spend 80% of their time self-promoting, one assumes we’d have heard about them.”

      The 80% self-promotion idea has already been discussed here.
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“Or is [Amazon] protecting itself from the accusation that it is the only winner in an online market intended to skim millions from millions of hopeful new writers, who themselves will only ever see minuscule returns on their investment and effort? “

      We’ve already shown how authors can make more money per sale with ebooks than traditional publishing. The end profits will be about the same per unit. Of course, there’s the possiblity for hard-copy books to sell more units because of their bookstore presence. According to Morrison himself, though, “It also turns out that the ebook market now looks a lot like the old mainstream model. A small number of writers make a lot and everyone else wallows in the doldrums of minuscule sales. “
      This discussion ignores another issue entirely: writers who cannot get their manuscripts accepted and traditionally published. Agents do not accept all manuscripts. Amazon does. We’d rather have 100 sales of our books in a year than have our manuscripts sit abandoned in a desk drawer, rejected time and again.
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“Do you want to spend 80% of 80% of your time Facebooking about cats in the hope that you’ll make a 2.12% increase in sales on a book you had to write in 18 days? Do you want to spend 80% of your time creating unpaid market propaganda for the social media industry?”

      Again, these percentages do not seem to come from any of the named sources.

How to Approach a Graphic Designer: Interview with Peter Ingham

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      So you’ve finished the inside of your book and it’s time to start work on the outside. But how do you approach a cover artist? What’s the normal procedure? And how do you make sure your cover is unique, interesting, and legal? We spoke with author//graphic designer Peter Ingham about the cover design process from a graphic artist’s perspective.

      Hey Peter, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about ebook cover design. Let’s get right into it:

      What are the key pieces of information an author should include when soliciting cover design services?

      These are the main elements I look for:

  • Timeframe on the work (“I need this by next week.”)
  • The intended format (hardback vs ebook, as well as the target website like Amazon or Smashwords)
  • A general idea of what the client would like the cover to look like
  • Any images the author already has (stock images, personal photos, royalty-free images)
  • Any influences they have
  • Any thematic elements and a brief synopsis of the work

      What’s the most helpful piece of information a client can send to an ebook cover artist?

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