The Opposite of Popular

The online home of alleged author Victoria Leybourne


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All the news that’s fit to type

Hello blogfriends!

Like pretty much everyone in my life, you haven’t heard from me for a while, so it’s probably time for an update. Here, in no particular order, is what’s going on with me.

The Murano Glass Slipper is being edited!

the title "the murano glass slipper" against a blue watercolour background

I kind of can’t believe this, actually. As you guys have heard me bleat repeatedly on this very blog, there were THREE WHOLE YEARS between me beginning the first draft of The Rose and the Mask and its publication. I started writing The Murano Glass Slipper (a companion novel) on the March 20 this year and now, five months later, the messy “forcing ideas out of my brain and onto the page” stage is over and the process of preparing it for publication has begun. I’m hoping to release it this Autumn, although (like last time) I’m reluctant to fix a date until I’m quite a bit further along with the edit. I’m pretty hopeless at evaluating my own work so I honestly have no way of knowing how good or bad the hunk of words I sent into cyberspace last week is, or long it might take me to fix it up based on my editor’s suggestions.

Honestly, I’m very excited to have finished this quickly and it’s making me feel a little more hopeful that I might one day be able to make my living as a writer (although it’s worth noting that some of the most successful indie authors are putting out a book a month or even more, a feat that still makes me go “HOOOOOOWWW????” every time I think about it). But my number one concern is still to produce a book that people will enjoy reading, and I’ll delay the release as long as I have to to make that happen.

What’s interesting is that having The Rose and the Mask out there (and doing better than I ever really expected it to in terms of both sales and reader response) has made it a lot easier to get out of my own way and just keep writing The Murano Glass Slipper. Knowing that people want to read what I write is incredible, honestly, and has preempted a lot of the “this is terrible and I am terrible and everything is terrible” spiralling that I went through last time. But it also feels like a responsibility. There’s such a lot of hard work (and sheer luck) that goes into getting someone to pick up a book and like it enough to come back for more, and the idea of disappointing those readers is very scary. But I suppose that’s a good problem to have.

The Rose and the Mask is five months old!

Well, five-and-a-half, really. And, guys, it’s been a wild ride. I’m really glad I was doing a better job of updating this blog around the release, actually, because it’s been really helpful to remind myself, on “bad” days, how much better the book did than I was expecting. I mean, in this post from March 11, I said that I’d had a combined 57 paperback and ebook sales and the equivalent of 37 read-throughs on Kindle Unlimited (I explained what KU is in that post if you’re confused) and described that as “better than I expected, not as good as I hoped”. I think I was assuming that it would be all downhill from there. But, as you can see from this graph…

Graph shows total sales (ebook+paperback) plus what I call “full read equivalents”, i.e. the number of pages read in KU that day divided by the number of pages in the book)

…the book actually peaked in early April. (I think I figured out that that one really good spike was down to heavy promotion on a similar book that day – while my book was in the “Customers also bought…” section of that book’s page on Amazon.) Since then, though, I have experienced the expected slide. That’s been mostly okay. I mean, it’s widely acknowledged that that’s what happens after a book’s release, unless you keep releasing more books in the same series (which is why those wizards I mentioned earlier release so often). I could perhaps have slowed the decline by running a promotion of some kind, but I really wanted to save most of the promo options I haven’t used until I release the second book and have two books to promote at once. I won’t pretend it doesn’t sometimes suck to see the book’s Amazon rank falling (which means it gets seen by fewer people, which means fewer sales and so on in a disheartening ouroboros), but it really has done a lot better than I expected it to.

And then there’s reader reaction. If you were lurking around these parts before the release, you’ll know that’s what I was most worried about. I put a lot into this book (not always the right stuff, which is why it took so long, but, like, a lot) and I was really worried that nobody would like it. That fear turned out to be unfounded, which is amazing. A little scary, like I said above, but amazing. Also, spending five months knowing that at least one person that day (on average) has bought/borrowed and presumably read the book has made it a lot easier to cope with the idea of some of them not liking it.

While I’m being honest, though, here is a weird thing that I hope will go away one day: I am still very squirmy about the book in everyday life. Most people know I write, but only my very best friends know what the book is called and how to find it. And sometimes I will randomly think about a line or scene from it and feel overwhelmed with embarrassment about how awful it suddenly seems – even though, broadly speaking, I’m still proud of it. I certainly can’t bring myself to sit down and read it. It’s a shame, in a way: I’m actually probably the one person in the world who would get most excited about a Beauty and the Beast retelling set in Venice (which is why I wrote one), but I’m also the only person with cause to feel embarrassed about its existence.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

gif from bruce almighty: jim carrey types furiously, grimacing

I want to circle back and talk a bit about writing The Murano Glass Slipper, because almost nothing about that process has made it onto the blog. That is, of course, because I’ve been busy actually writing instead of just talking about writing. I don’t think the causation there is what it sounds like – that is, I don’t think I’ve been getting more writing done because I’ve been talking about it less. I’ve just had less to say about it (and been less keen to focus on something else) because it’s been going relatively well.

I remember thinking, towards the end of writing The Rose and the Mask, that I had learned a lot that would help me to make a better, more efficient job of writing the next book. I’ve been surprised by how true that was. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many drafts TRatM went through, and most of them were complete do-overs rather than refinements of the drafts that went before them. MGS went through three drafts. The first one was about 50,000 words, written in just a few weeks thanks to the plan I forced myself to make. The second one was a refinement of the first, but I more or less abandoned it at around 25,000 words when I decided, reluctantly, that I needed to make some big-ish changes to the plot to strengthen the motivation of one of the main characters. The final one refined what I could keep from the first and second drafts while adding the new scenes that were necessary to make this new plot idea work. I also had to spend a lot of time writing transitions between scenes, which is something I tend to skip over at first.

Obviously, I could stand to skip the “writing 25k of a new draft and then scrapping it to change the plot” part of this, but I’m delighted that that only happened once instead of over and over again like it did last time. Learning to plan, even imperfectly, has changed my life! I definitely want – and need – to get better at it. It would be nice to be able to anticipate problems like weak character motivation before finding myself 25k into a limp draft. And I’ve also discovered what seems to be a natural weakness for me around three-quarters of the way through a plot, where the end is in sight but I can’t figure out how to get there in a suitably tension-building way. But I’ve come a long way already, and that’s pretty cool.

Another thing that seems to have happened is that I’ve let go of the idea of writing as something I do for fun. Again, this is kind of a shame. Writing was an incredibly important hobby for me during my teens and my time at university and I got a lot out of it – making friends in the fanfiction community, building a skill that I felt good about, and just generally losing myself in imagining characters and stories. But I have always wanted to be a professional writer, and I’ve always known that eventually I’d have to sacrifice writing-the-hobby in order to be able to take writing-the-job seriously.

This hasn’t been a smooth transition (let me refer you to the THREE WHOLE YEARS thing again) but I finally feel like I’m finding the right balance. Some bits of writing are fun. For example, with MGS, I really enjoyed thinking of ways to twist the Cinderella story, and coming up with two characters who are completely different to Faustina and Benedetto in TRatM but still (hopefully) likeable and interesting. And some scenes (like this one that I shared a while back) are genuinely enjoyable to write, and flow out of me pretty painlessly. I also (despite the aforementioned squirminess) really like having written. Completing a big writing project feels awesome. But part of the reason that finishing feels awesome is that actually doing it takes a lot of work. Not just cherrypicking fun scenes to write. Not just playing with ideas and characters. Sitting down at the computer for hours on end, even when you don’t feel like it, even when you’re bored and tired and not exactly fizzing with inspiration for how you can fix a really tedious plot hole you’ve just discovered. Work. And this time, I really just did the work. I let myself feel bored and tired and uninspired and then I told myself, “So what? Get back to work.”

I feel nervous about this. Even though I know most of it was wasted time (at least in terms of producing stuff), part of me is worried that I actually need three years to write a half-decent book and that nothing I did this quickly can possibly be any good. But my anxiety has cried wolf too many times now, and I know I have to push past it to get anything done. Maybe that’s what “trust the process” means, although that’s hard for me because I don’t feel like I have a process yet. And, like I said above, it’s not like I’m going to keep rushing it out if it turns out that the editing process needs a little more time than I planned for.

 

Thanks for reading this mammoth post. I guess after such a big gap I wanted to make sure I was offering value! And thanks for coming with me on this writing journey. It’s nice to have your company 🙂


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Goodreads Giveaways – some thoughts and graphs

I know it’s been a while since I did one of the “HELP I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BE ALIVE” posts you’ve come to love and expect from me. Don’t panic, that doesn’t mean I’ve got any better at adulting, it’s just that… I don’t know, I’m sufficiently absorbed by writing and publishing stuff not to care that much right now? Which is the next best thing, I think.

Anyway, speaking of publishing, another thing I promised to come back to in my Self-Publishing To Do List was Goodreads Giveaways. I have now run two of them, and am therefore full of OPINIONS that might be of interest to fellow indie authors. Here they are.

I’ll start by saying that I absolutely recommend running a Goodreads giveaway. The only cost to the author/publisher is that of sending out the book(s) to the winner(s), and the amount of visibility you get for that price compares really favourably to just about every other kind of advertising I can think of. For more details, keep reading! Important note: all of this refers to giving away physical, paper copies of your books. Goodreads also offers ebook giveaways, which I don’t know much about except that they cost a lot of money.

I was convinced to try running a giveaway on Goodreads by this post by Catherine Ryan Howard. I strongly suggest reading it if you’re thinking of running one yourself but I’ll give a quick summary here for the link-shy. Basically, Catherine dissects the information that Goodreads provides about running giveaways. Goodreads’ approach is that the purpose of a giveaway is to get readers to post reviews of your book on their site, and therefore encourages authors to give away “as many copies as you can afford” because “(t)he more copies you give away, the more reviews you’re likely to get”. Catherine points out that, according to Goodreads’ own figures, only 60% of giveaway winners post reviews, and that it can actually be a lot less than that. Rather than reviews, she argues that the aim of a Goodreads giveaway should be to get your book seen by as many people as possible, and that (as I also discovered) it’s a really cost-effective way to do that.

Armed with that information, here’s what I did.

Giveaway #1

In the run-up to the release of The Rose and the Mask, my main focus was on making people aware a) that it existed and b) that it was going to be released on March 3, because I wanted it to have as big a launch as possible. (I actually have my doubts now about how important this was, but that’s fodder for another post.) Since Catherine argues that week-long giveaways are most effective, I was thinking of running two of those a week apart – giveaways of the same book have to be at least a week apart – during February to maximise exposure.

What stopped me was the fact that you’re expected to send out the giveaway prizes within two weeks of the end of the giveaway. (It says 2-3 weeks in some places, but I definitely got at least one email that said 2 weeks so I think it’s worth erring on the side of caution.) I actually didn’t have access to paperback copies of the book until… well, actually I think I got my finished copies (as opposed to the proofon March 3, which would have been a problem for the first of those two hypothetical giveaways.

Instead, I set up a giveaway to run from February 9 to March 3. There was no special significance to the choice of Feb 9 – I think it was just a week after I set the giveaway up. Because, I hope you’re taking notes, you have to set a giveaway up at least a week in advance.

However, the choice to have the giveaway end on March 3 (release day) was deliberate, based on the graph Catherine cites, which shows a big spike in interest in the book at the beginning of the giveaway and an even bigger one at the end. And, like I said, I was really keen to get as much attention as possible focused on the book on its release day.

Happily, my graph ended up looking pretty much like the example one:

graph showing a big spike in readers

You’ll notice I said “spike in interest in the book”, not entries. That’s because these daily figures Goodreads gives you show people adding it to their “shelves”, not entering the competition. Shelving a book basically means adding it to a list – most often a “to-read” list – so basically it’s an expression of interest in the book. When you go to enter a giveaway on Goodreads, there’s an option (checked by default, but people can uncheck it) to add the book to your “to-read” list. Based on my observations, slightly fewer than half of the people who enter will leave that box checked. That was consistent throughout, so this graph still gives a good idea of how many people entered on each day, relatively speaking. However, it’s the “to-reads” that we’re really interested in. Every time someone on Goodreads adds a book to their “to-read” shelf, that action appears in their friends’ newsfeeds – like “liking” something on Facebook.

screenshot of the page for the first giveaway

As you can see, the final number of entries was 1,966 – which blew my mind, actually, because the night before it ended I was pretty much just crossing my fingers that it would edge over the 1,000 mark. That means that 1,966 people (at least) heard about the book, and about half of those heard about it on release day. That’s decent advertising reach for the cost of one paperback – especially when around half of those people now have the book on their virtual shelves, where they can be reminded about it later.

Of course, if one giveaway is good, two must be better, right? Let us move on to…

Giveaway #2

Giveaway #2 started on March 17, with the aim of getting a spike on the day the Disney Beauty and the Beast came out. Mostly because I wasn’t organised enough to have it end then. I made it a shorter one this time, ending on the 25th – the thinking being that this would give people less time to forget to buy it after they entered!

I’ll be honest, I had high hopes for the second giveaway. See, one of the best things about Goodreads giveaways is that, when one starts, everyone who has that book on their “to-read” shelf gets an email about it. And that was over 900 people at the time my second giveaway began. Of course, that email says “enter this giveaway” not “buy this book”, which is obviously what I’d write if I were emailing those 900 people myself, but, once again, that’s a pretty good bit of marketing for the price of sending out that one paperback.

In practice… results were mixed. I mean, I’m pretty sure a lot of people got and reacted to that email, because the giveaway got a LOT of entries on the first day. I can’t remember how many, and apparently I didn’t take the screenshots I thought I did, but it certainly got to 1,000 within a day or two. Also, a much lower proportion of those entries brought accompanying “to-read” adds – presumably because many of those people had already added it to their list the last time.

With that strong start, at least entry-wise, I was expecting this giveaway to outstrip the first one. It… did not.

a screenshot from the second giveaway showing showing 1842 entries

Here’s how the “added to shelves” graph looks with the second giveaway:

a graph showing the same peaks as last time, plus two much smaller ones at the beginning and end of the second giveaway

As you can see, the second one didn’t produce nearly such impressive spikes of people adding the book to their to-read list. My only theory about this is that a lot of giveaway entries come from people who regularly browse the giveaway section and pretty much see every giveaway – so they entered my second one, but had already added the book to their “to-read” list if they were going to.

I still think it was worthwhile running both giveaways, but I’ll admit to being disappointed by the second one!

Did the giveaways translate into sales?

Short answer: I don’t know. There’s no direct way to track it. But I’ve been doing okay for sales (updates to come) and, anecdotally, I think I’ve had a proportionally higher number of ratings on Goodreads than you’d normally expect, which leads me to think that an above-average number of my readers are serious Goodreads users… which maaaaybe means that they heard about it on Goodreads as a result of the giveaway.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit wishy-washy, you’re right… but that’s kind of what marketing an indie book is all about, just trying things and hoping for the best. And I maintain that it was good value for money compared to other advertising options.

Tips

I haunted the giveaway lists quite a lot during my giveaways, especially the first one, to see how they were doing compared to others. It was a bit pathetic, but I did pick up a few juicy tips:

  • You can save a lot on postage (especially internationally) by having books shipped directly from a retailer to the winner, rather than ordering them yourself and then shipping them out. Assuming your book is print-on-demand, the only reason not to do this would be if you want to offer a signed book, but I wouldn’t recommend that. I didn’t see signed books generating more interest than unsigned ones, and I’m dubious about the value readers would place on a signature from an author they don’t even know they like yet.
  • Another thing that doesn’t seem to make a difference to the number of entries is the number of copies offered in the giveaway. I saw people giving away 10-15 copies (which is what Goodreads suggests) and not getting any more entries than giveaways that only offered one. If you’re after reviews at any cost, this is fine (although there are probably still better ways to spend your money), but if you’re focused on the exposure like I was, one at a time is fine.
  • Think carefully about your copy – by which I mean the text you can add to the giveaway. When you go to create a giveaway, Goodreads suggests something along the lines of “Enter now to win a copy of [Book Title]”. I was really surprised by how many people were actually using it! All that information is actually on the giveaway, so it’s a real waste not to use that text space for something else. I used my “mini blurb”, which is a very short piece of text that I also use as a kind of “headline” above the full blurb on Amazon. That shows “above the fold” on the giveaway (by which I mean that you don’t have to click “view details” to see it). However, you can actually add quite a lot more after that, so I went ahead and included the rest of the blurb too. I probably could have done better than that if I was better at writing copy, but I’m sure it was better than what Goodreads suggested.

Welp, this has been yet another unexpectedly huge post, but hopefully it will help someone! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Goodreads giveaways in the comments 🙂

a giant lizard reading a book


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Ebooks might be changing writing and I’m okay with that

a giant lizard reading a book

Pro tip: the correct stock photo choice is always the one that inexplicably contains some kind of giant lizard.

I don’t know what all the cool kids were doing as teenagers in the noughties but I was pretty much just hanging out on fanfiction.net. For those of you who had friends and went outdoors as adolescents, fanfiction is what it sounds like: stories written by fans, based on characters and settings from their favourite books, movies and so on. Fanfiction is often posted one “chapter” at a time and therefore written quite episodically. I put “chapter” in quotes because the most popular stories tended not to have the kind of chapters you’d recognise from books. Through trial and error I found that around 1500-2000 words was the optimum chapter length to get people to come back for the next one and, more importantly, to leave complimentary comments – the sweet, sweet nectar that my teenage soul fed upon. And each of those 1500-2000 word chapters had to contain an interesting plot development and a reason to come back next time.

Writing that down, it sounds exhausting. Not a lot of novels change the scene every 2000 words – novelists tend to linger dreamily over things like scene-setting and appropriate pacing. But it was actually a lot of fun. Whenever I felt like writing, I would re-read my last chapter, pick up where I left off, write until I got bored (luckily, usually around the right word count) and then post it.

As a reader, too, I loved having stories broken down into those bitesized chunks. Absurdly short chapters were irritating to keep clicking through but unusually long ones quickly exceeded my attention span. Curiously, if I liked the look of a story that was already finished, I would happily sit and read the whole thing in one go, but I still couldn’t concentrate on a chapter that was too long.

I’m telling you all this because an author on a forum I frequent – the excellent Daniel R Marvello – recently posted a link to an article by in the Guardian: Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write. Very short summary: ebooks have caused people to read less attentively and therefore to write more simply. I would throw fanfiction and other forms of online writing (blog posts, Buzzfeed) into that mix too.

Actually, fanfiction has influenced the world of publishing pretty directly. Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a Twilight fanfic and hasn’t changed much. Anna Todd’s One Direction fanfiction After has attracted high-profile book and movie deals. There are other examples but these are possibly the biggest.

I don’t know if there really has been a quantifiable change in writing styles. I’m not sure how you’d go about proving it, although I dimly recall an activity we did with newspapers at school that involved counting words per sentence and showed that The Sun had a reading age of seven (although rather more topless women than a seven-year-old is likely to be interested in). But if it is true, I’m okay with it.

As a reader, I’m inattentive. I like to have the scene set for me but I skip big, dense paragraphs of description. I like creative use of language and expanding my vocabulary but I don’t want to be stumbling over the sesquipedalian (!) every few sentences. “Good” writing is important to me, but I don’t think good has to mean “fancy”. I have a degree in Literature and now I don’t want reading to feel like hard work anymore. And that feeling is magnified when I read an ebook. I can lose a whole day curled up with a paperback, enjoying the lulls in a story as much as the climaxes, but my expectations of anything I read on a screen are the same as they always were of fanfiction: grab my attention, and keep grabbing it, because otherwise it will wander off.

As a writer, I generally live by the Elmore Leonard quote “I leave out the parts that people skip”. If you were to compare the current draft of Faustina to one of my fanfiction stories, I’d like to think that you’d find it a bit less choppy and more richly (if briefly) described, but still pretty skimmable. One of my many, many worries about this novel is that it won’t be “booky” enough – I learned to write by writing fanfiction and I feel like that has influenced my writing. But, if this is really the way the tide is turning, perhaps that’s a good thing.

In terms of the bigger picture, I imagine that serious literary types are wringing their hands over the death of writing as an art. Indeed, the Guardian article links to one (note: that article is well over 3000 words long and hell yes I skimmed it). I’m not going to try and tackle that on an intellectual level, because I’m writing this at 1AM and I don’t really want to, but what I will say is that writing is evolving all the time. We don’t write like Chaucer any more, or Shakespeare, or Dickens. They were of their time, as everyone is. They’re still perfectly readable today (Chaucer might be a bad example) but they’re best understood in context. Today’s context is connectedness and distractions and shareable content and I don’t see what’s wrong with that influencing the way we write. More importantly, one of the great things about the indie marketplace is that you can write whatever and however you want and people can decide whether or not to read it. As long as there are writers and readers who favour denser, more literary writing, it won’t go anywhere. And if that style of writing ever does fade away, that’s okay too. It’ll be in good company.