Wagging the Long Tail

A few authors sell vast numbers of books, while most authors sell very few. If you could amass accurate data on that, it would probably look like a decaying exponential curve. It would have the Pareto property, where 20% of the authors sell 80% of the books—those on the left. However, today we’ll focus on the right side of the curve. Statisticians, with their penchant for arcane, hard-to-understand terminology, call that part “the long tail.”

The curve I present here is approximate and intended for illustrative purposes only. Note the vertical red line. Believe it or not, the number of books sold to the left of that line equals the number of books to the right.

Out on the tail of that curve are many, many authors who sell very few books. Looks a little lonely out there, doesn’t it? Most of those authors would love to move left on the curve, ideally all the way left. Readers only have so much money to spend on books, though, and they’re more likely to read books by authors they know.

Very few of those “long tail authors” will move much further left from where they are now, and only a tiny fraction will make it near the vertical axis into the stratospheric heights of the best-seller lists.

That may sound depressing, but let’s squint and take a closer look at that long tail. Each author represents a single point on that curve, but book distributors look at the curve differently. These days, they see the near-infinite length of the long tail as a new profit opportunity.

Distributors have realized we now live in the age of instant and easy searches for obscure information. With the ability to print books on demand, it doesn’t matter how few readers seek, for example, alternate history books about trips to the moon. What matters is that the book “A Tale More True” pops up in response to that search and a sale ensues.

In Wikipedia’s article on the long tail, they quote an Amazon employee as saying, “We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”

You might have to read that again and let it sink in. I’ll wait.

In fact, now is the best time to be a long tail author. Let’s consider the set of those readers searching for steampunk books about planet-threatening comets. They easily find my book, “The Cometeers.” Among that admittedly small set of readers, I’m a best-selling author!

Here are a few more examples included for instructive purposes, and certainly not for crass self-promotion:

Readers search for books about: They find and buy:
Alternate histories involving the Ottoman Empire To Be First  
Romance stories taking place in Ancient Greece Against All Gods  
Stories involving Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions Leonardo’s Lion  
Sequel to War of the Worlds After the Martians  
Shakespearean clockpunk Time’s Deformèd Hand  

If you’re a long tail author, don’t despair. You have plenty of company; readers can find your books more readily than ever before; and book distributors now regard you as a profitable part of the book-selling enterprise. Happily wagging my tiny part of the long tail, you’ll find—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Getting Inside Their Heads

How do you write a story about a character who’s completely unlike you? How do you get inside his or her head enough to make your story credible? Don’t we all admire authors who can do this well? Conversely, isn’t it boring (and confusing) when every character in a story thinks and speaks the same way?

www.publicdomainpictures.net

I’ve blogged before about creating convincing characters who are the opposite gender from you. But there are many ways besides gender to be different—age, race, time period, nationality, home location, economic status, intelligence, species, planet, etc.

www.wikipedia.org

A few years ago, I read Next, by the late Michael Crichton. In that novel, one of the characters, Brad Gordon, is abnormally attracted to very young girls. If I remember correctly, I read about Brad attending a high school girls soccer game. The scene is in Brad’s point of view, and I read about watching the game through a sexual deviant’s eyes. Not only was the scene disturbing, but I was convinced Michael Crichton knew his character well enough to capture his mindset.

It’s a difficult thing, writing from the POV of a character so unlike you, one who thinks differently, who has different goals and motivations. That character doesn’t share your (the writer’s) basic assumptions about how the world works. The character reacts to events with different emotions than you would. Your job is to make that character realistic.

This character might be very different from your targeted readership. The character might be an extraterrestrial, a British colonialist explorer from the 1880s, a serial killer, or a Tibetan monk. Your readers won’t know if you “got it right,” but you still need to make it convincing. None of those characters should think or act like you do.

Of course, it’s worse when your targeted readers do match your character and you don’t. If you’re an elderly male author writing romance, your depictions of young women had better be very close to the mark, because your readers will spot any unrealistic actions, thoughts, clothing, dialogue, etc. If you’ve never been in the military and you’re writing a war story, your readership expects you to get in the mind of your POV characters and convey accurate feelings and actions.

In this blog post, Monica M. Clark discusses some helpful advice she learned from author Terry McMillan on this subject. Her three recommendations follow, paraphrased by me:

  • Empathize. Spend time getting in the mind of that character, feeling the passions, seeing the world through those different filters.
  • Listen. If possible, find real people who are like your character. Go to where they live, if you can. Then watch and listen. Pick up the speech patterns, the clothing, the gestures.
  • Apply for a job. No, the job’s not for you, it’s for your character. Fill out a job application as your character would. That will build the bio for your character.

All great advice. Regarding that last item, there are some things you need to know about your character that would not appear on a typical job application, like physical attributes and personality. Write those down, too. As you write your story, refer back to the job application every now and then to check if you have things right.

The better you can convey different characters, the better your stories will be. For example, I do my best to depict characters who are completely different from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

How Do Readers Discover My Books?

Like most writers, I’m curious about how readers come across my books. By what means do they discover them? If I had good information on that, I could focus on the marketing methods that work and abandon those that don’t.

Fortunately, author RJ Scott showed me how to do this. In one blog post, she published the results of a survey of her readers, in which she asked how they found her books.

I decided to do the same thing. I sent out thousands of e-mails to my fans (and acquaintances, and random passers-by) and gathered the responses. I first sorted the valid responses from the spam, advertising, and ugly threats to do me vicious bodily harm.

Then I plotted the data from most responses to least, Pareto chart fashion. Some responses were similar enough that I used slashes ‘/’ to show response variations.

It looks like my presence on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter is working. There’s a lot to be said for plain ol’ dumb luck, too, apparently.

The most surprising result was the two responses saying readers discovered one of my books while marooned on an island. I’m not sure if that’s two separate instances or two people on the same island. In either case, my campaign of wrapping books in bubble wrap and casting them in the ocean is probably not worth further investment.

It’s nice, too, when readers take the time to fill in the Comments section. That allows me to get beyond the mere data and explore the true reasons readers discover me, and my books. Here are all those comments:

  • “Your books are great! I can’t understand why they’re so unpopular.”
  • “You write as well as authors twice your age.”
  • “Buy ???????? cheap! Have more enjoyable ??? now!” [Comment edited for content]
  • “I love your book. It’s keeping my kitchen table perfectly level right now.”
  • “What’s this Comment space for? Am I supposed to type something here?”
  • “Qwert yui opasd fghjkl zx cvbnm.”
  • “That’s the last time I go on Amazon with my two-year-old in the room. Their one-click ordering feature is too easy.”

It’s going to be awhile before I do another reader survey, I think.

Just remember, any way is a good way to discover—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Read an eBook Week – It’s Almost Over!

Now you’ve gone and done it. You dithered, procrastinated, dallied, delayed, hesitated, vacillated, dawdled, and wavered, and look what happened. Today is the very last day of Smashwords’ Read an eBook Week.

It’s insane, really. Smashwords slashed the price for every single book in my What Man Hath Wrought series. The ones that were $3.99 are now $2.00 and the ones that were $2.99 are just $1.50. But only for the rest of today.

Oh, you meant to pick up one or more of my books at half price. The intention was there, but life dangled its distractions in your face, and you let the time get away from you.

Luckily, there are still a few hours left, but you’re burning valuable daylight reading this. Click on any link in this post now to grab a bargain. Just use the code RAE50 (for Read an eBook – 50% off, get it?) at checkout. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

My Books, Now Half Price

Yes, the rumors are true. This is Read an Ebook Week, and all of my books listed on Smashwords are half price!

Hard to believe, but it’s a fact. Read an Ebook Week runs from today until March 11. My entire series, called “What Man Hath Wrought,” might as well be called What Man Half Wrought” since the titles that were $3.99 are now $2.00 and the ones that were $2.99 are just $1.50.

You read that correctly. Get The Wind-Sphere Ship, Within Victorian Mists, A Steampunk Carol, and The Six Hundred Dollar Man for just $1.50 each.

 

 

 

 

Get Alexander’s Odyssey, Leonardo’s Lion, Against All Gods, A Tale More True, Rallying Cry/Last Vessel of Atlantis, To be First/Wheels of Heaven, The Cometeers, Time’s Deformèd Hand, Ripper’s Ring, and After the Martians for only $2.00 each.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the books are listed at full price at Smashwords, when you click on any of them, you’ll be urged to enter code RAE50 at checkout to get the half-price discount.

If I’ve totaled correctly, you can get the whole set, the entire series of 14 books (16 stories), for just $27. What a great way to sample the adventurous imagination of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Analysis of Writer and Non-Writer Morphs

A significant proportion of the Homo sapiens species does not write fiction, leaving that task to a tiny sector of the population that writes all of it. Today we examine this phenomenon and these particular creatures, and draw what conclusions we can from the available data.

Observations indicate the vast majority (greater than 99 percent) of adults within this species do not write fiction. The fiction-writing and non-fiction-writing fractions have not split off as separate species, and seem unlikely to do so. The distinction between the two is behavioral only, so we may define the fiction-writers as the FW Morph, and the others as the NFW Morph. Other sub-species terms such as breed, race, cultivar, ecotype, and strain are not as applicable as morph.

Note: We are only comparing those Homo sapiens who write fiction and those who do not. The term NFW should not be confused with those who write nonfiction books.

FWs and NFWs coexist and both share a similar global distribution pattern. Evidence shows the two morphs consume similar food, display no distinctive appearance differences, and often cohabit and interbreed without apparent preference for their own, or the other, morph. Resulting offspring mature into FW or NFW in the same 1% and 99% proportions, respectively. No statistical correlation is observed regarding passing on the FW trait to offspring. For example, two NFW parents may produce a child who matures into a FW.

In general, the species puts significant value on the education of its young. Nearly all juvenile Homo sapiens are trained in fiction writing, and are encouraged to create their own stories between the ages of 8 and 18 years. Thus, nearly all have the capability to become FW as mature adults, yet few do.

Behavioral differences between the two morphs are significant, and some of these differences are documented below.

  1. Obviously, FWs spend considerable time writing fiction, and NFWs spend no time doing so.
  2. FWs are more likely to read books (both fiction and nonfiction), and to read more often, than NFW.
  3. FWs react in varied and bizarre ways to the acceptance of a submitted story by an editor, and to the arrival of a box of the FW’s own books. These apparent rituals (dancing, fist-pumping, inordinate consumption of alcohol or chocolate have been observed) are thought to be celebratory in nature, but further studies are indicated.
  4. FWs make frequent attempts to discuss their stories with NFWs, rarely with a favorable outcome. NFWs often appear bored, or make some attempt not to look bored. The FW either fails to notice or expresses bewilderment. In extreme cases, an argument ensues and the two separate, usually for a temporary period.
  5. FWs occasionally seek out the company of other FWs. Perhaps this is because they are so rare, or perhaps they understand each other better than they understand NFWs.
  6. NFWs apparently are capable of creative thought and retain vestigial memories of early fiction-writing education. Sometimes an NFW will suggest to an FW that the FW write a story around the idea the NFW just had. FWs almost never do this, and instead suggest the NFW write the story. The NFW will almost never do that.

Since FWs produce a unique product that NFWs consume, and since NFWs produce all other products needed by FWs, an economic exchange relationship has developed. The amount of wealth earned by a given FW apparently depends on the popularity and demand for that FW’s stories among the NFWs.

In an economic sense, it is fortunate that FWs are in the minority; otherwise they would have to pay NFWs to read their books, rather than the other way around.

To the author’s knowledge, this is the first significant study of these fascinating morphs and their interactions in the wild. Clearly, the need for more comparative studies is indicated. Confirmation or refutation of the observations made in this analysis is sought by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

5 Signs of Leximania, the Love of Words

Most writers love words. They adore the sound of them. They revel in learning new words. They marvel over a well-turned phrase. Do you?

I’ll define Leximania as an intense love of—bordering on obsession with—words. It’s not necessary to have leximania to be a writer…but it helps. After all, to a writer, words are like a sculptor’s clay, a composer’s musical notes, a painter’s palette and brush. Words are the tiny bits of noting which, when joined, make literature. They’re the atoms of a writer’s universe, so it’s understandable if writers take an unusual level of interest in them.

When one of my daughters entered high school, we gave her a dictionary for her birthday. That evening, she came to me. “Dad, I think I found a mistake.” She showed it to me, and, sure enough, there was an error in her dictionary.

I was very proud of her. That’s what I’m talking about—not just finding the mistake, but paging through the dictionary, maintaining an interest in the words and definitions, and getting lost in them long enough to notice the mistake. That’s Leximania.

In Chapter 31 of Theodore A. Rees Cheney’s book on editing, Getting the Words Right, he says, “Unless you become a work geek, you’ll have trouble making it as a writer.” He defines a word geek as one who listens to other people’s use of words, both spoken and written; one to whom a dictionary is a friend; and one who delights in discovering and using new words.

There’s a time in our lives when we’re all leximaniacs. Between the ages of 18 and 36 months, you were learning 10-20 new words a week. At that age, you loved learning new words. When you heard a word, and learned what it meant, you rolled it around; you sounded it out; you used it.

Back then, you had particular fascination for words that were fun to say, including abracadabra, blob, banana, baboon, balloon, cuckoo, hocus-pocus, itty-bitty, kitty-cat, knickknack, mumbo-jumbo, teeny-weeny, teepee, topsy-turvy, yo-yo, and zig-zag. Note the interest in rhythm, alliteration, and repetition.

At some point, your vocabulary growth spurt tapered off. Most of us decide we know enough to get by, and don’t bother learning many new words after that.

For writers, leximania either never subsides, or is renewed at some point. However, it’s expanded beyond a love of fun-to-say words. It now includes obscure words with precise definitions or connotations that are perfect fits for a story in progress. It includes unusual parings of words that convey just the right idea. It includes words that give a sentence almost poetic rhythm and flow. It includes short, abrupt words to end a sentence with punch.

To sum up, here are some common symptoms of leximania. Do you:

  • Turn to a dictionary or thesaurus for one word, and end up lost in the book for ten or more minutes?
  • Read or hear an unfamiliar word, look it up, and use it several times that week?
  • Listen to people speaking and try to detect their repeated words and phrases, the rhythm patterns of their sentences?
  • Make a conscious and systematic effort to build your vocabulary?
  • Pause while reading a book to repeat a word or phrase and just admire the author’s genius in word usage?

If you answered yes to two questions, you may have the early onset. Three affirmative answers confirms the diagnosis. Four or more ‘yes’ responses suggest a severe, and probably incurable, case…one from which you don’t seek a cure.

Leximania, though rare, isn’t harmful and may actually extend your life. If you ‘suffer’ from it, my advice is to consider becoming a writer. Ending disclaimer: I’m no doctor, I’m just—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Top 10 Best Things about Being a Writer

Every week this blog reveals deep, mystic secrets about how you can become a best-selling author. See what you’ve been missing by posting cat photos instead of checking out my site?

But why should you want to be a writer in the first place? That is a question never answered in any of my posts…until now.

I interviewed every author on this planet (had to limit it, I only had a week), and compiled each of their reasons for being a writer into a vast database. Then I used artificial intelligence software to analyze those data and order the list by response frequency.

Either that, or I made up some reasons myself. One of those two methods, for sure.

Without further agonizing delays or obvious stalling tactics, I present, in the style of David Letterman, my Top 10 List of the best things about being a writer:

#10. Friends aren’t just friends—they’re character ideas.

#9. Free hobby; it only costs your time…and your sanity.

#8. Don’t like this world? Create your own.

#7. Get back at your Language Arts teacher by breaking rules she taught you.

#6. Commit crimes, but don’t do the time. (So long as they’re fictional crimes.)

#5. Free exotic vacations! Well, you go there in your mind, but you can visit outlandish places, like Antarctica, the Moon, the year 1850, Imaginationia, or even New York City.

We’re down to the top 4 best things about being a writer:

#4. Built-in excuse for insane behavior. “You’re a writer? That explains it. You’re free to go.”

#3. What other people call loafing, you call working.

#2. Sweet revenge on everyone who’s ever wronged you. Kill ‘em in your books.

And the number one top best thing about being a writer:

#1. Writer’s conferences—in the wee hours, hijinks ensue. A few shenanigans also.

If that list doesn’t make you want to be a writer, then you’ll have to make up, I mean compile, your own. Or you can go back to posting cat photos, it makes no difference to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Map of All Story Plots

When you’re stuck for a story idea, it may seem like other authors have already written all the good tales. Every time you think of a plot, for example, your head swims with titles that have covered that plot, worn it thin.

Are there only so many plots, you wonder, peopled with different characters, set in different places and times, portraying different themes, and written in different tones and styles?

Others have wondered that before you, and developed their own lists of all plot types. Prepare to be confused, and then (perhaps) unconfused.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker declared there are seven plot types: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, The Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Comedy, and Tragedy.

One year earlier, Ronald B. Tobias came out with his book, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. His list included plots such as Revenge, Transformation, and Wretched Excess.

Much earlier, in 1916, the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti introduced thirty-six plot categories, including Obtaining, Rivalry of Superior and Inferior, and Loss of Loved Ones.

Great, you’re thinking, but how many are there—seven, twenty, or thirty-six? That depends on the way you like to categorize things. You could cut a pizza into seven, twenty, or thirty-six pieces, and they’d still add up to the same pie.

That’s what I wanted to explore today. How do those categorization schemes compare to each other? Can you take Booker’s seven plots and see where Tobias’ twenty fit into them? Do Polti’s thirty-six plots fit somehow with Tobias’ and Booker’s taxonomies?

I couldn’t find any example of someone doing this, so I did it. I designated each of Booker’s categories with a B-number: B1, B2, etc. I did similarly with Tobias’ 20 (T1, T2, etc.) and Polti’s 36 (P1, P2, etc.)

Then the trouble started. Many didn’t fit well at all. In such cases, I read the descriptions the authors gave for their categories and chose the one in the other’s categories that seemed most like the one I was considering. You may disagree with the way I’ve mapped them, and I’d love to know your reasoning.

For your careful study, wry amusement, and utter disgust, here is my mapping of the three plot schema against each other:

By now, some questions have occurred to you. One might be, “Can’t a single story be a mixture of two or more of those plot types?” Answer: Yes, there’s no law against that.

Others of you are asking, “Why are the love stories listed as comedies?” Answer: Booker defined his comedy category as including more than humorous stories, and in particular included love stories in that group.

Lastly, there are those asking, “Of what use is this map? Come to think of it, of what use are the three taxonomies?” Answer: for those who asked that, I have no answer that will satisfy you. Go ahead and just write any old story whether it fits a pre-discovered plot category or not.

For those who didn’t ask that last question, you’re probably comfortable with the fact that some people like to take a mass of data and try to organize it somehow, to create filing categories like a Dewey decimal system or biological taxonomies.

Whether you think there are seven, twenty, or thirty-six plot types, or if you don’t see the point in dividing that pizza at all, there are plenty of stories remaining for you to write. Let’s see if the next one you create will be better than any authored by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Quit Your Job to Write Full Time?

Raise your hand if you hate your day job. Haven’t you had enough of meetings, projects, deadlines, office politics, commuting, performance reviews, and dealing with jerks? Sure, there’s a steady paycheck, health care, and someday a retirement package, but those are small compensation for all the stress and aggravation, right?

You’ve been writing fiction as a hobby at home for some time now, and have sold a few stories, received payment as a published author. What if…

Yeah. What if you quit that 9-to-5 grind and became a writer full-time? Freed of the hassle and pressure, able to write all day every day, you would craft higher-quality stories, right? You could crank out best-selling novels.

Yeah. You’ll be your own boss. There will be book signings, major interviews, and book launch parties. You’ll get an agent to do all the negotiating. When those advance checks and royalties roll in, you’ll hire an accountant to keep track of it all. You’ll get a faster car, and a new house. On an island.

Um, yeah. You’re hesitating. After all, that day job is the devil you know, and writing full-time is a leap into the unfamiliar. Those best-sellers aren’t guaranteed, are they?

You know you want to write full-time, so it’s a question of when, not whether. How will you know when the time is right? What are the signposts you must see before taking this off-ramp in your life? Here is my list of ways to know you’re ready:

  • You’re ready for the productivity increase. You’ve been used to writing on the fly, using time you stole from other aspects of your life. When you write full-time, that will be your new job. Now, time won’t be your problem, unless you waste it with nonessential activities. Do you have a long list of story ideas, ready to go?
  • You’re ready for the lifestyle change. Now, when your alarm clock rings, it’s time to wake up. As a full-time writer, you’ll set your own hours, but it will be tempting to stay in bed. Chances are your day job involves plenty of contact with other people. Your writing job won’t; there will be long hours of all-alone time. Maybe you’re used to several restaurant choices for lunch; for a full-time writer, lunch awaits in the fridge.
  •  Your housemates and dependents are ready. Your decision may affect others. What do they think of this? Do they understand you’ll be working at home for long hours and you require quiet conditions? Do they have unreasonable expectations of the chances of achieving fame and fortune? If your income takes a downward trend, will they suffer?
  • You’re ready for the financial changes. You may have been used to a steady salary; prepare for an erratic income with good years and bad ones. You’ll be self-employed, so there will be tax changes, too. That employer-obtained health care goes away, so be prepared to pick up those costs. Don’t forget your 401K, either.

While researching for this blog post, I came across some must-read sources. Mark (M.K.) Gilroy has a short but informative video about the financial aspects. This NPR interview of author Sonny Brewer discusses how your day job may still end up influencing your stories when you shift to full-time writing. Jeff Yeager’s guest-post on Brian Klems’ blog provides ten great questions you should ask yourself before quitting your day job. A post by Holly Lisle relates her experience, both good and bad, when she made the switch. Aurora M. Suarez interviewed romance novelist Ines Bautista-Yao about her fears, her preparations, and the lessons she learned. Check out each of these posts.

Are you ready to quit your day job to write full-time? It’s a difficult decision, I know. I can’t make it for you, and you have to decide based on the facts and feelings in your particular situation. Perhaps this post has given you some things to think about before you decide. That’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe