Can we really combine creativity with algorithms to write better stories and sell more books? In today’s show, Chris Fox explains how we can.
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Chris Fox is the bestselling author of science fiction and dark fantasy, as well as non-fiction books for authors including Write to Market, 5000 words per hour and today we’re talking about his next book, Six Figure Author: Using data to sell books.
- What Amazon data science, and machine learning, are and how authors can use them.
- How Amazon differs from the other online book retailers and how authors can train Amazon to sell more books.
- What to look for to find a voracious readership.
- Strategically writing to market and how to know what readers are looking for.
- On Amazon ads and when they are useful.
- Tips on writing faster.
- The future of writing, including virtual reality and AI help with story.
Transcript of Interview with Chris Fox
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I’m here with Chris Fox. Hi, Chris.
Chris: Hi, Joanna. Thanks for having me on.
Joanna: It’s great to finally have you on after we met earlier this year.
Just a little introduction; Chris is the bestselling author of science fiction and dark fantasy as well as non-fiction books for authors, including “Write to Market,” “5,000 Words Per Hour” and today we’re talking about his next book, “Six-Figure Author Using Data to Sell Books.”
These are pretty good book titles, as well, Chris. Your SEO’s pretty good, too.
Chris: I definitely have very the clickbait-y titles.
Joanna: You do, and we’re going to get into that, because I’ve talked before about how I don’t write to market but we’re going to talk about this a bit later. But first of all I wanted to just find out a bit more about you.
Why do you care about data science as well as writing? Tell us a bit more about your own background and how these topics connect in your own life.
Chris: It’s really integral to who I am professionally. Back in 2010, I worked in collections at a credit union making just above minimum wage and really disliked the job. I was the guy that would call and say, “Hey, your car payment is late,” so you can imagine how people reacted to me on the phone.
I was desperate to escape that situation. Right around that time, the iPad was released. I had this epiphany where I looked at the iPad and I realized that the people who could make applications for the iPhone and the iPad were going to make a ton of money, because in the next five years, everyone would have one.
I invested several thousand dollars I didn’t have, and I used that money to buy a new Mac and the software that I needed to teach myself to develop these applications. And if you fast forward just a couple of years, I ended up moving to San Francisco where I got a job at a start-up, and this is where I first started learning about data science.
What I didn’t know at the time is San Francisco is actually the real tech hub of the world, I thought it was Silicon Valley, but everybody from Uber to Fitbit, to PayPal, to Square, to LinkedIn, they’re all within a couple of miles of the same financial district, either north or south of Market.
When you’re going to lunch, everybody wears their hoodies or their t-shirts like uniforms, there’s the PayPal guys and the Square guys and everybody likes to talk about what they’re working on. What people were working on in 2012 and 2013 was data science.
The company that I landed at, CellScope, we created a microscope that attached to your smartphone so that you could record an ear exam and then broadcast that to a doctor. We took it a step further and started using machine learning, so that instead of needing to ask a doctor whether or not your ear was infected, the app could tell you, “Hey listen, that’s the tympanic membrane, I can see your eardrum and I’m pretty sure you’ve got AOM.”
Joanna: Wow, okay, which is cool.
Then how do we get from an app to diagnose your ear stuff to books?
Chris: At the same time that I’m learning all this data science, which is fascinating for me, I’m a JC dropout, I never finished my college degree and I’m surrounded by people with doctorates from Stanford and Berkeley. As they’re teaching me this stuff, I put out my first book, “No Such Thing as Werewolves,” and like every other author out there, I refreshed my KDP dashboard like 40 times a day and I spent hours checking out my product page and something began to crystallize.
I began to realize that Amazon was using data science, so that what I saw was not the same thing that a co-worker might see or a friend might see, or my family might see. Amazon was dynamically generating content for every single user that came to their site.
That started to lead me into how is data science being used for writing. It occurred to me, Amazon has been doing this quietly in the background for almost 15 years, where they’re gathering all this data.
I started to realize that if I could use the system they had created, I might be able to sell more books, and unsurprisingly, I guess, it worked.
Joanna: We’ll get into that in a minute, so let’s just stick with some definitions. What is machine learning, so people know that? I mean, many people have heard about the algorithms, and of course, we don’t know what the algorithms do necessarily, but we can take some educated guesses.
What is machine learning, algorithms, all these types of things?
Chris: Machine learning is exactly what it sounds like, it’s machines that can learn. They’re capable of learning new things. You teach a computer program what it’s supposed to know about, and then it gets smarter and smarter at whatever that thing is.
The best easy example I can think of is if you’ve used Facebook and if you’ve uploaded a photo, you know, how it draws that little box around your face? How does it know to do that? How does it know where the face is in the image? That’s machine learning.
What Facebook did to achieve that is they created a classifier, and they taught that classifier, “Okay, this is what a nose looks like. This is what eyes look like. This is what your mouth looks like. And if you find all of them and they’re in this arrangement, you found a face.”
Then they fed in maybe, let’s say 100,000 images with the square already drawn around where the face was and their baby algorithm, we’ll call it an artificial intelligence, it’s not quite there, but it’s getting there, looked at all that data and figured out, “Okay, this is how faces look.” I’ve seen literally millions of them now and it gets smarter and smarter at identifying where in the image that face is, so that’s the only thing that this AI is capable of doing, but they’re building lots of different little interlocking AIs called classifiers that work together to do pretty much anything you can think of.
Joanna: I know some people will be getting lost already but we’re going to try and hold it together.
Now, Amazon also kind of hire out, don’t they? Because I use Amazon S3 to host this podcast for example, and S3 like the cloud hosting, and in fact, I think a massive proportion of Amazon revenue now comes from hosting a lot of the internet on the Amazon service.
But you can now hire their machine learning services, can’t you, in the same way that I use their service.
What’s the difference between what they use for books and what you can actually rent yourself?
Chris: Amazon is at its heart a data company, and they’ve built a number of tools. So think of this like a toolbox that a data scientist could pick up where I could make my own hammer and I could make my own wrench. Or I could pay Amazon to use the things they’ve already created, including the hardware where you need to do all the number crunching. There’s a lot of very intense CPU work needed on these computers.
Amazon spun off this division, Amazon Web Services, which we used at the company, the start-up that I worked at as well, to host all our stuff. They really have made it accessible so that almost anybody. If they’ve got a data scientist or two, a teeny little startup can use what they’ve created and start figuring out again, almost anything that you can imagine — how to diagnose ears being the tip of the iceberg.
Joanna: I don’t program, but I would love to use the Amazon AI stuff to try and figure out how we can automate your system, but let’s go further into that.
Let’s first talk about how does Amazon differ from iBooks, Kobo, Nook, other retailers in how they use this type of machine learning?
Chris: iBooks, Kobo, and Nook, what they all have in common is they work very much like a real brick and mortar bookstore. A person is deciding what books they’re going to promote, where those are going to show up and how long they’re going to be there, and that’s very carefully curated by those companies.
If you have a relationship with Apple, the people at iBooks are great, then they’re going to help you out and they’re going to put your book where it can be seen by its target audience.
What Amazon does, it’s more of a meritocracy where their data science is figuring out which books are selling. And then in the background, they’re showing those books to more people without you needing to do anything at all.
Amazon is much more adept at using data science to locate the target audience for any given product, not just books, but everything from surfboards to televisions are sold using the same algorithms.
Joanna: My ears pricked up there and I know people listening will as well.
So sharing information about your book or pushing your book without you having to do anything?
Joanna: Now everyone’s like, “Oh my goodness, how do we make this work?” Because let’s face it, this is already there. It’s already in Amazon and a lot of people are going to a lot of effort to try and sell more books by pushing traffic, for example, to the system.
How can we use the AI, you use the phrase, how can we train the Amazon system to sell more books for us, without us having to do so much marketing?
Chris: This is easier to do if you’ve written a book to market, but it’s not necessary to write a book to market to make this work. What you want to do is figure out, with as much accuracy as possible, who your target audience is.
And when you start selling your book, the number of sales is not nearly as important as who you sell your book to, because each of those sales to Amazon represents a customer profile.
If you can convince them that people who voraciously read in your genre are going to love this book and you sell a couple of hundred copies to people like that, Amazon’s going to take it and run with it. You’ve now successfully trained them about who your audience is because you used good data and now they’re able to easily sell your book.
If, on the other hand, you and your mom buys a copy and your friend at the coffee shop buys a copy, and people who aren’t necessarily into that genre are all buying it, Amazon gets really lost and confused.
The beauty of how this works is that as an author, all you really need to do is figure out who your audience is and sell a few books to them, and Amazon will do the rest.
Joanna: Yeah, and again, everything you were saying is like yeah, figure out who your audience is. I just want to come back there to something like perma free. I’ve been doing this since 2009 really, when Amazon KDP went international, before then, it was only for Americans, back in the old days, but the permafree, first in series, has been an evergreen marketing tactic that a lot of people have used, myself included. I know some people are now saying maybe that has fallen off. Others are saying it hasn’t.
What we know with the permafree and when we promote the permafree is that a whole load of people who pick up free books will pick up the permafree.
Are you saying that a permafree with a BookBub on a free book is a bad thing because even though you might shift 10,000 copies, maybe 9,000 of those people are not the people that you want the algorithm to know about?
Chris: Exactly, and you can test this yourself. Let’s say you’ve had a BookBub in the last six months, how long was the tail? Because if it was the right kind of data, you’re going to see that your book is sustaining it’s sales rate, it’s going to keep selling once it hits a certain level.
But if you have the wrong type of audience that will manifest both in your Also Boughts, where you’ll see that you have cookbooks mixed in with your romance novels or whatever genre it is that you’re writing, and I think that that can be really dangerous because once that data is polluted, if you give away those 10,000 copies to a bunch of random people, Amazon will never again have any idea how to sell your book.
Joanna; Actually. I had a look today at something. It’s not even my perma free, but it’s got a book in Russian on the first page of my “People who bought this also bought this,” and I was just like, “That’s crazy.” I was having a look at it for our conversation, so that was kind of nuts. I know now people are going, “Oh no, that’s terrible.”
So therefore is a 99-cent promotion better with a more targeted audience? And what would be the best ways to do that according to the system that you’re mentioning?
Chris: Absolutely. I think that a targeted 99-cent sale is going to get you a lot more mileage, or just doing sustained advertising, so $5 or $10 a day with Amazon or Facebook or AdWords, whatever your advertising platform of choice is.
Make sure you’re hitting whatever your target audience is and you’re going to get a trickle of sales. 99-cent sales have worked great for me.
When I released “Destroyer,” I put it out there at 99 cents. It sailed all the way up to number 200 in the store, because that 99 cents kinda removes the barrier of purchase, and a lot more people are going to pick it up during that window.
Joanna: I’ve heard a few things recently that make me really on the edge of removing my permafree and it’s kind of like ooh, it’s difficult because we tend to like the things that worked for us in the past. But one of the reasons to talk to you is to challenge myself around what I do.
I’d like to think I’m a futurist and we’ll talk about that, but gosh, I find myself sticking with things that have worked in the past. Whereas we both know how fast things change in this market.
Chris: It’s really difficult. I faced the same dilemma. I went wide with my books in, I want to say, April of 2015. And I had a permafree, first in series, and it did pretty well. And that was working for a while.
But then a friend of mine, Rickel Terry, writes I think “Build a Vampire” is the name of his series and he had it wide, and he pulled it back in in December into Kindle Unlimited, and sales tripled in about two weeks. I’ve been watching him and I watched for several months, as all of a sudden, he’s having five-figure months and I’m like, “Hmm…”
I finally got over my reticence to remove my books from the other retailers, I put them into Kindle Unlimited, and sure enough, as soon as I did that, I started making a lot more money.
Joanna: Of course, I hate to hear that, because I am one of these people who is really into going wide. Mainly because in 2008, I got laid off along with loads of other people in the GFC, and I swore never to rely on one company again. And I know that you are really hardcore for KDP Select now and you mentioned Amazon ads, and of course, you can’t use Amazon ads unless you’re in KDP Select which is super annoying.
Now, I’m thinking that I will write something new, like a different series that would be in Select, as opposed to pulling my other books. Because I’m very committed to Kobo, who sponsored the podcast, and iBooks, and I think we, on a much bigger level, we should be investing in building an ecosystem, and also in other countries, some of these other stores are stronger.
So how are you feeling? Right now, you’ve pulled them as you say.
Is that just a short term strategy?
Chris: It is. It is absolutely a short term strategy. Like you, I’m terrified of having all my eggs in one basket, which is why I went wide with my books originally.
It’s scary because Amazon could decide tomorrow they’re killing off KDP or they’re cutting our royalties in half or whatever they’re going to do, and if you’re solely reliant on them, you’re really in trouble.
This gets back to the data science, why I’m willing to do this short term risk. I get probably 15% to 20% of my sales coming back as mailing list subscribers using the technique that Nick Stephenson teaches about reader magnets. I actually learned it on The Creative Penn, putting that on the front and back matter of my book.
So by selling a ton of books on Amazon in the short term, I’m building up this really engaged, large list of people that I can use at places like Facebook or Google for advertising. When I’m prepared to go back wide, now I’ve got this massive audience that I can take with me. And that I think makes it worth it, but it is still a little scary because you never know what’s going to happen with Amazon.
Joanna: Exactly. A lot of this has to do with back list and having a number of books.
Briefly, just tell us about “Destroyer” and what you did with these write to market books.
Chris: I did something I called the 21 Day Novel Challenge and I wrote and edited this book in three weeks. I sent it to a line editor who gave it a quick look and sent it right back, and then a week after that, it was live on Amazon.
The goal there was to write a book that would sell really well. I was gambling that it would get into the top 1,000, which it successfully did. It got all the way up to number 200, sold 500 plus copies the first day and it stayed there for months. For the first 60 days of “Destroyer’s” launch, Amazon ended up pushing the book largely through Kindle Unlimited, and I was just selling thousands upon thousands of copies and having millions of pages read.
That book sustained it’s rank for far longer than I expected it to, and when it started to fall, I put up the sequel and the same thing happened.
When it started to fall again, I put out the third book, so here we are five months after I released “Destroyer,” “Destroyer’s” still probably number 3000-ish in the store, and to date, the series has earned me about $65,000.
Joanna: Why did you write those books? Let’s get into the write-to-market thing.
Talk a bit more about what “Destroyer” is and why you decided to write that genre.
Chris: I chose this genre because it’s an intersection between where I know there’s a large, voracious audience of readers. They’re going to go ahead and buy this book in droves because there’s so many of them out there and they love science fiction, and it also is something that I enjoy writing.
Growing up, I watched a lot of science fiction movies, I’ve always read sci-fi books. I knew that if I could find that intersection, if I could get to a point where I was writing something that had a massive audience, my book being very similar to other books that were in that genre already, I’d have a really high likelihood of selling to the same audience of people that liked the books that were already out.
Joanna: The important thing, and this is why I think when people hear “write to market,” it’s like Tim Ferris with “The 4-Hour Work Week,” everyone goes, “Oh, but I bet you work more than four hours.”
The same with write to market, you actually do say in the book, you have to start with what you love, and then find the intersection of genre within that, that is selling well. I’m going to explain how I followed your thing in a minute.
How do you find a sub-category or a smaller niche within the Amazon ecosystem? What are the things to look for in order to find a voracious readership?
Chris: What I do is I start looking at the rankings of the number 1, the number 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100 books. You can tell based on where those books are ranked, how many books in the genre are selling. If the number one book is ranked in the top 100 in the store and so is the 20th book, then you’ve found one of the hottest genres on Amazon.
If you find that by the time you get down to number 40, the rank is dropping off sharply, that suggests that not enough books are being produced in that genre and it might be a great place for you to jump in and make a name for yourself.
Joanna: The reason I wanted to talk to you about this is I’ve written this London Psychic Trilogy, the first book of that series is “Desecration.” Totally written from my heart, really, a book that I had an idea, I wrote it, and I still struggle to sell these books, because they should have been straight crime, but there’s a psychic in them.
They’re kind of an edge of horror, they’re a bit of supernatural. They literally don’t fit anywhere. And of course, my ARKANE series is action/adventure and sells quite well in action/adventure. But this London Psychic Trilogy, I just can’t find a place for it.
I went through and identified the things about my books that were interesting. And I wanted to tell people the numbers, so I looked for sub-categories where the number one was around 200 in total, and the number 20 was around 5,000. So would you say those are the right numbers?
Chris: That’s a great spread. That means that the top books in that genre are selling extremely well, you can make a great living, but they bought them out pretty quickly, so there’s not hundreds of new books coming out every week.
Joanna: Which is cool. I basically found British horror fiction.
Joanna: Which is really funny, because British horror fiction, I read a lot of James Herbert, and people might remember him from the ’80s, but I really love James Herbert and he really is a British horror fiction writer. Now, I don’t like really violent stuff like gore, but because anything with supernatural that’s not paranormal goes in horror, basically.
You helped me with this. We narrowed it down to ghosts and haunted houses and British horror, so we found that sub-genre. And that does fit with the books I love, and also, a genre that is more hungry.
What happens next, if people have gone through this? The reason I’m sharing this is there won’t be many people listening who will be interested in this sub-genre. To be fair, it’s not like military sci-fi or anything in romance. So what’s next?
If you’ve identified your sub-category, what do you do?
Chris: If you think you’ve identified your sub-category, the next thing to do is to buy between three and five of the top-selling books, ideally books that are written by indies, and then read the books. See what they’re doing in these books, what tropes are they using, what conventions do they have to stick to. How long are the books, how frequently do they release, what do the covers look like, what are the blurbs, and just digest all the information to get a feel for how and why the books in that genre are selling.
Even if you don’t consciously consider that when you’re writing your own book, all that’s going to lurk in your subconscious, and you’re going to write something similar by nature.
Joanna: It’s funny, because I know, again, a lot of people will be resistant to this. I’ve been resistant to this, until I’m like, I’m just annoyed about not being able to find a place for my other books. And also I’m coming to the end of a nine-book cycle and I’m ready to write something new. So I was really thinking, what do I want to write?
Let’s just revisit the idea of tropes and conventions. These are things like James Herbert’s stuff will have a demonic presence, a kind of religious edge. It’s not Christian fiction, so it’s not like spiritual warfare but there’s a demonic presence in some way that is oppressing people, and it’s a good versus evil fight, basically. That’s one of the horror tropes that I love about Stephen King and other things.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I can’t use my own creativity, does it? I’m not going to write exactly the same book. Or haunted houses, of course, are a big deal, or an evil presence in a particular place, and being in pagan England, there’s loads of this stuff.
People will be resistant about creativity versus tropes, so maybe you could comment on that.
Chris: It’s really just a framework for the book that you’re writing. So regardless of whether or not you write a book to market or you’re just writing something from your heart, you’re probably writing to a fairly specific genre set of conventions.
I love fantasy. Most of my author friends love epic fantasy, so the epic fantasies that we’ve been tinkering on are quite by accident, already follow a lot of the writing to market advice.
It shouldn’t be that hard for you to follow story concepts, because you don’t need to look at them exactly and mimic completely the same demonic presence that you saw in this other book. You should come up with your own protagonist and antagonist. They should be very, very unique. You just want to use the same broad brush strokes that were used in other novels.
I’ve got the aging starship and I have the maverick captain, but all the details of that universe and the people in it and the enemies that they’re fighting, that’s all unique to me, stuff that I made up from scratch.
Joanna: I think that’s really important. And as I say, my ARKANE series appeals to people who really like Dan Brown. There’s religious artifacts and those archeologists and Indiana Jones style/Lara Croft style. We do read in specific genres often, so these are the things we like to write, so I definitely agree with that.
So then, we write the book, obviously?
Chris: There are a couple of other steps I do before you write it.
I would read the reviews of the other books that are out and see what people have to say about the one stars and the five stars, because that’s going to tell you a lot about reader expectations. The people who are giving it a five star are going to tell you what that person did right and the one stars are going to say, “This is kinda where they messed up.”
You’ll learn a lot when you’re crafting your plot about what you can and can’t get away with in that genre. Once you’ve done that kind of research it’s time to jump in and plot your book.
Joanna: This is great. I tend not to look at my one star reviews, because it makes me depressed but I actually caught sight of one on Audible for one of the London Psychic books. And it said, “Dennis Wheatley meets Barbara Cartland.”
Now if people don’t know who those two authors are, Dennis Wheatley is massive horror writer from I want to say the ’60s, ’70s. And Barbara Cartland is a massive romance author. It was a one-star review and it made me laugh so much because it’s kind of an emotional horror book. I clearly just got totally the category wrong. Somehow it ended up with somebody who’s read the book who’s not the right audience.
What you’re saying is if you research that category and read the reviews, you can see what people hate about things?
Chris: Exactly, and you’ll know what they expect.
Joanna: Also, what they love and what they expect. Let’s circle back to the data science.
How does this all fit in to what we started out talking about in terms of Amazon’s algorithms? Why will this approach make it more successful?
Chris: Because if you understand this audience that is reading a certain type of book and you get why they’re reading those books and what they’re getting out of them, then you can very easily craft a story that will provide those things.
If you do that and if you have a genre appropriate cover that’s similar to the other top-selling books in your genre, Amazon’s going to start showing that to all the people who bought these books.
This is where Kindle Unlimited becomes wonderful, because there are so many voracious readers who read 7 to 10 books a week and they’ll run out of books. They’re always looking for something new. If you show them your new book that looks very similar to these other books and hits the same notes, they’re going to buy it. They’re going to devour it, love it, review it, and they’re going to ultimately sign up to your mailing list.
Joanna: Okay, so we’ve written the book now and it hits the right emotional notes, and then when we publish it, we put it under the sub-categories that we identified. Let’s talk about Amazon ads because I’m not somebody who currently uses them.
What is so good about Amazon ads and maybe explain what they are for people who don’t use them, why are they so good for this type of approach?
Chris: Not Amazon ads specifically, but any types of ads. Amazon ads differ a little bit from Facebook in that you can use more targeted keywords. When you’re setting up an Amazon ad, you can add as many keywords as you want of different types and you will pay a certain bid based on which keywords are clicked.
What Amazon does is they show a row of sponsored ads right under the Also Bought on the product page, so that’s where you’re showing up. And then what this can lead to is a bunch of impressions across Amazon where people who are looking at other books. In my case, science fiction books, they are seeing my sponsored book down there on that same page, and some of them are going to click on it.
It’s not always profitable, I’ve lost money. I’ve broken even at different points. The longer I do it, the more profitable it gets. But I’m not doing it so much because it makes direct money, but because I’m getting people who are in the right target audience. I want it shown to people who love science fiction, and I’m willing to pay a premium for that.
You don’t necessarily need to do that with Amazon ads. You could also do it with Facebook ads. I know that Mark Dawson taught that course. One of the big things he really harped on was making sure you have your audience right and make sure that you’re constantly experimenting, and this is the reason why.
If you get your audience zeroed in to a point where you’re marketing to the right people, it automatically becomes more profitable. And you don’t have to do a lot of it. $5, $10 a day, but if you’re hitting that right audience, you get the trickle of sales enough to trigger Amazon’s algorithms.
Joanna: I think I need to find some alive authors since James Herbert is dead. It’s interesting, because Stephen King and James Patterson are too mainstream for this type of approach.
If you try to use James Patterson on Facebook ads for example, even though it might perform well, he’s such a wide market with so many different products. He does YA, he does romance, he does thrillers, he does all kinds of things. He would be too big, wouldn’t he?
Do people really need to identify specific authors? You said indies, but indies aren’t always on Facebook as targets.
Chris: Right, and it’s not always an option that you can use. It’s a little harder, I found, with Facebook advertising to find the right audience, and it takes a lot more experimentation. I’ve lost a lot more money on Facebook ads then I’ve made. But I never gave it the time and attention I think that Mark Dawson has. Now, the further into my career I get, the more I can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. I think it is really just experimentation and it depends on your genre.
In the case of Amazon ads, because you can do more targeted keywords you don’t necessarily have to say James Patterson, you could find one of his books, like say “Zoo,” and use that as your keyword. Like “James Patterson Zoo,” would be a keyword. That would probably get you a little bit more traction because it’s more targeted.
Joanna: I mentioned it will be a few weeks ago now when this goes out, but I mentioned this new book called “The Bestseller Code,” which has been doing the rounds on the publishing news sites, which talks about machine learning to analyze books.
I read it and talked a bit about it on the show, so I won’t go into too much, but basically, they found “The Da Vinci Code” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” have exactly the same story arc, and they processed it on a graph. It was exactly the same, and those two books, obviously, are very different. “The Hunger Games” again, this type of story arc. I don’t think that’s anything new, because we know that from “The Story Grid.” It absolutely fits the Archplot thing, that’s not new stuff.
But what is new is they’re using machine learning to analyze books. And my first thought was, “I want access to that,” because I want to load my manuscript up and see how it maps against the story of a bestseller like “The Da Vinci Code,” for example. There are other companies that were doing this now. I talked a bit about that at the Smarter Artist Summit.
What are your thoughts on these types of tools that are analyzing story? Are publishers going to use that for the slush pile? Is Amazon using that already? What do you think about this bestseller code thing?
Chris: I think that Amazon probably is using this already, and I think it’s going to grow over time. It’s in its infancy so it’s not really powerful yet, but you give this 5, 10 years and it’s going to revolutionize how books are sold, because we’re going to understand more about how stories work.
Amazon knows a whole bunch of metrics they’re not showing us. Things like most people will get to page 218 in this book and then they stop. Imagine if you, as the author, had access to that data, so you know that for some reason, nobody makes it past the 30th chapter of your book. How would that empower your career? You’d be able to figure out, “Oh gosh, I did A, B, or C in this chapter,” and then go back and modify your own writing accordingly.
Once tools are released that give us more information as authors, I think it’s going to help us grow as writers and we’re going to know and learn a lot more about how we can improve.
Joanna: What do you say to people who might be scared about it. Like “Oh, the AIs are going to win the Pulitzer next,” and there are already companies writing non-fiction books. Narrative Science, I think, is one of them, and they’re doing journalism.
Are writers going to be put out of business because the machines will do it?
Chris: I think you’re at least a decade out before you have to worry about that, maybe two, and maybe never. There’s always going to be a certain amount of creativity involved in the art that we’re doing. A computer can simulate that to a point, but in the same way that Michael Bay’s movie have a certain style, you’re going to see that from machine-created stories. They’re going to be, especially in the beginning, a little bit more formulaic and a little bit less unique. And that’s something we, as authors, are always going to be able to tap into.
I don’t know that it’s going to reach a point, maybe even in our lifetimes, where we have to worry about being out of a job. And if we do reach that point, odds are good a lot of other jobs got outsourced first.
Joanna: No, that is true. And I know, both you and I are not scared of this, we’re looking forward to it in that I particularly would like an AI research assistant.
Synchronicity happens, as you know, when you write a novel. I was trying to find a picture of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet, which is the cobra that’s on the crown, the Uraeus crown. I wanted a picture in the tomb in the Valley of Kings that I could use in my book that actually existed, so I spent ages looking at photos of the Valley of Kings, trying to zoom in. I’ve been there, but I didn’t look for that at the time. I was like, “Oh, where is the picture?”
About an hour later, I found an actual tomb that would work, so that I could literally write the tomb… This is the type of writing I do, actually, write the actual tomb number where this painting is, because I like reality in my fiction.
That took me so long. And I was thinking about our interview and I just thought, if I had an AI assistant, I would just go, “Find me that.” Now, is that just glorified Google? I don’t know.
What do you think about that type of tool that an author could use?
Chris: I can’t wait to have that, and I think we absolutely will. In the next several years, you’re going to see more of that. As the tools that are being created get smarter, they’ll be able to handle more of that heavy lifting. It will get easier for you to do that kind of research.
What excites me is really how this will enable kids to learn. Can you imagine having been 10 years old and having some kind of computer software program that could teach you storytelling and say, “Okay, your story’s good, but maybe if you worked on this or we added that,” and then all of sudden, you as a 10-year-old have produced a pretty decent story. I think that we’re going to see that probably in the next decade, and it will be really cool.
Joanna: That is a really good thought. For those people who are worried about more and more books coming out, I always say to people, “How many more books do you read when you write books?” Like before you were a writer, you still were a reader. Once you start writing, do you not read a ton more?
Chris: You should be, if you’re not.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. If everybody in the world wrote a book, then everybody in the world would read a lot more books.
Chris: Right, and so there’s no loss there. There’s just a gain for everybody that enjoys great fiction.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. I’m glad we’re both excited about that. It’s kind of circling back on technology that helps writers.
You also have a book called “5,000 Words Per Hour.” Now today, I worked on my book for two hours, and because I spent so much time looking for that, I only wrote about a thousand words in two hours.
Your book is “5,000 Words Per Hour.” Give us some tips for doing that, because obviously, everyone wants to go write to market now and do it fast.
Chris: The first thing I would do is turn off the internet. You are not allowed to do any research when you are conducting your writing sprints. No research of any kind.
Before you sit down to write, you want to make sure the research is already done, that you have your chapter summaries ready to go, so you know what you’re going to write.
Then I would get a stopwatch, or an Apple watch, or run a timer on your computer, whatever works easiest for you, that I would time that and do it in writing sprints. You can find the time that works best for you, it can be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, a half hour, some people do an hour.
When you’re writing, you write straight through, you’re not allowed to stop. You’re not allowed to go back. You’re not allowed to correct misspellings. You just crank out as many words as you can. The problems that crop up in that prose are something you’re going to fix in editing.
The reason you want to do this is forcing yourself into flow state gets easier and easier the more often you do these writing sprints. Initially, it would take me 10 minutes to reach that flow state, where I stopped thinking about writing and I’m just producing fiction. Now I can do that in probably 30 seconds.
I sit down, I start the timer, and I start writing, and a couple of seconds later, out pours the prose. And ultimately, I think that’s your goal is to train your brain in the same way you want to train Amazon.
Joanna: You’re using dictation as well, is that right?
Chris: I use it a lot less these days. At the time that I wrote “5,000 Words Per Hour,” I was still working as a software engineer. When I was standing at the bus stop, I’d be dictating into my phone. Now that I get to work from home all day, I generally prefer typing, but occasionally will still use dictation.
Joanna: That’s interesting. It’s funny, I tried, in my last book, I did a lot of dictation. And this one, I don’t know why, but I’m just typing a lot more. I’ve only done a few thousand words dictation, and I think it partly is because I’m actually doing a lot of discovery writing in this book, which, I think, when you get to book nine in a series can happen. It’s really interesting that each book is a different type of project.
You’ve had the book “Write to Market” out for a while now, and I know you’ve had some kickback on people who haven’t liked the concept. Even though, when you think about it, publishing editors, commissioning editors, that’s basically what they do, they commission to market, don’t they? They buy the books they think will sell, like anything with a girl in the title, for example.
Do you see that as being any different to the way a commissioning editor might work?
Chris: The big difference, I think, is how books are sold by traditional publishing. Because it takes a year to two to get that to market. It’s really impossible for them to look at current market trends and figure out what they could write to market, just because the turn time on a traditional published novel is too long.
That kind of magic can’t really be harnessed and so they don’t use it. Because that’s been the case since the early ’80s, I think we find that people are told not to write to a market because it won’t be successful.
Now, these days, we’re heading back to where we were at in the ’50s where people would crank out massive amounts of pulp fiction. If you look at, say, Isaac Asimov, he had over 500 published works in his lifetime. And he would crank out multiple short stories, and occasionally, a couple novels in a month because he had to pay the rent, and there were all these publications that would pick him up.
Joanna: He actually had, I believe, he had three typewriters in his room and he would always be typing a sentence on one book and another. That’s amazing.
Chris: It’s so easy for us now with all the tools that we have. I can’t even imagine having to have a typewriter and redo an entire page because I made a mistake.
Joanna: Actually, Asimov is a good example. Enid Blyton’s another one, she had over 500 books. I’m not going to put Barbara Cartland in there although, she was pretty prolific. Isaac Asimov because he spans pulp and classic, what people would call literary fiction. I think one of the biggest issues that people have with the idea of writing fast and writing to market is that you won’t write something with longevity.
Now, I’m not saying quality, because we know quality is in the eyes of the reader or whatever, but longevity or writing something that you can say, “This is the book I’m really proud of.”
Do you think that books that are written in this way can end up being these type of classics?
Chris: Absolutely, I think that you can do it quite by accident. If you look at something like “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, he wrote that book in two weeks. You can really find that your best work can surprise you and can just leap out of nowhere.
If you’re constantly writing and writing a lot, you never know which book is going to be the one that readers just absolutely love.
Joanna: That’s exactly right. And the second guessing is a nightmare. Again, I’m struggling with this book because I’m second guessing it. I’m like, “This is a really stupid idea. What am I doing with this snake thing that’s going on,” and that’s because I’m overthinking it. As you say, a lot of this is trusting. This is telling a story. It’s meant to be fun, right?
Chris: Yeah, if we’re not enjoying this, there’s lots of easier jobs we could do in the world.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly.
Anything else you’re excited about or that we can geek out on AI/VR? But we’re both into VR, aren’t we?
Chris: I absolutely love where VR is going and how accessible it’s becoming. I’ve got an Oculus Rift, so I’ve used that a fair number of times. It comes with a simulation where you are sitting in the cockpit of a space shuttle and you’re flying around the solar system. So you look this way and you can see the sun, and you look over here and there’s Earth.
I’m not sure how that’s going to manifest going forward, but I think that virtual reality is going to become a lot bigger in the next decade, and I’m really excited to see where that leads.
Joanna: Me too, and at least, I’ll be doing this podcast in VR. I mean I’ll be like, “Okay, I’ll meet you on Mars in VR,” and we would do it there. I think having our worlds in VR will take a lot more, like having a movie made. It’s not something we’ll be able to do necessarily on our own.
I do have one more question before we finish up. Circling back to the algorithms, because in my research on the British horror sub-genre, I did my research on Amazon.com, and I did some research on Amazon.co.uk. There’s some really, really different things happening on these two stores.
Again, people will find the same if you try and publish something into Spanish, for example. We only have one KDP backend and that is the same backend used for every single store. The categories are even different, so that you will have different sub-categories on .com as .co.uk as .es, for example, in Spain or Germany. They don’t seem to match.
What are your thoughts on how the hell they’re doing that? And can we target different categories on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk? Because when you load it up, there’s no category there, for example.
Chris: I see it as a problem and I’m hoping it’s something that Amazon addresses. In the meantime, I’m taking the Pareto approach to it, the 80/20 approach.
Eighty percent of my sales come from the United States, so right now, at least, I’m targeting the United States. But the UK is growing, so is Australia, and they’re different cultures and they have different categories, and I do want to find a way to tailor my message and the books that I’m putting out more to those audiences. And right now, we just don’t have it.
Joanna: Even the covers, one of the big things I want and I keep asking the platforms is I want to do a different cover for, say, the Amazon India than I do for the UK, or even for the U.S.
For example, the romance sub-genre, the covers that you would have in America can be quite different to the UK covers that seem to resonate. And I think it’s the same with some of these other categories. I know we’re not selling massively in the Philippines yet, the Philippines is a bit more like India in terms of the colorful covers. Asia, in general, has more color, whereas, for example, British covers are duller, let’s say.
Chris: More reserved.
Joanna: Yeah, more reserved. That, as you say, reflects the culture, so whoever’s listening, obviously, Amazon’s going to go change their system.
I almost think we need an almost a sub-KDP way to target these country-specific things, like covers and keywords and categories.
Chris: I think, in time, we’re probably going to see those tools arise. I’d be really surprised if Amazon didn’t address that in the next couple of years. But this is one of the downsides of being exclusive to Amazon, you’re sort of at their mercy. So if they don’t, I’m always going to be fumbling when I’m selling overseas, because I am using those American covers and I am using that description that’s tailored to an American audience. I really do hope they do something to address that and there’s definitely a need for it.
Joanna: Absolutely. Okay, fantastic. That was really interesting, and we should probably do it again in a year’s time, because I’m not writing these books anytime soon. But in a year, I should have something to say about it, maybe I’ll have some British horror ghost stories. Maybe I’m the next James Herbert, not the next Stephen King.
Tell us, where can people find you and your books, your fiction and your non-fiction, online?
Chris: I have a YouTube channel which is accessible through my website, chrisfoxwrites.com, it’s got tutorial videos for writers. I also have articles on my site that are free, if you’re into marketing. As far as my books, most of them are only available on Amazon right now, but you can find links to them all on my website, again chrisfoxwrites.com.
Joanna: Brilliant, well, thanks so much for your time, Chris. That was great.
Chris: Thanks for having me on, Joanna. Have a great day.