Writing Horror And Making A Living With Your Writing With Michaelbrent Collings

Some of the loveliest authors I know write horror and Michaelbrent Collings is one of them! Today we discuss the boundaries of the horror genre, writing to heal, screenwriting and multiple streams of income. Super fun :)

In the introduction, I talk about the change to the podcast – it will now go out every Monday so you can expect a regular show! After 6 years of sporadic audio, hopefully this will be a welcome change :) I also talk about the empowerment of the author and the pros and cons of indie, I give an update on my own books and audiobooks and also give a shout out to those who tweeted with what they’re doing when they listen to the show.

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Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you for your support!

michaelbrent collingsMichaelbrent Collings is an award-winning and internationally bestselling horror novelist, a #1 bestseller in the U.S. and also a screenwriter and martial artist.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below.

  • How Michaelbrent’s upbringing brought horror into his life at an early age, how he started writing stories
  • On the definition of horror and how the edges of the genre pan out. Why people presume things about horror books which are usually wrong. The best horror is more about exploring the outer reaches of what humans can go through – and rise above. There’s also an aspect of supernatural that can be taken more seriously than other genres. It’s not about chainsaws, nudity and torture porn! The line between Supernatural Thriller and Horror. I mention James Herbert’s Sepulchre, a book I keep going back to.
  • On self-censorship, fear of judgment and writing our dark truth. Michaelbrent has 3 rules for writing as relates to readers: Confuse me and lose me. Bore me and die. Leave the world a better place. You can do this with horror. Michaelbrent is a man of faith and brings this into his writing, not in a preachy way but in stories where good vs evil battle each other. We talk about The Stand as an example of this in a fantastic way when good might win one battle but the war goes on.
  • How writing helps with dark moments in our lives. Michaelbrent has written about his depression and talks about how writing helps him to find something to get up for some days. The books have dark moments but there are aspects of hope. I also mention the interview I did with J Thorn about a similar topic.
  • On screenwriting and darker films. I talk about my treatment for Desecration which had feedback around rewriting to make it ‘less disturbing.’ Michaelbrent talks about the appetite for horror films because of the cheaper production costs and the potential to make the money back. There is always a market for horror, although the taste shifts.
  • On multiple streams of income. Success will always move away from you, because your goalposts change over time. But if you want to make a living, define it as $X (whatever you like) so you have a concrete goal. Financial success is a result of Products and People. Write lots of stuff and meet lots of people at events. Foster relationships over time and continue to grow your body of work. It takes time. The most successful writers (generally) have a huge body of work written over a long body of time. One book will never be enough. Check out: 10 steps to success on Michaelbrent’s website.
  • On marketing – you, the author, are the foremost authority on your book so you have to do the marketing. We talk about being introverts and how to survive at conventions. How to think about the other person first. Tailor your conversation to what THEY want, not all about you. Don’t sell to them. Supply what they need. As them what they are looking for. On books: “It’s not my baby, it’s my product.

this darkness lightHere’s my review of Michaelbrent’s This Darkness Light on Goodreads:

This starts off like a fast paced thriller. John wakes up in a hospital with no memory and people are trying to kill him. A nurse, Serafina, helps him and they go on the run from government agents who will stop at nothing to destroy those in the way. Cue high body count and fight scenes … awesome :)

But then the dead start to morph into monsters and a thick fog begins to roll over the country, governments go silent as millions die from a horrific disease spread by the carriers … will John and Serafina be able to stop the end from coming? Will Isaiah, the haunted priest who hunts them, reconcile to his own demons?
A super fast-paced book that spirals from thriller into post-apocalyptic horror. Great fun!

Transcript of the interview with Michaelbrent Collings

Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I’m here with Michaelbrent Collings. Hi, Michaelbrent.

Michaelbrent: How are you guys doing?

Joanna: Good. This is going to be a fun show.

Michaelbrent: Oh, I hope so.

Joanna: Oh no, it is absolutely. With just a little introduction to anyone who might not know who you are, Michaelbrent is an award-winning and internationally best selling horror novelist. A number one best seller in the U.S. and also a screenwriter and martial artist. I’m a real fan of your books, as I’ve just been telling you. So it’s awesome to have you on the show.

But, first, tell us a bit more about you and your writing background.

Michaelbrent: Gee, that’s an open question. I guess, about me and my writing background is that, like a lot of horror writers probably, I grew up miserable and had to exorcise my demons by killing false people because if you do the real thing, you get put in jail, for some reason. No, not really.

My dad was a creative writing professor and he was the world expert on Stephen King. So if you have a Stephen King book in your school library or your college library, it’s probably in large measure because of my dad. He was one of the first people who went out and said, “This creepy guy isn’t just a weirdo writing pulp fiction. He’s writing literature.” So he wrote all these books about him and published the first full-length scholarly critiques of him. So I went to bed every night with my dad’s office in the next room. I had either screaming or typing or both. It was just something I grew up with.

My dad would let me watch all these movies. And if it was a really intense part or sex scene, he’d be like, “Oh, stand behind the TV.” But I just grew up with it.

When I was kid, I was small and I was very intelligent and I was abrasive. Those were a recipe for getting punched a lot. Because of the small thing, I couldn’t do anything about it. So I did. I’d write my little stories and I’d be like, “And then the bully died.” I grew up with it in the next room and then it migrated over into therapy. And then eventually I started realizing how powerful a medium horror can be and I started really emphasizing that in my work.

I write other stuff. I write science fiction and I write thrillers and I write all sorts of different things, but I keep coming back to horror. It’s both a home base and something I understand, and also just something I find immensely gratifying and something that can be good for the world.

Joanna: I know. That’s fascinating and, obviously, you’ve got a sense of humor as well.

Michaelbrent: You’ve got to when you look like this, honey.

Joanna: The first question I want to ask is about the horror genre, because I have recently read This Darkness Light. It starts off menacing and I thought, “Oh, why is this in horror? This is a like a mainstream thriller,” but it pretty much spirals into something which has like a supernatural aspect. I think you can get away with a lot of murder in other genres, but I guess my question is:

What defines horror for you and what are the characteristics of the genre? Because certainly your book is not torture porn or anything like that. So explore the edges of the genre for us.

Michaelbrent: Well, the best description and definition of horror on a really precise scale is whatever is on the horror shelf at Barnes and Noble because genre exists as a function of marketing.

In the old days, there was just a novel. It was the new thing that came out and nobody asked, “Oh, did you read the horror book, Frankenstein?” They said, “Have you read this novel, Frankenstein?” Now we have it bifurcated up either in actual shelves or Amazon puts them in its virtual shelves or what have you. And a lot of books that don’t deserve to be in one place or the other end up there just because it’s a marketing decision.

But I do think when a lot of people think about horror. . .it’s funny you mentioned torture porn because people go, “Oh, I don’t like horror,” and you say, “What don’t you like about it?” And when you really dig down, what they don’t like is the poster for Saw because they haven’t seen any real horror movies or read any real horror books but they have this kind of image of, “Oh, it’s that thing with the monster in the background who’s chasing a girl whose bosom is about to pop out.” And then there’s blood. That’s kind of all they have and if you look at it really carefully, the most gory books I know of aren’t horror, they’re war novels. And the most sexualized books aren’t horror; obviously they’re romance and Fifty Shades of Grey and things like that.

So everything that people don’t like about horror is found somewhere else, more so. So horror is very much just an image we’ve created. I think for me when I’m talking about my horror, I’m talking about a story that takes people and it cuts everything away that’s extreme. It takes away everything but their sense of self and it does through tragedy.

In a thriller, you’re running away from something and there’s this sense that you have to stay away, stay ahead of possible tragedy. And I think in horror, you start out with tragedy having already occurred and the threat then becomes loss of self, damnation. The best horror isn’t just nubile teens in the forest banging away until somebody cuts their head off. I don’t understand that because I’ve never been a nubile teen in that position. But I am a family man and a lot of my stories revolve around families because I think what would be the worst thing to happen would be to lose them.

Horror, I think what it does is it really incisively takes away everything extraneous about people and then says “Okay, this is your core. You don’t have your job. You don’t have your money. You don’t have even your relationships,” because horror always isolates people. It takes away everything but you and then says, “Now you’re going to live or die based on your own merit and perhaps a touch of grace.”

And that’s the area that I also find very fascinating because you get to talk about grace and about God. If there’s a girl possessed by a demon, a guy in a priest’s outfit walks in and casts her out by the power of God. Those are things you can’t do in any other genre nearly to the same extent. You can’t talk about this huge questions even like Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. He’s ruminating around what really happened to Jesus, but it’s all played out in a very low key sort of way. The adventure is ridiculous. I liked it, it’s fun, but it’s ridiculous adventure and then the supernatural aspects are very dug down at the end. Whereas, in horror, you can go like “No man, we’re going to ask a question whether this prophetess is a god or the devil and shall either save us or damn us”. It’s really cool stuff that you can do.

Joanna: We’ve been on a bit of a campaign, a few of us, to get the thriller-supernatural added and they now have added it. And when I was reading your book. . .because I write. I always have supernatural elements so I think, will I write supernatural thriller? But when I read your books, I’ve been reading the James Herbert, some of the James Herbert. I just read Sepulchre again. It’s a book I’d keep going back to because I really like it. Again, that supernatural element, I don’t think there’s much of a line between supernatural-thriller and a horror in a way. You know what I mean?

Michaelbrent: No. Yeah, I agree. Again, a lot of these books, they get put on this shelf because that’s where they’ll sell. It’s like Stephen King writes an awful lot of literary fiction. If you think about the body which was the basis for Stand by Me or even Shawshank Redemption, they’re not horror stories, they’re very literary. This is what happens in this particular place to normal people sort of stories. But if you stick Stephen King’s book over on a literary fiction shelf, it’s just going to sit there until somebody grabs it and puts it where it belongs.

Joanna: Yeah, because he’s become that brand and I agree with you. A lot of his books are not what one would call horror anymore. That’s just where he got stuck, but that’s really interesting. And then, it’s fascinating about your dad because you’ve mentioned he was a professor, and this issue people have between literary fiction and genre fiction. Have you ever had. . .Because my mom was also an English teacher and I went to. . .

Michaelbrent: Oh no.

Joanna: I know. And I went to Oxford and I was brought up in a literary household and my family ask why don’t I write like Hilary Mantel. So I come up against this all the time.

Have you had to get over any kind of write-something-more-literary type of thing?

Michaelbrent: No. I’m self-published, and I have been very blessed in a lot of ways to be self-published because it means I don’t have to listen to somebody telling me what to do. I listen to my fans and they got irritated when I wander from horror for too many books. So, I’ll write a horror novel and then a sci-fi, and then a horror and then a YA or whatever. But other than that general like “write scary stuff Michaelbrent,” I don’t have people telling me that stuff and if somebody said “Why don’t you write more literary fiction?”

I think that I have sentences in my books that are tremendously lyrical. So I think there’s definitely times where people want that sense of “Oh, I want something deep and I want something very, very lyrical sounding,” and I think put those things there. My father taught poetry for 40 years. It’s in my blood to some extent. But I also, and this is just me, I’m not ripping on anybody else, I don’t get entertained and I don’t personally enjoy books where people sit around a tea cozy and talk about their adulterous affairs and wax effervescent on the dew on the spider web. It’s just okay, well, you banged the wrong people, and you’re having tea, and there’s a wet spider web. I said the whole book in three sentences.

Just for me personally, I like something that has some movement to it. So my books do have a lot of plot to them. They’re very plot driven. But the best stories are always where plot and character intersect on a great level, and you find out about people and you find out what they’re doing. And then books are given to us so that we can make sense of some universe, and if you’re doing that, there’s tremendous artistic value there.

Spenser, the guy who wrote the Spenser books [Robert B. Parker], he can’t write a sentence of more than six words, I think. He’s just like Hemingway, he’s very short. But everything in them is so dense and compacted. Some of the sentences are just beautiful. So I think it’s erroneous to say, “Oh, you have to be more literary. Oh, you have to be more plot driven.” I think you just should look a book and say “This is something I like and here’s why I’ll recommend it,” or “That’s not for me and maybe other like it. I try not to be catty about that.”

Joanna: Yeah. No, I get you. People like what they like. But yeah, I certainly couldn’t put your book down which, to me, that’s important. But I’m also really fascinated with self-censorship. It’s something with my book, Desecration, I’ve talked about for on my show but to write Desecration, I had to overcome some self-censorship issues around what a nice girl should write, and the fear of judgment of how people judge on writing.

Have you come up against this self-censorship or fear of judgment? How do you overcome that?

Michaelbrent: No. I’m a religious person. I’m a believing guy and part of that is that ultimately my status with God is between me and God. And I belong to a religion that I believe teaches true precepts, but even within that kind of rubric, it ultimately comes down to, if God walks into the room, could I stand there and be okay looking at him? So one of the rules, I have three rules that I have for writing which I think you can’t break and the first is confuse me and lose me. If you just don’t have a sense of what’s going on, the audience is going to leave.

The second is bore me and die, because you want interesting stuff and it can be an interesting book about the dew on the spider web. Some people have that capacity.

But the third is leave the world a better place. And I think sometimes you can do that telling scary, awful stories because those are morality tales about what should and should not be. And that’s totally legitimate, and that’s different from self-censorship. Self-censorship is this extraneous concern about what would others think of me. Whereas, if you go in there with an, “Okay this is my dynamic. I’m going to try and create pieces that once somebody’s done with them, their world will have been edified.” And once I say that, well, I’m not self-censoring. What I’m doing is guiding my words properly to that effect which I’m try to achieve. That’s a lot more freeing to think of it that way rather than what will my mom think of it.

Joanna: Oh yeah.

Michaelbrent: Because my mommy reads my stuff. She’s a mom. There is certainly things where I go, “Mom, you’re not going to like this one, just skip it.” There’s one book of mine that my wife hasn’t read because I said “You’re not going to like the subject matter,” and I told her what it was and she said “Never mind.” But I felt good about both of those books. I felt good about writing them because I thought they served a purpose beyond just let’s fling words at the internet and see what sticks.

Joanna: I don’t have your faith. I have a spirituality, but good versus evil to me, I think, is why I read horror. Because I feel, especially when good wins at the end, which does in your book. Yay, you could feel good, even though there was a lot of casualties along the way. That’s what with Stephen King. I feel, The Stand being my favorite book although at the end it kind of puts glimmer of good might not have won.

But that kind of good versus evil, I feel, underlies the horror genre, doesn’t it, really?

Michaelbrent: Yeah, it absolutely does, and The Stand’s great. And it’s great that you noticed that you get the feeling that good might not have won, because. . .and I don’t think he’s sitting there behind this keyboard going, “Now I shall cut out the throat of their hope.” But he’s writing something that people can hold on to which is, you look around your world and you know good people who’ve been injured unfairly. You know bad people who are getting ahead unfairly. So I think Stephen King, very often, and I do this in some of my books too, you get the feeling the fight is still going on.

Just because they’ve won this battle doesn’t mean we get to sit and rest on our laurels. I think that’s really powerful, too, because we live our lives not just in this moment but in the future and an expectation of what’s going to come tomorrow. So if we are led to believe everything is great today and it’s going to be great from here on out and they live happily ever after, that’s a fantastic and fun message to noodle over with your kids, because they need that. But when you grow up, if someone says, “And they you’ll live happily ever after,” your reaction is, “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and I’m going to be constipated or I’m going to lose my job or some major or minor mishap is going to befall me, because that’s life”.

And so I think when we layer into this melancholy ending where even when good has won, there’s still the sense there’s evil left. I think that serves a great purpose to say, “Look, the fights are worth fighting even if you can’t see the end of the war, these battles are necessary and they’re worthy and they’re good. So do partake of the opportunity to be a warrior in good versus evil.” Whether you’re religious or not, most people have a moral center that says there’s good and there’s bad. Horror very often says, “And the bad guys won.” But the bad guys won because the good guys stopped being good or because tomorrow there’s going to be another battle. And I think that’s marvelous.

Joanna: Yeah, no, I love it anyway. But let’s move on. Well, you know, staying on the dark side. But I talked to a fellow horror writer, J. Thorn, about how writing some of this stuff, heals us and you talked a bit about bullying, and you’ve got on your blog about depression.

I wondered how does writing help you through those kind of dark moments? Do you have any tips for people to write through that time?

Michaelbrent: Well, on a very nuts and bolts sort of a level, it gives me something to do. One of the major things about depression is you crawl in your bed and you just don’t want to leave. But I always have a story that I’m excited about, and that’s something that I can control.

A lot of us really hunger for control in our lives and that’s why we acquire money, and that’s why we accrue friends and things like that. It’s less about their intrinsic value than it is about the idea that now I control this kingdom. And writing is a wonderful thing for that because you can control it. Even if you go and your computer breaks, and then you find out you’re out of paper, and all your pens have sprung leaks. You walk outside and you get a stick and you start writing in the dirt.

You can always write. And that’s a good thing to have. It’s always good to have a project that will lead you to the future because if you’re done 100% today and depression hits you, well, why not kill yourself because there’s nothing to do tomorrow anyways? So just on a very nuts and bolts sort of base level, it’s something to do. It’s a good hobby to have.

But beyond that, this actually ties into what we were talking about earlier. I do have a lot of days where I don’t see, just because of chemical imbalances, I don’t see a purpose and I certainly don’t have hope. That’s not because I don’t want to be hopeful, it’s just that’s because my brain’s broken in that way. And what some of what my writing does for me is it reminds me there are all these characters that I wrote and I wrote them so that they would go through horrific events and then come through it.

And in the middle of their horrors, if they know it’s going to be all right in the end, then the horror has no validity. Who cares? If you’re standing there being run after by the super human guy with the axe or the machete but you know he’s got a bad heart and he’s going to die six steps before he gets to you, well then it’s not a horror movie, it’s just a weird commercial for machetes. But because I’ve had those horrific elements in my books and those characters who have to keep going not for hope, but for the hope of future hope. That allows me to think about in on an intellectual level.

Look, I don’t have hope today. I might not have it tomorrow. But I understand, non-emotively, that if I keep pushing, things should get better. That’s a message of lot of my horror which is basically just keep pushing and things will eventually get better.

Joanna: That’s great. Somebody else says that you’re a screenwriter which I also find I’m fascinated with right now. Amusingly, I’ve recently written a treatment about my book Desecration.

Michaelbrent: Awesome

Joanna: Yeah, I thought it was awesome. But then I got the feedback that it was too disturbing for TV, and that it would need to be redone, and I’m like, “Well, the book’s already written. I’m not going to redo this at this point.”

So I wondered, from somebody writing what you do, what do you think the market is like for dark material?

Because it seems that to me that there is a lot around that the world is pretty dark. Also, comment on adapting books or should you do that or should you write something new?

Michaelbrent: Well, as far as the market, the market for horror is always there. It’s a fantastic market because it’s cheap and there’s a built-in fan base. You will not see Avengers Sleep Away Camp Seven because they’re not going to spend 200 million dollars on a horror movie. But you can get a bunch of. . .All too often it is the scantily clad teens and you throw them in a sleeping bag together.

Joanna: Dark room.

Michaelbrent: Yeah, but it costs 85 cents to make the movie, so it’s a no-brainer for a lot of Hollywood executives, they go, “Okay we’ve got Avengers 4 coming up and that’s using up $280 million of our $284. What should we do with the last four? Let’s make a horror movie.”

I have friends who are producers that they put together slates of a $100 million and they say “We’re going to make 10 or 15 movies with this $100 million.” And the investors love that because it’s a safe bet. Even if you make a two million dollar movie that sucks, it doesn’t have to have that much traction to make that money back.

So, there’s always a market for horror that. . .Within the market there’s a lot of shift. Twenty years ago it was all about Scream. Ten years ago, Saw was the big horse on the stage. Now it’s very much about the ghosts and the Paranormal Activity sort of handheld stuff. The guy who made the first one, the first Paranormal Activity movie, he really changed the way Hollywood functions on a lot of levels because he went in and he made this for $17,000 and it made a $100 million in the theaters. So people are looking for those inexpensive films to make.

Seriously, if you show up and you’re pitching the Avengers versus zombies, you’re not going to get very far because they don’t want big event horror movies. They want things that can be shot inexpensively with limited locations, and if you make it really full of cool scenery chewing stuff, they like that because they can send it to actors and the actors enjoy it.

One of my books is called Strangers and I wrote a screenplay based off of it. It’s about a family that wakes up one morning and they have been sealed into their home. All the windows have sheets, that’s sheet metal over them. The doors are all barred and they can’t get out. There’s a guy in there who wants to have some alone time with them. I give it to the studios, I give it producers and they all love it because it’s contained and it’s cheap and it’s got six people in it. And they each get to have really cool dialogue about how scared they are, and it’s something they go nuts over. So I’ve optioned that thing three or four times now. It’s going to sell eventually, it’s one of those that’s just waiting for the right homes.

So horror’s a great thing to write. You do have to be aware of the market. I have three or four of my books and my screenplays are ghost stories. And because of the Paranormal Activity stuff, ghost stories are actually hard to sell right now, because it’s so dominated by this one production company and they’re putting everything out. If you want to do something, it’s got to be really, really different. So you have to be aware of the vicissitudes of the current market. But it’s a great market to write for because there’s always people there who want horror.

Joanna: Did you start out screenwriting or start out with novels? How did you cross over?

Michaelbrent: I did both at the same time. I’ve been writing since I was very young and I didn’t start writing screenplays. At age four, I started writing my little crayola books. But when I was at high school, a friend brought a copy of the screenplay for Terminator 2 and I read it and I was like, “This is amazing.” It’s a totally different way of telling stories. I thought, “I can do this too.” So I’ve grown up together with my first screenplay I wrote when I was in high school, still. And my first book, I wrote around the same time. And since then, whenever I do a book, I almost always have a screenplay version of it as well. It’s just a good way to monetize my work because I can sell two versions of it.

Joanna: That’s brilliant and let’s come on to that. The “monetize my work.”

You do make a living as a writer, and you have some great stuff on your blog about the numbers and living, writing for living.

Can you maybe talk about your opinions on that? Because so many writers “Oh, I want to make a living writing,” but then they just write one book. So how do you knit it all together?

Michaelbrent: Yeah. Well, I think the two things you need to be successful, and by successful I mean to be making money because success. . .I prefer people not to think about that. Success is the end of rainbow, it’s always going to move away from you. No matter how close you get, you’re never going to reach success because when you become a best seller, you’ll be want to be a number one best seller and then you’ll be a number one and then you want to make a movie out of it and then you want to write. . . And it’s always one step past you.

So what you do is you create concrete goals. I want to make this much money per year as a writer. I want to, for me, provide for my family as a writer, that’s my goal. I’m a huge whore so all I’m interested in is the money. But a lot of writers don’t do that. I have a concrete goal.

And then, after that, the way to achieve those goals is almost always a function of two things, product and people. And by that, I mean you write lots and lots and lots and lots of stuff and you meet lots and lots and lots and lots of people. Eventually, one of those people wants your product as a screenplay, or one of those people wants this book as a traditionally published book, or whatever it is.

You really accrete these two things. You have a growing body of work and you have a growing body of people who you know who are in that industry and who are moneymakers who have our gatekeepers. And I use the word accrete purposely because that’s a descriptor for coral growth, it’s very, very slow. These two things, there’s no silver bullet, it’s a product of time. You get one person here at a convention. You write a book over six months. You meet another person at a writing symposium.

A lot of the people you meet, they’re not going to be useful to you. But then they are one day. One day, the guy you met at the symposium is no longer the person bringing coffee to the producer. He’s the producer. And you’ve kept up with him long enough, and you have a relationship so that he’s saying, “Hey send me every single thing you’ve got.” And that’s a relationship I have with a lot of producers. I’ve finish a script and I send it out in a bulk mail, “Here you go. It’s up for grabs, knock yourselves out.” But that took ten years to get those contacts. And really, there’s nothing special about it. You scour the internet and you cold call people.

Mostly, you meet people at symposia and Comic Cons and things like that because it’s face-to-face that’s going to have the most effect. Then you write and write and write.

Forbes did a really interesting survey of the most successful writers monetarily in history. There were no common grounds between them. Except, with the exception of a few outliers, they all had a huge body of work written over a long period of time.

I wrote a book called Run and it did really well. It was a number one best seller in Amazon. It made me think I knew what I was doing which was a huge disservice to me because the next book didn’t make any money and the next book didn’t make any money. And then ten books later, I was making some money and 15 books later, I was making decent money. Now I’m 30 books in and I’m a writer. I get to just sit around with my pants off all day and type if I feel like it.

Joanna: I’d say, you type quite a lot actually.

Michaelbrent: I do, I do type a lot but that’s the thing, is people. . .Here’s another thing I’d like to say is if you go to the doctor and he’s about to poke a finger in some hole that you don’t like fingers being poked in and you say, “So where’d you go to school?”. He goes, “I didn’t really go to school per se but I went to a doctor once and he was terrible, so I figure I can do better than him.” And then you’re going to be gone and there’s going to be a little smoke outline of you in the doctor’s office. And you’re out of there because you don’t want to be poked by that guy.

But that’s the way a lot of writers pursue their writing career. They say, “Well, I read a book once and it sucked, so I thought I’d bark up my own little set of word craft and some magical publisher’s going to come along and scoop it up and gold will rain upon me.”

And in reality, if you want to be successful, you treat it like medical school. You write after work for eight hours a day. I was a lawyer for about ten years before I became a full time writer. I would get up at six. I’d go to work until six or seven, I’d come home, I’d play with my kids, I’d play with my wife. At ten or eleven, she’d go to bed and I would write until 2:00 a.m. I did that every day for ten years. Most people are like, “I’m going to be a writer.” “Well how are you going to do that?” “I’ll write a book during summer and then never think of it again.”

Joanna: Then make a million.

Michaelbrent: Yeah. It happens occasionally but even to the people that it happens to, they run into problems because they’ve got all this money and then eventually the money dries up, which it has to. And this person doesn’t know how to replicate that success, because what they did was they succeeded by accident. You want to not only succeed, you want to know how you did it so that you can replicate that success. Again, this first book I wrote, it did really well and had no fricking clue why no one was buying the other ones.

Joanna: Yeah, and that’s so common. We see that especially. . .I feel sorry for debut novelists who get the first book that they cared about and the second book nobody cares.

Michaelbrent: Yeah.

Joanna: I’m an introvert and I really struggle at events but Twitter’s my secret weapon, as in I stalk people and generally make friends first, and then when I talk to them it’s much easier because they actually know I exist.

But I wondered if you had any tips for the meeting people stuff, naturally in a good way?

Michaelbrent: Well, okay there’s a couple things. Number one is if you’re a writer and if you’ve written a book, recognize the fact that you are the world’s foremost fricking expert on that book. So a lot of writers that I meet, they come up to me and they’re very pensive and they’re very worried and it looks like they’re worried I’m going to punch them just for existing.

The reality is you are a world expert in this thing, and you are competent to talk about it. If you have that in your mindset, it’s a lot easier to move forward because what we’re afraid of. . .I’m an introvert too, obviously. I’ve got this depression and stuff. When I go to conventions, I come home and I sit in a dark room for a full day and I shake, because it scares me.

But you go up with this sense of, “I know what I’m talking about,” and that’s very helpful.

The other thing to remember is try and picture the other person like someone you’re meeting at a dinner party and you pull out your wallet and you show them all the pictures of your children. And this is a small slice of hell for that other person because they don’t give a crap about your kids. They don’t know about it. I don’t care that Johnny lost his tooth. I could care less. Now, if he lost his face, I’d be interested because that’s an interesting story.

The mistake a lot of novelist do, that they make when they go to these convention, they approach to me and say, “I wanted talk to you about my novel.” “Good, start.” “Chapter one, page one, we open in a very dark place, not as dark as your room but a little lighter than outside, but it’s kind of creepy.” And sixty minutes later, this person that you’re talking to just wants to kill themselves, because you’re showing your baby pictures without any context.

If you walk over to my table, I’ve got twenty books and I can tell you the basic idea of all of them in under two minutes total. Then that allows the other person to be invested. He can ask you. Before we were talking on air, you asked, “What should I read next?” and I didn’t say, “Read this because it’s so awesome”. I said, “Well, do you want to read about monsters, serial killers, ghost, or demons?” Then you get to answer, and now you’re leading the conversation and I’m not selling you anything. I’m just supplying your need. That’s a much better situation to be in.

So rather than go, “Here’s my baby pictures,” just vomit stuff on them. Say, “What are you looking for?” and they tell you, and then you say, “Here’s what I got that fits that.” If you don’t have something that fits that, you go, “Well, coincidentally, I’m writing something right now that fits that.” And you have to do that.

I’ve been in pitch sessions where they went for a movies so I was trying to sell a movie and the producer goes, “That’s not what we’re looking for” and I say “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to waste your time. What are you looking for?” and they go, “We’re looking for a movie about lesbian dogs from space” and I’m like, “I’m just writing one of those.” Even if they don’t end up buying the idea, you’ve made that contact who thinks you are awesome, because you have this joint affection for lesbian dogs from space and that becomes a friend. In ten years, he’ll want something that you’re actually writing.

Joanna: So I guess the trick there is to always focus on the other person and not yourself and I agree with you, so many people. . .I get pitched all the time by people wanting to come on the podcast, or for me to endorse stuff, whatever. They just don’t even consider who I am. I get pitched for credit cards and stuff like that and I’m like, “What’s that got to do anything?”

Michaelbrent: You have to ask yourself. . .This is a service industry and I mean that in two senses. One, it’s like a restaurant, you’re giving them what they want to eat.

Two, I really believe writers are serving humanity. We are writing, hopefully, good things that edify on some level, that uplift on some level, that help people. And so, if someone comes to you and says, “I need help,” and you say, “I can help you,” you’re best friends now. It’s just the nature of civilization. If somebody comes up to you and says, “I need help,” and you go “Let me tell you something I want to tell you first and then we’ll talk about your needs.” That’s not a friendship and that’s not something that’s going to work well for you. Also, if there’s an old lady on the side of the road with her tire flat and you jack up the car and fix the tire, never see that old lady again but you go home and you’re like, “Honey, I was the bomb today” and you feel good about yourself. And it’s exactly the same when you’re pitching your materials.

If you take the time to find out what they want first and then address that desire rather than going in and saying, “Well, I’ve got my favorite book and I’m going to pitch it and they’re going to love it or else.” Well, there is no other else. You’ve got to be able to ask what they want and do that.

Joanna: It does get much easier the more books you have because you care. You don’t care as much about each individual project when you have so many. It’s like that children metaphor, I just laugh about that now. You’ve got some real children but also books. Once you get over six, ten books, you don’t call books your children.

Michaelbrent: No.

Joanna: That’s ridiculous.

Michaelbrent: That’s very true. That’s silly. The faster you get over that, the better.

One of my screenplays came out, or the movie was finished and I watched and it was not a good experience because they had changed some things and it just wasn’t my screenplay anymore. I walk out and people go, “Wasn’t that devastating for you?” I said “You know, it kind of sucked because my name was on this movie that I didn’t think was very good, but my first thought wasn’t they killed my babies.” When I walked out and the producers were all lined up because it was a screening and they said, “What did you think?” My first thought wasn’t, “You murdered my baby,” my first thought was, “Their check cleared and it was big. How can I be happy about this?”

Joanna: “I loved it. Let’s do it again, number two.”

Michaelbrent: Without lying, how can I approach this? Because it’s not my baby, it’s my product. And that’s another thing that’s helpful if you go in there thinking, “I’m a business.”

Instead of putting greeting cards on the table or hamburgers in wrapping, I put books out. They mean exactly as much as those hamburgers and those greeting cards. They bring people pleasure. They help them get through the day. Hopefully, they make them a little healthier on some level, but it’s just a hamburger, man, and I can’t get that freaked out about it. Because when people get freaked out about it, “This is the most important work in English literature!” It’s going to go down hill from there.

Joanna: Where can people find you and your books online?

Michaelbrent: Well, my name’s Michaelbrent and that’s my first name. So if you type in Michaelbrent, all one word, you’re going to get my Amazon page and my website. My website’s michaelbrentcollings.com but I’m really easy to find, just type Michaelbrent. Although, there is an underwear model whose name is Michael Brent. So if you type it in and you get this devastating dude with no clothes, that’s not me. But michaelbrentcollings.com or just type Michaelbrent onto your Amazon browser or Barnes and Noble or wherever.

Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time. That was brilliant.

Michaelbrent: Thank you.


Pros And Cons Of Being An Indie Author

I spent last weekend at CrimeFest in Bristol alongside lots of amazing crime authors, both traditionally published and indie authors. It was a fantastic time and I met some super people …

I found myself in a number of conversations with authors who wanted to know what their publishing options were in a fast-changing market.

indie authors crimefest 2015

The Indie Author panel at CrimeFest 2015: Celina Grace, Nick Stephenson, JJ Marsh, J.F.Penn, Chris Longmuir

We also had an indie author panel on the Sunday morning, which was packed full despite the morning-after-the-gala-dinner-graveyard slot.

In my intro, I pointed out that between us, we had sold over 500,000 books in five different languages in 66 countries, we are prize-winning and award-winning as well as New York Times and USA Today bestselling.

Oh yes, and contrary to what most seem to believe, we have print and audiobooks as well as ebooks … and all achieved without a publisher. Several of us even make pretty good money from selling books …

We were then asked to outline the negatives of going indie, since we were clearly all so positive about it!

So today, here are my pros and cons of being an indie author. I’d love to hear yours, or any questions, in the comments below.

Definition: Self-publishing vs being an indie author

The term self-publishing implies doing everything yourself and doing it more as a hobby. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this and it’s wonderful to create books in the world for the love of creation.

Me and my Dad :) The creative Penns!

I self-publish photobooks for my own pleasure, I helped my 9 year old niece self-publish her first book and I helped my Dad self-publish for his 65th birthday.

But I use the term independent author, or indie author, for myself. I work with top freelance professionals to create a quality product and this is a business for me, not just a hobby. I left my job in 2011 to become a full-time author-entrepreneur and I make my living with my writing.

The following pros and cons are based on my kind of direct publishing without using any of the services companies which I’ll mention at the end.

The pros of being an indie author

  • Total creative control over content and design. Many authors who were in traditional publishing and are now in self-publishing talk about how painful it was to have a cover or title they hated, or to make editorial choices they didn’t agree with but that were insisted upon. As an indie, you can work with freelancers of your choice and you can choose the ultimate look and feel of your product. Now, that can be a pro or a con depending on how the book ends up but as
    polly courtney

    Gritty issues novelist Polly Courtney split from her publisher after they branded her as chick-lit

    an indie, you can also change it, as I have done recently by re-titling and re-covering my first 3 books. You just upload another file which is brilliant. The start-up mentality that mistakes are how we learn and “failure” is just a step along the way makes this easier for indies. But this reinvention practice is common in the publishing industry and older books are revamped all the time.

  • Empowerment. At CrimeFest this weekend, I met a prizewinning author who was quite shocked to discover that I’m not a militant indie. I have a wonderful agent and I have a German book deal, and yes, I will absolutely work with traditional publishers – for deals that will be good for both parties.

    I am, however, militant about empowering authors and creatives.

    After talking to a number of other authors this last weekend, I was shocked at how insecure they were and how beaten down by the negativity of the publishing process. They really didn’t see themselves as being able to make a decision alone or take action to improve their lot, despite the fact that THEY are the creatives, the storytellers, the brilliant ones.

Compare that to indies, who in general are a happy bunch, as reported by researcher Alison Baverstock. It’s not surprising when you consider the research on ‘locus of control.’ The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that the number one contributor to happiness is autonomy, “the feeling that your life – its activities and habits – are under your control.”

After signing a contract, traditionally published authors have pretty much zero control – over pricing, timing of publication, marketing, sometimes over the cover, the title and even the words itself. Plenty of authors are told to change their stories to fit what an editor wants. Compare that to the empowerment of the indie author who can learn new skills, work with professionals, make mistakes and learn from them, earn money directly and interact with customers. Yes, it’s hard work but it’s certainly empowering as hell. The positive energy involved in being an indie can propel you much further, much faster than waiting in line for your turn.

Stop asking permission. You don’t need it. Stop waiting to be chosen. Choose yourself.

  • Faster time to market. You still have to spend the same amount of time writing and editing. But once you’re ready to publish, you upload your files to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Draft2Digital, Smashwords and any other stores. Your ebook chooseyourselfis usually for sale within 4 – 72 hours. You’re paid 60 days after the end of the month of sale. If you’re doing print on demand, you can get that up within 24 hours if you approve the formatting online. Or, you can order a copy and it might take a couple of weeks, but essentially, it’s incredibly quick to get your book up for sale. This certainly suits my personality as once I’m done with a book, I want it out there and selling! I don’t want to sit on it for several years while it shuttles around publishers.
  • Higher royalties. If you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99 (on Amazon), you can get 70% royalty. Traditional royalty rates usually fit in the 7-25% bracket, averaging 10%. It’s clear that you need to sell far fewer books in order to make the same amount of money with self-publishing. But it’s not a get rich quick scheme. That’s really important. You can’t guarantee that you’re going to make any sales or as many sales as you would’ve done with a traditional publisher. That is more to do with genre, investment in marketing and sometimes, just pure luck. An author can’t build a business on luck – but they can learn about marketing and authors have to do this regardless of how they publish these days.
  • Sell by any means in any global market, as you retain the rights. My books have now sold in 66 countries and they are for sale in 190 countries. I love to look at my Kobo Writing Life map to see which new countries I’ve sold to in kobo mapthe last month. I particularly enjoy selling in countries like Burkina Faso or Namibia in sub-Saharan Africa because I went to school in Malawi (no books sold there yet though!)

Yes, these sales are a trickle right now, but in the next few years, cell phone penetration will increase and internet access will become globally pervasive. Of course the sales will tick up – 2 years ago, I was only selling books in US, UK, Australia, Canada and now every month another little blue dot appears. This is for books in English by the way – we’re so lucky that English is the most international language.

Pretty much every traditionally published author I spoke to at CrimeFest had sold World English rights for all formats and had barely sold outside the usual country markets because their books aren’t even for sale in most places in the world. Most had also sold audiobook rights but the books had not been produced. If you’re in this situation, revisit your contract. What do you have the rights for? You can self-publish in countries where you haven’t sold the rights, so why not get on with it!

  • Niche books can reach an audience. Publishing houses have an expectation of a certain number of sales, so if you’re writing a niche book on a particular type of organic tomato, then you might find the market is too small for a major publisher. But the market size may well be enough for you to satisfy your own definition of success with smaller sales and lower income. You can also price as you like, as chances are that your book will appeal to a very particular reader who might pay higher prices.
  • Use it to get into the game. These days, if you self-publish and do well, agents and publishers will come to you. You top indiesdon’t have to beg and plead for attention. The power balance is reversed and the empowered indie can get much better deals than a first time author with no evidence of sales. Just look at the deals Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Meredith Wild and AG Riddle have done in the last year for both print books as well as movie/TV deals. So if you want a traditional deal, skip the slush pile and serve your apprenticeship as an indie.

The cons of being an indie author

So there’s the positive side but what about the negative?

  • You need to do it all yourself or find suitable professionals to help. As with any new skill, it’s a steep learning curve. You still obviously have to do the writing and marketing, but you also have to do the publishing. You have to find an editor (list here) and a cover designer (list here) and work with them, decide on the title, get your work formatted into e-book, print and any other format you want, and you need to find suitable professionals. This isn’t such a big deal allianceas we all share with each other online and you can join The Alliance of Independent Authors which vets companies.

But you do have to decide on your definition of success and understand that you need to run all aspects of the business if you want to go the pro indie route. For many people, this is a negative because they just don’t have the time to do everything or they don’t enjoy doing it. I’m lucky because I love being an entrepreneur. I love all aspects of what I do – from idea generation to creating words on the page, to the technical side of things and everything in between. After many years, I’ve found the perfect work for me :) If you can manage a project or you could learn to, then you’ll likely enjoy it too. But this life certainly not for everyone.

  • There’s no prestige, kudos or validation by the industry. The stigma lessens every day, but if your definition of success is bound up with what other authors, agents and publishers think of you, then indie might not be best for you. Does the publisher name matter? My answer to this is usually: Think of your favorite book. Who’s the author? Who published the book? 99% of readers won’t be able to tell you the publisher of the book, but they can certainly tell you the author’s name. The other question I get is: How do I know my book is good enough? The answer is: pay a professional editor and work on the book as you would have done with a traditional deal. Then publish it and let the readers decide. “Good” is in the eye of the beholder, as 50 Shades of Grey taught as all.
  • You need a budget upfront if you want a professional result. These days, you’re likely to spend on professional editing before submitting to an agent anyway, or at least be spending on books and courses for writers. Everyone spends money on their hobby so whether you’re knitting or writing or mountain biking, most people are happy to spend money they never get back on something they love. However, if like me, you are intending to make a living from this, then yes, you need to invest money in creating assets for the business with the intention of getting it back in multiple streams of income. Either way, you will need a budget upfront if you want to be a pro indie. You can do it for free, but I would recommend paying pro editors and pro cover designers or bartering for services. It’s much cheaper to hire them separately rather than go with full service companies.
  • It’s difficult to get print distribution in bookstores. It’s certainly not impossible and if you care about print distribution then look at the options with Ingram Spark. Also check out the Opening Up to Indie Authors campaign (or check out this interview with Debbie Young on the topic). But you’re much more likely to get bookstore distribution opening up to indie authorswith a traditional publisher as that’s essentially their business model and has been for a long time. They are experts at printing and distributing physical product. My personal choice is to use Print on Demand through Createspace, so my print books are available on pretty much all online bookstores. In March 2015, The Bookseller reported that online print sales overtook in-store print sales anyway, so doing a POD version means your book is still likely to be discovered by print book buyers.
  • Most literary prizes don’t accept indie books and most literary critics for mainstream media. So if your definition of success is literary acclaim, you’re probably better off going the traditional route. Again, the Opening Up to Indie Authors campaign is looking to address this over time.

The hybrid model: It’s not an either/or choice anymore

The industry has changed and many authors now take a hybrid approach to publishing. They will make the decision by book and by particular rights, using the indie model for some things and taking traditional deals for others. This empowers the author to make decisions and choose the best possible route for their book.

For example, Hugh Howey sold his print rights for Wool and did a number of foreign rights deals. Jasinda Wilder sold several new books to traditional publishers while continuing to self-publish another series. AG Riddle sold his film rights and kept his World English ebook rights as an indie. I have a German language deal with a traditional publisher and a literary agent who is handling other sales.

The important thing is that you, the creator, are empowered to choose per project how you would like to progress.

Other publishing options

I’ve used the two extreme ends of the publishing spectrum as examples but these days, there are many more options for publishing optionsauthors. This downloadable chart by Jane Friedman gives a wider view of the options available.

There are new companies springing up every day – some of which are offering a good deal and some that are just sharks who may well take your money and run. Many of the biggest “author services” companies are run by Author Solutions, which is owned by Penguin Random House, so it is author beware. Do your due diligence and get testimonials from authors who are happy to recommend the service before you sign anything.

So how do you evaluate these options?

My basic rule is: How does the company make their money?

Traditional publishers should pay you an advance against royalties, so you get the money first and then they make money as your books sell.

Going completely DIY, as I do, means that you can publish for free with Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life, iBooks, Draft2Digital and Smashwords. These companies are FREE (yes, $0) to publish with and then they take a % of the royalty.

Again, they only make money when you make money. If you self-publish you will need to pay for editing and cover design upfront. But these prices shouldn’t break the bank and you should use professionals that other authors have recommended.

help button

If you want to use services that charge for other things, then please check the following resources:

  • Preditors and Editors – a watchdog site for authors with listings of which publishers are recommended and which are scams
  • Writer Beware – Lots more about scams against authors and companies to watch out for

Need more help with going indie?

Author Blueprint 3D COverCheck out the following resources:

  • My own Author 2.0 Blueprint – how I personally write, self-publish and market my books. There’s also an email series with videos and more resources if you sign up.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors – a brilliant organization for authors who want to professionally self-publish. Members get ebooks and other resources on self-publishing, plus we have a lively Facebook group and monthly Q&A where I answer questions alongside Orna Ross, the founder of the Alliance.

OK, that turned into a much bigger post than I expected! I hope it was useful for you. Please do leave your own pros and cons of indie below, or ask any questions. Thanks!

All Your Editing Questions Answered With Jen Blood

It’s a crowded marketplace these days and you need a quality book to even have a chance of standing out.

In my opinion, one of the best investments to help your book become the best it can be is professional editing. In today’s show, we go through all kinds of questions that authors ask about editing.

In the introduction, I talk about the latest Author Earnings report which shows the impact of agency pricing; I mention Peter Diamandis’ post on the world in 2025 and why I’m so excited about global sales.

scrivener webinarPlus/ you can join a free webinar on using Scrivener to write, organize and format your books with me and Joseph Michael, the Scrivener Coach. It will be on Thurs 21 May at 3pm US Eastern, 8pm London – but you can also get the recording if you register. Plus/ I mention my 2015 survey – click here to let me know what you want from the site in the next year.

99designs-logo-750x200pxThis podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna

Jen BloodJen Blood is the bestselling author of the Erin Solomon thriller series, as well as being a fantastic editor at Adian Editing. (Jen is also my fiction editor. She’s brilliant!)

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below.

  • The different types of editing that authors need
  • How do people find the right editor for their book
  • How can authors edit themselves before engaging a professional?
  • How does an editor assess a potential client?
  • What are the most common errors for beginning authors? and also for more established authors?
  • How does an author cope with the psychological pain of all that red ink?
  • Does an author have to apply all the changes that an editor suggested?
  • As an author and an editor, how do you separate your creative mind and your editing mind when you wrote the books?

You can find Jen at AdianEditing.com and her fantastic Erin Solomon series and other fiction at JenBlood.comContinue Reading

Author Websites Q & A: How To Create An Effective, Mobile-Friendly Website

How does your site look on a smartphone? Nearly half of all website visitors are browsing on mobile devices.

How does your site look on a smartphone? Nearly half of all website visitors are using†mobile devices.

On a recent post about author websites, I mentioned the importance of a mobile responsive theme. It’s now even more critical to get this sorted for your author website as Google have made changes to their algorithms to favor mobile-friendly sites.

I’ve also written in the last few weeks about the rebranding and retitling of my first 3 novels. As part of that change, I’ve rebuilt my fiction site, JFPenn.com with a new theme. So essentially, I’ve been immersed in website fun for a while now!

As I get so many questions about this from other authors, I’ve asked Sara Whitford, an author and website designer, to go into more detail. Hopefully, this will help with your website redesign or optimization, something we all do as part of the author journey.

1) Why do authors need a mobile responsive website?

As authors, we must know that these days, potential readers will primarily discover our books online. In addition to writing a fabulous story and taking whatever steps are necessary to publish a professional-quality product (such as hiring a copy editor, making sure the book’s cover and interior design looks top-notch, etc.), we also need to establish our author brand by having a website (or two – more on that in a minute), as well as making smart use of social media and diverse marketing techniques to drive those potential readers to our websites where we can accomplish a few things:

  • Introduce them to our library of available content, including our published and forthcoming works, as well as related blog posts;
  • Let them know various places where they can purchase our books;
  • Provide links to our social media profiles in one place so they can connect with us on those sites;
  • Get them to sign up for our mailing lists so that we can communicate with them directly when we have something to offer that we think might interest them.

That said, a huge amount of Internet browsing is done on mobile devices. Joanna has told me roughly 43% of JFPenn.com traffic (the site for her thriller novels) is viewing the site on a mobile browser. I am seeing similar figures – averaging about 40% of traffic to my own sites – is viewing on mobile devices or small tablets.

Createspace is a great, easy-to-use siteóas long as youíre on a computer screenóbut itís a challenge to navigate if youíre on a mobile phone.

Createspace is a great, easy-to-use siteóas long as youíre on a computer screenóbut itís a challenge to navigate if youíre on a mobile phone.

What kind of browsing experience do you think someone will have if they go to your website and it is not mobile responsive?

They’ll not likely stay for long. It’s not much fun, and it’s quite frustrating, trying to navigate a site by pinch-stretching the screen every time you want to click on a link, or read or enter a bit of text.

And now, Google is doing its part to make sure the mobile web experience is as user-friendly as it can be, and if your site isn’t up to their new standards, its search engine rankings will likely tank.

Recently, Google enacted new search algorithms that prioritize mobile-friendly sites in search results.

This change effectively penalizes sites that are not mobile-friendly by not ranking them as high as their responsive counterparts. While a lot of other variables go into website SEO, making sure your site is mobile responsive should be at the top of your list.

I published an article on my author blog ahead of Google’s algorithm change that explains what a mobile responsive website is, as well as some easy steps you can take right now to make your site responsive.

2) What are the top 3 issues that you see on author websites?

In no particular order, I’d say my top three issues with author websites are that they either don’t look professional enough, they don’t have fresh content, and they often aren’t responsive, or mobile-friendly.

  • Joanna Penn's fiction website, jfpenn.com, is a great, professional-looking site.

    Joanna Penn’s fiction website (jfpenn.com) is a professional-looking, mobile-friendly site.

    You need a professional-looking website. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to get a decent looking website. If you’re willing to do the work, you can learn to put something that looks quite professional together for yourself. I’m always teaching myself new things when it comes to website development and you can too!†Nevertheless, even if you decide your time is better spent elsewhere, go ahead and set a little bit of money aside and hire someone to help you set up a site that you can maintain yourself. Your website might be the first place a potential reader comes into contact with you before ever even reading one of your books. You just don’t want it to look amateurish.

  • You need fresh content. Give readers a reason to keep coming back. If your site is nothing but a billboard advertising your current books, they’ll (maybe) spend a few minutes looking to see what all is there, but that’ll be the end of it. Ideally, you’ll have a subscription form of some sort for your e-mail list. Joanna has some great information about that right here. While you write fresh content, try to keep it timeless. That way, you can employee a fantastic auto-sharing plugin like Revive Old Post, which will automatically (and randomly) share your content on the social media networks of your choosing based on a schedule you set up.

3) What are some of the other key aspects an author needs on their website?

In addition to the obvious author site must-haves such as information about your available titles, editorial reviews, forthcoming projects, and an author bio, I also suggest the following:

Connect with your readers.

Are you using social media? You should be. You don’t have to answer every tweet or Facebook post, but you should at least give readers a means of connecting with you on at least two or three social media sites. If I had to pick just three, I’d choose Goodreads (because of all the readers!), Twitter (because it’s fun), and Facebook (because you likely already have a built in network there and it’s so easy to share new blog posts, book news, and so forth). I have a longer article about Social Media for Writers here.

You want readers to be able to easily share content from your site, so make sure you are using social media share buttons on each post.

You want readers to be able to easily share content from your site, so make sure you are using social media share buttons on each post.

Use share buttons.

In addition to making sure that your site has fresh content regularly (whether it’s weekly or monthly, whatever you can manage), you should also have share buttons at the bottom of any articles so that people can post them easily to their social networks. Don’t worry about grabbing share buttons from all of the social media sites. There are plenty of plugins that can help you accomplish the same thing.

Use attractive images.

Please don’t decorate your site with clip-art from your word processing software. I mean, the occasional cutesy image is ok, but otherwise, try to keep it professional. Don’t worry if you don’t have Photoshop or Illustrator. Two great tools that can help your site look its best are Canva and Dollar Photo Club.

  • Canva.com is a site that will let you create professional quality graphics in sizes specific to different social media (such as those perfect Twitter banners, Facebook covers, etc.) or in whatever dimensions you need. You can upload your own images to incorporate (such as a book cover or your photo), plus they have a variety of free elements you can use to build your graphics, or you can purchase premium elements for a dollar a piece.
  • DollarPhotoClub.com†is a massive high-res stock images library where you can find the perfect graphics for any project for only a dollar each.
TheCreativePenn.com website highlights Joanna's expertise and has a tone reflective of her non-fiction books. It's very different than her fiction book website as seen above.

TheCreativePenn.com website highlights Joanna’s expertise and has a tone reflective of her non-fiction books. It’s very different than her fiction book website as seen above.

4) Many authors are confused about branding and colors for websites – what do you recommend in terms of branding?

Most authors will want to focus on developing a site that accurately reflects the tone of the books they write – that is, if they stick to one genre. For instance, someone who writes serious military thrillers probably doesn’t want a website full of cheerful pictures of kittens and rainbows.

Take a look at your book covers and try to find common elements such as colors, fonts, and related imagery. When a reader visits your site, you want to draw them into the world of your novels and other content that is relevant in some way.

Occasionally, authors will write in two or more wildly different genres. When they do, they might want to consider setting up more than one site – like Joanna has done with thecreativepenn.com and jfpenn.com. The former, she uses for her non-fiction writing books and related blog. The latter is for her thrillers.

In my case, while I don’t have plans to write many non-fiction books like Joanna, I still enjoy blogging about the tips, tricks, and hacks I’m learning as an independent author-publisher and giving back to the indie community by sharing those with my fellow writers online. Still, I realize the readers of my Adam Fletcher Adventure Series probably don’t care much about how I use Scrivener or that I’m a fan of plotting my novels on index cards. For that reason, I have two websites: one is my author site, the other is for my book series.

5) What do you recommend if people want to do it themselves?

In short, I recommend is a site built with the WordPress platform and using the Genesis framework by Studiopress, along with one of their brilliant child themes. Right out of the box, all of their themes are mobile-friendly and they make SEO easy. I have a more detailed article here about developing an author website.

6) What do you offer if people need help?

If you have questions, please contact me via my website. I'm happy to help!

If you have questions, please contact me via my website. I’m happy to help!

I’m always happy to answer questions via my website if I am able, but I also hire out my services to help create high quality, professional-looking websites at affordable prices.

I’m a newly published author, so I’m still dependent on my day job designing websites to pay the bills. I’ve been building websites for nearly two decades with all varieties of technologies, but for the last five years, I’ve become a huge fan of helping people build WordPress sites using Studiopress themes. I’m also experienced at integrating social media, setting up podcasts, content planning, SEO, and much more.

sara whitfordMy hourly rates are competitive and no job is too big or too small. If you’re interested in finding out what it might cost to develop, or just upgrade, your own website, you can contact me via the form on this page.

Sara Whitford is a writer, historical researcher, editor, website developer and homeschooling mom of one very cool boy.

Crowdfunding, A Passion For Print And WB Yeats With Orna Ross

Crowdfunding is becoming ever more popular with creatives to raise fund for various projects. But when is it a good idea for an author?

orna rossIn this interview with author, poet and creative coach, Orna Ross, we go into her love of WB Yeats and how this passion has turned into her own print project, as well as tips for other authors considering crowdfunding. Orna is also the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, so she is very knowledgeable about the current state of publishing.

Watch the video below or Orna Ross Yeats on YouTube. You can also read the full transcript of the interview below.

Transcript of interview with Orna Ross

Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I’m here with Orna Ross. Hello Orna!

Orna: Hi Jo. Hello everyone.

Joanna: Now just in case people don’t know who are, and I can’t imagine who they might be (!) but just tell us a bit about you and your writing background.

Orna: Okay. Well, I write novels. I write poems and I write guides to creativism, what I call creativisim, which is applying the creative process to life. But novels, I suppose is my main activity and has been for some years. And I also run the Alliance of Independent Authors, since I started in 2011-2012 self publishing my own work. And yeah, that’s about it, I think.

Joanna: More than a full time job, as I know. So that’s you, you’re a bit of a starter. You start loads of things. And you’ve got this project that you’ve started – as if you didn’t have enough going on.

Tell us about this project that you are about to do.

Orna: It’s crazy, because I have been working on this novel, a series of novels really, for a very long time based on the life, and specifically the love life and the creative life of the great Irish poet, WB Yeats.

And for those who may not know, he is considered to be probably the greatest poet of the 20th Century. Really important in Ireland in that he is the founder of our National Theatre, but also one of the feeders of the cultural nationalism that actually lead to the Independence war that kinda founded our state.

So all of that is his public life. Me, as an impressionable little girl in school, I was introduced to his work as every Irish schoolchild is and I was the perfect reader for his brand of romance, which was very tied up with the vision of Ireland as the creative space that we escape to. So for Yeats, he lived in London, he was a Londoner really, more than anywhere else. So he, like a lot of creatives, lived in lots of different places, but he had a long life in London.

But London for him and indeed for his Mother, who was from Sligo, London for him was the heart of the British Empire, the materialist world. Sligo, specifically, but Ireland, generally, was the creative space that we escape to so he wrote this very provocative “come away oh human child” the waters and the wild. He set up this image of romantic Ireland, a place anybody could slip into and be in a creative space. So that’s my abiding interest in Yeats, if you like.

When you’re told about Yeats, you’re instantly told about the muse, the great love of his life, Maud Gonne, who inspired much of his poetry, in particular but an awful lot of his writing. He said all of his oeuvre really came out of his wish to explain himself to her and I would say also to his mother, which is another story and they’re linked in the book.

So he created this poetic myth around his love for Maud, of unrequited love. He was the courtly lover who splayed his dreams unto her feet and asked her to tread softly on them. Now when I went and looked behind the myth and started to look at things from Maude’s point of view the story looked a little different. And that’s what sparked my novel, which is called Her Secret Rose.

It’s based around the time that he was writing a book of short stories called The Secret Rose, and so my novel is the story behind those stories, if you like, which ties into the themes I’ve just been talking about there. And it’s a novel of intrigue and secrets and double-dealing and all sorts of interesting things.

yeats 2015So, that was enough work. I am getting to answer your question here! There was enough work in all of that but I decided, because it is Yeats’ 150th anniversary this year that I would like to do something really special to celebrate that, and of course, writing a novel, finishing a novel, publishing a novel that is in a sense a tribute that everything he stands for.

But anyway I got this idea, wouldn’t it be great to put my novel and his stories into one volume and produce a beautiful print work that would be a replica of his 1897 first edition of The Secret Rose stories.

So that’s what I decided I would like to do. I investigated and it was ridiculously expensive. The paper alone is expensive and it’s embossed in gilt. It’s got these beautiful mystical symbols that meant an awful lot to him, which are all explained in my novel. And, it’s an expensive project so I decided, well, I’d do it if enough Yeats fans decide that they’d like me to do it. So I said let’s see if we can crowdfund the funds needed.

Joanna: And there’s so much I want to ask you about that, but I want to come back to a bit more of personal question, because you talk there about Yeats in London and in Ireland, and of course, you’re in London and you’re Irish.

How much of his feelings about Ireland and London are reflected in your own or what’s different?

Orna: That’s really interesting actually. I suppose that’s what I’m teasing out in my novel Her Secret Rose. I see a different Ireland to that mystical place that Yeats conjures up in his poetry, but indeed so did he. And in 1913 he wrote a line, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” O’Leary was his political mentor.

And he had a number instances in his life where he took the Irish people to task for being not good enough in his terms, which essentially meant being too materialistic. “Fumbling in the greasy till” is how he put it. He took to the stage one night in the Abbey when there were riots against a play that he had promoted in the Abbey Theatre and he took to the stage and said, “You have disgraced yourselves again”. So he was always lecturing the Irish of not being quite living up to his high ideals.

And I suppose for me I’ve got that double relationship. Ireland for me, the landscape particularly, I grew up in rural Ireland. I’m a country girl. I love nature and there is nothing like Irish scenery, for me, in terms of touching that place where the magic happens.

But I can’t live there. I can’t live in Ireland. To live there full term doesn’t feed what I need. And I find London a much more congenial place creatively, much more vibrant, diverse, and interesting and stimulating. So, I live here and I go home, as I say, a lot. And I’m always hopping across the Irish Sea and then I come home, which is back to London very happily.

Joanna: That’s cool. So going back to the crowdfunding project. We’ve had a talk before about most independent authors make their money from digital versions of books. So this is not a financial project as such. It is “for the love of Yeats”, but also for the love of print.

So talk us a bit more through this print project and why print means so much to you, when you could just be doing this as an e-book and presumably making a profit, as opposed to doing it this way.

Orna: You’re absolutely right. It’s not a financial project, it’s a passion project.

And why does print mean so much to me? I mean it’s an interesting question. I do actually, fundamentally if there is a choice to be made, for me the magic is in the words, the format is not the most important thing. But there really isn’t a choice to be made. We can have more than just the magic of the words, we can also have it packaged in a very nice way. I find that reading books in print and reading books digitally is a different experience.

And one of the things that I do, if I really enjoy an e-book, I’ll often buy the hardback to own it, and I will read it again later on and have a different reading experience. I also, this particular book was designed by a woman called Althea Gyles. She’s a really interesting character in her own right. She was born in County Waterford, as I was myself. And there were loads of little sorts of coincidences and . . . what do you call this?

Joanna: Synchronicity

Orna: Lots of synchronicities around that and I just really admired her work. And I have this need after, I mean I’ve been self-publishing now from late 2011, early 2012 and I include in self-publishing in that term, blogging and all sorts of different publications.

And I just had a need to create something really tactile, really visual, really beautiful.

Something that special and different and out of the ordinary. And I don’t know why, why do we get these urges? They’re crazy. Why are we writers in the first place? It’s nuts. So it’s really that sort of motivation.

Joanna: Is there something around longevity?

Because I don’t really buy print at all. I don’t buy hardbacks or something to keep. The only print books I have are like Carl Jung’s Red Book, which is really massively oversize and contains full color print. And it was like £100 pounds. And I’ll be getting one of your Yeats books, but I’ll actually read the e-book on my Kindle. I’ll have the print book for more of an art piece. So is that a part of it? Having something that has more longevity than e-books?

Orna: Definitely. You know if this was just a hardback of my own novel, it wouldn’t be exciting me in that way. It is because the symbols that are on it and the gilt embossed that it’s very meaningful. It is in a conceptual sort of art way. And yes, I see it as a souvenir and publication of Yeats 2015.

I also see it very much as resuscitating the stories.

Yeats is considered, you know he’s celebrated mainly as a poet, also as a dramatist, but people largely overlook his fiction. And I understand why that is, he’s sort of a failed novelist. He didn’t really manage to get novels together, but these stories are very interesting.

They’re done in the folkloric tradition and he had done a huge amount of research and a huge amount of collection of folklore. What he did was write these original stories about his own vision of what he calls the mystical rose, which is a very ancient and magic symbol really in the western magic tradition.

And magic was a creative fuel of his life.

It was a secret for a long, long time because to say you were interested in magic, it was instantly termed, you found yourself a bit of a loon.

He was an indie author in the sense he always had one eye toward his reputation. He marketed very cleverly. He put himself out there in a very interesting way. He knew what he was doing and he took huge interest in how the books were put out there.

So he was our definition of an indie author. He did work with the trade publishers because you have to, but The Secret Rose itself was crowdfunded in a way.

O’Leary helped him to get subscribers who paid a certain amount. And once you reached an amount then the publisher would go ahead and do it for you. So very, very similar to crowdfunding really. It was a crowdfunded project in 1897.

Joanna: In terms of thinking about that as you were talking, I was thinking then of John Martin the painter who also did things after they had already been funded as such. I think you’re right that this is more of an ancient thing that’s coming back now.

But, for people who are watching who are interested in crowdfunding. I mean I’ve been blogging for 6 years. I’ve got quite a big audience, and it’s not something I’m ready to do yet. I don’t have a passion project like you do.

What are the types of projects that authors should even think of crowdfunding?

Orna: I think that’s a really good question, because I don’t think crowdfunding is a very wise decision if it’s just about publishing a book. I think books should be published on their own merits.

We have such fantastic tools now. It’s not overly expensive in terms of either the money or time. And you should believe enough in your book to be able to invest the relatively small amount that it takes to produce a decent book and get it out there in digital format. Print, as well. Print On Demand.

Maybe five years ago there were enough people who’d be interested enough in the fact that you were even doing that to fund it. But now, when every second person is writing and publishing a book, I don’t think that people feel too much about it. It’s enough in a way to expect than to buy your book. You know they expect you to have the belief in it in the first place.

But I think for something that’s obviously outside the reach of an individual to fund, then I think it’s okay to crowdfund. But I think you need to be very clear about what you’re offering.

Crowdfunding isn’t charity.

You are actually offering rewards in return for the investment. So, in my case there are the books obviously in e-book format and this beautiful print version, but there are various events that I think would be very appealing to Yeats’ followers and the launch itself.

I’m very lucky, honored indeed to be launching the book at the Yeats’ International summer school, which is a famous gathering of academics and scholars and poets and singers and writers who love Yeats. And part of the crowdfunder is to invite people to come along a share that evening with us. We’re going to have really fabulous dinner in the home of the president of the Yeats’ Society, whose wife just happens to be a brilliant chef, and she’ll talk about Yeats and she’ll feed us lovely things. And there are other events and things.

I’m also offering my own creative mentoring because I do see this book as being very much about creativity and the creative process of how that operates in us all.

So the rewards that are on offer are very much linked to the project. And I think that’s the key.

Well for me, that seems like the key. If you’re asking people to donate money that you’re offering them something that they would value in return. So I do think that what puts a lot of people off crowdfunding is that they feel it’s a fancy begging or a charity ask, but I don’t really feel that it is. I feel if there are enough people who share how I feel about this, then they’ll join in and together we’ll all create something that wouldn’t have been possible, if we didn’t all bound together to make it happen.

Joanna: And I agree with you that it’s more like paying in advance for a piece of art, really. That’s basically what it is. It’s committing to paying in advance for something you haven’t seen yet.

So there’s a element of trust from the purchaser as such. But I really like it and I’ve helped crowdfund quite a few things like the font from Sigmund Freud’s handwriting, which I know I’ve told you about before, which I thought was just cool. And I haven’t even used it. It was just a kind of cool thing to be involved with.

I’ve been involved in quite a lot of book projects, all that were more than just a novel. It’s very fulfilling to be part of that as an audience member and to get the updates about what’s happening.

So I hope you’ll be showing us some behind the scenes on the actual print process. Are you going to be able to do that?

Orna: I hope so and the decision as to exactly who’s going to help with the printing is being made as we speak. I know we’ve got to the stage in the crowdfunder that the project is going ahead. So we’re about half way there, and so it will be happening. So now it’s a matter of seeing who’s going to actually help us make it happen.

I really would love to share, because I think people are interested in how a book gets put together. And I’m celebrating, not just Yeats, the writer, the maker of the content, but also he was a book maker and he really took such an interest in it. And his interest is inspiring my interest in a way. It’s not something I ever did before or really got involved in, but it’s fascinating when you look at how books are made. And indeed when you look at how POD is made now these days, so it’s a whole new world and it’s really, really interesting.

His sisters, in fact, ran a small press and they were the outlets for his work. So again, there is that touch of him setting up his own indie scene, to deliver whatever he felt like he wanted to put out into the world. He didn’t have Amazon Kindle, but he would have loved it [laughter].

Joanna: I went to the London Center for Book Arts and made my own little book, you know? [watch the video here!]

Orna: I remember you saying that.

Joanna: And it was awesome. I did think at the time, if I do this, I do want to do some limited edition binding. And Cory Doctorow’s done that. He’s done limited edition bindings for some, like he did it himself.

There’s actually no limit to these creative things we can do with our own words.

So you definitely helped me think about what I’d like to do in the future.

But we should just point out that Yeats’ words are public domain, aren’t they? Would you just explain that?

Orna: That’s so important and I keep forgetting to say it actually. The only reason I can resuscitate these stories is because Yeats is now out of copyright. It’s over, just over 70 years since he died. In fact when I wrote about him before, I published a book, back in 2008, which contained some of the material that’s in this book and he wasn’t out of copyright at that time and it was like a real leap through the rights landscape to try and get it. So yeah, don’t try this at home with your favorite writer unless they’re out of copyright!

Joanna: That’s really important. And then the other question I had on the crowdfunding: there’s a lot of stories of people who’ve done it and then ended up not costing it properly, because you actually have to make sure that you funded all your levels correctly and promise the right things, right? You can’t over commit because a percentage has to go to the crowdfunding site. You get a certain percentage, there’s various fees and things involved.

So how did you analyze how much money you needed?

Orna: Yeah. I probably got it wrong, which remains to be seen [laughter].

Joanna: Wrong answer.

Orna: I got a quote for the various costs. The main costs for me, in my mind, are the costs of the actual production of the book. So that’s what takes outside the realm of an ordinary project. I’m committing an amount of my own money obviously to it as well. There’s a small charity thing going through. I’m using Pubslush as the crowdfunding platform, because they specialize in literary projects and I think that’s nice. I think that must be hard to only do books in the crowdfunding space, so I’m very happy to be going with them on that. And yeah. So they do a small sort of charity thing, as well. Very delighted to donate to that.

So there, yes, you’re right, it sounds like a huge amount of money, and what on earth are you going to be doing with it? But actually lots and lots of it will go in different directions.

And there’s a huge responsibility. I was aware of that before I started it, but I’m more and more aware of that as I go through the process.

That people are committing their money and their interest, those who are interested in it are very interested in it and so, yeah, you got to deliver.

And I did try, in terms, of working out what rewards I was able to give for it to be realistic about what I could, in fact, do and what I could not do. So I could have offered a lot more or possibly got money easier maybe from that I don’t know.

But in a way I think it’s like a lot of creative things, you can’t over-think it.

You just ride the desire and the intention to do it and see what arises as you go. Do your very best. Get some of it right. Get some of it wrong. And if at the end we get a lovely book and some great events then it would have done what it set out to do. Exactly.

Joanna: So, timeline? You have a hard deadline on this, don’t you?

Orna: I do.

Joanna: So tell us the timeline of your plan?

Orna: It’s really ridiculous and so I finish the book this month, May, and it goes into editorial. And it goes straight then from editorial to proofing, from proofing into production, and the launch is on the 3rd of August. So it’s bang, bang, bang.

But you know what? I’m loving that, because one of the things that I found most difficult about trade publishing is the gap in time between your investment in the project creatively and emotionally and everything else and then going out into the world with it.

So I had the experience, for example, on my first novel of there being three years between me signing the contract and the book actually appearing. I found it so difficult to go out there and talk about the book, because I was a different person.

Joanna: You’d forgotten it.

Orna: I had forgotten it. I’d moved on. The disconnect was there. So at the moment I’m just in this Yeatsian fuzz and hey, everything is about either the production of this print or else the finishing up of the book, itself, which has been hanging around for far too long. So I’m really pleased to be finishing it and seeing it out in such stylish fashion [laughter].

Joanna: Brilliant. So tell us where we can find the crowdfunding project and also your other books, online?

Orna: Ornaross.com is the simplest way through and back out to the various places where the books are sold and specifically the crowdfunder, OrnaRoss.com/SecretRose will bring you to the crowdfunding page.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, I’m very excited to hear about it Orna, and looking forward to my copy. So wishing you all the best.

Orna: Oh, thanks Jo. Thank you so much for supporting us and for doing this interview. I really appreciate it.

Do you have any questions about crowdfunding or Yeats? Please do leave them below and join the conversation.