Ad Astra 2015: I didn’t totally embarrass myself

Ad Astra 2015 - Toronto

I went to Ad Astra last week. And it was good.

THE END

What? Whaddya mean that’ not a good story? Ugh. You people and your expectations. You must think I’m some kind of writer or something.

*checks occupation line on tax return* Oh. Well. Huh. Okay, fine. I’ll “try” “harder.”

Last weekend, I returned to Ad Astra, a nearby SFF con where my lovely cover artist, Desiree Kern, runs the art show. These folks regularly host high-caliber creatives as guests of honour, and for them to invite Little Guy me in to speak as a “professional panelist” (as opposed to last year when I did a pity-reading at 9pm in the basement on the first night) was kinda-sorta a big deal for me.

Although I popped my convention cherry last year, attending ConBravo in Hamilton and FanExpo in Toronto, I wasn’t there as a guest–I was a vendor, sharing a booth with Alexander Dundass, a local hardcore sci-fi author. Which was great! I broke about even on expenses, met some other creative folk, and had great conversations with new people. It taught me a lot. But it’s a whole different animal than being an official guest.

As a panelist, you’re presented as a person of authority. You’ve got an audience expecting you to divulge secret wisdom worthy of the time they’re spending with you. It’s a big honor, but also a big responsibility. I’d applied for over a dozen panels, mostly about fantasy writing, and I ended up with three.

But when I saw who I’d be speaking with, my extremities started sweating profusely. Seriously, I had to change my socks.

On Friday, I joined Lesley Donaldson and Jim Gardner for Inventing Real People for Alternate Histories (alt myth is pretty much the same thing, right?). There was a lot of discussion with the attendees–which I love; topics ranged from “Should you ever go back in time and kill Hitler?” (no) to “How do you put words in a famous person’s mouth?” (research + don’t be precious). I loved hearing how passionate Lesley is about Elizabeth I, the subject for her upcoming spec-fantasy, and Jim’s intricate ideas for different realities, like if the discovery of Rh+/- had been taken as blood markers for sin/salvation instead of science.

That panel eased me into public speaking (fear of which made me quit my Master’s program), so I was prepped for my reading on Saturday night. I shared space with Catherine Fitzsimmons, whom I’d met briefly at ConBravo, and she read from both Enduring Chaos (fantasy) and Halcyon (sci-fi thriller) to much applause. Personally, I couldn’t remember what I read last year, so I chose Cora Riley chapter 4, where Jack swears to Ishtar and Cora tries to rescue him; always a hit.

But by Sunday morning, I was so nervous I could hardly talk. I was short of breath and tunnel-visioned from anxiety. My next panel, Fairy Tales: Rewriting Grimm, Anderson & Aesop, featured two of the guests of honor: Anne Bishop and Charles de Lint.

NO BIG DEAL.

Going in, I already didn’t know why they’d assigned me to such a prestigious panel; by the time Alisse Lee Goldenberg and Marie Bilodeau joined the table, I was positive there’d been a mistake. These are all highly-respected, accomplished masters of their craft, bursting with experience and knowledge. I’m a self-published newbie with delusions of standing; what could I possibly contribute? So I put myself in the worst possible seat, furthest from attention, and hoped I didn’t elbow Anne Bishop hard enough to bruise her.

Then a beautiful thing happened.

In absence of a moderator, we asked each other questions and responded to the audiences’, which made for more material than we could cover. We discussed the pros and cons of Disneyfication, why we need fairytales as adults, what should/not be modernized, the challenges of adopting stories from other cultures, and changing the “damsel in distress” narrative. Not only did I start to realize I wasn’t out of place on the panel–I noticed how great it felt to talk with openly and passionately about my work. For the first time since I began writing the Forgotten Relics series, I felt like I wasn’t boring people with how the belief system works or Cora’s view of fairytales as life lessons. People asked me questions, nodded their heads at my answers, laughed at my jokes. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a Real Author. And it felt so. good.

By the time we ended, I was soaring on adrenaline and endorphins that carried me to Mental Health and Fandom. Of the panels I’d been assigned, I was most excited for this one (barf-inducing panic for the fairytale panel doesn’t count as “excitement”). I made a huge list of TV shows, films, and books I wanted to talk about in regards to how they handle depression, anorexia, suicide, autism, mania, and psychotic breaks. We did cover those things, but not how I’d anticipated; instead, the panel turned into an incredible session of folks sharing their own struggles.

Ada Hoffmann talked honestly about life on the autism spectrum and her views on society’s handling of those folks. Max Turner discussed the obstacles of identifying who’s having trouble and how to be a good ally. Patrick McDonald gave a harrowing view into the psychiatric system of the 70s and 80s–from the inside. I spoke about battling anorexia, depression, and mania. Audience members revealed intimate stories of how their lives have been touched by mental health issues, too. We encouraged and validated each other. It was intense–in a great way.

I walked away from Ad Astra 2015 with a lot to chew on. I’d met some incredible people (both behind the table and in front of it), successfully exercised my nascent extrovert skills, and gotten a taste of confidence in being an authority. But I’d also succumbed to anxiety, despair, and fuckitallitis a couple of times during the weekend; after all, I only sold one book, and all the industry info I got didn’t apply to “author-publishers.” A bit of a rollercoaster.

I drove back to Hamilton in my rented Jetta, though, I couldn’t ignore the tiny flame of hope down in my cold, black heart. Despite what my fear tells me, I’m actually good at conventions. I’m funny, curious, and grounded; I see people when I talk to them; I love encouraging aspiring writers; I want to hear about your character. Not because it makes me look good, but because I care, dammit. And, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m a good writer. My work is interesting and inventive;  I just have a marketing problem. What Ad Astra showed me is that if I can relax and keep doing what I’m good at–maybe with a couple tweaks–the doors I’ve been pounding my head bloody against will open up.

So, like I said at the start: I went to Ad Astra Toronto. And it was good.

THE END

Deconstruction: Lessons learned from paying for book promotion

Porsche Deconstruction by denton83 via Deviant Art

You might not have known this, but The Transmigration of Cora Riley came out six months after I wanted to publish it.

On the suggestion of another author whom I respect, I put off the launch to arrange professional marketing and promotion.  I resisted like crazy, but after running the crowdfunding campaign, I was already in Serious Business territory and took my friend’s advice.  What I’d like to do is talk about what I did and how it went, along with the lessons I’ve learned and what I’ll do differently next time.

TL;DR

Paying for promotional services turned out to be not the best idea. Sales and other stats were remarkably low, especially compared to Inkchanger‘s grassroots debut.  I didn’t lose a lot of money, but the time and energy expended make it not worth doing again unless I can afford to hire a Big Company for a thousand bucks.  Or unless I can find the “right people” through networking or word of mouth.  Until then, I’ll go back to grassroots and trust that you guys got my back.

ARC Reviews

This one I did on my own for zero dollars, about mid-December. I started with submitting the ARC to self-pub-friendly reviewers I found on The Indie View. I sent about 50 emails of varying lengths, doing my damnedest to follow the individual reviewer guidelines. I received about 10 replies, and only 4 of them agreed to review the book – an 8% success rate.  I also badgered a few author friends for reviews and did much better – about a 90% success rate (granted, a much smaller sample).  Those folks also shared on social media, wrote blog posts, and even gave pull quotes, so a much bigger win.

Cover Reveal

Given Cora Riley’s wicked cover, I liked the idea of a reveal, which I was told happens 2 months before launch. I decided to seek out an actual promoter since the entire point is to share with audiences I wouldn’t normally have access to. This took quite a bit of research (maybe six hours), starting with Indie View and asking other authors for suggestions. I weighed prices – ranging from free to a couple hundred bucks – and included services – between 5 and 50 sites, sometimes a banner, etc. I wound up hiring Company #1 (more below), which included 20 sites and an excerpt of the book, which cost me $20.  Reveal day went amazingly well! A couple of folks didn’t post, but the company over-booked the roster, so I wound up with 22 – fine by me. Lots of shares, likes, and interest.  It was fantastic to see people responding so positively to Desz’ cover.  Now, bear with me, because this gets a little tricksy.

Tour Company #1

I hired TC1 to run the cover reveal (20 stops, 1 day), a publication-day media blitz (10 stops, 1 day), and a blog tour (10 stops, 2 weeks), which included a tour banner, 4-6 reviews, and unique-to-me webpages to keep track of everything.  This came to a grand total of $110, at the low end of mid-range for such services.

However, the launch day blitz and tour itself both had problems. One of these was my fault (or rather a problem with self-pub) and the other is either the fault of the company or a standard flaw with this sort of service (I can’t be sure).

The first issue was getting Amazon sales links to bloggers in advance. This is incredibly hard in self-pub. To get the link, I have to make the book available for sale, which busts the whole point of launch day. I had links to both tour companies 24 hours pre-launch, the best I could manage, but hosts had already scheduled posts and forgotten about them. On launch day, only 2 out of 10 had buy links embedded, and when confronted, only 5 fixed and reshared. But the damage had been done. I wound up with single-digit sales on launch day because of this snafu.

The other issue was a combination of hosting issues during the tour portion. One host flat didn’t do their review; they also decided to redo their blog that day, so their entire site was inaccessible and unshareable. One didn’t post at all.  The giveaway service doesn’t make a widget on some sites, requiring another click, lowering engagement. The same excerpt was used on nearly all posts, making it redundant and awkward to share.  I tracked the stats of my sales, reviews, blog hits, Goodreads + FB + Twitter + newsletter adds, and saw incredibly little movement.

Now, granted, TC1 overbooked the tour slightly, so most days were covered, but there was a lot of miscommunication and terse-sounding emails for pretty much the entire tour. I felt unheard many times, though I will say that the issues were all addressed and things mostly smoothed over.  And while sales/results are not guaranteed as a matter of course, I’m about 99% sure I won’t hire this company again.  Too much stress and doubt.

Tour Company #2

While I was looking for someone to hire, I contacted TC2 just to get more information.  When I didn’t hear back in a few days, I hired TC1, thinking no big deal. After the reviewers’ silence, I figured this is just how it went in book promo.

Wrong.

TC2 got back to me several weeks later with a full schedule of promotion – for free.  There was a bit of miscommunication at the start, but we ironed it out with a couple of emails. They arranged a much smaller (approximately 7 hosts) launch day/tour package than what TC1 offered, but it still included a banner, a review, an excerpt, a spotlight interview, and a giveaway.  There were a few kinks, such as having the same interview go out on 3 sites day after day (and thus needing to be shared separately), but the communication was excellent, the hosts’ sharing was great, and you can’t beat the price. Plus, they’re expanding. I’ll definitely be working with this company again.

Miscellaneous Assistance

A few other authors gave me a signal boost in the form of reviews, social media shares, and even blog posts.  I also got confirmation from a couple of reviewers that posts were coming, which was nice.  The coolest thing by far, though, was appearing on Max On Movies, a syndicated radio show out of St. Louis. Oh, and I have a book launch party coming up soon.

Conclusion

When I published Inkchanger in February 2013, it happened with comparatively little fanfare. I shared Amazon links and notices on social media for a few days, slapped together some blog posts, asked friends for help, and away I went.  I sold 54 copies in the first week (sadly the only measurement I tracked).

At the time of writing, I’ll be lucky if I sell 25 copies of Cora Riley in a fortnight.*

I figured since I’d published two books already, and there’d been a lot of hype about this book before the promos, Cora Riley would make a significantly bigger splash when she debuted, especially with all this official, paid-for assistance.

Apparently not.

So, judging by the level of angst I’ve felt and the disappointing statistics, I can only conclude that the way I tackled “going pro” with this book was wonky.  But I’m choosing to look at it as lessons learned. It’s not that online book promotion is a waste of time; it’s that I need to tailor it rather than going with what’s “standard.”

Here’s what I’ll do differently next time:

  • Cover reveal one month before launch, not two
  • One week of virtual tour post-launch, not two
  • Pay for services that pair me with reviewers rather than paying for tour hosting
  • Organize a series of blog tour hosts myself, using guestposts and interviews rather than excerpts
  • Make excerpts exclusive to my own site(s)
  • Run giveaways on my site and through Goodreads
  • Make other book(s) free or 99 cents as a promo through Amazon
  • Ensure my social media is the way I want it beforehand (I realized my Facebook wasn’t “right” the day after launch but it was too late; I’ll lose followers when I switch)
  • Book launch party closer to actual launch date, with additional online launch party on day-of.

* Worth pointing out: If I count copies that went to crowdfunders, that brings Cora Riley‘s sales to about 65.  While it’s nice to buoy it, it’s only marginally better than Inkchanger‘s stats, which is aggravating given how much time, energy, and money went into boosting visibility.

Pay artists to make art. Period.

Starving artist by Artbandito via Flickr

This is a public service announcement.

Pay artists.

No arguing. No “buts”. No excuses. Just do it.

There’s this egregiously wrong assumption in society that creatives pull their work out of the ether. That they’re merely a channel for a higher power or are blessed/cursed with an ineffable something normal humans are not. That they’re somehow exempt from the obstacles and needs of “real” jobs.

When we think of “an artist”, we tend to picture a woman in quasi-bohemian clothes with a dreamy look on her paint-spattered face, living in a yurt in Central Park.

That shit needs to stop.

Creatives aren’t magical beings who take in oxygen and crap out masterpieces. It takes dedication, sacrifice, money, cheerleading, therapy, practice, and refinement for an artist to produce their art. They’re humans who work as hard if not harder than non-creatives to scrape together a living doing what their combination of talent and discipline has encouraged them to do.

And so when we shortchange artists for the mental, emotional, and spiritual capital they pour into their work, we tell them we don’t value it. That they should give up because the world doesn’t understand. That they’d be better off flipping burgers than writing that novel or painting that portrait or choreographing that dance.

The starving artist trope is dangerous and perpetuated solely by the belief that to create is a mysterious, mystical madness requiring no material foundation.

When we don’t pay artists what they’re worth and expect them to work for free, we not only deny them validation and support, we deny ourselves the enrichment, beauty, and sense of wholeness that can only come from having art in our lives.

Break free from that programming.

Pay artists to make art.

For you, for them, for me, for us all.