The Co-Author of Writing Fiction For Dummies Waxes Wise on Craft, Process and Survival in a Changing Marketplace
Odds are you’re aware of Randy Ingermanson’s body of work. His #1 bestselling book. One of the most successful writing e-Zines… ever. The Snowflake Method. His Advanced Fiction Writing Website. An annual slate of powerful writing workshops. Or his award winning suspense and science fiction novels that are infused with his background as a physicist.
To say Randy is prolific is an understatement. But he is also two other things. He’s one of the smartest guys in the writing game, which serves the other thing… he’s one of the most generous teachers and bloggers and writing “guru” types anywhere.
This isn’t his first Storyfix interview. I invited him back because the market has shifted since his last visit, a topic he writes about with foresight and note-worthy veracity.
Much of that vast wisdom follows here. Read and learn. And enjoy.
Larry: Since this isn’t your first interview here on Storyfix, let’s begin with some catchup. What’s new with you, your newsletter (Advanced Fiction Writing) and your fiction?
Randy: Not much has changed with my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. I’ve been publishing it now for more than ten years, and I have nearly 12,000 readers.
As for my fiction, I’ve finished putting all my previously published novels back into print as e-books and I’m now working on new books. The last year has been excellent. I’m earning more as an indie author than I ever did in traditional publishing, and I’m having more fun.
Larry: What might surprise readers – yours or mine – about your writing process, beliefs or quirks?
Randy: I have a confession to make. I tried recently to cut some corners by not practicing what I preach. And I got myself in trouble. Here’s what happened:
I’m known around the world as the Snowflake Guy, in honor of my Snowflake method of writing a novel. Last year I decided to write very short book about the Snowflake method, written as a story. I thought I wouldn’t need to use the Snowflake Method on the story, because it was only going to be about 25,000 words.
Wrong! I got about 3/4 of the way into the story and painted myself into a corner and couldn’t get out. So I went back to the beginning, worked through my Snowflake process, and got the story back on track. The lesson I learned is that I have to plan my stories, always. I can’t cut corners just because the story is short.
Larry: A little over a year or so ago you rebooted your massively successful newsletter, basically starting over relative to subscriber base. And yet, in that short time you’ve amassed a significant readership and (since you post new subscriptions monthly) it’s growing very rapidly. Do you market for that growth, or is it all organic word-of-mouth? I won’t lie… would love to know how you’re doing that so I can duplicate the strategy here.
Randy: Here’s what happened. I had been hosting my email service on 1ShoppingCart.com for years and I had about 30,000 readers. When I gave my web site a facelift a couple of years ago, I decided to transfer my email list to MailChimp, because they have great deliverability rates. And I decided to make sure that all my subscribers really, really wanted to stay on the list. So I asked them all to resubscribe. I wound up with a bit more than 5000 who did it. That was fine with me. I had fewer subscribers, but everybody on the list really wanted to be there.
What happens is that people get interested in writing, they subscribe to my e-zine, they read it for a while, and then they lose interest. But they don’t unsubscribe. Over time, my list gets bigger but I’m carrying along a lot of people who have moved on to other things. And I have to pay for all those names on my list, whether they read my e-zine or not. So I was quite happy to trim things down.
As for growing the list, I don’t really do anything actively to make it happen. I’ve got a subscription box on every page of my web site, and it gives people an incentive to sign up. Every month, about 300 new people sign up. That’s out of about 100,000 page views on my site. So I’d say that if you want more people to sign up, you have to pull more traffic.
Larry: Blogging guru Jon Morrow says that newsletters are dead. But yours defies that… is that because it’s more a blog (yet independent of a website) in terms of content and distribution?
Randy: I don’t believe e-mail is dead. (Larry note: to be fair, Morrow agrees, it’s the old RSS newsletters he’s referring to.)
Darren Rowse, the guy who runs ProBlogger.net, did a study a couple of years ago to see where his sales were coming from. He found that about 3% of his sales came from his affiliates, 3% came from social media, 7% came from his blog, and 87% came from his e-mail list. E-mail rocks as far as a marketing tool. There is nothing like e-mail. You can read Darren’s results here:
I’ll tell you my secret for making my e-zine a success. But first, a little context: the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine is free and it takes me a full working day—about 8 hours—to write the content for each issue. I write three articles every month, each article about 1000 words. There’s an article on Organization, an article about Craft, and an article about Marketing.
Now here’s the secret: I put my very best ideas out there every month. I think that’s critical. When you give stuff away for free, give away some of your very best stuff. Give away some of your gold. That’s the best way to market the rest of your gold—the part of your gold that you sell.
I don’t do any marketing on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t blog very often anymore. Mainly, I just send out my e-zine each month. And it’s working very, very well for me.
Larry: One of my favorite posts of yours had to do with authors cultivating and growing a branded focus among targeted readers in your genre/niche, rather than marketing to other writers via writing sites (like this one). But other than Goodreads that’s not a remotely easy demographic to isolate… how are you doing it, and how is that working for you?
I have a fundamental belief about marketing: You should market only to your Target Audience. Not to anyone else, just your Target Audience.
The problem is that it’s hard to do that. Most authors make two mistakes here:
1) They define their Target Audience in terms of demographics—age, gender, social status, etc.
2) They try to find their Target Audience.
#1 is a mistake because your Target Audience is much better defined in terms of their psychographics—the set of emotional hot buttons they want pushed when they read a novel. So you need to decide what emotional hot buttons your fiction is going to push. Then your Target Audience is just the set of people who respond to those hot buttons. When you write your books, focus on writing the stuff that will delight your Target Audience. This is very freeing. You don’t have to write to please “everybody.” Just write to please a small set of people.
#2 is a mistake because you have no way to find your Target Audience. You’ll do much better when you make it easy for them to find you. And one way to do that is make the first book in a series permanently free.
Larry: Last year you relaunched most (or all?) of your titles under your own independent publishing brand. What was that like (I sensed it was long, arduous and really fun), and what has the response been relative to your expectations? What have you learned from that?
Randy: I had a series of three books that had been published back in the early 2000s. These books are NOT for everybody. They’re time-travel suspense. They involve a young female Jewish-Christian archaeologist and an agnostic Israeli theoretical physicist. These two characters are attracted to each other, but they can’t agree on anything, and they’re thrown back in time to first-century Jerusalem, where there’s a plot going on to kill the apostle Paul. (This is based on an actual historical incident in about the year AD 57 in Jerusalem, when forty young zealots made a pact to assassinate Paul. Paul’s own nephew was in on the plot.)
Now, as I said, this series is not for everyone. There’s too much religion for some people and too much science for others. Only a small fraction of all readers would be remotely interested in these books. I originally published the series with a couple of Christian publishers, and the books didn’t sell very well. They won several awards, and then they went out of print. Ten years went by, and the whole project seemed dead.
Last year about this time, I hired a graphic designer to give me new cover art. I formatted the books as e-books. Then I posted them all on the usual retailers (Amazon, B&N, Apple iBooks, and so on.) And I made Book #1 free, permanently.
I put the books in the Time Travel category and in the Christian Suspense category. Two wildly different categories. Then I just sat back to see what happened.
The results have been pretty cool. I’ve given away about 122,000 copies of Book 1. It now has over 500 reviews on Amazon. Combined revenue for the series in the last 9 months has been about $18,000. And I’ve hardly done any promotion. I’ve bought a couple of BookBub ads, and a few other paid promos like that. I’ve mentioned the books in my e-zine.
Other than that, I don’t do much active promotion. I’m a big fan of passive promotion. At the end of each book, I have a link to the online sales page for the next book in the series.
Here’s what’s happening: Lots of people download Book #1, which is free. Nothing attracts like “free.” But most people don’t read every free book they download. And if they do read it, most of the time, they aren’t in the Target Audience for the book. If they really hate it, they might write a bad review. If they really LOVE it, they buy the next book in the series. And they write a review. And they sign up for my e-mail list. So over time, my Target Audience finds me. And once I’ve got them in my e-mail list, I can tell them about new books in the future.
Permafree is win-win-win. Readers win because they can try new authors for free. Authors win because they are giving their Target Audience a way to find them, with no effort by the author. The online retailers win because they sell more books.
The less time you spend marketing, the more time you can spend writing.
Larry: You can’t Google writing craft without running into a mention of your famous Snowflake method. What’s ahead for that, any new books or software? What’s the best way for readers to get the 411/101 on the Snowflake method these days?
Randy: The Snowflake Method has been the most successful thing I’ve ever done. It’s a series of ten steps that I use to write the first draft of my novel. I build up a nicely structured story by starting with a one-sentence summary and expanding it out. I also build up the characters at the same time. I use a LOT of the same ideas that you teach in your book STORY ENGINEERING. You and I are very much on the same page about story structure, character arcs, and that sort of thing.
Back around 2003, I posted an article on my web site. The article is called “The Snowflake Method for Designing a Novel” and you can read it here for free: http://www.
That one article on my site gets about 50,000 page views per month. It’s had over 4.5 million page views since I first posted it. It brings me boatloads of traffic.
Some people love the Snowflake Method. Some people hate it. Some don’t care one way or another. I’m just happy that it helps people. I hear from people all the time who tell me that the method has given them hope that they can write a novel. I use the Snowflake Method because it’s the best way I know to jumpstart my creativity. It doesn’t make me more creative. I just helps channel my creativity in the right direction at the right time.
One young woman who found my Snowflake page got so inspired, she wrote her novel in a couple of months. Then she got an agent. Within a few months, the agent sold a two-book deal to Hyperion. The book got some nice reviews when it came out. The woman lives in Nigeria, so she submitted her book for the Africa Commonwealth Prize in the debut category, and it won! She had some talent, and the Snowflake Method gave her the inspiration to do what she was naturally gifted to do. It was a small boost, but an important one.
I’ve got a book out now on the Snowflake Method. The title is HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL USING THE SNOWFLAKE METHOD, and it’s been doing fantastically well. It’s my best-selling book right now.
I’ve also got a powerful software tool, Snowflake Pro, which guides you through the process. The Snowflake Method asks you to make some serious effort, and the software makes it a bit easier. I use Snowflake Pro as the first stage in my own story development. Snowflake Pro is for sale on my web site here: http://www.
Larry: With all the noise about self-publishing and the demise of traditional publishing, and the associated tsunami of self-published product out there, do you believe that writing itself – the nature and criteria for effective storytelling – is changing or evolving in any discernible way? The physics of the phenomenon force the quality bar downward, yet some of these books are really selling. Has there been a shift in the way writers should create their stories in light of this drastically evolving marketplace?
Randy: The big thing I’m seeing is the trend to shorter works and more series.
Most readers of e-books have a certain price point that they like best. For a lot of readers, this is around $2.99, which is a good balance between quality and cost.
A long book at $2.99 doesn’t sell any more copies than a short book at $2.99. But the long book takes longer to write.
So there’s an incentive for authors to writer shorter books. Novellas have made a huge comeback. A lot of novelists are writing 60k or 70k words per book, instead of 100k like they used to.
Series are doing very well, because when a reader finds a book they love, they want more books “just like it only different.” And a series is the best way to fulfill that wish.
I’ve learned not to judge. “Quality” means that you delight your Target Audience. If you’re making readers happy, then you’re giving them quality. Now I do believe that we should always try to write better. But we should also keep asking how to delight our readers.
Larry: What percentage of your time is spent on coaching, blogging and other “guru” work, versus focusing on your own fiction? And within that latter category, what percentage of that is spent on actually writing versus publishing and marketing your work?
I do no coaching at all. I would like to blog every week, but my life is a perfect storm right now, and blogging every two months is closer to what I can handle.
I do teach at a few conferences every year. This year I’m teaching at three. I’m going to a fourth but won’t teach there. That’s all I can manage right now.
Part of my time-crunch is that I have a part-time day job. I work about half time as Director of Software Engineering at a biotech company in San Diego. I live in Washington State, so I do all of this via the web. It works out pretty well, and I get to do some science, but it also takes up about half my time. That’s why I just can’t do coaching.
I try to spend about 2 hours per day in production. That’s either writing, or editing, or formatting, or dealing with the graphic designer, or uploading to retailers.
I’m not a big fan of “active marketing”—time spent trying to find new readers. I do a bit of “passive marketing” but not very much. Probably the biggest marketing task I do every month is writing my free e-zine. That takes 8 hours per month. I enjoy it, and I focus on creating new ideas. The only actual ad in the e-zine is one column I call “Randy’s Daily Deal” where I have some special price for one of my books. I don’t take paid ads.
The rest of my time goes into the dreaded administrative bucket. Accounting. Travel. That sort of thing.
Larry: What’s the most effective marketing strategy for self published authors today, and has that shifted from the obvious “social media” generalization, which is, for the most part, where writers find themselves marketing to other writers?
Randy: I don’t ever try to market my fiction to other writers. My Target Audience is too small, and the set of writers is too small. The intersection of those two sets is very small.
I do a bit of marketing to other writers for my products on “how to write fiction”. But I do it in a way that seems best to me—I help people. I teach at conferences, and work the critique table. I belong to online e-mail groups and help people. I have my blog, which used to be much more active. I have my e-zine, which helps thousands of people. Basically, I just give away ideas. I don’t worry too much about money. (Having a day job is one way to vastly reduce the worries about money. I’m grateful I have a good one.)
My general marketing strategy is this: Give away as much stuff as you possibly can for free. Create products that you can sell at a fair price. Don’t spend a lot of time promoting yourself.
I have no idea whether this is optimal, but it works well for me and I enjoy it.
Larry: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received… and what’s the worst ( misleading, out-dated or just plain wrong)?
Randy: Best – You get better at writing by writing.
Worst – You don’t need to plan your writing—just let it flow. (This advice is essentially the “seat-of-the-pants” method of writing, and it works for many great writers. Stephen King is a pantser. Lots of writers are. But it absolutely doesn’t work for me. If I tried to be a pantser, I’d freeze up. There’s a moral here—what works for one writer may not work for another.)
Larry: Looking ahead two years, what will be different in your writing life compared to today?
Randy: My writing income last year as an indie was better than any three years I ever had during my career as a traditionally published writer. So my plan is to keep putting out books and hope to ramp up sales to the point where I don’t need a day job. Maybe I’ll get there and maybe not. But it’s possible, and I’m going to push for it.
I think that could happen in a couple of years.
Many thanks to Randy for his generous responses and very motivating wisdom. If you haven’t read his stuff, I encourage you to sign up for his newsletter, read Writing Fiction for Dummies, grab one of his novels, or soak up his new Snowflake book as if it is a survival guide. Which it is.
Want more Randy?
A new short ebook – Three Men and a Manuscript – where Randy, James Scott Bell and myself go deep into the issue of what makes fiction work, and why, is available HERE. It’s a virtual workshop in its own right.
Major Story Coaching Changes… Soon
In fact, a new level of coaching service – The Dramatic Arc Analysis – is already listed on the Coaching page, at an affordable $95 . This fits between the Quick Hit Concept Review ($49) and the more robust Full Story Plan Evaluation ($245) to create a comprehensive idea-to-polished-draft suite of tutorial-based coaching experiences, each with personal feedback on your story intentions.
Stay tuned for more on this exciting new service!
This just in…
Robert Dugoni’s hit, “My Sisters Grave,” has just been nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best Original Thriller! See his recent Storyfix interview, including thoughts on how he developed and positioned this novel… HERE.
Storyfix Reader Publishes First Novel!
Julian was one of my coaching clients early in the story development process, and I recall the novel as a richly evoked historical set against the backdrop of plague and the Great Fire in seventeenth century London, within the arena of astrology and romance. So if that sounds fun and vicarious – and it certainly is, who wouldn’t want to fall in love with an apprentice astrologer making his way through famine-infested London amidst a devastating fire? – please support Julian and give it a go.