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Get Off the Churn Train! Writing Books That Stick

I’ve read a lot of posts recently about the increase in “churn” with ebooks, particularly on Amazon. Conventional wisdom says that in order to have success selling on Amazon, particularly in KU, you have to be releasing new books every month.

I think that’s wrong. Here’s why.

The authors I hear that from most are also the most vocal about the need to “write to market”–to identify what the market wants now and supply that, in a format (presentation) that makes it instantly identifiable.

The problem with that? You are inviting churn. You’re inviting obsolescence. You’re putting yourself on the writing treadmill, and on the promotion treadmill, too.

Why? Your books look the same as everybody else’s. You’re going after a trend-loyal, a niche-loyal reader, NOT an author-loyal reader.

Does that work? Yes and no. Yes, there’s sure as heck a big audience who are picking up books right now featuring Navy SEALs. Books with a man’s nekkid torso and a short title written in bright blue script. Books featuring a bad-boy Mafia hitman with a jaggedy sort of title. Short books priced at 99 cents and in KU. (Or to mention some of the trends in other genres: books with a spaceship on the cover. Urban fantasy showing a skinny girl with long hair and leather pants. Not that those books can’t be great. I’m talking about jumping on the train because that’s the hot thing.) Some of those authors are making great money putting out a book every month within that trend. They pivot fast, too. When the trend changes, they’ll write the new trend and present that well.

But their books don’t stick. What’s my least sticky series? Not Quite a Billionaire, even though, she says modestly, it’s really kinda awesome. It is the only series I wrote to any kind of trend (super-alpha multimillionaire boss, blonde virgin employee). I did that for Reasons (it was the book Faith was writing in Just in Time–to go along with a photo shoot featuring those two characters), and the books, especially the first one, sold very well–but they don’t stick. People read FIERCE, thought “That was fun” (well, unless they thought “I hate Hope,” which also happened), and went on to the next billionaire/virgin book.

Those books respond to promotion (Facebook ads, etc.) better than my other books do, because the audience is so defined, and the books hit that spot–but they don’t stick.

The key to getting off the Churn Train? Books that stick.

That Churn Train can take you straight to the bank. Yes, it can. But it’s not the only way to get there. The other way is to go after YOUR reader, to write YOUR brand of books instead of today’s brand, and to present those books so they’re clearly identifiable as (a) yours, and (b) a certain type of read.

NOTE: What I discuss below is not the only way. It’s one way. It’s something to try if you long to step off the writing/promoting treadmill. If you have a strong voice and some writing chops. And, perhaps, if you have some spirit of adventure and you want to make your own, more personal mark.

This way has worked for me. My first book has sold almost 150,000 copies in ebook, German edition, and audio. It came out almost five years ago, and it still sells well.  (Even though, yes, it’s my first fiction, and yes, that shows.) My top-selling book right now is over four years old, and it’s currently ranked in the 700’s on Amazon. It is the LAST thing from trendy. The absolute last. But it’s sticky. Because it’s a cool idea, it’s presented intriguingly, and it’s written hookily.

So here’s my best advice.

Know your brand. Author brand underlies all else. Who are YOU as an author? What are YOUR strengths? What is a “Madison Kimberly” book? (I made up “Madison Kimberly.” If that’s your name, I don’t mean you.) If you don’t know the answer–spend some time thinking about it. Ask your readers. And, yes–read your reviews, however painful that is. Find out what isn’t working. Fix it.

Knowing your brand and writing to it doesn’t mean every book has to have the same sort of hero and heroine, the same tone, or be in the same genre. I write in three or four subgenres, even within series, and my books are quite different in tone. SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL, for example, Book 1 in the Portland Devils series, is funny and snappy and I guess you’d say–bold. Whereas Book 2, NO KIND OF HERO, has a bittersweet tone and a very reserved hero and heroine. That kind of difference among books is part of my brand. (Scary, because readers who love one book can feel very meh about the next, but part of what I like to do as a writer and what my reader enjoys.)

Your brand also isn’t “bad boys” or “billionaires” or whatever specific thing you’re writing right now. Dig deeper. Do you spring surprises on the reader, make them gasp in shock? Do you deal in realism in characters and situations, anchored in details, or are we strictly in fantasyland and archetypes? (Either thing can work.) Are you edgy, putting your reader on the verge of discomfort, or–not? For me, consent’s a Thing. A great, big Thing. So I’ll never put a reader in that uncomfortably-aroused-but-disturbed spot. It’s a place I don’t go. Other authors go to the bank on that spot. (And yes, it’s fiction. Personal choice for author and reader.)

Know your genre. Know your reader. What is your reader reading for? I don’t mean “hot guys” or “kissing scenes,” I mean what emotions? From the beginning, I wanted to write “Calgon, take me away” books–a concept that resonated so deeply that, decades later, the Dixie Chicks had a hit with it. 

The concept embodied in this song is the one that was embedded in my mind while I wrote JUST THIS ONCE. I knew it was a hooky idea. Calgon and the Dixie Chicks had already proven it. I wanted to write that concept for my reader, a reader like me–a smart woman with a demanding life–kids, job, and all the rest of it–who wanted to escape into a book. To feel good, not bad, except during the weepy moments. Who wanted to get stirred up at times and reminded that she was more than just a mom, but without any squicky feelings.

When I see writers talking about not selling well and not understanding why? It’s usually (a) cover, and, more importantly, (b) not understanding what their reader’s looking for. There’s a world of difference between a good romance concept and an unappealing one. I see questions a lot on forums like, “Can you write a romance hero who isn’t strong and hot?” Well, sure, if you don’t want to sell books. He doesn’t have to be good-looking, and he definitely doesn’t have to be perfect. But he sure does have to be strong and hot. Know your reader.

Show your brand. Your author name needs to be more visible than that “hot niche” branding. Every series does NOT have to look the same–check out my Escape to New Zealand covers vs. my Paradise, Idaho, Kincaids, and Portland Devils covers. All those are quite different, because the series are quite different in tone and content. But my author name is similar on all the covers, and the “look” of each series signals its tone.

New Zealand Graphic_10_books

 

 

 

 

 

Portland Devils Graphic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise Website Slide

 

 

 

 

 

Overall, I’m going for a clean look, and a look that would attract a reader who reads multiple genres (romance and others) or multiple types of romance. That’s my reader. I’m also trying to tell her that the books are about more than the romance–that there are other layers to the books. Because that’s my reader too.

Which brings us to . . .

Writing sticky. AKA “writing re-readable books.”

(Note: what follows is NOT a claim that good books can’t be written fast. It’s my personal experience and my personal path.)

Many bestselling romance authors, as noted above, write eight or ten or fourteen books a year, where I can write only four or five. But when I’ve tried to push my pace, I’ve found that despite the fact that writing is pretty much all I do, my books stubbornly refuse to get thought up faster. My one experience where I started writing without really knowing my characters, without getting fully into their heads, was JUST GOOD FRIENDS. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to write a second book, I jumped into it too fast. I finished it and was happy, but I sent it to my beta readers, and they said, “Ehhhh…” I was so upset! I’d only had one good book in me after all. Then I slept on it and realized what the problem was. Kate’s character wasn’t developed enough, because I hadn’t thought enough about what it would FEEL like to have been in her situation, to have been stalked and terrorized. Once I did, I rewrote the book, and you could see what she felt, where she was in her life, which informed her reactions and her decisions. I sent it out again, and guess what? It was a whole lot better.

Same thing with writing. It takes me 4-6 weeks to write a 100k (350-page) book once I start, and while that sounds fast to non-writers, for many romance writers it would be a snail’s pace. But I find that I need a certain amount of time to write, edit, polish the prose–and most of all, time to think and let the book “rest,” to come back the next day and edit some more, to have the characters’ reactions, on and off the page, unspool in my head, in order for the book to have some richness, for the other things to occur to me that make the book more, that make it better.

I’m not saying that all those who write faster aren’t writing rich books with great character development. I’m saying that for me, there’s a pace where that happens, and a pace where it doesn’t. Find YOUR pace, and resist the urge to write 8K words a day if those won’t be your best words. (If they are? Yay, you–go for it!) People say that the writing doesn’t matter anymore. It does. That doesn’t mean perfect mechanics. It means that the writing resonates at your readers’ fundamental frequency.

How about other genres? Urban fantasy? Annie Bellet writes books that stick. She writes a book a YEAR right now–and they stick. Yet–skinny girl with blowing hair, check. Black leather pants, check. Glowy colored light, check. BUT . . . her books are different. They stick.

Paranormal romance? Kristen Painter. Cozy mystery? Jana De Leon. Billionaire and virgin that veered from the norm? Brenna Aubrey. More examples of authors in “currently hot” genres who stick.

Character counts. Write at the pace where you can produce a multi-layered book, a book that can be read as a simple romance or mystery or whatever, but also on another level. For me, that other level tends to be personal growth toward courage and self-expression, and also family dynamics. It’s writing characters who feel real. I strive to get better at that with every book, because those things are my brand, and it’s by improving those that I connect better with MY reader.

Write hooky. I’m gonna invoke myself here–my post on “How to Be Hooky, which is my very best “craft” advice. 

Your re-readable book. It’s got that–the depth and “reality” of the characters, that they’re people you remember after you finish the book. LaVyrle Spencer? I can still remember her characters literally 30 years after reading the book. THAT is voice. THAT is richness. Eva Ibbotson. Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Jennifer Crusie. And, of course, Jane Austen.

Then it’s the flow, the ease of it, and the writing quality, too. It’s some indefinable spark that makes that book come alive, where you’re escaping into that world and just—immersed. Whether it’s a thriller, a mystery, a historical novel, a romance, a literary novel, you’re THERE. As a writer, during that 4-6 weeks when I’m writing, I’m totally wrapped up in my book. I’m with the characters, believing that they’re real, living in their heads and hearts. My goal, my dream, would be that I could transmit some of that “life” to my readers as well; that they could believe, for just a little while, that they were there, too. That’s the sharing and connection that makes it all worthwhile for me.

And best of all? It’s what keeps me off the Churn Train.