Revisiting Writing and Marketing

In the days and weeks following the publication of Keepers of the Flame, I’ve been writing short stories and novellas, some standalone, some proof-of-concepts for future stories. It was practice, and it was to build up a portfolio of works for submission. But through the pen I am beginning to uncover the enigma that is Benjamin Cheah.

Once I believed that someday I would write my name alongside the stars of literary history. Once I believed I could find my way in life through sheer bloody-mindedness. Once I believed I could haul myself up into glory.

Once I believed.

When I look back now I realise how improbable my career has been. My chances of ever publishing my fiction in Singapore is somewhere between laughable and none. Singaporean publishers want Singaporean stories about Singaporean culture by Singaporean writers for the Singaporean market. They want capital-L Literature. They want assemblies of words to probe the depths of language and bring out the human heart, to hold up a mirror to Singapore and in it find a reflection of the reader.

I can’t write that.

There’s a lot of bestselling fluff out there. The Twilights, the Fifty Shades of Greys, the derivatives that try to cash in on trends and jump on bandwagons. Or else ‘stories’ and prose held together by strings of pretty words, words that when seen as a whole hold no substance and no meaning. Stories that tap into some collective zeitgeist without offending too many people.

I can’t write that.

The prestigious science fiction magazines want specific stories. They want stories about how technology influences society, people and language. Stories that with certain je ne sais quoi, or stories that bring up the nastiness of humanity. Stories that celebrate diversity by hammering it into the reader.

I can’t write that.

What I can write are stories of action and adventure. Stories with gee-whiz gadgets and huge explosions, stories about the clash of civilisations and the end of empires, stories that examine human frailties and wonder at the next stage of humanity. Stories where freedom is won at the point of the sword, when evil is resisted with fire and ethics, where good people must stand fast in the face of temptation and corruption. Stories that harken to the epics and sagas of my childhood while looking to brighter futures yet to be born.

I haven’t seen a publisher in Singapore that will want to do that, not the least because the target audience of my stories are not necessarily exclusively Singaporean, nor are the themes those that Singaporeans would readily grasp. As for foreign publishers, I have heard too many horror stories about bad contracts, under-reported figures, and how marketing resources are prioritised for bestsellers and newcomers are left to flounder. Call me sceptical, but I don’t see why I should put up with the risk of that in this day and age.

Even if I could get a publisher, the simple fact is that the majority of those who can reach my target audience are based in the United States. Between absurdly low royalty terms and the IRS’ insistence on taking their cut, what little royalties that come my way likely aren’t worth the effort.

The best publishing solution is independent publishing. It’s my default option. Without it, as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago, I would never have been able to be published. Or else have to content myself with peanuts forever. The indie route is the only way Keepers of the Flame could have been published, as would my other stories.

And yet, the IRS still wants its 30%..And now with the EU imposing the new VAT taxes, I’ll make even less money from European sales. No matter which way I cut it I just won’t make as much money as someone with the same sales figures as me. Which, in turn, means I need to put in even more effort into marketing just to make the same amount of money.

As much as I believe in the indie publishing revolution, there is still a massive gap between royalties of 45% and 70%.

All that means I can’t adopt the methods used by other authors and expect the same degree of success. The numbers are not with me, and neither is the law.

There are a lot of obstacles stacked against me. The easy option is to sigh, throw up my hands and focus on something else. Another option is to place writing on a back burner, to hold off on writing until I can get back to it at a more favourable time and place. Yet a third option is to simply choose to write for fun and ignore financial considerations. But the blood of entrepreneurs runs in my veins, and I cannot give up so soon. With this in mind, I’m changing my publishing/distribution and marketing strategies.

1. Writing and publishing short(er) stories and/or anthologies on a regular basis. To make up for reduced royalties, I am thinking of putting out shorter stories regularly. This is my least preferred option, not the least because it requires the ability to cover fixed costs. But maybe, if employed as a means to bridge the gap between core stories (like what I’m doing with American Heirs), or if published on different markets, it could maintain buzz and market presence until the next major story.

2. Focus marketing on several channels. Applying the Pareto principle, it seems 80% of my royalties comes from 20% of my marketing channels. That means Smashwords and Payhip. Going forward, I will focus my promotional efforts primarily on Smashwords and Payhip, relying on Amazon mainly for reviews and print books. Perhaps this focus in marketing might pay off through increased sales.

3. Work with small presses. At some point, marketing just becomes a chore with diminishing returns. When I look at publishing contracts, I’m essentially asking myself if the difference in royalties accounts for marketing efforts, ready access to customers, and covering the fixed costs of publishing. When it comes down to it I can be agnostic about publishing methodology, and if working with select small presses means I get more books to more people, all the better.

4. Hold workshops. In the medium term (ideally, after publishing American Heirs #3), I’ll see if I can conduct writing workshops. I’ve come to realise that writers with much less experience than me are passing on the lessons they have learned, and if they can do that, I reckon I have some tips to share too. And maybe this might translate to more connections and more sales in the long run.

There’s a lot of maybes and perhaps here. There are no guarantees in this line of work — except a gaurantee of failure if one does not do. And if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is failure to do.