I recently read Peter and the Dead People, by Darren Pillsbury. The first book in the Peter and the Monster series. I read it in Peter and the Vampires, a collection of the first four Peter stories. I found the book as a freebie on Amazon. Darren has put out over 20 books about Peter. I found Peter and the Dead People to be tightly written and highly enjoyable. The story involves Peter Normal moving into his grumpy Grandfather’s creepy house, and meeting a new friend Dill. Peter and Dill get into trouble by not following his grandfather’s instruction of “Not going into the garden!” Reading the story I felt like I was watching a good 1980’s monster movie, along the lines of Goonies. Very enjoyable.
I read the book and immediately wanted to connect with the author. That’s what I love about the 21st century, I can reach out much easier to people whose work I respect. I don’t need to track down some mailing address. Email does the job just fine. And yes, I now email people I don’t personally know and ask them questions. Shockingly most of the time they actually respond. That’s how I roll these days. I recommend it.
I want to highlight good indie children’s writers. Most indie writers that are highlighted are, sci-fi, fantasy, and romance writers. Hello, there are good indie children’s writers out there as well.
So I emailed Darren some questions and he was kind enough to answer my questions in excellent detail.
You first self-published “Imaginary Friends” in 2007. How has self-publishing changed for you since then?
It’s gotten ten times easier, with the possibilities of gaining new readers a thousand times better than before. When I self-published Imaginary Friends in 2007, it was largely a paper-only world. The print version was difficult to set up; I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get distribution just on Amazon; and because it was printed on paper, the end product was exorbitantly priced. (It didn’t help that I tried to make a $4 profit on each book.) Who in their right mind is going to gamble $12 on an unknown author they’ve never even heard of before?
But ebooks are cheap and relatively easy to produce. You can offer them for 99 cents on Amazon, and for $0 on virtually every other retailer. (In fact, by jumping through some hoops, you can offer them for $0 on Amazon, too… sometimes.) A lot more people will take a chance on you at 99 cents or $0 than at $12 – at least a thousand times more people.
You have written 26 Peter stories so far. Where do you get ideas for the stories? Are there more Peter stories coming?
I usually come up with the monster (or villain) first… and then I think, what can I do that will make this monster different from other depictions I’ve seen? Sometimes it’s a little different, sometimes it’s a lot. Novelty isn’t the main goal – a good story is, one that either freaks you out or makes you laugh or just plain entertains you. But if I can put a twist on the monster, I prefer to do that.
Examples: usually vampires are depicted as adults, or when they are children, they are secondary characters (as in Interview With A Vampire). I thought, “What if your main villain wasn’t some scary guy in a black cloak, or a Nosferatu-looking freak, but a little girl in the same fourth-grade class as you who died and came back with tiny fangs, eyes black as a Great White’s, and the ability to fly? And what’s worse, she has a crush on you?”
Sometimes it starts with a fear I had as a kid. I saw an episode of the 70’s animated Spiderman cartoon where a bunch of mannequins come to life and attack Spidey, and it freaked me out at the time. Because, hey, mannequins are everywhere at the mall. What if they’re really alive?
A lot of times, it’s just a fantasy – a cool thing I wish I could have done as a kid. Who wouldn’t want to encounter a yeti while skiing? Who wouldn’t want to go into a hall of mirrors and see something really terrifying in the reflections? (Well, maybe some people wouldn’t. But I would.)
And yes, there are definitely more stories coming. I originally planned to do 100, but I’ve scaled that back. I think there will probably be 50-60 by the time I’m through.
How would describe your writing process?
Lots and lots of daydreaming. I pace up and down my house, just getting lost in a mental movie I create in my head.
Usually there’s an initial idea, or a specific image or scene I want in the story… and I just start daydreaming about it. Like, “If that happens, how did we get there? And what happens afterwards? And what would happen if…”
Usually I start coming up with other cool scenes or images I want in the story. Conversations between characters and bits of dialogue. After a period of time – sometimes two days, sometimes two months – I think I’ve got enough major events to make a story, so I sit down and do a brief outline. Nothing fancy, just a one-line description of four or five big scenes, along with some of the dialogue. By the time I’ve written all that down, I start getting other ideas on how to make the scenes connect, and I write those down, too. And that’s my roadmap for the rest of the story.
Usually my process is coming up with scenes A, D, F, J, M, Q, T, and X and Z… and then I fill in all the other ‘letters’ as I go, creating the connective tissue between the main scenes I originally wanted in the story.
I think the cover illustrations for your Peter collections are great! Who did those covers?
If you mean the covers for the Volumes – the multi-story collections, like Peter And The Vampires (Volume 1) with the white bat on the red background – a very talented graphic artist by the name of Ronnell D. Porter did them for me. He did them up through Peter And The Witches (Volume 5). After that, because of the economics of my situation, I started doing them for the collections Peter And The Ninja (Volume 6) and Peter And The Ghost (Volume 7).
If you mean the single-story covers, I did those. I have some background with Photoshop. Some of them are pretty good (like #25, Peter And The Kindermord, or #23, Peter And The Ghost)… and others aren’t. If you want to make a serious go of this writing thing, I recommend getting professionally produced covers by a talented graphics artist. It doesn’t have to be super-expensive – if you go to Kboards.com and look at the Author’s Café subforum http://www.kboards.com/index.php?PHPSESSID=iit2id0cnme0lqkv0amabt8r90&board=60.0), they have a resource page with sites of pre-made covers that range from $25 to $75. And you can sometimes find a really good up-and-coming artist who is willing to do quality work for $50 or $75, though the better they are, the more likely you’ll have to spend $150 or more.
We all like to say, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” but that is EXACTLY what 99% of readers do. Do NOT put a crappy cover on a book you want to sell, because no one except your family members and closest friends will ever buy it.
Do you have other writing projects coming?
Not in the children’s literature world. I might do an adult sci-fi action book at some point, or something else… but the Peter series is all I’m going to do in the children’s lit world.
What is your advice to others who are wanting to self-publish?
It depends entirely on why you’re doing it, and what you want your endgame to be.
If you are self-publishing as purely creative self-expression or as a hobby – and if you don’t care if you make any money – then do whatever the heck you want. Go wild. Have a ball. Just keep your expectations very low concerning how many copies you’ll sell and how much you’ll make.
If you want to make a career out of self-publishing and eventually make some sort of money at it (whether that’s your car payment, your mortgage, or a full-time living), that’s a different beast entirely.
Your best chances to make a living at writing include doing the following:
– Write in a genre where the readers are passionate about the genre, or there are a TON of readers who read that genre. There don’t HAVE to be a lot of them, but they need to devour books in that genre. Romance is great for this – the average romance reader plows through 2 or 3 ebooks a week. Mystery fans? Same thing. Thrillers, it depends – but everybody reads thrillers. The crumbs from a humongous pie (think a pie as big as the state of Texas) are better than a large slice of a tiny, tiny tartlet.
Other genres are more difficult. You have a fairly good shot in fantasy, military sci-fi, and science fiction. Children’s picture books (for 3 to 5-year-olds) can do very well. Horror, humor, and literary? Not so much. Are there indie writers making a living in those genres? There are indie writers making a living in virtually every genre. But it’s far easier to do it in romance, thrillers, and mysteries.
By the way, children’s series – at least independent children’s series like Peter And The Monsters – don’t sell that well. If you absolutely must write a children’s series aimed at 10 years old and up, do it for the love, not for the money. I do not make enough money to live on with the Peter series, even with 26 books/novelettes and 7 collected volumes.
– Write a series. The hardest part of self-publishing (after you’ve written the first couple) is marketing yourself and finding new readers. If you get a reader hooked on the first book in the series, he’ll keep on coming back. This, incidentally, is one of the few reasons I make ANY money on the Peter series – because people who love the first collected volume tend to read all the rest of them. Standalone novels (stories where the characters only appear in that one novel) are fine, but they’re harder to market than series.
– Write a great book. Do not publish the first thing you write as soon as you finish writing it. I spent over a decade writing, on and off, before I published Imaginary Friends. Work on improving your craft.
Does this mean that you have to write a decade before you publish anything? No! All I mean is to publish the very best book you possibly can, not your first draft! In fact, I suggest you begin getting feedback as soon as you can. Publish your work on Wattpad.com, or on dozens of other similar sites on the internet, and get feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. If you really, really, really want to self-publish right out of the gate, self-publish under a pen name. Or be willing to potentially start publishing under a pen name later.
– Get your book edited – or at least proofread – by someone else, preferably a professional. I did not do this when I started, largely out of economic necessity (and hubris – HEY! I was an English major!). I still cringe when I find typos rereading some of my older stuff.
– Get as cool a cover as you can. It’s the ONLY thing that will catch a potential reader’s eye and make her give your book a second look. Pay for a professional cover if you can afford it. If you can’t, get a professional pre-made cover that’s close to what you want and within your budget. Aim for simple, memorable covers with easily readable type. Don’t get some minutely rendered picture that demands a 6 x 9 inch cover to fully appreciate its beauty. On Amazon, the images range from the size of a postage stamp to roughly 2 x 3 inches. Get a cover that can be shrunk down and people can tell what genre it is, see your name (and hopefully the title), and say, “Oooh, that’s cool-looking.” And make sure your fonts are clean and easily readable. I violated this with my Peter series, and I’m probably still paying for it. The lettering on the single books looks great at full-size… but at postage-stamp dimensions, it borders on illegible. Bad choice on my part. Learn from my mistakes!
– Always make your name (or pen name) VERY BIG and VERY READABLE. You should be selling yourself as a brand. You want people to remember your name first, your book titles second.
– Have a mailing list. This means an automated service where someone can sign up and get email updates on new books you publish. I use Mailchimp. They have paid and free accounts; I recommend the paid because you get an autoresponder, which means you can send people an email automatically as soon as they sign up.
The reason for a mailing list is, if you have a list of people who liked one of your books enough to sign up for updates, you want to be able to contact them directly. You don’t want to gamble that readers will randomly stumble across your new book on Amazon and say, “Oh, wait, didn’t I read that author’s last book?” Don’t leave it to chance.
Another alternative to Mailchimp, at least in the beginning, is to register a free Gmail account and have people send you an email if they want updates. Then keep track of those addresses and email them when your next book comes out. When you get too many addresses and it becomes cumbersome to email everybody, $10 a month will be a bargain for somebody else to automate the process. I failed to start an email list until late in the game, and I am sure I have lost out on hundreds – maybe even thousands – of purchases because of this. Don’t be foolish: free or paid, start an email list with your first book, and prominently feature the link to your sign-up page (or your email address with instructions on what to do to be notified) in everything you publish.
– Once you start publishing pretty good stuff, write as fast as you can. If readers like your books, they generally want MORE, RIGHT NOW. This is a very, very good problem to have (if you’re making enough money to justify it). But if you’re doing this for love, and for love only, never lose sight of that. Rushing out books just to placate a handful of readers will burn you out and eventually make you hate writing. Know your desired end result, and write for that. If it’s more money, then speed is your ally. If this is primarily something you do because you love it, then do whatever you want.
– Be very careful on how you price your books. At Amazon, everything $0.99 to $2.98 gets you 35% royalties. (99 cents is the lowest you can officially charge, though there are ways around this, including going exclusive in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program.) $2.99 to $9.99 gets you 70% royalties. $10 and up gets you only 35% royalties again. Guess how Amazon wants you to price your books?
A $2.99 book will get you $2.00 in royalties. You would have to sell six times as many 99 cent books to make the same amount of profit (99 cents x 35% royalies = 33 cents a book, and .33 cents x 6 books = $1.98).
99 cents is good for short stories, or for first novels in a series to get people to give you a try… but in general, you’re not going to make any money off of 99 cent books. Are there exceptions? Yes. But in general, most financially successful self-publishers charge between $2.99 and $5.99 for full-length novels. Also, these days, 99 cents carries the stigma of ‘cheap’ and ‘low quality.’ Be careful how you represent yourself.
– If you don’t mind some occasional R-rated language, read J.A. Konrath’s blog. I got into ebook self-publishing because of him, and I agree with 90% of everything he says about writing and marketing. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com
– There is a very popular – and in my opinion, pernicious – theory out there that the only marketing you need to do is ‘write another book.’ You say you’re not selling any of your latest book? Just write another one and publish it. Not selling any of that one, too? Write another and don’t worry about it.
BAD IDEA. You need to do a certain amount of marketing. This doesn’t have to be complicated; it can mean writing books you give away for free to lure readers in (and advertising those free books when you give them away). It means having a way (an author’s Facebook page, a blog, and/or an email address) where readers can find you and interact with you. It means experimenting with advertising you can afford. If you’re really outgoing, it means befriending other authors and promoting them to your readers if they will promote you to theirs. Or agreeing to do ‘sampler’ books, or participate in boxed sets, or short story collections – something, ANYTHING, to get your name out there. You don’t have to do all of this at once, or even half of it – for instance, I didn’t get a Facebook author’s page until my 20th fan wrote in asking, “How do I find you on Facebook?” My resolution for 2014 is to utilize Twitter and Goodreads better. But put some effort into marketing yourself and your books, and you’ll get a lot farther than just writing book after book and praying new readers will accidentally discover.
Things that DON’T work: don’t spam people on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else with “Buy my book! Buy my book!” It doesn’t work. Seriously. Don’t be that person. If you want to use social media, put in the time to engage other people, build up real connections, be interesting… and then mention, ‘Hey, I just put out my newest book.’ People will be a lot more interested than if you tweet “BUY MY BOOK!” 270 times in a row.
Now, is it important to ‘write the next book’ as soon as you can? Yes, it’s EXTREMELY important. But put forth at least a little effort so new readers can find you, and current readers can strengthen their bond with you.
– If a reader contacts you, whether by Facebook, blog comments, or email, always contact them back. You never know when one friendly email might convert a casual reader to a fan for life.
– Consider going ‘permafree’ with your first book once you have at least two books in a series, preferably three. ‘Permafree’ means the first book is permanently free. You want people to take the free sample, get hooked, and buy the rest of your product. Without a doubt, permafree is the only reason I made ANY money on my Peter books: the first book in the series is free, which lures in new readers. It’s not always easy to get Amazon to make a book permafree – officially it’s against their terms of service – but there are ways. Google ‘Smashwords + Amazon + permafree’ to find out more.
Keep your expectations realistic, though. Only about 3 to 10% of people who download free books actually ever read them.
– I use ‘Amazon’ a lot to refer to the entire ebook market, but know that there’s BarnesAndNoble.com (they make the Nook ereader), iTunes, Kobo, and Google Play, plus ebook distributors like Smashwords.com and Draft2Digital.com that will take one copy of your book and convert it and distribute it to many, many different sites (for a cut of the proceeds, of course). Do your homework and decide what’s best for you – to go exclusive with Amazon and get 5 free promotional days out of every 90 (the KDP Select program), or go for diversity and try to reach as wide a potential audience as possible.
Whatever you do, though, PUBLISH ON AMAZON. Amazon accounts for 90% of my revenues. That’s not true of all writers, but it’s true of many. Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla of the US ebook market. Ignore it at your peril.
– Grow a thick skin. (This is one thing I continue to fail miserably at.) Listen to constructive criticism, and try to ignore the rest.
Once you are reasonably happy with your writing – and once you’ve received enough reviews that a single 1-star won’t tank the entire rating for your book – stop reading reviews posted on Amazon and other retailers. It’s basically seeking validation from other people, and there will always be people who hate your work. Some will have valid reasons, others are just jackholes. Assemble a group of people whose opinion you trust, who like the genre you are writing in, and then listen to their opinion rather than to random people on the internet. The problem is that few reviewers give truly constructive criticism on how to improve your writing. It’s usually, “I loved this!” or “It was okay” or “I hated this – there’s no happy ending!” Reviews with great advice are usually few and far between. If you think you can get insights from reviews, but you handle criticism horribly, get someone you trust to read through them and summarize the nuggets of gold. Believe me, a good review will give you a sugar high for five minutes, but a vicious review can destroy your whole day and sap your energy to write. Why do that to yourself?
Now, does that mean ignore your readers? No. If people write you emails (and you should always include your email address in your books), listen to those opinions, even if they are somewhat negative, and even if you end up disagreeing with what they say. Reviewers acting under anonymity sometimes take that license to be raging buttholes. People who write you directly usually aren’t going to be absolute jerks – they’re more thoughtful, and they have to attach a real email address to what they send you.
If you can handle criticism no matter how spiteful it is, you’re golden. If you can’t… and I certainly can’t… protect your energy and your inner writer at all costs.
– The best advice on feedback I have ever heard comes from Stephen King. To paraphrase him, assemble ten people who like the genre you write and whose opinion you trust. (These can be fans you recruit, whose emails impressed you with their thoughtfulness and intelligence, not just people who suck up to you and tell you you’re brilliant. Surrounding yourself with ‘yes-men’ will do you no favors.) Give them the book after you have finished writing and editing it and you think it’s basically ready to go. If five or more people mention something as a problem – not liking the hero, the dialogue is bad, pacing is off, the ending is flat – then it’s probably an issue you need to address with another rewrite. If everybody dislikes something, but they all dislike different things, you can safely ignore all of them.
What’s the hardest part of the act of writing?
Making yourself sit down and actually do it. The time leading up to getting my butt in the chair is the absolute hardest part, because I can always think of a dozen things I would rather do. When I’m actually in the groove, there’s nothing better than writing. But I have to keep forcing myself to do it every time, over and over and over – just get my butt in the chair and start.
What’s the hardest part of writing as a career?
If you’ve never written a book, then it’s finishing the first one. That’s tough. Don’t ever, ever go back and start revising until you’ve written the final page. I did that with my first novel years and years ago, and I still haven’t finished it. Been meaning to forever, though…
Once you’ve written a couple of books and you’re self-published, then marketing is pretty tough. At least for me. Other than giving books away and talking to fans, I don’t particularly like marketing. But you’ll go a LOT farther as a pretty good writer and a persistent marketer than you will as a brilliant writer and a crappy marketer. I wish that weren’t the case, but over and over again, I see persistent marketers end up doing well, no matter how good their writing is. There are always exceptions, but 95% of success stories lean toward people who continuously go out and try to get new readers (in non-tacky, non-spammy ways) and who interact often with their fans. Now, hopefully you’re a brilliant writer and a persistent marketer writing in a viable genre. If so, the world’s your oyster. But just know that, over the long run, ignoring marketing is a fast ticket to Zero Salesville. And even if you’re not doing it for the money, presumably you would like SOMEONE to read your books and enjoy them. So work on both writing AND marketing.
Sorry if all this advice is overwhelming. But these are the things I wish somebody had told me when I was starting out. I probably wouldn’t have listened to them… but after six months of beating my head against the wall, I might have said, “Huh, maybe I ought to go back and take a second look at that advice…”
Thanks Darren. I think this advice is solid.
The above links take you to Amazon. I love Amazon. You can also check out Darren’s books on Nook:
And lastly on Smashwords: