Friday, March 24, 2017

New Authors - Why So Many?


I’m amazed by the ever-growing number of new authors. 
In the U.S. alone, reports range from 250,000 to more than 500,000 new book titles published each year.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported 305,000 titles published in 2013, with a growing percentage of these books being self-published.
The growth in the number of authors and new books seems to defy trends in the book publishing industry.  A Pew Research survey of U.S. adults indicates those reading a book in the previous 12 months decreased from 79% to 72% between 2011 and 2015.  A July 2016 report from the American Association of Publishers indicates revenue from U.S. book sales was nearly flat from 2013 through 2015.  Competition is fierce.  Some genres and markets are saturated to the point it’s nearly impossible for new authors to be noticed by readers.  A writer self-publishing his/her first novel can expect to sell fewer than 1,000 copies.
So, why do more and more self-published authors elect to spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours writing, editing, publishing, and marketing their novels?   It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but here I am, writing my seventh self-published book.  I don’t have a concise answer, but for me, it boils down to the following:
  • FLEXIBILITY - Writing is exhausting, but it can be done at a time and pace to fit most schedules.
  • MINIMAL BARRIERS - The cost of entry is minimal.  All you need is a PC, printer and access to the Internet to begin.  For those serious about being successful, a professional cover and editor are a must, and neither is cheap.
  • SELF-PUBLISHING TECHNOLOGY - The availability, simplicity and low cost of self-publishing make it easy for new authors.  The number of offerings and quality of tools continue to improve.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA - Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media sites offer writing groups for new authors to share ideas and market their books.   A new writer never needs to feel alone in the process, and for those wanting to learn, educational offerings are endless.
  • HOPE – Optimism is a trait writers must possess.  At times, our views of success are blind to reality, not unlike Jim Carrey’s view in Dumb and Dumber.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX5jNnDMfxA
  • IT’S A CREATIVE OUTLET - I’d love to sell thousands of books, but I also write for me.  I enjoy writing.  My primary goal is to make each short story and novel better than my last.  It’s an objective that keeps me moving forward.  I think most aspiring authors feel the same way.      
I started writing books in 2010.  I’m not sure I would have made the effort 30 years earlier.  I don’t know if I could have sat at a typewriter, feeding in one sheet at a time, unable to share my progress in real time with other writers, and not knowing if my manuscript would ever be read, let alone published.
A lot has been written about the evils of self-publishing, claiming it’s watered down the quality of books by allowing less-skilled writers to be published.  This negativity isn’t likely to alter the growth in self-published authors.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my three decades in business, it’s that you can’t fight technology or the role it plays in creating and satisfying markets.  Self-publishing companies serve two markets: writers and readers.  They generate revenue from authors by providing services beyond publishing (editing, cover design, marketing, etc.).  Many such companies also get a percentage of sales from every book sold.  Self-publishing is a business designed to make a profit.
I’m thankful for self-publishers. They came along at a time when I was ready to test my creative skills.  I expect we both will be around for a long time, although for different reasons.  Their longevity is tied to profitability, while mine only requires hard work and hope.  And that’s why there are so many new authors.                  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Optics Can Distract


My mind wanders when I write.  As an example, I often think how the use of a word has changed.  I’ll come across a specific word, and the next thing I know I’ve been shot off on a tangent far from my writing project.   
Take the word “optics.”  It used to be defined as an area of physics involving the study of light.  I guess it still is, but it’s more frequently used to describe how something appears to an observer, as in, “The optics of the situation make them appear guilty.”
I believe the word has become popular in its new context because it allows the user to influence opinions without facts.  All you have to do is claim the optics support your position.  The word comes in handy in a country where politicians, media, and everyday Americans are engaging more frequently in debates where neither side presents sufficient facts.  What better way to win these disputes, or to cloud the discussions, than to state the optics support your views? 
When people don’t know what to believe, they usually believe what they want. We live in a world that is guided more and more by optics, opinion and ideology and less and less by facts. Opinions and polls seem to matter more than what is actually happening.  Indisputable facts bounce off of today’s ideologues like rain off a duck.
Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  The difference between Franklin’s 18th century and now is no one currently works very hard at convincing the other side.  Instead, it’s all about “rallying the base,” hanging around in “safe zones” where those with opposing views can’t speak out, and labeling instead of listening.
It could be that social media magnifies discord in the 21st century, but I can’t remember this country being so divided.  I hope we find a way to come together soon, but I must admit, the optics don’t look very good.
See what I mean?  Words distract me.  Well, I better get back to writing.     

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Writing Distractions – Not All Bad

Most aspiring authors have real lives outside of writing. Even I do.  I often wonder if life gets in the way of writing, or if writing requires having a life, but that’s a much larger topic than what this post is about.

There are very few things I’d rather do than write. I find it relaxing, challenging, and satisfying. Yet, a number of distractions easily take me away from writing.  I’m not talking about time with family and friends.  They always take priority.  I’m referring to distractions I face while actually at my desk.
My office has an expansive window with long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’m fortunate to have such a serene setting in which to think and compose.  I frequently gaze out this window, distracted by the natural beauty of the trees and faraway hills.  In the winter months, days pass without seeing another person, but rarely a day goes by without seeing a herd of deer wandering through my view.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.  The quiet and solitude which make this a great place to write often has me focusing elsewhere.
Research is a large part of writing, even for a fiction writer.  The internet puts sources of information at my fingertips. With one keystroke, I can switch from composing a novel on Microsoft Word to searching a range of topics on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. While this is infinitely more productive than going to the library and digging through periodicals, internet research also presents a risk.  The risk is never getting back to writing.  One minute, I’m verifying the location of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and the next minute, I’m buying a lawn trimmer off Home Depot’s website or reading my book reviews on Amazon.
I’ve concluded these distractions can actually be constructive.  While writing requires deep concentration to ensure continuity, consistency, and correctness, it also requires an inventive and open mind.  I am able to write head-down for an hour at most. Any longer, and I lose my imagination and my writing grows stale.  It’s at these times a cup of coffee is in order.  I’ll return to my desk to sip coffee and enjoy the views out my window, or maybe read an interesting article on my laptop.  These breaks often refresh my thoughts, enabling me to return for another period productive writing.
I must admit there are days when I stare out my window, never focusing on my writing, and that’s not all bad.  If my mind’s not into writing, I’d probably produce garbage anyway.  Oh, look!  My nephew just posted pictures of his new puppies on Facebook.  I’ll finish this post later.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does a novel need to deliver a message?


Does a novel need to deliver a message or lesson, or can it succeed on entertainment value alone?
Most of the books I read are suspenseful crime novels or legal thrillers.  I enjoy Michael Connelly, John Grisham, James Patterson, Vince Flynn and many others.  At times, these authors insert political or social messages, but they seldom detract from the main theme or plot of their book.  The messages are usually used to provoke thought, develop a character, or possibly create conflict.
Complex messaging is not needed for romance novels (or other genres) to be popular. That’s not why readers buy these books.  I doubt romance authors begin their stories with the intent of bringing attention to world hunger or saving homeless animals.  Still, an antagonist who verbally or physically punishes his partner in a romance novel can shine a light on the evils of domestic abuse, delivering a message within the context of the story.
I believe a fiction writer’s objective is to entertain. Readers come back to a given genre because they enjoy what it delivers: fantasy, suspense, romance or adventure. It’s difficult to write a fiction novel with a political, social, or religious message as its main theme. The few I’ve read kept dragging me back to the message, not giving me, as the reader, a chance to fully engage in the characters or the story.  I also think an author who continues to use his/her novels to convey messages and lessons risks becoming known for promoting specific causes, and not for writing.
So, does a novel need a message?  I liken messages in a novel to salt on a good meal.  If sprinkling a few messages throughout a novel enhances the reader’s experience and doesn’t overwhelm the main story, then I say season to taste.      

Friday, January 27, 2017

Persistence - It's Necessary, but not Sufficient.



I have a master’s degree in mathematics, and I followed it up with 32 years in sales and marketing for the same multinational company.  You may ask what either of these facts has to do with writing novels, but bear with me.  There is a connection.
Years ago, I was fortunate to retire with mileage still on my tires.  For the first time in my life, I had an abundance of free time. I filled it with many things, some productive, some not.  The most creative activity I pursued was writing.  I’d always wanted to write, but writing a novel required time, something I now had.  
I took on this venture knowing the odds of producing a published novel, or for that matter a novel that would be read beyond my small sphere of friends, were low.  After all, I spent six years studying mathematics.   The formula is fairly simple.  You take 200,000 new books written each year as the denominator and a couple dozen best sellers as the numerator, and you can calculate that 1 out of 10,000 authors might have his/her books read by someone outside their hometown.   I know there’s a middle ground for success between bestseller and throwing the manuscript in the garbage, but you get the point.  It’s hard.
So why did I think I could write a novel?  That’s where persistence comes in.  Anyone who works 32 years for the same company doesn’t give up easily.   A career is not a smooth uphill climb.  There are plateaus and even slippery downhill slides along the way, but if you keep moving forward with your eyes on the finish line, you’ll eventually get there.   It’s not unlike writing.   There are periods where the words flow, the characters develop, and the story explodes with action.  Then there are days where the page sits blank, or worse, you decide to scrap a chapter and start over.  
As I anticipated, my persistence paid off.   Over the past six years, I have self-published four novels and two short story collections.  None are bestsellers.  In fact, I’m often frustrated with the pace of sales.  After three decades in sales and marketing, it’s where I’ve faced my biggest challenges.  My books are all professionally edited, and naturally, I feel they’re well written.  I’ve received dozens of favorable book reviews, as well as contest recognition for several of my short stories. 
I’ve concluded that to be a successful writer, as measured by book sales, it not only requires a well-written book, it takes a cadre of support services.  You need to identify your target market, deliver well-written books that hit that target, construct a multifaceted marketing plan, and commit sufficient resources to execute your plan.   Most importantly, I’ve learned persistence is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Authors, do your characters resemble you?


Should authors channel their personalities and experiences into their characters?  
It took me five novels to ask this question, and when I did, I realized something.   My protagonists are pretty much alike, and for the most part, they have my values.  I even share a few experiences with them, and friends who know me well say my characters reflect my personality at times.  I believe it’s natural to reveal your experiences, thoughts, and beliefs through your characters, but I do this sparingly.  My protagonists are younger, braver and more cunning than I am. They find themselves in situations I hope never to face and react as only they could.
It’s obviously not necessary for authors to share the values of their protagonists, but I’ve found it makes it easier to get inside the heads of my fictional characters and to have them think and act naturally.  Consistency is important in making characters believable.  What better way to stay consistent than creating characters who think like you?  I know the counterargument is that truly great authors can relate to any character they create.  Stephen King isn’t a maniacal killer, and my guess is he wouldn’t be friends with many of the bizarrely malevolent characters he’s created, yet he’s been successful in producing suspenseful thrillers for many years.
I’ve written short stories where the protagonists are greedy brokers, thieves, or even pets. I’ve never been any of these.  I admit it’s more difficult to develop these diverse characters and have them think and act consistently throughout the story.  I often find my personality working its way into their character, requiring revisions.  Still, I enjoy the challenge and have received contest recognition for some of these stories.           
Some authors have had successful careers creating characters that make repeat appearances in their novels:  Michael Connelly has Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Sue Grafton created Kinsey Millhone, and even though John Grisham varies their names, many of his characters are crafty male attorneys.  I haven’t spoken to Connelly, Grafton, or Grisham, but I expect they easily relate to the characters they’ve created.  Connelly was a crime beat reporter in Los Angeles, where Bosch is a criminal detective and Haller an attorney.  Grisham was a successful criminal defense lawyer before writing legal thrillers.
Miles Stevens, Sam Stone and Phil Greenfield are the protagonists in my novels.  I can easily see them sitting down for a cup of coffee, discussing their adventures.  They have a lot in common with each other and apparently, with me, too.  I’ve concluded that’s a good thing.   
 
Protagonists in D.R. Shoultz novels:
Miles Stevens is the lead character in the Miles Stevens Series, which includes MELTNG SAND, CYBER ONE, and GONE VIRAL (to be released in 2017).  Miles is a 37-year-old Yale law grad and former U.S senator who gives up his political career after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife.  He turns to the CIA and the recently formed Department of Historic Intervention (DHI) as a way to escape his grief.  A strong, tough-minded CIA agent, Miles and his DHI partners are sent back in time from the year 2050 to alter historic disasters.   
Sam Stone, the lead character in CORRUPT CONNECTION, is at the peak of his career, recently widowed and losing interest in life, when he meets Dr. Britney Young, a recently hired, beautiful and brilliant researcher at MemOne, Inc.  Sam is a low-profile, self-confident, fit but not athletic, 48-year-old sales executive when he’s thrown into the role of protecting Britney and MemOne from a deadly drug cartel.  Britney and the company’s biocomputer technology are targeted by the cartel to advance their illegal drug trafficking.  Fearing the threats against Britney, Sam works alone as he transforms into a fearless guardian and investigator.
Phil Greenfield is a handsome, silver-haired, divorced, 60-year-old retiree and the main character in BETTER LATE THAN EVER.  Phil sells his successful technology firm and retires to The Glades, a futuristic retirement community in Florida, seeking maintenance-free living, unlimited golf and sunsets by the pool.  Instead, he discovers the residents are fixated on reclaiming their youth through an underworld of medications and surgical procedures.  Phil meets an old flame, Sue, and the flame is rekindled.  Looking much younger than her age, Phil learns Sue is also under the influence of these drugs.  Tempted to join Sue and the others on their youthful journey, Phil becomes suspicious that there’s more to the story of The Glades. Unfortunately, he is right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

E-readers vs. Real Books - It's Not Even Close


Technological advancements are intended to make workers more productive and the lives of average, everyday people easier.  However, I’m concerned some of these technologies are diminishing, or even destroying, those things that have brought us comfort and warmth. To prove my point, look no further than e-books.
Personally, I prefer the look and feel of a hardcover book.  Holding a novel in my hands creates a bond between me and the author.  I get the feeling the author intended for me to have it, to read it, and to share my thoughts about his/her work.   It’s hard to evoke the same emotions with an e-book.
There’s also nothing more relaxing than going to your local bookstore or library on a rainy day, especially if they serve coffee and pastries.  After perusing the shelves for your favorite authors, you select a novel and settle into a soft chair and enjoy a brew and your book.  You’re in a cocoon, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Electronic bookstores and libraries may save you the drive and allow you to download any book you desire, but what’s the point?
I also like owning books, real 400-page novels. I know this may make me sound a bit materialistic, but I enjoy seeing my book collection lining the shelves of my living room and office, knowing I’ve read them (or at least most of them).  Over the years, I’ve collected books by my favorite authors, many first edition copies. (There are worse things to collect. I knew a guy who collected train lanterns.)  I even enjoy finding new and exotic bookends to complement and better organize my collection. Seeing e-books lined on the library page of my e-reader just doesn’t give me the same sensation.
My wife has passed many of the books she cherished as a child down to our grandkids.  These books contain handwritten notes and dates.  She has read some of these books to them at bedtime as her parents and grandparents had done with her, turning the same pages and making the same comments about the illustrations.  Try recapturing these moments with an e-reader.  
As a self-published author, one of my favorite ways to promote my books is to participate in book signings.  Discussing my writing and handing a reader a signed copy of my book creates a connection that can’t be recreated with e-books.  Without a physical book, such events would be meaningless.  I hope it never comes to that.
I get it.  E-books have their advantages.  They are cheaper and easier to access over the internet.  E-readers are lightweight and travel better than hauling two or three hardcover novels.  It’s more convenient to read an e-reader in bed with the lights off and not disturb whoever may be lying next to you.  Libraries and bookstores require expensive brick and mortar buildings to store the books, while e-books can reside inexpensively on electronic media.    
Even with all the benefits of e-books, I can’t imagine a world without libraries or homes without bookshelves.  I can’t imagine spending hundreds of hours writing a novel and not being able to hand a signed copy to a reader.   Most of all, I can’t imagine a child growing up without flipping the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham” while giggling at the same pages her grandmother found funny.