With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Rachel Aaron
Rachel Aaron is the author of 10 novels, including the Fantasy fan favorites THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS and NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST. She also writes romantic Science Fiction under the name Rachel Bach, starting with FORTUNE’S PAWN, a high octane romantic adventure about a powered armor mercenary who gets in way over her head, published by Orbit Books.
In addition to her fiction, Rachel is also known for her bestselling writing efficiency book 2K TO 10K: WRITING BETTER, WRITING FASTER, AND WRITING MORE OF WHAT YOU LOVE. To learn more about Rachel and all her titles, visit www.rachelaaron.net!
How did you know when it was the right time for you to make the transition to “writing full time, all the time”?
Ha, well, for me it was simple. I started in traditional publishing, and it just so worked out that I got pregnant and got a book deal for my first novel at the same time. I was working a low paying job at the time, and my husband had insurance, so I just kind of threw caution to the wind and quit shortly after I got the phone call. Lucky for me, it worked out, and I haven’t had to get a “real job” ever since.
On a side note, this is one of those situations where traditional publishing shines. Getting my advance up front let me quit my job and go full time right away, a lot sooner than self-publishing would have let me. This was also back in 2008, before the self pub boom really got going, so I didn’t have much of a choice. Authors today have a lot more options on the table. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing about my career. Starting out in traditional was a huge advantage for me. Working with a career editor you can’t say no to is a priceless experience for an author, and while selling my books to NY definitely hurt my earnings in the long run, for where I was at the time, it was a very good thing for me and I don’t regret it a bit.
What does your writing process look like today, between juggling a family, an informative blog, and putting out great books?
I’m very lucky to have a husband who not only supports my writing, but actively helps out in the “family business.” My husband Travis is my manager in so many ways. He takes care of business stuff, helps on the blog, does most of the housework and cooking. You name it, Trav does it, and all so I can get more writing time! Thanks to him, I’m routinely able to hit 8-11k words a day on my novels, which is huge progress. He really is priceless, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the work he puts into my great dream.
But not everyone has a Travis. Before my writing was making enough to let him quit his job as well, I was the housewife and writer all in one, and it was NOT easy! I had to set aside my writing time and jealously guard it if I wanted any hope of meeting my deadlines. This was the situation that inspired the 2k-10k jump, actually. I couldn’t get more time to write—I’d already come close to killing for the time I’d carved out—so I had to get more efficient with the hours I did have.
You call your first novel, The Legend of Eli Monpress, “the book that started it all.” What sticks out in your mind when you look back on writing that particular novel? Is there anything you would change about it if you could go back in time?
The Eli books were an odd bird for me. I’d written a very serious Epic Fantasy as my first novel and saw myself as a Serious Fantasy Author. Trouble was, the serious Fantasies weren’t catching agent attention. Also, I was getting kind of tired of being so serious all the time. Then, one day, I had this idea about a wizard thief who wanted a one million gold bounty on his head.
I tried to push it away because it frankly felt too silly, but the characters just kept nagging at me until I finally just sat down and wrote the first scene, which is almost word for word what is now the opening of The Spirit Thief. The moment I finished, I knew this was it. This was the book that was going to take me to New York! And it did.
Honestly, I don’t think I’d change a single thing about my career so far. Everything I’ve done, including the mistakes, has made me the writer I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world!
Your Paradox Series is published by Orbit books, under the name Rachel Bach. This makes you a hybrid author both traditionally and self-published. What do you see as the benefits and downsides to both methods? Why did you choose to use a pen name for this series?
The pen name was my publisher’s idea. When I pitched the Paradox books, my Eli series was not selling well (it went on to sell much better after the publisher gave it a new cover later that year). My Paradox books were also very different in tone from my other stuff, not to mention being Science Fiction. Because of all this, Orbit decided to rebrand me, and since I wanted to publish with them, I went with it.
Hindsight being 20/20, it was a good decision. As Trav and I have talked about on the blog, author brand need to be specific. Our names as writers are our logos, and you want your reader to know what they’re getting when they see “Rachel Aaron” on a cover. This kind of brand management was what Orbit was after, and despite the INCREDIBLE ANNOYANCE of having two names, I think it was a smart move over all.
I still hate having my readers split, though.
To answer your question about being a hybrid author…I didn’t actually set out to be one. Like I mentioned earlier, when I got into the book business, self publishing was still seen as the last resort of the desperate. Every author blog and writing advice column was constantly screaming at us not to even think about self publishing, so…I didn’t.
But when the sea change of the early 2010s hit, I started singing a different tune. All of a sudden, self publishing wasn’t so fringe anymore. I was meeting lots of self published authors at conventions who not only were making good money, but they had good books, and they were making their own business decisions!
That was really what decided it for me. I’m a giant control freak, and I love running a business. As much as I like Orbit, giving up control of my books to a publisher was a source of constant stress to me. So, after a brief and highly successful self publishing experience with my writing non-fic, 2k to 10k, I decided to go it solo with my next Rachel Aaron series. That first book was Nice Dragons Finish Last, and let’s just say it’s performed better than my wildest hopes. I was making more money than ever, and I had total control. It was kind of a dream come true. After that, I was hooked.
I still do projects for New York because sometimes a project comes in that you just couldn’t land on your own, (like writing a novel for a major IP like Star Wars, which I’m not doing, but just as an example). I’d also go back to NY if I wrote a YA novel since YA still does very well in print. Over all, though, I’ve gotten way too spoiled by the self pub freedom and money to ever go back to NY for good. But that’s what being hybrid is all about: getting to choose yourself whom you write for. Trust me, as an author who started out in the time of no choice, that is a HUGE breakthrough.
Your award-winning book 2,000 to 10,000 (2k to 10K) is all about increasing the quantity and the quality of an author’s daily word count. As a novelist, what inspired you to write this book?
The baby situation I mentioned above! It really came down to three factors: the book was late, I needed more time to get it done, and I didn’t have that time. I had a new baby, a hard deadline, and 12 hours a week of paid baby sitter time to write. There was no getting around it: I had to get faster, or I was going to crash and burn. So I got scientific, through out my old assumptions, and actually analyzed what I was doing with my writing.
As you can tell from the title of the book, the results were amazing. I went from writing 2,000 in six hours to writing 10,000 in the same time, without sacrificing quality. And before you say that’s crazy, my original 2k to 10k blog post is still up and free. I explain my whole system there, so go read what I did for yourself and see if it’s crazy. I can’t say it will work for you quite as well as it did for me—every writer is different—but I know for sure that it’s helped thousands of writers double their daily word counts. That’s gotta count for something!
What was your motivation behind pricing 2,000 to 10,000 at $0.99 on Amazon? Is setting a low price point a good idea for all authors of nonfiction? What about fiction writers?
I set 2k to 10k at $0.99 because it is 1) very short at 33k words, and 2) 80% recycled content from my blog. Honestly, charging more felt like I was trying to cheat my readers, and I never want to do that. I want everyone to feel like they got a good deal when they buy my books!
By contrast, my self-published Heartstrikers Urban Fantasy series about dragons in Detroit is priced at $4.99 per book. This is because these books are book length at 100-150k, and they are entirely original works of fiction. I’m also an established author with an built up readership from my traditional days and a backlist of traditionally published books priced at $9.99. Next to that, my $4.99 books looked like a bargain!
They were also in line with what other authors were pricing for similar titles, so I decided to start there and it’s worked so well that I’ve never changed the price other than to put them on the occasional sale. I also have my fiction in KU. This was partially because I’ve had a very hard time getting discovered on other sales platforms, but mostly because I just freaking love Amazon. I’ve done multiple blog posts on the business math behind KU, and long story short, I liked my odds. So I put my books in and now I make about 20% of my income from my KU readers, which is worth being Amazon exclusive for me. YMMV, of course.
How involved are you in marketing your books? Have you found success with using social media? What other systems work best for you?
We’re still trying to work out the marketing beast. Like most authors, I have a mailing list, and it’s great at selling books! I take care not to spam and only send emails when I actually have something new coming out that I want people to buy. By respecting my reader’s time, I’m rewarded with a high open rate and a nice burst of sales every time I send out an email. I would say getting people to sign up for my list and treating them well once they’re there is the single most effective marketing effort I do.
Sadly, the rest of social media has been kind of hit-or-miss. I have a good social media presence and love talking to readers and other offers, especially on Twitter (I’m @Rachel_Aaron! Hit me up! We’ll talk about books!). Unfortunately, as much as I love it, Twitter is kind of terrible at actually selling books.
Facebook is a little better, especially if you have the money to run ads, but even these are always break even at best for me. I know many authors have had great success on Facebook, but I think you have to really love the platform and authentically interact with your fans to make the magic happen. (And have a really great book with a catchy cover, title, and blurb, but that’s kind of a given for any marketing success).
Other than my mailing list, my greatest marketing success is Bookbub and getting picked for the Kindle Daily Deal and Kindle Big Deal. I list these last, despite their incredibly effectiveness at selling books, because we as authors can’t really control how often we get into these promotions. Bookbub is famously picky, and you can’t apply to Amazon at all. They have to choose you, and there’s no guarantee they’ll do so at a time when you need them to. These kind of promotions are like perfect summer days: fantastic if you can get them, but impossible to plan for.
I wish had more than that to say, but honestly I think everyone is still figuring out how to market books effectively. If you figure it out, please let me know! I’d love a button I could press or a formula I could follow to turn advertising dollars into sales reliably!
What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished, coming out August 5th? What do you think your readers will be most happy to see within its covers?
This is the little series that could! I self published the first book, Nice Dragons Finish Last, as an experiment. At the time, I didn’t think it would do very well. It’s kind of a weird beast with its near-future, post-magical-apocalypse setting and nice guy dragon hero. But to my surprise, these books have become my most critically acclaimed and bestselling series! The first book won the Audie for Audible’s incredible audiobook, and the second won the 2015 RT Reviewers Choice Award in Indie Urban Fantasy. Not bad for a book about the world’s worst dragon!
The series is rolling now, though. Every book shakes things up enormous, and this new book is no different. We’ve got huge secrets being revealed, tons of karma coming due, and a very emotional ride for everyone. Julius, my nice dragon, is seriously going to need a hug at the end of this book!
One thing that is very different about this series that I want to talk about here, though, is that since it was self-published, I’ve had a great deal more real-time reader feedback than I’ve ever had for my other titles. In trad publishing, which moves like a snail through molasses, I’d often be done with the next book (or next two books) by the time the first one actually hit the shelves. This often meant I was writing in a vacuum with no way to know what readers liked or wanted, because they hadn’t read it yet. With self publishing, though, I can read everything my fans are super excited for (or making up conspiracy theories about) and work toward that.
This isn’t to say I’m changing my plot or anything like that, but I definitely make sure the fan favorite characters get extra page time! This ability to publish and get feedback before I publish again has been a game changer for me. It’s let me make my fans much much happier (or at least more entertained since I don’t think anyone’s going to be happy with me after reading No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished), and isn’t that why we’re authors in the first place?
What’s next for you on the writing horizon?
I’ve got one to two more Heartstriker books to finish, hopefully by 2017, as well as some contract work for New York. Once that’s done, though, I’ve got a bunch of new ideas just waiting to be written! I want to get back to my Epic Fantasy roots, and I also have a whole bunch of new, kick-ass, romantic SF planned for my Rachel Bach name. So…sky’s the limit, really!
We’re also looking to put out a few more non-fic titles about writing and the writing business. We’ve been working on them for a while, but the fiction has been crazy this year. Thankfully, things have calmed down now that Heartstrikers #3 is finally coming out, so you should see some new non-fic titles from me very soon! Hooray!
Thanks for interviewing with us, Rachel!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley-Jenkins has an M.A. in English from the University of Idaho, where she taught composition courses. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is a teacher, an editor, and a writer, who loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.