The tales of an unapologetic nerd
This past week, I celebrated my FIRST WHOLE YEAR as a published author! And, as you can see from the numbers, I ACTUALLY MADE MONEY OFF OF THIS?! Yes, internet, I did. And I continue to do so. With just two published works so far, I'm feeling remarkably confident about my future as a writer and creator, and I'd love to share with you now some of the tips and tricks that have worked for ME in my journey. They may just be little things, and simple ways to make it in this world, but they've kept me going for a year now, and helped me find relative success. Indie authors out there, take note! Everything may not work for you, but I give you these tools in your own journey, that you may be better armed to face your own path and fight your own dragons.
1) Invest in good cover art
Someone once told me that your cover is your greatest asset as an indie author, and oftentimes your only billboard. Having been around the convention block a few times now, and seen what other indie authors are putting out there, I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: PAY FOR A COVER ARTIST. In all honesty, the MS Paint "I want to write but can't afford an artist" look does not usually pay off. It will not matter that your writing is great, and it will not matter that your story is spectacular. If your cover does not grab people right as they walk away, 9 times out of 10 they won't be buying a copy of your book.
In fact, my cover art is what got me and my book into my local Barnes and Noble branch. The visuals are so professional, that the saleswoman who initially started carrying my work didn't even realize I was indie. And neither do the readers. At the end of the day, people will always judge a book by its cover. So turn that to your advantage! Make your work pop off the shelves and stand out in a crowded convention center! Make sure when people are scrolling through Amazon, they have a reason to stop on your book. I wouldn't be doing half as well as I am without my cover artist, Fiona Jayde. I owe so much of my success to her artistry.
2) Find your market
I myself have had a remarkable amount of success at conventions. In fact, there's several hundred more dollars unaccounted for in the Book Report graphic above, simply because they were all cash sales at cons and events. Just a week after my first book was published, I hit the road and set up a booth at Ancient City Con. There, not only did I make back my booth cost (plus a little extra) but I learned some valuable lessons about myself as a salesperson. My theatre background and naturally-bubbly personality both grant me the skills necessary to thrive in a person-to-person marketing setting. While the internet is a great place to network and sell your product, I have done the best in the past year face-to-face with the readers. People get excited to talk to me about my work, and they enjoy spending time at my booth and getting to know me as a person.
That isn't to say the convention approach will work for everyone. There's a fine line between being an engaging vendor and harassing people, and I've seen it go very very badly. On the other hand, just sitting silently and waiting for people to notice your work can be just as off-putting. A little tip from a professional performer: talk to people about other things. Compliment their shirt. Ask them how their day at the con has been. Gush over their hair color. If they want to know more about your books or your merch, they will take the next step. You just have to make yourself a safe, friendly person to talk to. It comes naturally to me, but I hope that little bit of direction can help you have a more successful time at your next event.
In addition to finding what market works best for you, don't try and torture yourself to learn a marketing tactic or technique that just isn't your speed. Yes, there are tried-and-true methods of marketing on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But, just like with writing styles or habits, not every approach will work for every author. Try them all, and learn what you can, but at the end of the day you'll have more success if you feel comfortable with what you're doing.
3) Find Your Tribe
Whether in-person or online, there is always a support group to be found for aspiring artists. We creators need a specific type of love and care to make the magic happen, and finding those people who know how to take care of your unique brand of creativity-induced crazy is remarkably important. Without mine, I could never have made it through this first year, or published to begin with. Sometimes, it's something simple, like finding friends who will come to your signings and buy your books, just to support you as a person. Other times, it's people lending their own talent to your project, like my dad did when he painted my map, or my sister still does when she proofreads my pages for free. And then, there's another kind of support. A daily, never-ending journey. Here, we find the partners. The best friends. The boyfriends or girlfriends. The Twitter families. The coworkers. Those who know what you're going through, and pick up the slack while you push through your next chapter or a particularly bad writer's block. For me, I had an entire team willing to make sure I was fed and watered. To manage my business while I was deep in writing mode at night. To reach out whenever they found an event they thought my books would do well at. To be there, when I needed to scream into the void about the bad days.
Find your tribe. You'd be amazed how helpful people who are already in your life can be when you just reach out. And if not? Make a new group. Find an online family, or an ally at a local bookstore or coffee shop. Build a community around yourself. After all, it's dangerous to go alone.
4) Don't be afraid to ask
Waltzing into my local Barnes and Noble and casually asking for a book signing was absolutely terrifying. But guess what? It paid off big time. Not only did they say YES, but they are still carrying both of my books to this day! And displayed front-facing, people. IF YOU ARE IN THE BOOK BUSINESS YOU KNOW WHAT A BIG DEAL THAT IS! *ahem* Again, please refer to Tip #1: cover art.
What started out as a dream has turned into a recurring signing event every few months (in fact, I have one tonight), a monthly gig hosting their YA Book Club, and an incredible relationship with the men and women who work there. For a little indie gal like me, this is the greatest achievement of my career so far. I glow with pride and joy every time I see that my books are still in stock, or being re-stocked because the original batch sold out. And it never would have happened if I hadn't just asked. Will everyone always say yes? Absolutely not. But if you don't even try, you might miss out on something amazing.
5) Never stop learning
It's painful to hear, and painful to say to another creator, but sometimes the reason your project isn't as successful as you'd like is because it's simply not up to the caliber it should be. And that's okay! The good news is, you took the first step! You finished your book, and put it out into the world! That's further than a lot of people ever get in their lives, and you should be proud of yourself. Celebrate that achievement, first and foremost, before you read any further!
Celebration done? Okay, now for the hard part.
Your work may not be as good as you think it is. And while it is important to have a supportive tribe, you also need critics who are comfortable telling you what is wrong with your book. If you're not willing to take constructive criticism, or you refuse to continue honing your craft, you're selling yourself short. You're doing your self a disservice by not continuing to grow and learn as a writer, and artist, and a storyteller. You deserve to have your story told, and to have people want to read it. Sometimes, that means going back to the basics, and re-learning some things you may have forgotten. Take a writing class. Pick up a novel in a genre you may nave never considered reading before. Find someone willing to tell you the truth. In those moments, when we are faced with our own weaknesses as creators, something magical happens: we learn what we are truly made of.
I have been told, time and time again, things I need to fix. And, with a lot of them, the critic was right. But by the time I published, I knew what was good about my work, and what wasn't. Not only did I put forward the strongest piece I could at the time, but my heart has not been broken by the handful of bad, potentially hurtful reviews I have received. Being sure of myself and my style has given me great confidence to face the internet trolls. When someone says "this character didn't behave like a strong woman should," I know that their definition of strength is different than mine. And that's okay. I know my character is who she is meant to be.
I never would have gotten there if I hadn't been ironing out the problems in my own writing over the past twenty years. In fact, I am still ironing to this day. Finding the weakest points of my own craft and stamping them out, so when I am confronted with an enemy I know I can hold my chin high and say, "that is your opinion." Think of it like learning to cook: it doesn't always come easily, and you could spend a lifetime discovering new tricks and new recipes.
This is just the beginning of my personal Indie Author Survival Kit. And, as I mentioned, the advice may not be for everyone. But please, don't hesitate to reach out if you need a friend in the business. I'm going through all of this one day at a time, just like many of you. I learn something new every day, and I'm grateful for it. Now, it's your turn. What are some things YOU have learned on your Indie Journey? How can you help better the writing world with your knowledge? Feel free to share! And, in the meantime, keep writing! Someone out there needs your book. I'm just giving you the tools to try and help make sure they find it.
For me, the milestone was my 30th. I had set two major goals for myself: weight and career. All I wanted was to feel healthy and fulfilled, and these were measurable, simple ways to achieve that. With all the health problems my family has experienced over the years (and that definitely run in my genes) and my own myriad chronic conditions, I wanted to push myself to get into better shape and head off the issues before they become truly debilitating. Now, before you get touchy about it, I know weight is not the only indication of health. For me, however, it's the most consistently tangible guidepost. So let's move past that.
Since my knee injury two years ago, I've gained more than 20 pounds. The goal, I decided, was to hit 130 by my 30th. Catchy, right? 130 by 30? Well, I thought so ... anyway, I started myself on a diet plan and started working out more, but progress was incredibly slow. And painful. My body does not enjoy working out, and it was mad at me for about three months ...
The second goal was to finish my third book, Wayfinder. For my own progress as an indie author, it is important to me to try and release a book a quarter. That's four books in a year, and I already missed the first two. As much as I love my performing jobs, the aforementioned health issues have made continuing in them for much longer an impossibility, and I'd love to finally commit full-time to writing. So, I set out to push through this next installment of my series, and dedicated every free moment to finishing on time. I took time away from my D&D company and streaming with them, which broke my heart. I spent hours in front of the computer, making great strides and churning out more chapters in a short amount of time than I would originally have thought possible.
But it wasn't enough. Not on either count. I hit my birthday 10 pounds shy of my weight goal, and only sixteen chapters into my book. And, I was depressed about it. What more could I have done? Could I have worked harder? Should I have worked harder? Sleep isn't a thing people need, right? For days I beat myself up over my failures. I felt terrible for not making my goals, and all I wanted was to feel like I'd made something of myself by the time I was 30. I wanted to feel comfortable in my skin again.
And then, slowly but surely, I started realizing the truth behind my birthday goals: I may not have hit them, but what I did do was set myself up for long-lasting, future success. I didn't just try and push through to make an arbitrary date, I actively spent three months developing new habits. I didn't starve myself in an attempt to lose weight, I made conscious decisions to eat better and work out more, both of which have stuck around past the goal date. I also developed a new writing regiment, one that makes me think I'll actually be able to make my publishing goals next year, without compromising the quality of my work.
But the self-imposed deadline made me address some things about myself as a writer that I'd never dealt with on my own, and I think I'm stronger now for it. I still hope and pray and believe that he'll recover enough to start reading again (not just selfishly for me, but because he genuinely enjoys my stories and my world ... and, ya know, so he can BE HEALTHY) however, my career as a writer has to be strong enough to survive these setbacks. My desperation and desire to push through, even without my cheerleader, has been one of the hardest times in my writing journey so far. Now, however, I'm equipped to deal with the times when he can't be there to read alongside me. As painful as that is, it was an important lesson to learn. I found a new support group in my sister and my friends, and a new faith in my own work that has carried me further in the past few months than in years before. Diving into self-publishing a year ago was terrifying enough ... finding out who I am in this new phase of life, without that safety net? Even more so.
Believe in yourself. Whatever version of you that may be, right at this moment. Because, I promise, you are amazing. And you are worth believing in.
Main Street, USA. The first place you set foot in The Magic Kingdom. A street simply dripping with atmosphere and charm. The music is playing, and the mouth-watering smell of popcorn is piped through the air. Characters wait in welcome, and parades and trolley shows roll down the way every few hours.
Yet despite the tantalizing sweets at the confectionery, or the Photo Pass photographers waiting to immortalize your visit in film, the longest line on Main Street is usually at City Hall: the home of Guest Relations. And while many of those poor unfortunate souls waiting for assistance are in line for legitimate reasons, an alarming number are there for something else: to complain. Because they didn't get the exact same experience that somebody else did. They didn't get "The Right Kind of Magic."
And it's not just at Disney World that these complaints run rampant. Universal employees are just as regularly accused of "ruining vacations," and Sea World can't seem to catch a break no matter what they do. And while these complainers, bellyachers, squawkers ... while these people have always existed, it seems to have gotten exponentially worse over the last few years as the social media age has taken off. There is no doubt that technology has made it easier to vacation -- to plan, to execute, to enjoy. But with it has come an unfortunate truth: magic has been raised to an impossible standard.
It used to be simple. The Magic Kingdom was simply that: magical. The sheer joy of looking up at Cinderella’s castle and seeing your childhood come to life was enough. “Magical Moments,” as the company calls them, were scattered throughout the day as often as possible, but unannounced. Characters might decide to accompany you on your favorite attraction. You might be the one to finally pull the sword from the stone. Your child could be chosen to join a parade or a special photo opportunity. And even without these moments, your vacation would be unforgettable.
But then, articles started to circulate. BuzzFeed did several videos about “If you do
THIS, then the characters HAVE to do that.” And, usually, these articles were completely based on isolated incidents. One of the most notable examples is the famous “Andy’s Coming!” from 2013.
The story was, if you shouted “Andy’s Coming!” to the Toy Story characters, they would
immediately stop what they were doing and fall to the floor, perfectly still. It seems innocuous, but this rumor spread like wildfire and caused countless problems among all of the theme parks.
Now, several things are wrong with this situation as a whole. Allow me to illustrate, and I
apologize that it’s not presented in song. I know most of the important messages that Disney characters have ingrained in our minds and hearts are catchy. We’ll just have to make do with words, like boring adults.
The important take-away here is the effect these attitudes have on the park operations.
Once people start expecting special moments at every turn, we raise the bar. We try and
accommodate as much as possible. But then that becomes the norm, and so on. Soon, there’s nowhere else to go. Because once you make every moment magical, no moments really are.
As I mentioned, Disney is not the only victim. With the opening of Harry Potter World, Universal has felt the pressure as well. Amazing interactions like the wand ceremony at Ollivander’s and the Gringott’s Money Exchange have been tainted by entitlement. At the Gringott’s interaction, for instance, you can meet a goblin named Sir. He will have an entire conversation with you, if you’re interested. However, because of certain internet videos (again, I’m looking at you, BuzzFeed) people have come to treat him like a glorified version of Siri. They simply stand there and shout what they think are trigger words, and get angry if he doesn’t respond “the right way.”
It’s this idea of The Right Kind of Magic that is not only hurting our theme parks, but
hurting us. It’s made us less compassionate, and less understanding. Time and time again, I’ve seen parents say heinous things in the name of “special treatment.” Sometimes it’s as simple as calling to complain that one child with learning disabilities gets to walk around in the classroom while their own child has to stay put. But other times, times I have witnessed far too often, it’s much worse.
For instance: it’s no secret that children from the “Make a Wish” foundation are given priority access to characters and attractions at Disney World. But when they do, it seems to bring out the worst in the parents with healthy children.
“Well, I wish my child was dying.” That is a phrase I have heard said to my face. It is
just one of many horrible things parents have done in front of their own children, all in the name of right-ness. And I know they are being facetious. No one wants their child to be terminally ill. But, to the parents who are concerned with one family getting in line in front of you, I have one thing to say:
Because the horribly painful truth of the matter is this: your children don’t mind. I have
lost count of how many times, in my days as a cast member, I approached a child and explained the situation. “This family is going to meet Mickey right before you, and then he’ll be right back to see you, Princess!” And the child is perfectly fine. It’s the parents who lose their minds.
It’s the adults who stand in line at Guest Relations and complain, and demand refunds for
the rain, or because Goofy lingered 30 seconds longer at the table next to theirs, and now they feel slighted. It’s the adults who stand and shout at the Goblin for saying the wrong thing, and cause a scene in the middle of Diagon Alley. It’s the grown-ups who yell at cast members, telling them that their substandard parade viewing ruined their vacation. But the children? They still find joy and wonder in simply existing in the same space as a castle. And sure, they throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. They get hot, and tired, and cranky. They are just tiny humans, still learning how to function.
But we know better. And we need to remember the magic. The fact that such places still exist in the age of technology is something of a miracle. That real roller coasters haven’t all been replaced with virtual reality by now is amazing. When you step onto Main Street USA, you’re stepping into the heart of the longest running show on Earth. Books and movies and childhood dreams have sprung to life around you, and continue to change and grow every day. Universal’s Diagon Alley gave us real Butterbeer and interactive wands, to cast spells on your own! People could wait their whole lives to visit somewhere so special, and most of them never will.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.