Guest Post – Mike Van Horn

Today I’m hosting American writer Mike Van Horn, author of the science fiction trilogy Agate and Breadbox. Here he is hard at work in Hawaii—looks tough, but I guess someone has to do it.

Over to Mike, who’s going to talk about the importance of songs in his work and how one thing can quickly lead to another.

When Life Gives You Lyrics, Make Music

I can’t sing anything more demanding than Happy Birthday. So imagine my surprise when I became a lyricist.

In my just-published book Aliens Crashed in My Back Yard, my main character and narrator—Selena M—is a singer who nurses a surviving alien back to health so she can send it home. The alien is also a singer, and that’s how they learn to communicate. They help each other recapture the passion of their singing.

I had to write snippets of lyrics for the songs that Selena sings, and come up with song titles. I used these as epigraphs at the top of chapters. Like this:

I’ve been a sweet stuff singer

All my girlie years

Airy, frothy little ditties

Full of love and tears

That’s from Cotton Candy Lovin’. Here’s another:

I’m playing with you

the game of love

and I’m losing every match.

Some of these snippets grew into verses, and then entire song lyrics. The thought came to me: if I have lyrics, I need music. But this was way beyond my skills!

I found a guy who could compose music for my lyrics, and he found a local blues singer who became the vocalist and the voice of Selena. They produced my songs and I put them up on Soundcloud. Now I have ‘sci fi with a sound track!’ I’ve written about twenty lyrics so far.

How do these get written? Two ways. Sometimes lines or couplets pop into my head. I write them down, then look for ideas that can expand them. I spend a lot of time looking for rhymes.  For example:

We all want to fly to the stars

not just staying here sittin’ on our arse.

 

You serious scientists, let me lead you astray.

Get up! Get out there! Fly into the void.

Or should we just sit here whiling away

waiting to get whacked by some asteroid?

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen stars rhymed with arse,” several have remarked.

Sometimes, after I’ve written a prose paragraph, I look at it and think, this could be turned into a song. For example, when Selena was by herself on the Moon, looking at the emptiness of space, she got the shivers:

I was beginning to feel unmoored. Not unmoored internally, exactly. Just feeling strange. More like a boat drifting out to sea. The farther it drifts, the harder it will be for it to find its way back. Perhaps it will discover new continents, but maybe it will just drift. A strange feeling came over me, and I found myself turning this chain of thought into a song.

Here’s what it turned into (first two verses):

I am unmoored.

I am adrift on the vastness of space.

Like a boat, lines cast free from the shore,

freed of land’s embrace.

Slowly drifting out to sea, 

no rudder, no compass, no map, no haste.

Across the vasty void.

Forever to infinity.

 

The farther I drift ‘cross the vasty void

the harder it will be for me

to find my way back from the endless sea

to safe harbor, to home, to thee.

I may discover new worlds out there.

Or I might just drift, ‘cross the vast nowhere.

Forever to infinity.

This is so much fun! I love creating songs like this.

I want to finish up with a story. I felt very tentative about this entire effort. Who was I to hire composers, producers, and professional singers? I sent them my lyrics and they produced music. But then they invited me to one of the recording sessions at the studio. I went as an observer.

When the vocalist was warming up in the soundproof room, she said, “Sorry guys, my voice isn’t right today. I’m a little nervous because the lyricist is here.”

The who? You mean the big lyricist smoking a cigar who arrived in a long limo? She was feeling nervous because of me, and I was suffering from imposter syndrome big-time.

Okay, so what’s the lesson here for you writers?

When creativity happens, go with it. Go with it! Go where it takes you. Don’t say, “I can’t do that.” That’s a killer. Maybe you can’t, but maybe you can.

What I found out was that I could not only spin a good tale, but I can write music.

I am a lyricist. And it’s a blast!

Let’s finish with two verses from the one that became my theme song, and the name of Book 2 of my trilogy:

My spaceship calls out to me

Come fly me home

I’m yours, you’re my skipper.

Just call and I’ll come.

Just call and I’ll come to you

The whole galaxy’s our home.

On any world anywhere

Just call and I’ll come.

This is what Selena’s spaceship says to her. Could you resist? That’s what Books 2 and 3 are about: My Spaceship Calls Out to Me and Space Girl Yearning.

 

To hear how Mike’s music came out, go to http://galaxytalltales.com and click on Sci Fi Music.

Book 1 available for Kindle on Amazon here. Paperback edition coming soon.

Book 2 due May

You can read excerpts from all three books on his site – link above

 

Marketing for Muppets – Part 6

In Part 5, I mentioned in a footnote (because it happened after I’d drafted that post) that one of my books reached the top 500 in the Amazon store (not in the US) and gained the No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. In this post, I’m going to talk about how that happened.

One thing: as with all these marketing posts, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and vice versa. For instance, I know of authors who swear by the power of Facebook ads, or being visible on social media, with neither of which have I found a great deal of success. On the other hand, I have heard some authors say how disappointed they are with Amazon ads (AMS), which have worked quite well for me. Each of us has to try different methods until we hit on the one that is effective for us.

The proposition in Part 1 bears repeating:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

As mentioned in Part 5, I was already seeing increased sales through AMS and the knock-on effects of greater visibility the ads brought me. As of 26th January 2019, I’d already had a good month. A couple of days later, my sales for January had more than doubled.

How? In a word: BookBub.

BookBub has long been held up by the indie-author community as the crème de la crème, the Holy Grail of book advertising. A few years ago, I’d applied—twice—and been turned down. If the relationship between me and my then-publisher hadn’t stalled, I’d have carried on applying. As it was, I grew unwilling to incur the high cost involved when I wouldn’t be the only person to benefit from any resulting success, so I stopped applying.

And, yes, it is pricey. The cost of a featured deal depends on what category (genre) your book fits into and the price to which you’re discounting the book. The highest cost (as at 12th February 2019) is for a book falling within the category of ‘crime fiction’—to advertise such a book at a price of $3 or more will cost the author $3,983. That falls to $783 if the author is running a free promotion. That’s almost $800 to give a book away.

With all rights in my books reverted back to me, I decided to apply again. Although my sales had been growing steadily, it was mainly in the UK, while sales in the US remained sporadic. The Earth Haven trilogy had been popular in the States a couple of years ago, but for reasons mentioned in previous posts I hadn’t been able to maintain interest across the Pond. Thus my primary aim in applying to BookBub was to raise sales and visibility in the US.

On 11th January, I submitted the first book in the trilogy, The Cleansing, to BookBub for a featured deal at the discounted price of $0.99. I heard back from BookBub that same day. To my excitement, they offered me a featured deal to run on 27th January. To my disappointment, it was what they call an ‘international’ deal, meaning it would only run in Australia, Canada, India and the UK, but not in the US.

There was a silver lining: had I been accepted for the full deal, the cost would have been a whopping $754. The international deal alone was a far more modest $160. Nevertheless, I almost turned it down. I had heard other authors say they’d lost money on international deals and the sell-through had been nothing to write home about. But, thankfully, I decided to go with it because, remembering Proposition 1, I needed to find out for myself how good or otherwise it actually is.  

27th January was a Sunday. I discounted the book’s price in Australia, Canada, the UK and India in plenty of time and waited impatiently for Sunday to arrive.

I reckoned on needing to sell a minimum of 400 books at the discounted price to come anywhere near recouping the cost of the promotion. I didn’t expect to achieve that, but hoped to boost visibility to improve sales in the weeks to follow. Long story short: the promotion comfortably exceeded my expectations—not only did I recoup the cost, but made a modest profit.

The book reached number one in the Amazon bestseller charts in most science fiction categories for which it was eligible in Australia, Canada and the UK, earning the orange No. 1 Bestseller tag (which disappears again as soon as the book drops from the top spot—thank goodness for screen shots). It reached number 300-odd in the entire UK Amazon store; number 50-something in the Canada and Australia stores.

My books are distributed wide through Draft2Digital and I also publish directly to GooglePlay. I’d never done any promotions specifically aimed at readers who shop at places like Kobo and iTunes and my sales in those wider channels had been pitiful. In fact, I don’t think I’d sold a single book through D2D or Google for the previous three months. Much to my surprise and delight, my sales increased massively in all wide channels that day.

What about sales since? That’s where the real value of the promotion has come into play. My sales on Amazon approximately doubled post-promotion from where they were before it. They have started to falter a little—not unexpected, though I thought the tailing away might happen sooner—but remain higher than they did pre-BookBub. In the wider channels sales, though low, have been steady. Considering I wasn’t selling anything at all wide, that’s an infinite improvement.

Time, then, for another proposition:

Proposition 6: BookBub is an effective promotional site, especially for authors with sequels or a substantial back catalogue available to take advantage of sell-through.

That, of course, remains subjective—while some authors have reported greater success with BookBub promos than I experienced, others have said they didn’t feel their promo was worthwhile. As always, remember Proposition 1.

Let’s remain realistic. The fleeting appearance of the No. 1 Bestseller tags was fun; to reach the top 100 overall in the Canadian and Australian Amazon stores was exciting; to see the balance in my business account go up instead of haemorrhaging makes a nice change. But I’m not getting carried away. There’s still a long way to go to achieve my dream of making a living at this game. At best, I’ve taken a stride closer.

And I think these marketing posts have run their course. It’s not that I no longer consider myself to be a muppet when it comes to marketing—far from it—but I’m less of one than I was a year ago. It has taken a lot of trial and error but at last I feel I’m on the right track to gain some visibility and achieve steady, if unspectacular, sales. I’m going to keep applying for a BookBub promotion in the States—if I secure one, I’ll probably report back in one more Marketing for Muppets post. Other than that, I want to blog about other stuff and host more guests.

As for ongoing marketing, I intend continuing with the AMS ads for as long as they remain productive and cost-effective. For now, at least, I’m not going to give away more books in return for joining my mailing list. I’m not going to join any author cross-promotions. US BookBub aside, I’m not going to apply for any more paid promotions.

More importantly, I need to publish new work. I am hoping that I can now concentrate on finishing my works in progress without being constantly distracted by trying to improve sales of my existing books.

Then there is the small proofreading/copyediting business I can afford to devote a little more time to. There are book covers to design and editing of my own work to do. And there are always more stories to tell. I can’t wait to write them. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and crack on.

Till next time…