In this 5 On interview, author Robert Kroese reveals the process that allows him to write up to three books per year, what makes humor work or flop, and how authors can increase their sales potential.
Robert Kroese’s sense of irony was honed growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan—home of the Amway Corporation and the Gerald R. Ford Museum, and the first city in the United States to fluoridate its water supply. In second grade, he wrote his first novel, the saga of Captain Bill and his spaceship Thee Eagle. This turned out to be the high point of his academic career.
After barely graduating from Calvin College in 1992 with a philosophy degree, he was fired from a variety of jobs before moving to California, where he stumbled into software development. As this job required neither punctuality nor a sense of direction, he excelled at it.
In 2009, he called upon his extensive knowledge of useless information and love of explosions to write his first novel, Mercury Falls. Since then, he has three more books in the Mercury series; a humorous epic fantasy, Disenchanted; and a quantum physics noir thriller, Schrodinger’s Gat. His latest book is Starship Grifters.
5 Questions On Writing
CHRIS JANE: In a 2013 interview you conducted with author S. G. Redling, you mentioned after playfully admonishing her for genre-hopping (“You know you’re not supposed to do that, right?”) that you were also on the verge of switching genres, from humorous fantasy/sci-fi to thriller. You did, with your novel City of Sand. What challenges do you expect to face having changed genres? And was pleasing your agent, or Amazon, one of the challenges? I ask because City of Sand will be self-published, thanks to your successful Kickstarter campaign.
ROBERT KROESE: The short answer is that I expect not to sell a lot of copies of City of Sand. That book was basically an experiment to see if I could write a “serious” novel, and while I think it turned out well, it’s just too different from my other books (and too hard to describe without spoiling the ending) for many of my readers to take a chance on it.
And to be perfectly honest, a novel like that isn’t nearly as much fun to write as something like the Mercury books or Disenchanted. I’m more comfortable writing humor, and that seems to be what my readers want, so I doubt I’ll be writing another serious novel for a while.
You write in your foreword to Temptation Bangs Forever: The Worst Church Signs You’ve Ever Seen, “There are few things worse than someone failing spectacularly at being funny.”
After you compare trying for funny vs. true funny to a drunk vs. someone who’s pretending to be drunk, you acknowledge that “funny” is subjective. Even so, for humor to succeed, a good number of people have to agree on what gets a laugh. Your books rely in large part on humor, and you commented recently on Facebook that you’ve sold 150,000 (or more) copies of your work, so you’re obviously doing it right.
Can you provide, for any aspiring humor writers, an example of true funny vs. trying to be funny? And do you think funny can be taught?
Humor is ultimately about setting up tension and then resolving it in an unexpected way. Essentially you’re asking a question and then providing an answer that is both satisfying and completely wrong at the same time. To use an extremely tired example: “Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To get to the other side.” The answer is correct, but not in the way you’d expect.
Groucho Marx was a master of this:
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
“I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
He sets up a situation and hints at a resolution, but the resolution, while satisfying, is also absurdly, grotesquely wrong. For some strange reason, the human brain loves little tricks like that.
That’s what I try to do in my books: set up tension and then resolve it in an unexpected way. The jokes range from puns and silly wordplay to broad concepts (like the conceit in Mercury Falls that Heaven is essentially just a ridiculously complex bureaucracy), but they all share the dynamic of setting up tension and then resolving it. How funny the joke is depends on how satisfying the resolution is, how unexpected it is, how well you time the punchline with the build-up of tension, and a lot of other things.
In humor writing, phrasing is extremely important. For example, you want the punchline to be delivered as close to the end of the sentence as possible (I think that advice originates with Dave Barry). That’s why it’s called a “punchline.” It has to hit you like a punch, as forcefully and abruptly as possible.
Subtlety is also key. Don’t try to be wacky. Wackiness works on TV; not so much in writing. Be very sparing in the use of exclamation marks. Try to make the joke seem like it just happened, like a magic trick. If the reader can see the effort that went into a joke, you drain it of its power.
So, a final answer to your question: no.
Faster than annually, actually. I’ve been writing 2-3 books a year for the past three years or so. I have no routine. I fret for weeks or months, trying to come up with an idea for a book that I think will work. Eventually enough of it comes together that I feel compelled to start writing things down. And then more ideas start to flow, and I write compulsively until the book is finished.
My first novel, Mercury Falls, took me three years to write because I had no idea what I was doing. These days I usually finish a book in 6-8 weeks.
I usually start by writing up a very general outline that’s around five or six pages long. This is mostly just a list of plot points that I know I have to hit somehow to get to the conclusion of the book. Once that’s done, I start writing. I sort of edit as I go, which I know most authors consider a bad idea, but it seems to work for me. That is, I’ll write a few chapters, then go back and read what I’ve written and make sure it works in terms of continuity and pacing, make any necessary tweaks, and then write a few more chapters.
I usually find myself diverging from the outline pretty quickly, either because I’ve come up with a better way of getting where I need to go or because I can’t get my characters to do what I want them to do. I never force things; if the plot requires a character to do something that I realize he or she just wouldn’t do, the plot has to give way to the character. Usually this results in a more interesting story that what I had in mind, anyway.
I really don’t know how some people plan out their books in great detail; for me, I often don’t know exactly what a character is going to do until I write the scene. Humor writing in particular has to leave a lot of room for spontaneity: you can’t possibly plan all the opportunities for humor that are going to come up as the plot unfolds. Occasionally I’ll write myself into a corner, but somehow it always comes together in the end.
Because I read everything over so many times as I’m writing, it’s usually pretty clean by the time I’m done. After I write the final chapter, I read the whole thing over a few more times and then send it to three or four beta readers for feedback. After I incorporate their feedback, I’ll read it over once or twice more and then send it to my editor. After he’s done with it, it goes to the proofreader.
I’ve only had an actual development editor for two books, Starship Grifters and City of Sand; for the others, I’ve just had a copy editor (and for some of my self-published books, I’ve had to rely on my beta editors for copy editing and proofreading). So other than the occasional typo or minor continuity error, the final published version is usually almost identical to the version I have on my hard drive. This is one reason that self-publishing is so natural for me: I’ve always cared too much about the quality of the final product to trust an editor to catch my mistakes.
You combine history, science, and religion in your work. You’re also very outspoken on social media, whether the conversation is politics, social issues, or everyday human behavior. How much of what you write is disguised political or social commentary, and what do you most want to say or communicate with your writing?
This varies from one book to another, but for the most part I write to entertain, not to make any kind of serious point. Honestly, it’s hard enough just to write an entertaining novel without trying to “say” something. I did take some jabs at fundamentalist Christianity in Mercury Falls (leading many to conclude that I’m an atheist, which I find pretty funny), and Mercury Revolts is a not-very-subtle commentary on the modern surveillance state (leading one reader to complain about my “liberal politics,” which I find even funnier).
Usually I err on the side of subtlety, though. I envisioned Disenchanted in part as a satire of the publishing industry, something that absolutely no one seems to have picked up on. In the end, what the reader gets out of the book is out of the author’s control, so it’s mostly futile to try to push some kind of agenda. All you can really do is try to write an engaging novel and hope some truth gets through, one way or another.
What are your concerns, at this point, as a writer? What, if anything, causes you stress?
How many times can I just type the word “money”? Being a novelist is a very up and down business, which makes long-term planning extremely difficult. You’re constantly assessing short-term versus long-term rewards. Should I keep my day job, which gives me a steady income but severely limits the amount of time I have to write? Should I take this advance from a publisher, or should I forgo the short-term gain to make a higher royalty by self-publishing? Should I play it safe by writing a sequel to one of my existing books, or take a risk by writing an original book that could sell far more (or far fewer) copies?
The good news is that I have every reason to believe that in the long-term, I’m going to do just fine (thank God for residuals). But in the meantime, there’s a lot of nail-biting and watching the calendar.
5 Questions On Publishing
You write in Self-Publish Your Novel: Lessons from an Indie Publishing Success Story that after deciding you might be able to make a living as a writer, you knew would need more readers. You then set off on a campaign to find them, the details of which are in the book.
You present, immediately, as a business-minded person—and you even have web development experience, you note in the book. A person might think, “Well, of course someone with a head for business will succeed at self-publishing.” And maybe even, “Of course someone who is something of a natural on social media will sell books.”
What advice would you give self-publishers (or authors published by very small presses) who aren’t very right-brained or promotional-social? Can they succeed?
If you’re just starting out, you should focus 95% of your efforts on making your product the best it can possibly be. If this is your first novel, take your time. Put it down several times for a few weeks at a time and then read it over with a critical eye. Find beta readers who will give you honest feedback. Get an editor and proofreader. And for God’s sake, hire a professional cover designer.
If you can’t afford these people, offer to mow their lawn or do their laundry. You are competing in a very tough business with millions of other writers, many of whom are certified geniuses and who have whole teams of professionals on their side. Don’t put out a lousy product. And don’t forget that’s what your book is: to you it may be your baby, but to the strangers you’re trying to sell it to, it’s a product.
Don’t kid yourself with romantic notions about how much your book is “worth,” or how much demand there is for it. If you’re a first-time novelist no one has heard of, absolutely no one is going to pay six bucks for your book. Writer forums are full of authors no one has heard of who refuse to price their book below $4.99 because of some misguided idea that the price of a book should have something to do with how much effort went into it.
I recently heard a self-published author at a conference saying that she refused to sell digital copies of her books because she was worried about piracy. Meanwhile, literally in the next room over was Cory Doctorow (speaking to a far larger audience), who sells millions of books despite the fact that he makes the digital versions of all his books available for free on his website. That woman wasn’t afraid of piracy. She was afraid of failure. And if you’re not willing to risk failure, you are in the wrong business.
That said, if you’re a good writer, you work really hard to put out a quality product, and you are brutally honest with yourself about the business aspects of writing, there’s no reason you can’t succeed. Eventually. I was fortunate in that I released my first self-published novel, Mercury Falls, when there were relatively few ebooks on the market and (thanks to short-sighted publishers) most of the available books were overpriced. These days it’s a bit harder to get noticed. You can’t just publish a book, price it at 99 cents, and expect it to soar up the charts.
There are lots of things you can do to increase your visibility—blogging, being active on social media sites, doing contests and giveaways, sending copies of your book to reviewers, attending conferences and conventions, running promotions on sites like BookBub, participating in discussions on message boards, contributing to anthologies with other authors, etc.—but none of these are a silver bullet.
As the ebook market becomes more saturated, I’ve increasingly become a proponent of the idea that the best advertisement for your books is another book. The more books you have out, the more visible you are, and the more you look like a “real” author. And believe it or not, with practice you might also become a better writer, which is always helpful when trying to sell books.
If you’ve written one good book, write a sequel, or at least try to stay in the same genre. Keep the first book priced low or even give it away. Your strategy should be to get readers hooked on your writing and keep them coming back for more.
While you do this, work on building your email list. Set up a list using MailChimp (it’s free up to 2,000 email addresses). Put a prominent signup form on your blog, and send people to your blog posts from Facebook, Twitter, and wherever else you have an online presence. Also make sure you include a link to your signup form in the back of your ebooks. Your email list should be the center of your marketing efforts. These are your diehard fans; the ones who will buy every book you publish. Don’t spam your list with garbage (and don’t add people without their consent), but whenever you have a new book out or you’re doing some kind of promotion, email your list.
Some authors depend on Amazon or Goodreads to let readers know when an author they like has a new book out, but it’s a mistake to depend on a third party to drive your sales. Amazon is ultimately in business for itself, and you never know when its algorithms are going to change. Facebook offers a good object lesson on this subject. If you talk to any author who has been on Facebook for more than a year or two, you will probably hear horror stories about how much more difficult it is now to reach fans than it used to be. Don’t be a tenant farmer on someone else’s property. Your email list is your meal ticket.
Above all, keep in mind that being a successful writer is a marathon, not a sprint. If you publish a book, market it like crazy, and then sit there watching helplessly as languishes somewhere around 2 million in the Amazon rankings, don’t despair. Keep writing and keep building your email list. Evaluate your work and your marketing to determine what you did right and what you did wrong and make improvements where you can, but don’t obsess over failure. You can’t fail as long as you’re still moving in the right direction.
Why did you hold a Kickstarter campaign to independently publish City of Sand, and would you recommend others go that route (why or why not)?
I’ve done four Kickstarters for four different books. They’ve all been successful, raising between $3,500 and $5,300. I’m currently running one for two sequels to my humorous epic fantasy, Disenchanted. That one funded in four days, but it’s not too late to pledge if you want to get advance copies or other cool stuff. No, seriously. Go check it out. This interview will still be here when you get back. Here’s a line of tildes so you don’t lose your place:
Back? Good! There are a lot of advantages to doing a Kickstarter for a self-published book. First, you make some money in advance of the book release, instead of having to wait for several weeks after the book comes out. Second, it’s a good way to reach new readers, who can find you by browsing through projects on Kickstarter’s website. Third, it’s a way for dedicated fans to get more involved in the project and support you at a higher level.
I’m fortunate to have a small but very dedicated group of fans who love my work and want to see me succeed, and those people have no problem pledging money to get a signed book, or a poster, or a mention on the book’s acknowledgement page. It’s a fair amount of work to set up a Kickstarter, and how successful you are will depend largely on how big your fan base is and how well connected you are to them, either through your email list or social media connections, but it’s definitely a good way to go for most people.
You self-published Schroedinger’s Gat using Amazon’s independent services (CreateSpace, Amazon Digital). What was that experience like, sales and promotion-wise, compared to having one of Amazon’s traditional model imprints (47North) publish your work?
The tradeoff is pretty simple: if you self-publish, you have more control over the final product and pricing, and you generally make a much higher royalty as a percentage of the net price. But you also have to do your own editing, proofreading, cover design, and marketing—or hire someone to do any or all that stuff for you.
Whether that tradeoff is worth it depends mainly on:
- how much of a control freak you are;
- how much you like/dislike dealing with the business part of publishing; and
- how much you expect your publisher to do for you, particularly in terms of marketing.
Don’t assume you’re going to get tons of marketing/publicity support just because you’ve landed a publisher. Generally, the size of the advance the publisher is offering will give you a pretty good idea how hard they are planning to market the book. As my agent once told me, “If the book fails, you want somebody to get in trouble.” If a publisher is offering you less than $15,000, you’re probably better off walking away.
Your website includes a quote from a Huffington Post article by Laxmi Hariharan, who writes of you, “He likens the league of published authors to an elite night club, with gatekeepers, who decide who gets in and who does not.”
What inspired you to make that comparison, and what is it like (having since been traditionally published) to now be a member of that elite club? That is, do you have a different perspective of it than you once had?
The point of that remark was that self-publishing (and KDP in particular) offered a backdoor into what used to be a very exclusive and highly controlled business. These days, the club doesn’t really exist anymore. There are successful authors and unsuccessful authors. Nobody really cares anymore who is published by whom. I suppose there’s still some cachet to being with one of the better known publishers, but the vast majority of my readers don’t have any idea that some of my books are “self-published” and some are “traditionally published.” Nor should they. It makes no difference to them, as long as they enjoy the book.
How does a self-publishing advocate end up with 47North? I (maybe incorrectly) assume you weren’t looking for a publisher, so that relationship must have had an interesting beginning.
Well, what happened is that I shopped Mercury Falls around to a few agents in 2009, got frustrated with the tepid response, and decided to publish it myself. I was starting to hear stories about independent authors having a lot of success on the Kindle platform, so it seemed like a good time to try my hand at it.
My goal was to sell 1,000 copies of that book, and I ended up selling around 5,000. Then one day I got an email from an editor at AmazonEncore, which was Amazon’s first publishing imprint. They offered to re-publish Mercury Falls as an AmazonEncore title, and since my sales were dropping off at that point, I took the offer. That book went on to sell another 50,000 copies.
As Amazon’s publishing endeavor expanded, my books got moved to 47North, which is their sci-fi/fantasy imprint. I’ve published five more books with them since then. I continue to self-publish books as well, though, so it’s not quite accurate to say I’ve “ended up” with 47North. In fact, I recently started a publishing cooperative with several other authors called Westmarch Publishing. We help each other out with editing, cover design, and all the other tasks involved with publishing a book. We’ve already released 15 titles, and we’ve got a lot more slated for 2015.
I expect to continue publishing independently through Westmarch while continuing to work with traditional publishers on some books, depending on which makes more sense for the book in question. Oh, and did I mention you should check out the Kickstarter for my current Westmarch title?