What I’ve learned from writing a monthly serial

tamsin flowers alchemy xiiDecember 1 sees the publication of the thirteenth (!) and final instalment of my monthly serial, Alchemy xii. I feel proud of myself. Each and every episode has been published on time (December is already uploaded and available for pre-order) and I’ve written, edited, had beta-ed, formatted, uploaded and scheduled 200,000 words of the epic BDSM love story of Harry Lomax and Olivia Roux. Not to mention designing 18 covers—for individual episodes, quarterly omnibus editions and for the entire collection.

It’s pretty much all done and dusted. So how do I feel?

Exhausted.

It’s been a twelve-month rollercoaster of the most vertiginous learning curves in writing, publishing and marketing. And the big question for me is, if I knew in December last year what I know now, would I still have embarked upon the project?

So, what have I learned along the way?

  1. If you’re writing a serial, write way, way further ahead than you think you need to. I would even go far enough to suggest that you get the entire serial written before you publish the first episode. Did I do that? No. I started off writing about two months ahead of schedule, which was pretty much cutting it fine. I needed to allow time for all the multiple steps that needed to be completed between writing and publication, particularly giving my beta readers plenty of time. Thing started off fine but the year seemed to get busier and busier. My schedule drifted. By the time I finished Alchemy xii – December last week, I was down to days rather than months. One more month and I’d have come a cropper for sure…
  2. If plotting’s important for a novel, it’s even more critical for a serial. I’m a plotter. I don’t write anything by the seat of my pants. I’ve written posts on my love of plotting. So what happened here? I set out to write 13 novellas in 12 months with probably the flimsiest of plotlines I’ve ever devised. Secondary characters and sub-plots? I was so excited about the concept, I forgot the nuts and bolts. Until I had to start writing. Suddenly I was plotting by the seat of my pants. Secondary characters walked on stage and introduced themselves in the nick of time, MacGuffins materialised with no apparent purpose and at the beginning of each episode, I’d scratch my head, untangle the plotlines of the previous episode and edge them forwards a little more… It was scary and it was liberating. Characters grew and developed month on month and gradually the mists cleared and I knew how everyone would arrive at the same point at the end. But if you’re going to write a serial, take it from me—work out your plotlines for the whole series before you start. And those MacGuffins? Luckily, they all came home to roost most satisfactorily.
  3. When you’re writing an ongoing serial, you can be responsive to your readers. But do you want to be? It could be a dangerous road to start down. I received some feedback to the first couple of episodes complaining that my characters didn’t use condoms and that they smoked. It would have been easy to change this in subsequent episodes, but I resisted. I’d made a conscious decision about both of these things, so I wasn’t going to let myself be swayed. On the other hand, I did take note of which of the secondary characters were proving most popular with readers, and I allowed their roles to grow larger—this was something that the ongoing plotting allowed for.
  4. Beta readers are the best, most wonderful and precious people in the world. I don’t think I would have made it to the end of this epic if it hadn’t been for the huge love and encouragement I had from my three main beta readers, Malin James, Delilah Night and Jade A Waters. Seriously, I owe these women a 200k-word debt of gratitude. So, believe me, if you find good beta readers, coddle them, indulge them, give them anything they ask for…
  5. Formatting is easy and I don’t know why people make such a fuss about it. The fact that I had to do my own formatting (and covers) was a no brainer. With 18 editions to be made ready for publication over the course of 12 months, it wouldn’t have been financially viable for me to pay someone else to do it. But actually, for straightforward fiction, there’s no real reason to involve anybody else. How did I learn to format? I downloaded The Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker. It’s step-by-step formatting for the technically challenged, which I certainly am, and I followed its instructions each and every time I formatted a new episode. And it was easy. And quick. (That may not be the case if your book contains illustrations, photos, tables etc – these certainly make formatting more complex.)
  6. Marketing is essential. Marketing is f**king hard. Apparently you should spend about 20 percent of your time writing and the other 80 percent of it marketing what you write. That sounds about right to me. However, if you spend 100 percent of your time writing just to keep up with your own self-imposed deadlines… What can I say? Marketing is hard graft and you need to expend an awful lot of energy doing it, especially if you self-publish. And it’s not that much fun, putting yourself out there and pushing your product into people’s faces. So I didn’t do much marketing for Alchemy xii. Which is why probably most of you reading this have never heard of it before. I can’t give you any gems of wisdom about how to market your book and what really works, because I suck at marketing.
  7. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. Self-publishing isn’t hard. Once you’ve mastered formatting, the rest is a doddle. But don’t kid yourself—pressing ‘Publish’ on Amazon or Smashwords is not a fait accompli. It’s just the beginning. You can’t sit back and wait for the sales to role in. You need to get busy marketing—see point 6 above. And if you’re self-publishing in erotica, it’s even tougher, because Amazon will keep your books invisible in their search engine. Visibility, or lack thereof, is a huge issue for self-published erotica that doesn’t include the word ‘stepbrother’ in the title! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t do it. Some people are hugely successful at it. But this all ties back to my point 1—get the writing out of the way so you have time for the marketing.

So would I do it all again?

Writing and publishing Alchemy xii has been massively rewarding for me, if not financially, certainly intellectually and emotionally. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have prepared better and marketed harder. But it’s not over. The whole series has just become available and I know that there are plenty of readers that won’t commit to a series until they know it’s all done. So now’s the time for another big marketing push (or a first big marketing push, to be more accurate) and we’ll see where it goes from here.

 

Author: Tamsin Flowers

Erotica writer publishedd by Cleis Press, Xcite Books, Totally Bound & Go Deeper Press

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5 Comments

  1. As you already know, Tamsin, I am a massive fan of the Alchemy xii series, and have been avidly waiting for each monthly episode to appear. Now that the last one will soon be out, I am not looking forward to saying goodbye to the series, and especially to the naughty, but incredibly attractive and sexy Harry. I might have to re-read the whole series again.

    The point you made about readers disapproving about things such as smoking and such like; don’t people understand the meaning of the word ‘fiction’? It makes me so irritated. I once had a reviewer take off a star from my review because she did not approve of a secondary character’s extra-marital affair!

    Thanks again for a wonderful series (even though I haven’t yet read December, I’m sure you won’t let us down for that one. Now you should have a good rest!

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    • Thank, Rachel. Yes, apparently there are some readers that completely disapprove of cheating, even in fiction, which seems a little extreme! Anyway, I hope you enjoy December! Tamsin xoxoxox

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  2. I was inspired to try and emulate Tamsin when I saw her early promotion for Alchemy xii. Unlike her I had a completed work that I thought would lend itself to the episodic format. But still found the re editing, formatting, cover production and website creation and maintenance to be significant.
    I did a very basic Cost-Benefit analysis using a pay point midway between the UK minimum and living wage, this has been applied to an average project; it went as follows.
    Writing 120,000 word first draft, a little over £1,000 (rounding down to make the numbers easier).
    Proofing and editing to final draft with the usual tidying up and inserts etc., £120. Cover art, formatting using Smashwords Meatgrinder Guide and uploading to Samshwords and Amazon Direct platform £120. Putzin with e-mails and chit chat admin with beta readers/editors £60. Oversimplified total, £1,300 production cost.
    Using Tamsin’s 80:20 Pareto Principal rule, marketing time would cost another £5,200. Overall project cost: £6,500.
    E-book unit sale price, say £6.50 ( really making the numbers work here 😉 )
    Selling through Amazon Direct @ 70% royalty rate income per unit around £4.55. Unit sales to cover costs? 1,429 e-book sales before a penny of profit is turned on time invested.
    The return on our investment (ROI) of talent, time, blood, skull-sweat and lots of tears is not pretty to contemplate.
    What is my point, you ask?
    I don’t know. I enjoy writing. It is soul satisfying. But would I pay £6,500 for a warm ego glow to a therapist when it would buy me a very nice luxury cruise in the sun?
    I still write, and enjoy it. I still self publish, simply to have a product, an intangible but still real outcome of my imagination exist. But I don’t pretend it is ever going to make any contribution to my material well being, so I don’t invest more than the absolute minimum.
    I put my effort and work into other ventures that give a better ROI that might allow me to indulge myself in writing.

    Pretty depressing take on the craft, sorry.

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    • Hi – and thanks for taking the time with that comment. Certainly, I haven’t dared work out the numbers like that – although having not put in the hours on marketing, at least they don’t factor as a cost. But as you say, I think it’s really tough to make writing pay through self-publishing, although some people do. But it still gives me a huge amount of satisfaction and pleasure. xoxox

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