Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Guest Post by Dale T. Phillips and Vlad V.

Giving Our Way to Success- by Dale T. Phillips and Vlad V.

Giving comes back around. Tess Gerritsen sparked the giving circle with so much of her time, energy, and money to aid Alzheimer's research – so it's nice that I got to thank her in person at Bouchercon, the world mystery conference.

On this site, Joe upped the ante with his guest post offer, raising even more funds – while helping writers at the same time – so we’d like to say “thank you” for this opportunity. We've been reading this blog and others like it for years, and a big part of our going Indie is due to pioneers like Joe – many of which you'll see mentioned on this blog from time to time. People like Dean Wesley SmithKristine Kathryn RuschDavid GaughranLaura ResnickBob MayerJoanna PennVincent ZandriJude Hardin and Russell Blake have shared their journeys and experiences, and it's helped us to find our own paths in the new world of publishing. These folks and others, like Jane Friedman and The Passive Guy, offer incredibly useful advice to Indies for free. It's a lovely cooperative world.

Vlad V. and I are serious about our long-term writing careers, and we’ve found outstanding value in cooperation. For us, giving is the new way to achieve success.

As writers, we all give our stories to the world. We have to – without the sharing, we're nothing. Sure, we hope for some sort of return, some acknowledgment that what we present has value to others, and though we aspire to take care of our families while writing full-time, many of us would keep telling and sharing stories if we never saw another dime from it.

But the Indie writing life can be isolating and sometimes depressing, especially when you’re struggling with sales, or when your manuscript just isn’t turning out the way you’d like it to. Collaborating can be the solution to keeping your Indie fire stoked and white-hot. By working together for mutual advantage, we’ve made more traction in the last two years than we did in all the time of going solo and through traditional avenues. We had heard time and again about the value of collaboration, but it wasn’t until a few of us began our own informal group that the advantages really started to emerge.

Sharing With Others Can Save You Money
Indies should be frugal, and many (like us) are striving for success on shoestring budgets. Collaborating can help you avoid financial mistakes, such as overpaying for cover design. One author at a show was brandishing his “great” book cover that he'd paid “only” $2000 for (think Barry Eisler’s infamous “Green Garage Door” cover). Had he used one of our cover artists, he'd have got his cover – or a better one – at a quarter of the price.

Another big expense is editing. Working with other writers allows us to reduce the number of for-pay editing rounds we go through before a manuscript is publication-ready. While we still use professional editors in the final stages, we weed out many of the weaknesses in our early drafts, and thus minimize our financial outlay later on.

There are caveats here, however. First, be willing to give. When a collaborator sends you a manuscript, do your absolute best to find ways to improve it, because when another writer sees how much you care about theirsuccess, they care more about your success. It’s a two-way street.

Second, work with writers who are equal or more advanced than you are in some aspect(s) of the craft, because that’s how you get better. For example, Vlad is great at writing dialogue, while Dale’s pacing is meteoric, and we’ve both learned from one another in a variety of other ways. Your local writing group might be a good place to start, but only if they're up to par. That’s a subjective decision you’ll have to make for yourself – but you can always start your own group and be picky about who you choose to work with. Maybe only the cream of the crop in your local (or online) writer’s group would be interested in joining a more serious collaborative. There is often a correlation between a writer’s knowledge of the craft and how seriously you should take their opinion, so surround yourself with the best writers you can find who want it just as badly as you do, and who are passionate about their work. Their skills are likely to rub off on you, and vice-versa.

Third, be honest. Many writing groups are too soft, and mere flattery doesn’t help a professionally-oriented writer. This is a tough business that requires a thick skin, so don’t be afraid to take off the gloves, provided your insights are constructive and will improve the work. In our group, we tend to give short summations of what we like about a piece in 2-3 sentences, followed by an in-depth analysis of its weaknesses, which may go on for many pages. Blunt honesty is abundant, and while it might be hard to accept, we try not to take it too personally, because the feedback invariably improves the work.

Diversification helps, too, so collaborate with a variety of writers. Don’t limit your group to one genre. Vlad has a pair of horror publications out, and his latest, The Button, is Science Fiction. Later this year, he'll release his books for kids. Dale has a mystery series, a horror thriller, and story collections in a number of different genres. Exposure to other genres expands the skill sets and techniques available to you as an artist. For example, can your Action-Thriller featuring John Q. Mightystrong be given more depth with an intricate backstory, not unlike what you found in My Lesbian Breasts, Jane’s character-based women’s novel about two lovers suffocated by the social stigmas of the Deep South in the 1820s? Perhaps John Q. Mightystrong will be strengthened as a character.

Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” so it behooves all writers to expose themselves to as many skill sets as they can, as often as they can.

We’ve found that cross-promotion can help build more buzz for author events. Are readers going to flock to a local bookstore to meet a single author they might not have heard of? Probably not, but they may come for half a dozen or more. Collaboration can extend your reach to readers and other industry players that you might not have had access to when you’re doing all this solo.

When we find a new opportunity, we let the others know about it, too. Many have scored new interviews, bookstore appearances, reviewers, and signing opportunities we may not have heard about otherwise.

Want to work with groups of people who will help get the word out about your works? Use libraries, who are having a tough time in the modern book world. Joe's developing a program to get quality self-pub and Indie e-books into more libraries, a great thing. Dale connected with librarians while signing books at the Boston Book Fair, and was told how big publishers are screwing libraries with higher fees and more restrictions. So he offered his e-books to them for free, and 8 of his releases are now in a statewide pilot program, available in over 50 libraries. That's over 400 more chances for someone to find his work! And because of a comment on this blog, Dale contacted the Douglas County Library System, part of Joe's program, and has been accepted there as well. And where he gets in, he helps others of quality to do the same…

A great way to cross-promote is to write for charity. Dale gave a story to Nightfalls, a charity anthology edited by Katherine Tomlinson, which got him more connections and exposure. Using that idea, we're working with a local charity to produce a book of stories from a handful of local writers, of which all proceeds will benefit the charity. They'll promote us through a mailing list of 10,000+, as well as through their website and at live fundraising events, and we'll get people checking out our work, while supporting a great cause. Win-win, through collaboration!

We'll try anything to see if it helps. Giveaway bags are something we've done at a couple of big signings. Instead of simple flyers and business cards that end up in the recycling bin, we up the ante. Interested readers who stop by and chat get a bag of various goodies: candy, a free book or two, an inexpensive booklight, whatever. Hey, they do it at trade shows. We've had a number of delighted recipients, who tell others, and since our marketing info is built right in, it’s led to repeat readers. Get a few writers each tossing in a treat, and you can get folks at a big show buzzing about your table. Not something you'll want to do every time, but a fun way of getting people to know your name and check you out.

Big publishers pay a lot of money to distribute ARCs in the hope of reviews, but as Indies, we do giveaways of e-books. The small press that published Dale's first mystery novel put it up as a giveaway e-book for a few months, long after its debut. With almost no promotion, over 3400 new people downloaded it, and even though many are Kindle-stuffing, he’s bound to get some new readers from those, who will go on to buy his other works... But imagine the horror from a big publisher if you were to give away thousands of copies!

Even print can cost so little now for short works that it can be used for giveaways as well. By combining efforts with other authors, you can extend your promotional reach to a wider variety of readers.

We’ve also found that cross-promotion naturally leads to cross-selling, which has been a boon for us at live events. When a reader approaches us, and we don’t have what they’re looking for, we send them on to someone who does. We’ve seen more than one author push their book on a customer based on what the customer said they liked … even though that book had nothing to do with the customer's preference. It makes us cringe, because at the end of the day, it’s better to give readers what they want, rather than deceiving them into a sale. At best, they’ll never come back to your brand, and at worst, they’ll bad-mouth your work to others.

Our host Joe does few public events anymore, but we’ve found that these live events have been more productive for us than online ventures, at least so far, because our fan base is still growing. We prefer the personal connections and have enjoyed the book shows and signings, where we can talk to new readers and get more people interested in our work. We’ve been building our fan base and list of email contacts one person at a time.

Forced Improvement
There are few things as satisfying to a writer as seeing his or her book in print after working so hard to bring a story from idea to publication, and the urge to hit the ‘publish’ button can be overwhelming. Collaboration can keep you from pulling the trigger too early.

After you’ve found your circle of collaborators and have begun to trust their judgment, hear them out. Both A Shadow on the Wall by Dale and The Button by Vlad were delayed by several months, because they needed concentrated work to make them much more than just good enough. But try telling a major publishing house you're not delivering on schedule, because you've got to kick the quality up a few more notches. They'd rather have the next-quarter profits, not the long-term book quality.

Baby Steps
Self-publishing isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s a long, lonely, cross-country journey (think Lord of the Rings) with fifty pounds of gear on your back, and perils all around. Collaboration makes the highs and lows of such a long journey bearable, and yes, even enjoyable. Writing is, after all, a manic endeavor, so when you can see the mountaintop, but all you’re able to do is go another few feet up the slope, know that it's okay, because you’re making progress.

Collaboration helps us understand what works and what doesn’t work for other writers, so we can refine our own methods. Some writers can write 2,000 words a day, every day, 365 days a year. The rest of us have busy lives with day jobs, family, school, and whatever else might pop up. There’s a ton of writing advice out there, the Do’s and Don'ts from the greats, right down to your dear Aunt Betty. Writing every day is a big one. Can you write every day? Maybe not, but what you can do is further your career right now by taking baby steps that will help you eventually reach the mountaintop. Instead of berating yourself for missing a deadline, or feeling overwhelmed because you’re falling behind on your blog, focus on what you can do to further your career at this very moment.

Reading, keeping tabs on the industry, writing, tweeting your brand, scribbling notes, editing – they are all necessary to get you where you want to go. Yes, by all means, familiarize yourself with the “rules” of writing, but don’t be afraid to tailor them to your lifestyle, and discard the ones that are impractical for you.

Wrapup and Pitch

We're the pilots, not the passengers, in this new world of publishing, and we get to say where the plane is going. By continuing to write, publish and collaborate, someday we'll move up to Abundant Airlines. Joe has talked about mastering your fate in his collaboration with Barry Eisler, Be the Monkey. We're following their lead. Work with others, folks. Big publishing is about competition, but self-publishing is about cooperation and collaboration.

So you want to know what we're offering to share with you, right?

Check out Dale's horror thriller, Shadow of the Wendigo,

or the story collections listed on his website:

Drop him an email (, tell him which book you want, and he'll send you a code for a free copy on any e-book platform (via

Or if you'd rather have a good action mystery, try his first one, A Memory of Grief, dropped to 1.99 on Kindle.

Vlad is offering The Button, his brand-new Sci-fi/Thriller, free to readers here for the entire month of April on any e-book platform.

Visit this Smashwords page:
and purchase The Button using coupon code: GS83H

Thank you for reading!

Dale T. Phillips –
Vlad V. -


Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Great post, Dale and Vlad! My bestseller, Karma of the Silo, is a tie-in with Hugh Howey's WOOL, so I completely agree with your ideas about collaborating, cross-promoting, and giving back to the Indie community, as well as readers in general.

Thanks for guest posting and for contributing to the worthy cause Tess supports.

Katherine James said...

Interesting post... !

I've been using bartering to get much of the work for my ebooks done. Swapping writing & web design skills for free cover design and such.

The work involved in getting my self-publishing projects off the ground have truly made me appreciate that... "Self-publishing isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s a long, lonely, cross-country journey..."

Vlad Vaslyn said...


First, thanks so much for reading!

Secondly, I have WOOL on my summer reading list already, so I just added your book to my Goodreads "to-read" list as well.

I look forward to it! :-)


Vlad Vaslyn said...


I agree, but the journey will be worth it in the end, right? Fingers crossed ...


Betsy Fitzgerald said...

Vlad and Patrice ... agreed on all points! Collaboration and cross-promoting is key! I'm just launching my award-winner NEELIE'S TRUTH on May 1, and it will indeed take a village. Just discovered Newbie, and love it!

Vlad Vaslyn said...


Congratulations on your new book! This is indeed a valuable site for self-pubbers. I've been reading it for years, and can't tell you how much it has helped me, so stick around! :-)


Ellen Larson said...

Gotta love reading advice that is actually doable. Thanks, Dale and Vlad. The news that libraries are feeling squeezed is particularly interesting. Making ebooks free to libraries is the best promotion I've heard in a long time.

J.R. Pearse Nelson said...

What a great post! I haven't collaborated on a book yet, but I have a great group of authors I trust to read my work before publication.

The only thing I'd add is that it is SO MUCH FUN to share your writing that deeply with others! My author friends are a great help with structure problems and character arc issues -- stuff that other readers might not spot, but that once it is there, makes a book sing. And other authors understand the process...sharing that is invaluable on this often lonely road.

Keep having fun! :)

Vlad Vaslyn said...


Trust is key, and so are the pre-pub revisions from people who are vested in your future and want to see you succeed.

One of my biggest takeaways has been learning what works for others in a variety of ways. For instance, I wasn't a business-oriented person until a few years ago, at which point I had to make a decision: publish or perish? It was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that going Indie is running a small business. Once I started thinking that way, however, I started making progress. I still have a loooong way to go, but the support structure has been vital.

And it gives me people to drink with.


Dale T. Phillips said...

Thanks everyone, for reading and commenting. And to Papa Joe for hosting this shindig. We're already getting congrats from friends, and some downloads.
Funny about the Wool connection, as Hugh Howey has been another huge influence to Indies as well. I've started Wool because of that, and am amazed at the great writing. Will certainly check out a tie-in to that!
Yeah, where writing used to be lonely, now we can interact with our community of like-minded people.
Spider Robinson said it best: shared pain is diminished, shared joy is increased.

So let's keep sharing our stories for greater success.

Unknown said...

Great post. Thanks, Dale, Vlad and Joe. I've learned a lot. I used to have a great critique group, but the leader moved away (and died!) and I moved too. Try as I do, I can't find writers who care as much about writing quality fiction. Often, when I suggest an improvement, they say, "Oh, it doesn't matter, because I'm going to self-publish it."

Alex P said...

Thanks for the insights. Although I'm not an author, it's interesting to see the behind the scenes interactions that can help authors become successful. Banding together is a good message.

Especially appreciate the code to Vlad's book, looking forward to reading that one quite a bit!

Vlad Vaslyn said...


UGH! That's the worst. If anything, it's MORE important to strive to be better than traditional because, while the self-pub stigma is weakening, it still exists. That alone is reason enough to push yourself as an artist.

I've come across some of that as well. One writer in a group I was in suggested an improvement to another. The response: "That's just too much work." I may have groaned.


Vlad Vaslyn said...


Thanks so much. I'm glad you found it interesting, and I hope you enjoy my book!


Anonymous said...

"One author at a show was brandishing his “great” book cover that he'd paid “only” $2000 for (think Barry Eisler’s infamous “Green Garage Door” cover). Had he used one of our cover artists, he'd have got his cover – or a better one – at a quarter of the price."

$500 is still over the top - that's Damonza/ Jason Gurley territory.

Dale T. Phillips said...

Anonymous- if you've got a source for quality, lower-priced covers, done to your timeframe and satisfaction, why not share the source here? Sharing good resources- that's part of our message. :-)
Our designer works with the author to produce a cover reflective of the contents, delivers fast, and gives you three versions- ebook, print (front, back, and spine formatting), and a squared version for ACX (audio). The whole process can take 10 hours or more, so $50 an hour for pro work seems fair to us. As always, for Indies it's great to comparative shop, and take advantage of any bargains. We have found that some in-demand designers are booked far in advance, so getting them to deliver to your schedule is key.

Alan Tucker said...

Dale and Vlad, so glad you two are finding success together!

Collaboration and personal interaction are things I wish I had more of. Living in a smaller community certainly has its perks, but one drawback is finding like-minded folks to share with. I am involved with a group of local authors trying to get a small conference/book swap going this summer. Hopefully it will be a hit and we can make it a regular thing!

Vlad Vaslyn said...


Thank you for reading and responding!

Working with other authors is very helpful for local "live" events. Consider coordinating your promo efforts beforehand to maximize participation though. Libraries are usually open to posting flyers and the like, but don't forget about local businesses that get a lot of foot traffic too. It's work and it's not targeted marketing per se, but it can be done fairly cheaply.

Also, you may want to consider linking with a local charity and doing a raffle for the event. If you make a good contact and supply them with a nice digital flyer to send out to their mailing list, then you might get some interest. You could also consider donating a percentage of your book sales to the charity leading up to the event, so that people who can't attend can still support both you and the charity from afar. Just some ideas! :-)

Peter Spenser said...

On the upside: there’s a lot of good advice here.

On the downside:

Dale should have paid more attention to one of your own important statements (“Collaboration can keep you from pulling the trigger too early.”). I was all ready to purchase—not even go for the freebie—his book, Shadow of the Wendigo, until I read over the Book Description on Amazon and came across “We have the heroes journey…”

O.K. I understand that mistakes happen, but that’s why one has to check things out thoroughly. This is not one typo in a 100,000-word novel. This is basic language mistake in only 133 words whose sole purpose is to convince us to buy the book. And you can’t even get that right? Then why should I spend my time and money on it? There are too many other books to read and not enough time as it is.

Come on, guys! Practice what you preach. If you can’t do it yourself—even if you think that you can—put a fresh pair of eyes on the work.

Dale T. Phillips said...

Peter, thanks for the correction- I'll go make that. One of the advantages of our path. Perfect example of why other eyes are important- because we can all make mistakes.

Unknown said...

I’ve known Dale and Vlad for two years. One benefit to the collaboration they practice is that it fosters a tremendous sense of community, which is a unique gift in the solitary world of writing. Their process helped me with a career that was stuck in the mud. Now that it’s moving (baby steps count), I can help others. It’s the way things are supposed to be.

Anonymous said...


There are loads of good designers who charge far less than $500. A cover shouldn't be about what an author wants - authors rarely know what's good for them. It should be able what you need.

Check out, in no particular order:

Cormer Covers by Yoly ($100 for eBook and print -

Humble Nations by James (from $99 -

Yocla Designs by Clarissa Yeo ($120 for eBook and print) -

And, as I said, if you've got cash to splash then Damonza ($495) -

Or Adrijus ($499) -

or Jason Gurley ($650+)

That's just a tiny fraction of the number of highly qualified, talented designers available for the same money or less. All six of those have some marquee clients. All of them know market expectations.

I believe Carl, Joe's designer is in the same price bracket as the last 3 too - and you can't say he hasn't got the design chops (

Of course, $500 might be entirely reasonable for a work for hire, or for something using custom art, custom photoshoots.

Vlad Vaslyn said...

Thanks for those links, Anonymous! Very nice and very helpful! I checked them out and there is some nice work out there.

We should've been clearer, however: $500 for a cover is definitely on the high end if it doesn't include custom artwork.

Dale T. Phillips said...

Anonymous, great- thanks for the links! Excellent way to add value for everyone here, who now have more options for their next cover, and can save some cash.
Here's an idea someone can run with- how about a "Link(s) of the Day" where a site offers something different each day for their list. All kinds of helpful tips and places to check out, and it would drive traffic to your site and provide connections with other writers.

Anonymous said...

With regard to Peter Spenser's previous comment on the text "We have the heroes journey" (vs. "We have the hero's journey"), perhaps worth pointing out that without the context--which he didn't bother to give--both phrases are OK.

If you're going to be a smart ass, perhaps be smart about it?

Penny Taylor said...

Great post and it makes so much sense. Now I must show my ignorance. What is Kindle-stuffing?

Dale T. Phillips said...

P Taylor- Thanks! Kindle-stuffing is from those folks who download every free book they see, far more than they'll read for many years to come, if ever. A lot of the books downloaded from those people may not get read. While most of us have a fair number in our to-be-read Kindle queue, they have hundreds, or thousands. But we love 'em just the same...