Interview with science fiction author Darren Beyer
In this interview with Darren Beyer author of science fiction technothriller Casmir Bridge and former NASA space shuttle engineer, we talk about finding a target market, what it means when a book ‘fails’, overcoming crushing editorial feedback, and what’s been effective in building up an email list.
Lori Puma: I’d love to start with you telling me a little about how you got started as an author. When I was researching you, I noticed that you published two nonfiction books and your debut novel Casmir Bridge: A Science Fiction Technothriller all within the span of 8 months in 2016. I want to know how that happened. Did you have manuscripts sitting around? Did you write all of these within the course of the year?
Darren Beyer: Well, believe it or not, the two nonfiction were really easy. With nonfiction you’re putting words behind something that already exists. I don’t find that nearly as taxing as writing fiction. My first novel took me ten years plus to write. Now, part of that was I had not been an author leading up to that. I started writing back in the early 2000’s. I was a NASA space shuttle experiment engineer for about 10 years down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I wanted to bring some of those experiences to readers. Translating them to fiction was tough.
In my other life, I primarily categorize myself as a product development person. What I realized, and this may sound obvious, is that a book is a product. You have to follow the exact same process that you would follow in putting any other product to market. You’re designing it, building it, selling it in stores, et cetera, but many people miss this simple concept. I did when I started out, and I’m a product guy!
A lot of time first-time authors go out there and think, well I’ll just put the words down on the page and the story’ll go. They don’t think about the classic questions that you have to think about when you’re putting together a product. Which is: who’s my target market? Am I catering to that target market? What niche do I wanna be in? If you try and write something for everybody then nobody’s gonna really love it.
LP: Can you talk about how you figured out your target market? What kinds of things did you do to figure that out for your first novel?
DB: I didn’t realize that until I was almost done. That’s the most amazing thing about writing your first book. I started realizing and figuring out all of these things after I had gone through much of my journey.
LP: Was there a moment where you like, oh my God, I don’t have a target market. I need to figure that out?
DB: It is one of the funny things about how I’d written the book. I have two protagonists that have point of view roles in the book. One of them is a CEO-type, company guy. And the other is a woman, African-American woman reporter. As I was rewriting the book after [my editor] Victoria very nicely tore my first manuscript to shreds, I started looking at it and I realized that the storyline of the woman character was far more engaging and exciting than the male character’s was. I said, you know what, this isn’t about the male character, this is about the female character.
Then I started doing research on women in science fiction. And I think there’s a common conception out there that science fiction is a male-dominated genre. If you talk to a hundred men, and you talk to a hundred women, you’ll find that more men have read science fiction in the past year, however, when you look at the overall number of readers, you’ll find that women outnumber men. So the actual numbers of men and women who read science fiction is about equal. And I realized, wow, there’s actually a lot of women out there that are reading my genre, and I have a protagonist that is more relatable to them. That’s number one.
Then, number two, I came across a piece of research on the top 100 grossing science fiction and fantasy films. This guy had done this research on women and people of color as primary characters in movies. He found that of the 100, only 14 had a woman protagonist, and only 8 had a person of color as a protagonist. None of them had a woman, person of color in that role. And of those 8, by the way, 6 of them were Will Smith.
I realized that women and people of color are dramatically underrepresented in the genre. I didn’t make an African-American woman protagonist because of that. I was completely oblivious to that fact. I made it because she was a cool character and fit into the storyline. When I realized that fact, I was like, holy cow! I started writing articles and giving interviews around that. I found that I had a lot of women and minority readers who really appreciated it.
I wish I could say that I was just that forward thinking, but a lot that I did on this first book I stumbled into.
LP: Hahahaha. That’s a great segue. I’d like to talk with you about the marketing and promotion side of things. You say you stumbled into everything with your first book, but where you’re at now is pretty sophisticated. I actually made a list of all the marketing best practices that I noticed when I was researching you.
You’re giving away a free book for joining your mailing list
You’ve got a landing page dedicated to signing up for your mailing list
I saw you had a Goodreads giveaway
Your title not only includes your genre but also your subgenre
I got targeted with an Amazon keyword ads when I was looking up your books
And your covers are just really beautiful
I’d love to hear about the evolution of how all of those things came about. Starting with you realizing you’ve got this book that has a market that’s really underserved.
DB: Well, first off, understand that 80% of all products that hit a market, that’s any product, fails. And that ratio holds true for books. The vast majority of books that hit the market fail. So, let’s classify success or failure as selling 100 books.
LP: Oh, wow! That’s a really low bar. I’ve heard publishing experts setting the bar at 10,000. But 100, that’s really low.
DB: The vast majority of books that are published sell less than 100 copies. And the number one reason why any product fails is marketing. A combination of the package, the marketing campaigns that get the word out--there are so many things that go into appropriately marketing a product.
By and large, the number one reason that people buy a product, is the packaging. By far, the number one reason why people buy a book is the cover. I did this survey where I asked people to compare books and covers.
I expected that people would gravitate to the book with the best cover. I didn’t expect that when I put fictitious 400 reviews and a 4.5 star rating around a bad cover that it would lose to a good cover that had 3.5 stars and only twelve reviews. I mean, would you ever buy a book that had 3.5 stars and twelve reviews? I never would.
I went out and said, I’m gonna find the best cover artist I can find.
It was the same thing with finding my developmental editor, Victoria. I actually failed the first time around, by the way. I went out to find the best editor I could. I’m not gonna give his name. But he had worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including people like Walter Tevis and Stephen King. And I’m thinking, you know, this’ll be great. I’ll get the best. I’ll learn. And what came back was very limited. The feedback was lacking.
Being a person who’s somewhat self-aware, I said, either, I’m just a prodigy and hit this out of the park with my first at bat--I’m the best writer ever, or I didn’t get my money’s worth. I kinda figured that I didn’t get my money’s worth.
So I did a lot more research the second go. Luckily, I stumbled on Victoria Mixon. Victoria literally changed my life--she taught me so much. Her first feedback was very difficult to hear, and I was crushed. Literally, I didn’t touch the keyboard for two months.
LP: What kind of feedback was it that crushed you?
DB: First of all, I’ll say that it was all very constructively done. Victoria is very good about that. She has a very rigid set of rules. Rules around the numbers and archetypes of characters, naming conventions, the structure of the book.
How can you have rules? You’re writing this creative thing and you’ve gotta let your creativity be the driving factor, not some arbitrary set of rules! I’ll just give one example. The one that really got me had to do with character archetypes and naming conventions. What she said was you can have one younger female, one younger male. They don’t have to be kids, but they have to be young in relation to the other characters. You can have one male and female that are sort of in the middle and you can have one older male and female. You can have one ally who can be any of the above. You can have one antagonist, and perhaps a minion. Then you can have a half dozen or so named ancillary folks around the periphery. And I’m like, wow. That’s very restricting. And then none of the first names and last names can begin with the same letter.
As I said, I was crushed, and not writing. Then I began reading a self-published book where the character rules were broken. This book had two soldier guys, same age, and their names even both started with the letter C. And I found I was getting them mixed up. I kept having to go back a page or two to reread. This was one of those epiphanies.
I was like, God, I’m a moron. I’m a product development guy and I specialize in usability and user experience, and this is user experience and usability 101. You want to eliminate any confusion on the part of the user. Having names and these similar characters, similar in age, and gender, and even profession is confusing. And every time you add any element of confusion you risk losing a reader. That was the “Wow!” moment. I realized the other rules made sense, and I started in earnest on the rewrite. And not only did I start in earnest, but I was psyched to get going on it. That was October. I did a complete rewrite, edit, and launched in March.
LP: You said earlier that marketing is something that you’re struggling with. What does that really mean for you today?
DB: Well, marketing takes time and I don’t have time. And it takes money.
And that’s the thing that I think people don’t realize. You know that with the first book you publish, even if you do decently well, you’re probably not going to make money at it. You’ve gotta have multiple books and then what happens is that marketing carries over from one product to another. It’s important not to put out one book and think you’re going to be this super successful author, because that’s not gonna happen. It happened with Wool. It happened with The Martian. But those are just such rare exceptions.
Marketing is tough. As a product guy, I know a little bit about it, but marketing a book is tougher. Unlike many other products, readers build an emotional investment in books. So, the number one thing that you have to build is confidence in that reader. And there’s a lot of easy ways to do that. One is having a blog that relates to what you write about. Also, I’ve got an ebook, paperback, and a hardcover version of Casimir Bridge. I don’t expect to sell many hardcovers. The whole purpose of it is to breed confidence when somebody comes to that page on Amazon. And I’ve got an audiobook that should be coming out in the next month or two--now I’m gonna have four things at the top of that Amazon page. Each builds more and more confidence that I’m not some fly-by-night author--readers need confidence before they buy that their emotional investment will not be lost. And then there’s the cover. Beyond the “Hey, that looks cool, I really want to buy it,” it’s another confidence building factor. That you spent the time and effort to have a professional cover done, breeds confidence that your book is hopefully better edited, doesn’t have as many typos, that kind of thing.
The other thing that is absolutely critical is reviews. I think reviews above all else are important. Because if you go to a page and you see a book that’s got 15-20 reviews, I can call my friends and family and get 15-20 reviews. So, getting reviews is very important. Well, how do you do that? The answer is, you give away a crap-ton of books. Hopefully you can give some away before you launch and get those early reviews.
Let people know you’re looking for pre-reads and pre-release reviews so that when the book goes live you’ve got at least some already out there. During the first year that I launched the book, about every two to three weeks I’d give a signed hardcover copy away on Goodreads. I’d get somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people signing up for that. Then I’d put a handwritten sticky in there, right under where I signed the book, that would say “If you like the book, please consider putting a review on Amazon or wherever you shop for your books.” I also joined Kindle Unlimited program on Amazon, which allowed me to do giveaways. I gave away thousands of copies.
A marketing company that I’ve been working with recently says that the magic number to get those reviews to is 200, and the reason it’s 200, is because that’s when BookBub starts to look at you. And if you can get going on BookBub and get into one of their deals, that can be a game changer.
LP: Could you talk about how you’re email list fits in with everything else you’re doing?
DB: Building an email list is critical, and something I got a really late start with. It’s important because if you have dedicated readers, then when you put out your next book you can expect a really high conversion of selling that book off of that email list. It’s a way to get the word out, and for your fans to get to know you.
I’ve wasted a lot of money on marketing, but found a couple good marketing companies that are helping me out. One of them is a list building company. What they’ll do is they pull together genre related authors and books and they’ll say, hey, we’re having a contest, sign up and agree to have your email go out to these authors. One person gets all of the books and 14-15 people get a couple of the books each.
I found that to be a good way to build a list. They’re not as useful as people who have signed up on your website because they’re not quite as engaged, but they’re still nice to have. You don’t get too much of a dropoff when you send that first email out. So, I’ve picked up a couple thousand people on my email list that way.
The last time I did a free promotion it was with a company that marketed the book to all the free book sites on my behalf, and also helped with keywords, categories and text on Amazon. I beat the number of free books given away in the better of my two previous promotions by a factor of 10. I ended up getting about 10,000 books given away, about 80,000 paid page reads on Kindle Unlimited, and I sold about 1,000 books. And there were even a few things that could’ve been done better.
So, I’m doing another one of those in the next month. I’ll be changing up and doing a lot more pre-promotion on it and I’m expecting even better results. I got about half my money back on the first one. And you might say, well that’s not very good. But it was the first go. And the second one is going to cost about half as much and we’re going to be doing it better. So I actually expect to make money on this go-round. That may not be available to everybody but there are tons of those book sites out there where you can advertise your free or discounted book. It’s so important to get out to every single one of those you can find. Plan your giveaway well ahead of time. Promote it on Twitter, social media, your website, etc. And then get out there and do your promotion and get as many people coming in as you can. That’s probably one of the more effective things that I’ve done.
LP: Where can people go to get more info about you and hear about your upcoming release?
DB: They can go to my website darrenbeyer.com to sign up for my email list and get news on book two in the Angahazi series Desolation Bridge (to be released in early 2018).