Speculative fiction and action adventure author Kyle Pratt joins us this week to talk about his journey from newbie to bestselling author, his popular post-apocalyptic series Strengthen What Remains, and the value of writers’ critique groups.
Kyle discovered his love reading and writing in the 8th grade when he read Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. He continued to write short stories and articles during his career in the military, publishing a few nonfiction pieces, but it wasn’t until he joined a critique group that he really started to develop his craft and ultimately discovered indie publishing.
After he retired from the military, Kyle retrained in education and took a job teaching up in the Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo village of Eek, population 300, where he completed his first novel Titan Encounter, a space opera. He published the book in 2012 and sold 86 copies that year. He was thrilled.
Kyle published his next book Through Many Fires, the first in his post-apocalyptic action adventure series Strengthen What Remains, in late 2013, selling 8,000 copies in three months. He’s since followed that with A Time to Endure (Book 2) and Braving the Storms (Book 3), as well as a few short stories.
Marketing and Promotion
The immediate sales success of Through Many Fires was surprising due to the lack of marketing. Kyle suspects its success was due in part to the huge popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction genre, but he didn’t write the book to take advantage of a trend. “I like this genre,” he says. “I want to write something in it. Can I get that kind of closeness? Can I draw the reader in? And that’s what I tried to do. And hopefully, it worked.”
Kyle admits he probably lost a lot of readers when he first published because he didn’t have CTAs or links or a mailing list. Today, he has all those things in place, including two BookBub ads under his belt.
While he did experiment with discounting books for free, Kyle reports he no longer does this as he doesn’t feel like it corresponds to a noticeable movement in sales like he sees from paid promotions. When he ran a BookBub ad for Book 2 of his series, he sold 4,000 copies the first day, another 800-900 copies of Book 1, as well as saw a corresponding bump in sales in Book 3. He also noted that upward movement carry over to his other titles.
The exception, Kyle says, is short stories. Short stories don’t sell very well for him, so he uses websites like Noisetrade andSmashwords to publish short stories. Smashwords allows authors to give out free coupons, which Kyle offers to his email subscribers. He also has short stories available for free on Noisetrade, a platform that will collect emails in exchange for free downloads.
Kyle has all of his titles available through Audible. It was his son who convinced him to pursue it, although he fully expected to lose everything they invested. However, in the first year he sold 30 copies; the next year, it was 510; then 2,600; and so far this year alone, he’s sold 500 in 2 months.
Unfortunately, he says, there’s not much you can do in the way of marketing audible books. All you can do is watch the numbers. The fact that authors can’t control prices is one of the biggest limitations of the Audible platform. Nevertheless, Kyle says it’s been worth it; some months he makes more in Audible royalties than he does from his digital book sales.
“I definitely believe that becoming part of a critique group where people are willing to say to you in a kind way, but a definite way, ‘No, this isn’t working, you need to improve here,” that has made a huge difference in my writing.”
Kyle joined his first critique group over 10 years ago and is still a participating member. He’s also started a smaller separate group. Kyle says they meet weekly in person, sometimes spending several hours getting through all the participants’ submissions.
“I’ve read a number of books on how to write,” Kyle says, “but having somebody sit down and explain it to me in my own stories how I did it well, how I didn’t quite hit it, how I could do it better, or where it just went horribly wrong, that’s where I really learn.”
Advice for Newbies
“Well, there definitely is the quality of being willing to learn and improve your craft. So often I’ve met authors that they think they have this perfect story, and there is no perfect story. It can always be improved. So be willing to learn so you know how to do that. But beyond that, I would say, you need to stick with it. Like I mentioned early on in this show, the first year I sold 86 books. I could have quit right then, and that would have been the end of it. Each year since then, my book sales have gone up significantly, and I expect if I stay on track, I’m going to sell 14,000, 15,000 books this year. Now there’s, of course, a lot of people who sell a lot more, but 86 was what I thought was great that first year. But I stuck with it. And because I’m doing the other things — sticking with it, developing the mailing list, developing other stories, learning, improving my craft — I think I’m reaping the benefits of both the willingness to learn and a willingness to stay with it for the long haul.”
Next Big Thing
Kyle is now working on a new post-apocalyptic novel outside of his existing series that he hopes to get out by the end of the year.
Action Steps for Getting the Most Out of a Critique Group:
- Join at the “right” time. Kyle says it wasn’t until he realized himself that he needed to learn that he got serious. “If you’re not going to make the commitment, if you’re not willing to listen, then that’s not the right time to do it.”
- Take notes on each submission, not just your own. Kyle like to take careful notes of feedback of everyone’s submissions in his critique group to better understand concepts where he can improve.
- Keep it small. Kyle recommends a group of no more than 5 or 6 members. His group meetings can go on for as long as four hours, he says, if everyone brings something for critique.
- Join a group with “face time.” Although Kyle has participated in critiques via email and Word review, he prefers in-person meetings and believes there’s some benefit from sitting across a person to receive feedback; however, if authors can’t find a local group — maybe they live in Eek, Alaska — then he recommends authors…
- …find an online critique group. Kyle has two colleagues who have worked happily with online critique groups for a number of years.
Do you belong to a regular critique group? How has it helped your writing?
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