SPS-373: From Jane Austen to Artificial Intelligence – with Elizabeth Ann West
Elizabeth Ann West gives insight into her reader base and AI assisted writing process. She tells the thrilling tale of a regency era fanfiction writer turned self published author, with unique insights into honing an audience into dedicated readers.
- Elizabeth’s love of Jane Austen and historical romance
- Elizabeth’s early adaptation of memberships to create a reader base
- Copywrite rules of public domain titles
- Elizabeth’s knowledge of her reader’s demographics and how it affects her work
- Elizabeth’s use of AI in her writing process
Resources mentioned in this episode:
SPS LIVE: Get your tickets to the best self-publishing conference in Europe on 20-21 June, 2023.
TIKTOK FOR BOOKS: Learn how to sell your books using the power of TikTok.
NEW BLOG: Read about Finding Your Writing Muse on the SPF Blog.
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
SPS-373: From Jane Austen to Artificial Intelligence - with Elizabeth Ann West
Speaker 1: Want to sell more books? Make sure you are at the Self-Publishing Show Live this summer. Meet the biggest names in self-publishing at Europe's largest conference for independent authors. Enjoy two days packed with special guests, an exclusive networking event, and a digital ticket for watching the professionally filmed replay, including bonus sessions not included at the live show. Head over to selfpublishingshow.com/tickets and secure your spot now. The Self-Publishing Show Live is sponsored by Amazon KDP.
Speaker 2: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Elizabeth Ann West: The AI's not capable of going, oh, these words should go in here, this word should come out. It's not capable of doing that. So I think of my artificial intelligence, my Sudowrite as like the junior interns in the writing room. And I'm going, yes, or I'm going, no. And I'm prompting them of what I want.
Speaker 2: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join Indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to The Self-Publishing Show with me James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Do you remember what it is we've got to announce? We had lots of notes before this recording session. I think it's just the TikTok webinar.
Mark Dawson: And also the live shows.
James Blatch: Live show, which people have just heard about. But we will also remind you that you have four days left if you want to spread your payments for the live show over four equal instalments of 50 pounds rather than the 199 straight up, or the 200 straight up. So that finishes at the end of the 28th of February, at midnight 28th of February. So if you want to do that, go to selfpublishingformula.com/spslive. But of course, tickets hopefully will still be on sale. And I don't think we're going to sell out in February, but we'll let you know in the Facebook group if that's looking likely. I think we will set out before we get to the conference, but not just yet. Mark, what else we're going to talk-
Mark Dawson: Mentioned the TikTok webinar, weren't we?
James Blatch: We are. We're going to learn about TikTok, using TikTok to sell your books free live training, one of our regular training sessions. If you want to sign up for that, go to selfpublishingformula.com/learnTikTok, I will see you in there 'cause I'm looking forward to that one as well. Okay. While we have a guest today who writes JAFF, do you know what JAFF is, Mark?
Mark Dawson: Jane Austin Fan Fiction. Yeah, I do. Yes, I know, and I know Elizabeth very well. Elizabeth Ann West, who has been on Cables, I remember back in the day I've been in touch with her a few times over the years and yeah, she's done very well. Apart from the fact that she's wrote some good books and done well, she's also had some interesting pricing strategies. I don't know if she mentioned that in the webinar, inside the webinar, the interview. She was one of the first orders I can think of who was selling 9.99 as the asset price point and doing really well at that level, which I was always found that quite encouraging, that EOE readers will be prepared to pay a higher price than most indies would charge.
So Elizabeth's been a bit of a pioneer on that front and laterally has started working with Scribe count and all kinds of interesting things that she does, and Sudowrite. Yes, her has Scribe count as well, she works with Randall and yeah, Sudowrite, she's pushing quite hard into the AI space, which is interesting at the moment.
James Blatch: Yes. I think the pricing one is interesting and the point that she makes in the interview is that a lot of fans and your fans definitely will be the same, want to support you. There's no way of tipping somebody on a book, but she does give the opportunity for people. I mean, how many people do you send a free copy of your book out and then they go and buy it because they want to be supportive of their author and-
Mark Dawson: Oh, yeah. That does happen, in the advanced readers, yeah they'll get a copy that they will then help me with, so they're generous stuff to do that. And then they'll also go and buy it, which is extremely generous because they've already, as far as I've been concern more than justified the fact that I sent them a free copy. But they do it anyway, which is lovely.
James Blatch: Yeah, so that's part of that pricing strategy, anyway lots to talk about with Elizabeth Ann West, including, we do have a chunk... We talk a lot about Jane Austin, then a lot about AI, which is a slightly unusual set of subjects, but nonetheless, very entertaining. Here's Elizabeth.
Speaker 2: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Elizabeth Ann West, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. How are you?
Elizabeth Ann West: Great. I've had a very exciting week.
James Blatch: Have you?
Elizabeth Ann West: I joined Sudowrite officially. So that software I was running around in Vegas showing everybody, I'm now the community and education lead for Sudowrite.
James Blatch: Do you know, it's funny, you know people virtually in this world and occasionally meet at conferences, I honestly think I've spent more time with you in person over the years than virtually, because I think we've been at the same conferences for five or six years in a row.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yeah, that's correct. Since pre-COVID days.
James Blatch: Pre-COVID. Do you remember those?
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes, vaguely.
James Blatch: Vaguely. Yeah, so we're going to talk a couple of things, but what I really want to talk to you about is derivative fiction, which is a thing, and we'll get into that. But we also will talk AI because it's a bit of a buzz topic at the moment. I guess it will be for the next 200 years or so until the robots eventually kill us all and that'll be that. Let's talk about, you to start off with,
Why don't you give us the lowdown on who Elizabeth Anne West is?
Elizabeth Ann West: Sure. I'm an accidental writer. I got paid $7 for my first article in 07 for SEO, long distance relationship tips, and I was like, I can do this. So I was an SEO writer for about four years. I was folding laundry and heard Joe Conrad talk about indie publishing, the be the monkey, not the frog, and hearing all the skills you need such as websites and controlling your career online and realised I had all those skills. So my first book was Indie in 2011, I think the same year as Mark Dawson actually. And I'd been off to the races since then. In 2014, I made a shift. I was a bookmarker for a few of the years after my first book. In 2014, I made a shift to my favourite genre to read. It was my guilty pleasure that I kept secret, and that was Jane Austin fan fiction. And it's a niche of a niche of a niche because you have romance and you have historical romance, then you have Regency, and then you have JAFF.
But the Tribe Pub had been in the space from like 2005 till about 2009, 2010 after the movie with Kira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. And they left, they were no longer publishing it, but readers still wanted books. And I think that's a space that Indies can jump into very easily when you find those little pockets of readers who still need books. And that's been my career since 2014.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, I'll tell you what, let's talk about Jane Austin for a bit, and then we can broaden it out a little bit to sort of that type of writing. I mean, Jane Austin, one of the world's great writers, and it's probably not a natural book for me to have read, I read Wuthering Heights, a few other I had to read at school. I didn't do any Jane Austin at school. But the 1995 BBC production with Colin Firth, I think it's Elizabeth Earl, her name is-
Elizabeth Ann West: Jennifer Earl.
James Blatch: That's it, Jennifer Earl. I mean, I just thought it was unbelievable. And I've studied that so much on my own. And that got me read... I've read the book twice since then and I've read Emma and she's so witty and so brilliant, and one of those writers that just has this incredible talent. So there's a reason why Jane Austin... People are slightly obsessed with her. And if you haven't read a Jane Austin book, it doesn't matter whether you're a sci-fi nerd, a thriller man like me, you will love the writing. It's compelling, page turning, satirical, tongue in cheek. It's everything you don't think a posh 17th or 19th century... Oh no, 17th century book is going to be, you think it's going to be all literary and high faluting, it's actually a comedy. I think they're comedies, aren't they?
Elizabeth Ann West: They are. I think people forget that Austen was a contemporary writer of her time, and she skewers everybody from the clergy to the wealthy to even sometimes the poor in Emma with Ms. Bates. So she was observing, and I think that we owe a lot of our current literature to her start, because we now have comedy and romantic comedy and things like that. And she was kind of the forefront of that romantic comedy novel.
James Blatch: Yeah. So I would say, again, that 95, but I don't know where it is available today, but for me, I've taken... You can take a leave, all the other adaptations, none of them come close to that. It looks a little bit dated in the way it's filmed, but the acting in that, the casting is sublime, all the way through. The monster of Mrs. Bennett, which is done beautifully, all the way through by Alison Steadman, I should say. Now, let's talk about writing Jane Austin. So you're right, a lot of people write Jane Austin Fiction, and we've had Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I think in the UK. We've had Lost in Austin, which was am ITV series, Indie spent series here in the UK about women who got transported... Time travelled back. And these are two examples of, if you go into the book side of things, particularly Indie, there is a plethora of versions of Jane Austin, so it's got its own audience.
Elizabeth Ann West: It does have its own audience, and it's an audience that's mature and, what's the word? Okay, it has money, that's the big thing. You're not writing for an audience that are people who don't have money to spend on books. These are people who love reading, reading is their number one hobby. I always tease other authors that I was my reader zero. And before I wrote JAFF, like I'd have a $50 to a hundred dollars budget a week and shut up and take my money. I just need the books. I just need the things that are my favourite things to do. And I loved reading as a young mom, because it was the only activity I got to do by myself. When you're a young mom, you don't even go to the restroom by yourself. There's little fingers under the doors or banging on the doors. But if I'm sitting there with my Kindle while my daughter is watching Sean the Sheep or something like that, I can be reading and I can be in 1812 Regency England, which is kind of like a fantasy escape.
I know it's historical, but truthfully, it's historical fiction, so it's not really accurate. There's no chamber pods, they're not showing the real grittiness of living in 1812 England, it's all fantasy and pretty gowns, basically.
James Blatch: Yes. And politics, people... I should say, get my centuries right, 18th century, 1700s before somebody says not 1700s, 'cause that's 1700s, that's 1600s.
Elizabeth Ann West: She actually started writing them in the late 1700s, which would the 18th century. They're published in the 19th century.
James Blatch: 1800, okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: Anytime between 1811. And she actually self-published, believe it or not. So Pride and Prejudice was this huge success, she only made 500 pounds from it, and she was mad. So she self-published the next book, which I believe was Sense and Sensibility, and it didn't do as well. So even Jane Austen emulating her, I even aspire her career of like, oh, she was a self-publisher too.
James Blatch: But how would she have distributed it in those days? That's amazing. 500 pounds, by the way, not to be sniffed at in 1811.
Elizabeth Ann West: No.
James Blatch: Around there, but. Yeah, so the period is, it's... Because 19th Century was a big transformational century, but this is early, this feels to me more when you look at it's horses and carts-
James Blatch: This feels to me more, when you look at it's horses and carts and-
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes.
James Blatch: It's farm machinery pulled by animals. Okay. So where did you start then? Is this something else? It sounds like you started as a fan of this type of fiction, with Jane Austen fan fiction.
Elizabeth Ann West: I did. So everybody loves the 1995 BBC series, and I will confess that I-
James Blatch: So I'm not the only one because you mentioned the film, but...
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes, so I had to watch the BBC series in school. So here in the States they teach Pride and Prejudice, not so much the Bronte Sisters as much as part of the can. So we had to do Pride and Prejudice in school and at 18, I hated it. I was like, "Why are these people walking in rooms and worried about getting married?" It was the antithesis of my experience as an 18-year old in the 21st century or 20th century. And so in 2005 though, I was married and now all of a sudden I understood how important it is of a decision of who you marry, especially now that I'm divorced.
James Blatch: Yes, it's still not an insignificant decision, but your livelihood, your family could go into starvation with the wrong decisions.
Elizabeth Ann West: It really can, even today. And I don't think I had that ability to understand that at 18, I didn't have that universal understanding. A little bit later, a few years later I did. And the 2005 movie, the cinematography of it is what sold me. I wanted to walk on the cliffs and up Okham Mount and it made your country look absolutely gorgeous. And I wanted to go live in that space. Now, not so much, it's a bit draughty, now that I watched the film, I'm like, "Everybody's probably just really cold all the time."
James Blatch: Really cold.
Elizabeth Ann West: But it is what made me fall in love. And there's actually parts of it, of that particular movie, the director of it was doing throwbacks to another favourite movie section of mine, which is the '80s 16 Candles and the Brat Pack. So if you watch the commentary on the film, at the very end of the film, the Americans actually got an additional scene that the UK audience did not, where Darcy and Elizabeth are kissing over candles and stop. And it's supposed to be a throwback to 16 Candles at the end with Jake and Molly Ringwald's character.
James Blatch: Okay. I'm not distressed that we didn't get that extra scene. But anyway, I only watched that film once. I didn't particularly enjoy it, I have to say, I think because I have fixed ideas and the thing I'm going to come onto really, about writing fan fiction is that people have very developed ideas of the author and we've spoken to somebody this year or in the last 12 months who now writes Agatha Christie and that's on behalf of the family, and that's a big ask. But Jane Austen had such a specific type of writing, it seems like quite a dangerous thing to do, as well as a thing you want to do.
Elizabeth Ann West: I have a one star review that's my absolute favourite that says the ghost of Jane Austen should haunt me, because some reader was angry and they were like, "This is terrible. The ghost of Jane Austen should haunt you." And I was like, "Okay."
James Blatch: I mean that's a danger, isn't it? Because people are not coming to you as Elizabeth Ann West, thinking, "Oh, I wonder what this author style's like." They're coming up to you thinking, "How good is she going to match my expectation of what a Jane Austen book should be like?"
Elizabeth Ann West: Absolutely. But I think also, I have my readers who follow me, I have my mighty following that I've built, I blog my chapters on my website, so I created a membership site very early on.
James Blatch: Okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: Didn't charge for it. So this is before everyone else is doing Patreon, things like that. I started selling direct in 2016 with Gumroad and did well with that. And so my readers are loyal to me and they like my stories and I don't worry about who I can't serve, I only worry about the readers I can serve. And I think that that can help anyone in any writing career, if you start focusing on the people who are fans of you and building that out and finding more people who are like that, you can save yourself a lot of grief, if you're not able to get those larger wider audiences.
James Blatch: Yeah.
What is it about Jane Austen, do you think?
I can understand Agatha Christie books that are going to be written, they're going to be set in the '30s, they're going to look and feel like picking up an Agatha Christie book. But the canon to use that word you used, of Jane Austen works, includes sci-fi and zombie and horror and comedy, as well as traditional Jane Austen. There's something about that universe you created.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yeah, so I think it's a fantasy of the fact that you did this happily ever after, even if you're advocating for yourself. There's a funny meme that was running around for a little bit that was like Jane Austen says, "He will change for me." Bronte says, "We'll be miserable together." And Shelly says, "I will make him." And so it's all of these female writers at a time period that you have the early starts of mass press. So some of the technological advances that they were dealing with in the early 1800s are similar to what we're dealing with with the internet, believe it or not. So there's almost like a start of, dare I say, feminism, but not feminism necessarily in the sense that we're going to burn our bras, but actually women who are communicating and stepping up and saying, "I'm going to take control of my own life." And that was very different for time periods before that, at least being able to write it down and put it out there for other people to read and follow along with.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, I have always thought there's a bit of a comparison between Frankenstein and Emma isn't there? Because she creates a monster in Emma, and I think Clueless must be an adaptation of Emma, is it not? It's that take-
Elizabeth Ann West: Clueless is absolutely an adaptation of Emma. Yes.
James Blatch: You create something. So I do wonder if Mary Shelly herself was doing a bit of an Austen, she wrote it very quickly, didn't she? Yeah.
Elizabeth Ann West: Emma's trying to make someone in her image with her friend, Harriet. She's trying to make Harriet in her own image and then Shelly's kind of taking that a step further.
James Blatch: Yeah. Yeah, in a slightly horror way. Yeah. So you set out, first of all, let's deal with the copyright stuff. I mean Jane Austen presumably, has the copyright, but I mean, you can still buy the Jane Austen books new.
So is that just one of those things that I could publish Jane Austen books if I got a hold of the text? Or not?
Elizabeth Ann West: So you could technically, but the KDP rules... In the early days of KDP, everybody was publishing public domain stuff left and they've kind of put a damper on that. So now if you want to publish Pride and Prejudice, you need to be adding some illustrations in there or some annotations, if you personally want to do it.
James Blatch: Okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: Same thing with any public domain work, unless it's a public domain work that's not already easily available in eBooks because we're getting more and more access to public domain work and a lot of them are just like OCD scanned, so it's rubbish. I mean it's terrible the, it's just a page that they scanned or whatever. So if you took the time to type it up and put it in an eBook and there's nothing else in the store, you can publish that on KDP.
James Blatch: Okay. But in terms of copyright for the characters and the universe and the name, it's all long died 80 years after she did?
Elizabeth Ann West: Oh yes. Actually, I think because it was so old at the time, by the early 20th century, when they were making those copyright rules, they'd already decided everything before 1923 was fair game. So it was in that first crop of like, "Well, we're not going to deal with anything that old." It's not just Austen, there's Dickens is completely copyright free, public domain, that's why we get Scrooge every couple of years at Christmastime. Sherlock is now 100% fully public domain, that's why we keep seeing those reincarnations and everything. So big movie studios and New York publishing, they don't want to play licencing fees either. So public domain is a really great opportunity, I think, for authors.
James Blatch: And then
how did you decide what you were going to bring to this big area of Jaff?
Elizabeth Ann West: So again, I was reader zero. So I wrote the stories that I wanted to read. I started off with just stories that I wanted to see happen and I think that that's a good place to start. I think you'd hear going to write fan fiction, definitely read some, you'll probably find some cringe moments because a lot of them are amateur writers. But get involved, start getting reviews and telling them great job and giving them small pointers where they can improve if you want to.
But it's a great opportunity to mash up, especially I think one of my presentations I was talking about this, Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson is completely public domain free and there's people who are writing Tropical Papers now, modern... And I'm like, "You could kit bash them. You could bash them up together and you could start getting some of this audience." It makes it easier for keywords, it makes it easier for keywords for advertising. I've paid less than 5 cents a click on Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy and different keywords and things like that, Pemberley, long born, those kinds of keywords that are easier for me to get advertising on.
James Blatch: So your covers and your marketing have to be very Jane Austen, you have to use Jane Austen in the title somewhere, it's a very specific thing or do your books occasionally you get picked up by somebody who wants to read a regency or classic romance novel without realising?
Elizabeth Ann West: So there is some crossover. I've had Bookbug deals that have put my books in the top 100 on the Amazon store, but that doesn't necessarily translate to all of my books do that, obviously. So there's definitely that core readership and then it is something, if it's a big enough public domain property and you do a big marketing push behind it, you can capture some of that wider audience, but they're not going to be super fans in the sense that they want all six books public domain, they're in it for the Looky Lou or the curiosity of it, people who like Pride and Precious and Zombies, but didn't necessarily translate over to Jaff wholeheartedly as full fans, if that makes sense?
James Blatch: Yeah. It does. Okay. So in terms of the writing process, I guess this is going to be, you've written novels before, this is going to be the same thing that we all fret about in characterization and story beats and so on, just with the added overhang or context of being in a universe created by this amazing writer a couple hundred years ago.
Elizabeth Ann West: I think it's easier, actually. A lot of my work's done for me. There's entire timelines of Pride and Prejudice, all the character lists. Any piece of research that I'd want to do, somebody's already done it and I just have to Google it.
James Blatch: And we don't know a lot about Jane Austen, do we?
Very few, one or two images of her and she wasn't, as you say, from a huge family, she wasn't massively wealthy at the time of her life.
Elizabeth Ann West: Well, there's some controversy. I have a controversial opinion about Jane Austen that not everybody shares. So a lot of her relatives burnt our letters after her death, and there was really only one or two reasons that somebody burned your letters after you died in that time period and that's usually because you were either someone who was LGBTQ or you were somebody who was involved in affairs and things like that. She did have a female companion who lived with her, in her later years, with her family. She was proposed to and she said, "Yes. And then sobered up the next morning and was like, "No, very much no." And I think it's interesting too, because she had a very wealthy brother who could have very easily taken care of her, and there was something there where he didn't really step up like he should have, what would've been expected norms for the time period. So obviously everyone's going to come at it from their own point of view and their own extrapolation, but I think that-
Elizabeth Ann West: They come at it from their own point of view and their own extrapolation, but I think that Austen probably led a more exciting life than we give her credit for. I don't think she was really just sitting in a room all spinster her by herself and not having a full life, I think she did. Unfortunately, a lot of the letters were burned that we would learn from.
James Blatch: Yeah, what a shame. Are there any other artists, we've mentioned Christie and Sherlock Holmes, Dickens? I don't see a huge amount of Dickensian fan fiction, or I'm just not looking in the right place.
Elizabeth Ann West: Mostly it is The Christmas Carol, that's the number one property that everybody does a twist on. Sometimes people will do twists on Great Expectations. Not so much, I don't think, Oliver. But the other big one is Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. You will find all kinds. The Matrix, the movie The Matrix, is literally Alice in Wonderland fan fiction if you watch it, follow the white rabbit, red pill or blue pill. It's pretty funny. Another very popular one is Wizard of Oz, that's another. We have Wicked, which is a big popular property, but that's also fan fiction. You can find these different audiences or people who love it and twist it for your own needs for whatever book you're writing. I think somebody was talking about a cyber ... You could do a cyber thriller Wizard of Oz, for example, somebody trying to find the ultimate hacker or whatever, the wizard, so to speak, who's behind the big heist and everything.
James Blatch: Yeah. Wizard of Oz, of course, is much quoted in the list of stories. In fact, it's in that Pixar list, I think, of the 20 stories that exist. It's the you already have what you think you need, you already have what you think you need is The Wizard of Oz story, which you'll see in lots of films. It's a good theme to have for your character.
Okay. Where are you with your series, Elizabeth? Have you done one series of Jane Austen, or do you do standalones?
Elizabeth Ann West: All of the above. I have a novella series, that's The Seasons of Serendipity. I have a novel series that I'm finishing this year, that's The Moralities of Marriage, that's going to be book six. I have a bunch of standalones as well. A standalone that did really well last year for me in December was A Test of Fire. It was I just wanted to make Mr. Darcy a fireman, so I put a fire at the Meryton Assembly. Elizabeth went running in to go save Jane and he went running in after Elizabeth and he carries Elizabeth out. If you go at it from a reader, of what fantasy do you want to see on the page, it makes it easy to decide what project to do next.
James Blatch: I can see him running in with a couple of buckets and-
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes. His shirtsleeves up, no coat, cravats gone, and he's carrying Elizabeth out, just swoon, right?
James Blatch: Yes, there you go. You do the novellas, let me ask you about that, because you're not doing the novellas as lead magnets, as giveaways, you're doing them as a series because they go down well with your readers?
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes, because my readers are busy moms and busy moms don't have a lot of time to read. I think that there's a lot of romance genres and things that have figured out that the shorter fiction resonates with readers who don't have a lot of time. I honestly think that a lot of other genres could test out shorter formats and find out that there's a readership for them.
James Blatch: Yeah, interesting. In terms of your marketing, Elizabeth, just tell us what that setup looks like for you. Are you in KU for instance?
Elizabeth Ann West: No, I've done experiments with it, but I'm strange in that my novels sell for $9.99 in the store and have since 2014, my novellas sell for $4.99. Again, I know who my audience is, I know that they just want a story for me and I know that they want me to stay in business. One of the ways I can stay in business is I know I'm not going to sell as many books as say a cosy witch mystery or maybe a space opera, but I will sell enough at that price point that I can keep going, that one book will sustain me two or three months worth of money to keep going, which is how long it usually takes me to write a novel. I think the fastest of written a novel is six weeks roughly, because I dictate. Now I use AI, I use both dictation and AI.
My marketing actually was just post chapters, because it was like two birds with one stone, I have to write these chapters anyway. I would post the chapters and at the bottom of my chapters it'll say, "Thank you for reading this book. It's available for pre-order here," if it's on pre-order, or, "Plus 15 other Jane Austen fan fictions at these fine retailers," and they can click the buttons. Then I blog those chapters out. People still buy the books even if they read it for free on my website. That also helps me not feel guilty about my price point, because everybody gets my book for free. Because readers can't give you a tip. If you're priced at $2.99 or $3.99, it's not like a reader can go, "Oh, this is really good. Let me give you a tip," or something like that to keep you going.
James Blatch: Yeah, so what's this book worth to you, come to you a week after you've bought it and then you pay for it, deciding what you think it's worth, idea for Amazon.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, listen, this serialisation worked for Dickens, so obviously it works for you as well.
Elizabeth Ann West: Mm-hmm.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yep, and it keeps my readers engaged. They know that I'm working on projects.
James Blatch: Yes, yeah, so developing your reader base has obviously been a key part of your marketing.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes, very much so. I was lucky that there was already a reader base that existed, but that happens with just about all the public domain properties. Even if you were doing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and you keyword your blog post of Robert Louis Stevenson and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and stuff, you're going to get some interest from people on the internet of just following it and everything, or a twist on a classic. There's so many ways you can market this that it's going to get people interested because they want to see what you're twisting and how you're twisting a classic.
James Blatch: Yes. My mind's already turning now to look at the outer copyright point of some authors. If you're clever, if you're five years out, you could have a series of four books ready to go literally the day, I think it's 80 years, isn't it, after their death, the day that it becomes a public domain, all uploaded and you'll be the first in that queue. I guess people have probably worked this out by now.
Elizabeth Ann West: Possibly. I'm not sure when Tolkien goes public domain. I'm looking that up real fast. It does depend on the country, so that's the other thing. The UK actually has books go into the public domain earlier, so you could actually publish a book just in those countries where it's available and then wait and publish it in the other countries when it's available in those.
James Blatch: It does sound like a fun thing.
Elizabeth Ann West: Oh, nope.
James Blatch: No?
Elizabeth Ann West: Yeah, Tolkien is a ways away, I think it's 2044.
James Blatch: There you go.
Elizabeth Ann West: That might be a little too far out there.
James Blatch: The one I'd like to do is Douglas Adams, but I think he died in the '80s, late '80s, so I've got a bit of a wait for that.
Okay, let's talk about AI. You mentioned AI, we talk about AI from time to time on this podcast. Joe Penn is a huge advocate of this and somebody who's very keen on keeping abreast of the industry. Mark is hugely cynical about AI, although I noticed he's now using ChatGPT to write his taglines and using it for copy and stuff. You've mentioned you are using AI in your writing process, just tell us exactly what you mean by that.
Elizabeth Ann West: I've been using Sudowrite since November of 2021, so before ChatGPT even existed, and I've published three books since then. A great example is A Test of Fire, that I talked about before, Mr. Darcy as a fireman. I write a lot of ballroom scenes, I've written 25 books in JAFF. When you are in a genre where you have to write the same tropes and the same scenes over and over again, others will tell you, "Not another ballroom scene."
James Blatch: This is the equivalent of a spicy romance writer talking about writing a sex scene again and they're running out of language to describe it. The ballroom scene is Jane Austen's sex scene, isn't it?
Elizabeth Ann West: Kind of, yeah, it's very much so. People have nicknamed Sudowrite Sexowrite because it can write sex scenes for you and it doesn't moralise like ChatGPT does. I was writing the ballroom scene and I used the Describe feature, which the Describe feature, you just highlight something and you click Describe and it'll give you all five senses and two metaphorical, which I think a lot of authors, that helps, because sometimes we're skimpy on the details or we just don't have the creative well that day to really get those rich details painted into the scene.
It talked about the heavy scent of tobacco cloying in the back of your throat with a honey mixture of molasses. I was like, "I'm sold." I didn't even think to put the scent of tobacco, because in the United States we live in such a tobacco-free society, especially now. My childhood, I can remember yellow nicotine walls at restaurants and stuff, but when they made their law changes, I just don't think about it because I don't smoke and I'm not around smokers. I was like, "Well, brilliant. Of course there was pipe and tobacco smoke and it would've been different than the filtered stuff that we're used to," so I put that in there.
A mentor of mine, who's a New York Times bestseller and checks on my stuff from time to time, messaged me and he was like, "I just looked at the beginning of your new book. You have really bumped up in your writing skills. I felt it in the back of my throat in that room." I was like, "That was the robot, that wasn't me."
James Blatch: Yeah, wow.
Elizabeth Ann West: But it is me, because I prompted it and I made the decision. The AI's not capable of going, "Oh, these words should go in here, this word should come out." It's not capable of doing that. It's like you know sitcoms, they have a writer's room?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Elizabeth Ann West: Like a sitcom TV show, there's a whole writer's room where people can spitball ideas and everything like that. Then there's usually one person who's the lead writer or the head writer who's going, "Yes, yes, no, fix this, redo that." I think of my artificial intelligence, my Sudowrite, as the junior interns in the writing room and then they submit to me.
James Blatch: You're spitting stuff out.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes. I'm going, "Yes," or I'm going, "No." I'm prompting them of what I want.
James Blatch: Yeah. One of the areas that's under discussion at the moment is the potential legal aspects of this and the fact that some writers, this is I think more in the art world, it seems to be the example given rather than writing, but it's going to happen in writing as well, artists saying that they can recognise their work that's influencing the AI and then spitting out. Is that something that can happen with Sudowrite, or where does pseudo write learn from?
Elizabeth Ann West: No. All of the writing algorithms learn the same way you and I have, with the stuff that's freely available on the internet to read. I know a lot of people are like, "Well, some of that was copyrighted." I agree, but it's not reproducing those. It literally read it and learned from it, which is available to anybody at any time, all the social media posts, all of the fan fiction and stuff that was posted freely to available, my own chapters that I posted freely. I can actually tell the AI to write in the style of Elizabeth Ann West and it's pretty bang on because my stuff was indexed.
Since the dawn of the internet, these spiders have crawled the websites and have read the content there. That's how we've had stuff indexed for search engines. We've all agreed to this system. Sometimes the terms and conditions for fan fiction sites and everything, it was in there that your use of the system basically says that the website has the ability to make that information freely available, what you've written. Use became permission, unfortunately, but we've all benefited from this.
AI is actually predictive. If you have your phone and you text somebody, you know when you start typing the letters and it starts guessing what word you want to write?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Elizabeth Ann West: That's the algorithm that you use with writing. It's literally predicting the next word. It's not copying and pasting from anywhere.
Elizabeth Ann West: Literally predicting the next word. It's not copying and pasting from anywhere. So the more uniquely that you prompt, the more you'll get unique information out. Now, if I ask the AI to write me a story about Spider-Man, it's going to write me a story about Spider-Man. But that's not the AI's fault. I was the bad human. I was the one who abused the tool. The tool itself doesn't do the abuse on its own. A bad human or a bad actor has to force it to do the trademarked characters and things like that.
James Blatch: Yeah, and I think it's going to be hard for any writer to say, "That was my style," unless they had a very, very obviously distinct style. And the difficulty with this area is that, I'm writing an espionage novel now, and I've read John Le Carré my whole life, and I'm reading his last book as I'm writing this. Everything's derivative, right?
Elizabeth Ann West: It is.
James Blatch: Everything's derivative.
So where does that begin and end?
I think with the artist stuff for the visualisation of something that if you say, "Do me something like Edvard Munch," I don't know if he's still in copyright or not, and it does versions of The Scream and you try and sell that. That's what I think. You can't say, "Well, it's an original work of art." Edvard Munch's copyright owners would say, "No." So I don't know if it's going to happen in writing.
Elizabeth Ann West: Even in art, I mean Warhol didn't own the Campbell soup labels.
James Blatch: No, that's true.
Elizabeth Ann West: So the art world also has some kind of contention there that they also have precedent in things like that where everything is derivative. And I think that that's going to shake out honestly in favour of the AI, believe it or not, because the way the AI is doing it's not taking the image and making adjustments to it. It also looked at images and then it's generating pixel by pixel, a unique new work.
Now again, bad actors, can I ask it to do something in the style of Lisa Frank and it looks very Lisa Frank-ish? Absolutely. So the better prompt would be RGB or Neon Fantastical Colours or something like that.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Elizabeth Ann West: So better prompting, ethical prompting is what we're going...and this is why I got involved, because I was scared of the AI myself. I mean, it's frightening when you watch what it can do, but I figured the best solution was for me to get involved to start teaching people how it works and start teaching people the right way versus the wrong way to use it.
James Blatch: Okay. So tell us about Sudowrite, how we can use it, where we can find it.
Elizabeth Ann West: Sure. Sudowrite at sudowrite.com. It's S-U-D-O-W-R-I-T-E, which is super new in the Unix world, not pseudo like false foot in Latin.
James Blatch: Okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: I know. Sudowrite, it's the little junior co-writer who's never tired. If you want to work at three o'clock in the morning, Sudowrite's there for you. People have been naming it like Trevor or Maria. They named their co-writer-
James Blatch: Hal. Hal, Surely is what I'm going to call it.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yeah, there you go. So 30,000 words for $19 a month or 90,000 words for $29 a month. You can use it to help your descriptions. You can use it to help your dialogue. You can use the rewrite function, so you can put your words in there and then you can highlight something and you can say rewrite to have stronger verbs, for example. So you can use it in a lot of different ways. It doesn't just have to write for you. If you are somebody who struggles with prose writing, like I'm someone who I would dictate usually. So instead what I do is I use something called Guidedwrite where I will feed in my plot point and it'll say like, "Mr. Darcy receives a black lined letter on his desk. He pauses, he's afraid of it, and then he's interrupted by the housekeeper."
So I'll put that in there and then it'll write me anywhere between 100 to 400 words of what that scene could look like, and they'll give it to me in two different options. And then I'm going through it and going, "Yes this, no that, change this, move this line here. I want this one here." So there's still a lot of human involvement in it. The AI cannot write a book for you with one click it. I don't even know that it ever really could for a while, because the narrative logic that's required to keep 50,000 words straight, it can't remember what it wrote 10 chapters ago. Actually, it can't even remember what it wrote one chapter ago. It can only really store about 1000 to 2000 words worth of information at a time and to work from.
James Blatch: It can answer your question there and then and do what you're asking it then. It can't take into account what you asked it to do last week, which is the first 35,000 words.
Elizabeth Ann West: No.
James Blatch: Okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: It'll need some time for that. It'll be a while before that happens.
Mark Dawson: I think Sudowrite has some advantages over ChatGPT, which has suddenly broken through, isn't it? Suddenly everyone's talking and trying to get on there. It's usually full, but...
Elizabeth Ann West: So ChatGPT is a great place to start learning. I teach prompting as, "Do. What? How?" So you give it a verb, you tell it what to do, like, "Write me a chapter," and then how is all that secret sauce. So, "Write me a chapter that's a suspense spy thriller with espionage, with a car chase and an explosion and these things," and ChatGPT can give you a big chunk of words. You can then take that chunk of words and bring it into Sudowrite and Sudowrite has what I call the laser tools because you can literally modify with AI just a line at a time or even a word at a time. And I think that those are the tools that authors most often need because we just need an assist.
We most of us love writing so having those laser tools of, I just need to fix this one wonky part or the expand feature. Sometimes I'll highlight one sentence at the end of a paragraph and the next sentence and I'll stick in the middle, "I don't know what goes here, write a transition," and then Sudowrite will give me some transition ideas because I suck at transitions. That's one of my Achilles heels when I write.
So wherever your pinch point is with writing, Sudowrite can help.
James Blatch: Okay, and just tell us about the subscription charges again for Sudowrite.
Elizabeth Ann West: Sure. The best plan for most people is the $29 a month for 90,000 words. And if you buy yearly, obviously it's cheaper. There is a 300,000 word plan on the monthly level, which is slightly more than $100 a month. And to just get started with it, if you just go on the monthly, because it's a slider, the monthly is $19 at the Hobby Student and that gets you 30,000 words. And we have a slack community so we can help you learn how to use the software.
James Blatch: Has this sped up your novel writing process?
Elizabeth Ann West: Immensely. So, when you're actually doing it doesn't feel faster. Just like the same thing with dictation. A lot of people when they start with dictation, they don't feel faster, but then when they start comparing word counts, they're like, "Oh." So I can get about 2000 to 3000 clean words in less than an hour using the AI and working with it with my plot points.
James Blatch: Wow.
Elizabeth Ann West: And that's where it's not necessarily faster on the surface, it cuts off one of my editorial passes because the AI typically writes grammatically correct, so there's far fewer typos, there's far fewer missed words, which was my Achilles heel when I write and I do sprints. I'll type for 20 minutes and sure I can get 1800 words, but it's a mess. There's missing words, there's misspellings.
The other thing I think that AI helps me on is days I don't want to write, the robot can help me get 500 or a thousand words and usually if I can just get that, I can go. And I also can write a lot in Sudowrite as well. Sometimes I just use it as a safety net. If you suffer from blank-page-itis, I don't even use the AI sometimes, I'm just sitting there and I'm writing the scene and typing it in there and I'm comfortable because I know that help is just a button click away. And just knowing it's there, that support is there and I'm not alone, allows me to push through the creative naysayer in my head that says, "I can't do this." Because it's like, "Yes I can. And if I need help, it's a button click away."
James Blatch: It's been an unusual interview when I think back. It started with Jane Austin and finished with robots. But then there is probably robot Jane Austin fiction somewhere.
Elizabeth Ann West: Pride And Prejudice And Robots.
James Blatch: There you go.
Elizabeth Ann West: That's what we need to do next.
James Blatch: It's probably been done, I'll check it first, but yeah. Well that's brilliant. Well done on your success in getting a job in that industry. I know you've been a big advocate of it. We've spoken about it at the conference and so on.
I'm starting to check things out more seriously. I have used ChatGPT, I played with Sudowrite I think in November with you, but I will have a look at it again and see how I can use it as a writing aid. I think one of the problems is people come in at it from a distance and think, "Well, robots can't write my book." And that's as far as they think about it. They don't think about it in the nuanced way. You've described it as a tool to help you construct your novel, which is probably worth trying.
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes.
James Blatch: More technology. Okay. Elizabeth, the time has flown by, it's been really fun catching up with you. Are you going to be on the road at the conferences this year?
Elizabeth Ann West: Yes. I'm actually teaching AI at Vegas this year at 20 books 50k. I'm not sure if I'll be at Meek or not this year, but I'm going to try it.
James Blatch: Okay.
Elizabeth Ann West: But I know I'll see you guys at least once this year.
James Blatch: Yeah. Superb, excellent. Elizabeth, thank you so much.
Elizabeth Ann West: Thank you.
Speaker 3: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There we go. So yes, I'm enjoying that Austin fan fiction, covers all the genres. I mean, there's zombies.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: There's Science Fiction.
Mark Dawson: There's Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Was it a film or a book? Well, possibly both, but yeah, that was 10 years ago ago, I suppose when we were working at BBFC, that was a thing.
James Blatch: Yeah. And then there was the ITV series here in the UK called Lost In Austin, which was time travel Jane Austin, where she went back and then mucked things up because she really fancied Darcy. My wife loves that. Yeah, Jane, I mean, it's such a tribute to Jane Austin, one of the wittiest, most brilliant writers. I mean, you wouldn't think it's my genre, but I've read Pride and Prejudice twice. I've read Emma, I absolutely-
Mark Dawson: You wouldn't think it was your genre either. Is there any jets in it?
James Blatch: Horses and carts.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Like a fast cab into London. Yeah, just very satirical, very funny. I think when you understand that they're comedies and they're satirical, the books are very, very enjoyable. When you're a kid and you're reading them for O Level or equivalent academic studies, I think they can come across as crusty and staged because you don't realise she's mocking her characters rather than them being taken too seriously. But brilliant, brilliant writer and lots of interesting theories about her, which we heard actually from Elizabeth about who she really was. We learned huge amounts about her.
Good. Just a reminder, we have our TikTok training.
Do you remember the URL for our TikTok training, our live event, which is on the 27th of February at 9:00 PM UK?
Mark Dawson: Do I remember? No of course I don't.
James Blatch: Selfpublishingformula.com/learntiktok and we look forward to seeing you there. I shall be hosting that one myself. That's it. Thank you very much indeed to Elizabeth West, and you'll get all the notes. We mentioned quite a few different things to go and look at including Sudowrite, but you'll see all the links in our show notes at selfpublishingformula.com. That's it for us this week. Thank you to the team in the background that bring this show to fruition. We'll see you next week. All that remains for me to say is a goodbye from him and goodbye from me.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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