A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:

Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets

Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).

The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Prepare for Rejection

Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.

I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.

Meet the Requirements

I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.

Mine Your Backlist

Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.

four-leaf clover, luck

Dawn Ellner, cc license

Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.

What’s NOT a Business Plan

Dr. Seuss

(photo: US Army Garrison, Red Cloud, creative commons license)

Harvard Business Review recently added its voice to the clamor for changes in the $28 billion U.S. publishing industry. The article, by writer Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist based at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is headlined “Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss Won’t Save Publishing.”

By relying not only on those obvious one-offs and other “successful retreads,” but also emphasizing authors who have what publishers call a pre-existing platform—which means either past books, a painstakingly built social media presence, speaker popularity, or high visibility in other media (movie stars, television commentators, high-profile journalists)—publishers are missing partnerships with less prominent authors. Such relationships used to be cultivated over the long term, giving publishers a deep bench.

Publishers don’t treat authors the way a venture capitalist or angel investor might, notes Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes. Some of the authors on that bench were future stars and others solid mid-list performers. The whole timid approach is reminiscent of Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, prequels, and copycat films.

Authors today have a choice; if publishers aren’t willing to invest in them, they can look elsewhere, to smaller presses or self-publishing. In the past, the major publishers could offer authors their expertise in distribution, design, editing, proofreading, and marketing. Distribution has had a tectonic change with the advent of e-books and print-on-demand; increasingly sophisticated design, editing, and proofreading services are available for authors to contract with directly; and only the most highly successful (or happily delusional) author expects the publisher to take sole charge of their book’s marketing any more.

Clark recommends the following strategies to reinvigorate their relationships with authors:

  • Become full partners with authors, looking to the long term; think of them as the seed-corn necessary to harvest future profits.
  • Be more transparent with data (in late October I’ll be receiving my royalty statement from a textbook publisher that will provide up-to-the-minute-as-of-last-April sales information); no way can authors help with promotion when they’re working with arcane, six-month-old data. What’s more, as best-selling author Ken Follett says, “(Royalty) statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book.” (Clark says Penguin Random House has a new author portal that tracks weekly sales. This is a first.)
  • Build their own brand and audience. With all the industry consolidations that have occurred in recent years, if readers had an impression of a particular publisher, that entity may no longer exist, at least not independently.
  • Connect authors to one another for “cross-pollination” of marketing and literary ideas.
  • Double down on quality. Readers of books from all sources, including big publishers, lament the typographical and factual errors and negligent editing they encounter, even in books they’ve paid top-dollar for.

Such strategies could assure publishers’ profitability for years to come, because, as Clark said, “hoping to find another lost manuscript is not a business plan.”

Further Thoughts

Industry-watcher Michael Shatzkin says changes in publishing are, maybe, inevitable?

New Authors’ Wishful Thinking

wishbone

(photo: Dayna Bateman, Creative Commons license)

The SheWrites website recently posted a Brooke Warner essay on ways aspiring authors can be tripped up by wishful thinking. If you’re an author—or a friend of one—you may recognize these thought patterns. I do! Their root is often simply impatience. After spending so much time writing the book—years, maybe—we want to move on. Warner says:

  1. New authors shortchange the time spent on their query letter, proposal, and marketing strategy, in the hope it can be planned and implemented in “a matter of months.” I am a prime example. I have sent out query letters for my “finished” manuscript, been mostly rejected (or ignored), worked on the manuscript more, revised my queries, tried again; lather, rinse, repeat. Finally, having worked with an external editor, I’m so much closer to having a publishable manuscript than when I was first querying—but I didn’t realize that then!
  2. Authors hope they can avoid doing promotion by outsourcing their social media activities. Although there are services that would do this for me, I’ve never considered it. I learn a lot from doing my own social media, and while I’m not 100% successful, at least it’s me, not a “a hollow message” that potential Facebook friends and Twitter followers see.
  3. As a last resort, they purchase social media lists. At best, a short-term strategy. Doesn’t work.
  4. They hope to avoid the additional delay and expense of having a book copyedited and proofread. I don’t know whose fault it is—ultimately, no one should be more committed to a good outcome than the author—but I’ve seen so many books lately that were not given the chance to be their best. Is this just a cosmetic quibble? When I see a book that consistently calls an Italian gentleman Signore Rizzo, when it should be Signor Rizzo, it shows me the author has a tin ear. And if he makes that kind of error (among so many others), how much care will have been taken with every other aspect of the writing?

Ultimately, authors must not be trapped by wishful thinking, because the competition is so tough. “Take this as a reality check that it’s hard, especially as a debut author, not only to sell books but also to get a book deal, to get serious media attention, to get reviews.” Eyes wide open, says Wagner, give authors the best shot at avoiding disappointment and achieving a satisfying publishing experience. But it’s hard not to wish it were all a little easier . . .

5 Things Submitting Writers Should Know

five, matches

(photo: Martin Fisch, Creative Commons license)

AGNI is the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.

How big is that “towering backlog”? Birkets says he typically receives a hundred new manuscripts a day. He made five points for writers to consider.

  1. Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
  2. Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
  3. Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
  4. Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
  5. Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”

For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.

A Bookstore for Invisible Authors

book store

Gulf Coast Books, Fort Myers, Florida (photo: facebook)

A great idea recently came out of Florida—and, no, I am not talking about aspiring Republican presidential candidates. According to a Publisher’s Weekly story by Judith Rosen, the first bookstore dedicated to self-published authors opened in Fort Myers earlier this month. The Gulf Coast Book Store was launched by two self-published authors: Patti Brassard Jefferson, who writes and illustrates children’s books and history author Timothy Jacobs.

The store addresses one of the biggest difficulties facing self-published authors—the near-impossibility of getting their books into stores. In traditional book stores, self-published authors—who conservatively publish some 450,000 books per year—are essentially invisible. Even books published by small presses may have difficulty appearing on store shelves if the publisher doesn’t invest in relationships with book distributors. Distributors’ sales teams are the people who promote a new author’s book to book store buyers. (A useful discussion of the difference between book wholesalers and distributors is here, a distinction many publishing services gloss over.)

At Gulf Coast, which is located in Fort Myers’s Butterfly Estates, self-published authors’ works are not vetted, but writers must be local. They can rent shelf space for three months for $60, plus a $15 set-up fee. In return, they receive 100% of every sale. (Bookstores willing to take a local author’s books typically do so on consignment, and the author may receive only about half of each sale.) Gulf Coast can offer these full returns because it doesn’t need staff. Butterfly Estates—which includes shops, a café, and butterfly conservatory—handles sales and credit-card processing.

In April, the store offered books by 36 local authors, plans to add 16 more in May, and currently has no spaces available. Each writer can display up to 10 books, and the 10 may be all the same title or multiple titles. Authors can display promotional materials—bookmarks, brochures, and the like—and are featured on the store’s website.

Gulf Coast’s space is available for book signings, too. For Jefferson and Jacobs, “the store is about building community and helping other authors,” writes PW contributor Rosen. Though Gulf Coast provides a tiny solution for now, if it caught on elsewhere, indie authors would rejoice.

A Cozy Arrangement

Murder, She Read, is a research report from Nielsen Book Research (a copy will set you back $1,500), on the book-buying preferences and habits of some 6000 nationally representative U.S. mystery/crime readers. The researchers defined “mystery/crime” as

a genre of fiction typically focused on the investigation of a crime. Mystery fiction is often used as a synonym for detective fiction or crime fiction—in other words, a novel or short story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) investigates and solves a crime mystery.

This is a more restrictive definition than most, but a lot of books fit it. Highlights of the study results:

  • cat reading

    (photo: raider of gin, creative commons license)

    Most “mystery” readers (70%) are female

  • The biggest age group of mystery readers (28%) comprises people 65 and older, with almost half of mystery readers 55 and older and
  • Many mystery readers are not actually buying their books; they’re getting them free.

The gender and age concentrations revealed come as no surprise. Month after month, I see lists of the mysteries agents and publishers are signing. Their decisions are creating and reinforcing this important audience, and its dominance is an effect of the choices they make.

I certainly don’t want to suggest there shouldn’t be books geared to the older female demographic, but mysteries that involve clever kitties, cutesy shops, knitting patterns, and recipes not only succeed in appealing to one specific group but also fail to develop new communities of interest.

Authors can—and do—write novels that appeal to both men and women. And many women readers devour books by Michael Connelly, Tana French, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman just as much as men do. However, a focus on novels with marketing appeal to only one segment of the population (and a low- or non-paying one at that) may prove counterproductive in the long run. I hope authors and publishers read the Nielsen findings as a call to reach out to tomorrow’s audiences—readers who will be as loyal and enthusiastic as the older woman audience is today.

Just Your Type

(photo: wikimedia.org)

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Curtis Newbold, “The Visual Communication Guy,” runs a website about topics in good design. He says “it’s as important for (people) to be literate in visual communication these days as it is to know the fundamentals of grammar.”

He’s created a nifty infographic, “18 Rules for Using Text” if you’re intrigued by graphic design, web design, and just generally making the stuff you print out look better. The graphic is also available from his store in poster form, in case you have a bare patch on your office wall.

I look at a lot of websites and can attest to the fact that these rules are violated often. And, while they aren’t rules in the sense of “never do this,” they are certainly rules-of-thumb. Red or yellow type on a black background? No, please. Going crazy with fonts? Amazing how many people still do this. A list like this is a good reminder of these most common mistakes–which are “mistakes” because they discourage readership. Something none of us want to do.

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

2-9-14 Readers, Writers, Booklovers Unite!

Reading, book, Budi SukmanaHugh Howey’s Rants

Everyone who buys, sells, reads, borrows, downloads, and LOVES books has a stake in moving the publishing industry into the 21st century. It won’t happen easily. Best-selling indie novelist Hugh Howey (Wool) launched a well-aimed missile of advice at the industry in his notorious 1/8 blog post, “Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge,” in which he explains what he would do if he ran one of the big publishing houses. He followed it up with a new barrage on 1/12, “My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job.” Even if thoughts about publication are not your daily preoccupation, his ideas are lively and thought-provoking.

For Publishing: A Radical Makeover

They would radically change the culture and the economics of the book business, making it better for readers and writers in the process. Among his memorable suggestions: get out of New York to cut overhead and get some work done. From home, mostly. (He suggests Houston. Not in August.)  He wants them to invest in Print on Demand, which would keep authors’ backlists alive. And he’d devote greater attention to the midlist bulge of authors. As publishers whittle down their emphasis to manuscripts that are “sure-fire” best-sellers, reader choice withers. And these are not people you’d want standing at the rail next to you at Santa Anita or Churchill Downs.

These next three were picked up by Business Insider writer Dylan Love:

  • “Every format, as soon as the book is available.” The day a book is released, you could buy it in hardback or paper, or Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader formats. No more stringing people along with a hardcover release, and letting them lose interest while they wait for the Kindle edition.
  • “Hardbacks come with free ebooks.” This “would change my perception of e-books overnight,” Love says. At present, e-book Digital Rights Management systems restrict readers’ flexibility. Bundling a hardback with a digital file would increase it.
  • “No more advertising.” In Howey’s publishing house, the firm’s money wouldgo into editors [remember when books weren’t full of mistakes?] and into acquiring new authors,” not into bookstore promotions and pricy advertisements that he says “don’t sell books.”

How Publishers Shouldn’t React

Howey admirer Baldur Bjarnason has drafted a list of tips for publishing insiders to use in their inevitable responses to Howey’s assault. The last of these is to make the argument that traditional publishers are “somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.” I’ll let you explore for yourself Bjarnason’s links that stick the needle in that bit of puffery. LOL.

(Thanks to Beth Wasson at Sisters in Crime’s SinC Links for pointing out Howey’s and Bjarnason’s great posts!)