What Do Book Club Audiences Want?

Author Kathryn Kraft in Writer Unboxed says book clubs have “the potential to serve as a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists.” We’re all familiar with the marketing boost books have received thanks to the endorsement of Oprah’s book club and now Reese Witherspoon’s (with more than 800,000 followers), among many others.

Millions of Americans belong to book clubs—the formal kind that have regular meetings in libraries and living rooms—and the loosely organized kind that operate through social media, including GoodReads, with its 90 million members. A 2015 BookBrowse survey of people who read at least one book per month found that over half belong to at least one book club, with the percentage of readers who are book club members rising with age.

Another BookBrowse survey of more than 5000 book club members, conducted last year, found that “overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will promote good discussion.” In other words, they’re looking for books whose features intrigue them.

Recognizing a learning opportunity here, Kraft analyzed a number of book club reading guides to discover major topics presumed to promote book club discussions. They relate to issues writers ponder all the time, and it’s encouraging to know they get readers talking too. Here they are:

1. A protagonist with a unique perspective – Think Maggie Gee’s new book Blood, with its unforgettable narrator Monica Ludd or Rice Moore in the Appalachian noir prize-winner Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin. Characters with strong voices like these give book club members “a chance to look at life in a new way,” Kraft says.

2. A character or characters readers can relate to – I have nothing in common with manipulative New Orleans gangster Frank Guidry in Lou Berney’s November Road, but I certainly related to him. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like me (please, no!) for that to happen; the character just needs to be richly portrayed.

3. A story that reflects some larger issue – In this way, the character’s deeply personal experience can become “universal and political,” Kraft says. Gin Phillips’s thriller Fierce Kingdom begins with a mother wanting to take her toddler home, and the rest of the book is about that thwarted journey. Home is always more than an address.

4. A structure that helps set expectations and convey meaning – Denise Mina’s Conviction, with its story-within-a-story format not only engages the reader in two plots, the relevance of the second story gives the protagonist a chance to reflect on her past and motivates her current actions. Think Dov Alfon’s A Long Night in Paris or Chris Pavone’s new The Paris Diversion that puts the time of day at the head of each chapter in this fast-paced thriller that takes place over a jam-packed 11 hours. The ticking clock is one of the thriller genre’s most popular structural devices. It sure sets expectations.

5. Endings that are tidy or open-ended? I’m sure there’s lots of discussion on this point. Kraft comes down on leaving endings looser, which gives readers a chance to think about all the novel’s foregoing elements and, in an act of co-creation, what’s most likely to happen next. “Imaginations are not constrained to what occurred between the covers of the book,” Kraft says. It’s like movies that end with a “where are they now?” feature as the credits roll, which evoke that same feeling of limiting the possibilities I might prefer. I believe Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing would have been stronger without Tate’s final discoveries. Let readers puzzle it out.

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay   

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

And see advice from Jane Friedman‘s blog: “How to Plan a Book Reading that Wows Your Audience”!

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

The Ironies of “Living Coral”

Spent much time with graphic artists? Then you’re probably familiar with Pantone, the professional color standard for design in advertising, publications, fashion, cosmetics, and a whole range of products, including book cover design. It already popped up a few years ago. Remember Crazy Rich Asians?

Every year,  Pantone’s color trend-watchers proclaim a “color of the year,” and for 2019, it’s Pantone 16-1546, a soft pinky orange called “Living Coral.” Pantone considers it a life-affirming, nurturing shade, never mind the irony that the life-negating, destructive reality of global warming is fast making “living coral” an anachronism.

But let’s nod to the intent here. To Pantone, designers, including book jacket designers, will be gravitating toward this optimistic color. “It’s truly a reflection of what’s needed in our world today,” Laurie Pressman, the Pantone Color Institute’s vice president told the Associated Press.

That all sounds so positive, I thought I’d check it against a couple of my color analysis books.

My Fortune-Telling Book of Colors has a one-word signifier for many colors, and for coral, it’s “wise.” The color in the book that better matches Pantone’s shade is “persimmon,” which signifies “healthy.” Something off there, though it captures the optimism. You like the color? Then flowers that book recommends for you are roses, tulips, dahlias, peonies, and orchids.

Especially helpful to us writers is the advice to wear this color when we want to motivate ourselves and get results.

The closest shade to Pantone 16-1546 in The Secret Lives of Color is actually amaranth, if it were a few shades paler. In another irony, garlands of amaranth (the plant) were used to honor the Greek heroes because their everlasting blossoms suggested immortality. If only that were the case for our real living coral.

Further Reading

“12 Questions to ask when hiring a book cover designer” by Diana Urban on the BookBub Partners blog, 23 January 2019.

Your Website’s “About Me” Page

house, Texas

(photo: Carol Von Canon, creative commons license)

Just in time for a spring spruce-up of your web home, my favorite book marketing guru Sandra Beckwith posted a how-to on upgrading the “About Me” page. On this website, the page is called “Who Is?”—a faint echo of the mystery theme (perhaps should be “Whodunnit?”). The post was written by serial entrepreneur Andrew Wise whose online success means his advice is worth listening to, and it’s of interest to all authors maintaining a web site or thinking about starting one.

The biggest reason not to “create and forget” this page is that our visitors read it. In fact, says Wise, it’s usually one of the 10 most popular pages on a site. I was surprised to learn that’s true of my site, too. New visitors want to know we’re reliable—regardless of what kind of stuff we write. He’s distilled a lot of insight into this infographic (click on it for a larger view).

At a minimum, the About Me page should:

  • Prove yourself to be an authority in your field – a bit of a stretch for me, since I write about crime and am not a former cop or lawyer. But, my publication credentials speak to a different aspect of credibility, and they’re on another page altogether, my “Writing . . .” page. Hmmmm.
  • Show your personality – make your text more of a conversation and less of an information dump; be positive and friendly.
  • Include a picture of yourself – this responds to the human love of visual images. My page has only a thematic picture.
  • At the conclusion, provide a way for readers to be in touch. I do that! But that area need tweaking. The ask is buried.

As blogger Rob Orr reminds us, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” In reviewing many About Me pages, he says the most important common denominator of the best ones is that they make a connection. In that sense, they are less about the author than about the visitors, a point many others make as well. How to translate that insight from commercial sites to the writer-reader experience is something I’ll be thinking about.

If you were coming to my website the first time, what would you want to know about me? Anything? Are you finding it? Come back in a month to find out “Who Is? 2.0”!

Bees to Honey, Moths to Light, Readers to Books

Anthony DoerrA recent post by “Sarah” for Written Word Media described four principles of book cover design that psychological research  shows influence most people. Although individual preferences of course vary, there are enough common denominators to help readers understand why they’re drawn to a particular book on the bookstore table and to help authors and designers increase the odds that their book is the one picked up. On my next trip to the bookstore, I’m going to check this out!

The Big Green Tent, Ludmila UlitskayaSymmetry in the placement of image, title, author name, and so on. The examples used include All the Light We Cannot See, in which every element is centered on the page, except the later-added National Book Award notice, which stands out by its very non-symmetrical placement. A recent book cover I found myself quite drawn to was that for The Big Green Tent, and you’ll see that it gets a check mark in the symmetry box, too.

The Long Fire, Meghan TifftSimplicity in design also gets points. A chaotic cover may suggest chaos within. Give a prospective buyer too many images and text blocks, and the eye doesn’t really know where to look. There are lots of bad examples (some hilarious), but a good one is The Long Fire. Only after you’ve started reading do you realize the smudging over the lips has significance, but you don’t need to understand (or much notice) that beforehand. Subtle. Simple.

Ghost FleetColor. While I’m notorious for saying, “I don’t care what color it is, as long as it’s green,” in fact a more universally attractive color is blue. As Sarah says, color conveys (or should) a lot about the book’s mood. Note the color similarity between All the Light and the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet. Romance novels tend toward red (hot!), chick-lit toward pink and purple, thrillers toward red and black, darkness and fog. Glance at the rack in an airport and you can pretty much peg the books’ genre without reading a word of cover copy.

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteContrast allows some elements in the book cover to stand out more than others. A book by a new author will likely emphasizes the title. Truman Capote was pretty well known when he wrote In Cold Blood and the cover reflects that. When it was written, there was a lot of buzz about that book, and the cover was designed so you couldn’t miss it. Admire the single drop of blood. (Or is that a hatpin?)

Typography – I’m adding a fifth item here that unlike Sarah’s tips relies not on science but purely in the domain of opinion. Color choice, use of images, and density of information on covers all have styles and trends. Sometimes a designer innovates to make a cover stand out; sometimes designers just copy what has worked well for another book—thinking or hoping readers will make some association with these past successes. Typography has gone through or may still be in the middle of one of those copycat phases, in which the cover’s words are designed to look hand-written in chalk or crayon. I first noticed this technique with The Fault in Our Stars (2012). Three years later, there are a half-dozen uses of it in this roundup of “most anticipated” new books for fall 2015. At that link you can see 42 new covers and Sarah’s principles followed and flaunted. Which are most attractive to you?

With all this in mind, read NPR’s recent deep dive into the significance and impact of the covers of the 2015 National Book Award shortlist with new appreciation!

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.

What Color Is It?

color, green

Emerald, Pantone’s 2013 “color of the year” (ijokhio, flickr.com, CC license)

The role of color in the creative process is one of those backgroundy things that no one really thinks about, and writers, filmmakers, artists, and fashionistas either get so right that the decisions involved seem invisible or perhaps intuitive, or so distractingly wrong that we forget that, somewhere along the line, a choice was involved.

Smart use of color hasn’t escaped web designers, either (some, of course, are beyond redemption; I’m thinking of those black backgrounds with tiny red and yellow type that mystery sites seem to favor). Most interested in color are designers of commercial sites that want you to “convert,” not in the religious, but in the wallet-opening sense. Their advisors cite data suggesting color is “85% of the reason you purchased a specific product.” And isn’t that just about the first question you ask when a friend buys a new car?

So, you might want to pay attention to these designers’ approach. Though brown is great in some contexts, research says women like blue, purple, and green (yes!) and not gray, brown and orange. Men like blue, green, and black, but not brown, orange, or purple. No red for anybody.

People designing brochures and adverts and a new color scheme for the living room might find some new thoughts in this infographic on color theory from designmantic. It includes the basic “meanings” attributed to each color and how colors can be combined successfully, for those throw pillows and whatnot.

Next time you look at a web page you particularly like, take a sec to see whether it’s because the color is just that exactly right shade of trustworthy blue. Thank you, Facebook.

P.S. Pantone’s “color of the year” for 2015 is Marsala, which the color company calls an earthy wine red that “enriches our minds, bodies and souls.” Looks like brown to me.

color, brown

(Frank Daugaard, flickr.com, CC license)

 

Categories vs.Tags = Chapters vs. Index

tags, tea

(photo: wikimedia)

No doubt this blog would benefit from a better system of categories and tags (the words that appear at the bottom and let readers search for similar content). Here’s a guide from the Elegant Themes blog on how to make those improvements. My tags alternate between the too general (“book”) and the too specific (the name of a person I’ve written about once). Time for a clean-up.

If you’re a blogger, you may have been as mystified about the difference between categories and tags as I still am, and this post will help there, too. It asks you to think about your blog as a book, with your categories as chapter titles and your tags as the index—more detailed, in other words. That means it’s easier to change and add tags than it is categories, if you already have a lot of content. (Ideally, this should have been done two years ago, when I started, but there you have it. Perfection is elusive.)

The link provides a helpful list of do’s and don’ts, too. Many of which this blog violates. Faced with such a situation I always hear the immortal Jonathan Winters calling, “We’ve gotta get organized!”

Google Algorithms at Work

Google

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

Everyone has noticed—and is from mildly to serious annoyed—that after we visit a website looking for garden tools, say, Google generates an avalanche of related ads. Last year I bought a scarf online and, for the next few months, my social media were draped in it. What gives? I already bought the darn thing! You’d think the system could distinguish between “Purchase completed” and “Still interested. Maybe? Nice, right? You like?”

Two RISD graduates—Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell—decided to test the limits of networked marketing by emailing to each other, page by page, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 scorcher, American Psycho. You’ll recall the book is about Manhattan businessman and serial killer Patrick Bateman, and is notorious for its graphic sex and violence. What ads would Google’s hard-working algorithms find relevant to these emails? Huff and Cabell wanted to know. The interesting results revealed what the author’s say was “GMail’s unpredictable insensitivity to violence, racism, and sex.”

A page that included the murder of a man and a dog by a knife-wielding attacker did generate ads for knives and, in a grisly touch, knife sharpeners. And a page with a racial slur carried no ads at all. But the most common ad across 408 pages of mayhem? Crest Whitestrips. Maybe a “just keep smiling and all this will go away” message there.

You can get a pdf of the book they compiled from their results, which includes all 800+ ads as footnotes (minus the contribution by Bret Easton Ellis). Something he wrote that appeared on page 27 stimulated an ad for “folding chair parts.” I can’t imagine. And, on the very last page, a way to avoid “3 Awful Guitar Mistakes.” Probably not one of Bateman’s top-of-mind worries.