The Brooklyn Book Festival: A Washout

Following the book promotion dictum to “say ‘yes!’ to everything,” I volunteered to help out for an hour at the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday. What fun (it should have been)!  Alas, the windy weather put people and tents and books at risk, so as much as possible was moved indoors, and the Mystery Writers of America and other booths in the Marketplace were cancelled. I’m looking forward to next year now.

Sunday was day seven of the eight-day festival—a free event, being held on the street and in the parks and plazas surrounding the Brooklyn Korean Veterans Park (at the entrance to the pedestrian access to the Brooklyn Bridge), all the way down to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. It advertises “more than 100 literary events over 9 days.” And that’s not even counting my planning to be there to sign copies of Architect of Courage, a major missed opportunity (yes, I’m kidding).

With the goal of celebrating published literature and connecting readers with authors and booksellers, the festival began in 2006 as a one-day event involving some 300 authors. Except for today, it also hosts a Marketplace with 250 book publishers and literary organizations, including Mystery Writers of America. My would-have-been co-hosts at the MWA booth were Tim O’Mara (Crooked Numbers, Sacrifice Fly) and Phillip Cioffari (novels, story collections, a movie, and plays). Sorry to have missed becoming acquainted with them.

Sunday was Festival Day, a highlight of the event. Included were US and international authors, including such well-known names as Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Feral Detective), Gary Shteyngart (Our Country Friends, Lake Success), Jennifer Egan, (The Candy House, A Visit from the Goon Squad), Geraldine Brooks (March, Horse), and many, many others.  

Getting into Brooklyn from where I live in Central New Jersey takes some time—an hour plus on New Jersey Transit, then connecting to the subway to Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Just enough enforced sitting to work up a good appetite. For excursions like this, my friend Joanne is often my companion and chaperone, and we’d worked out a good schedule and picked an enticing place for lunch. Next year!

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Promotion, Promotion

Yesterday, The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish sponsored a pre-launch event for author Jennifer Givhan to talk about the development of her soon-to-be-published novel River Woman, River Demon. She was joined by Isabella Nugent, a publicist for Givhan’s publisher Blackstone, and the two discussed the publicity strategies they developed for the new book.

The inspiration for River Woman, River Demon, Givhan said, was a series of personal upheavals. She gives credit to both the strength and spirit of family for helping her weather these challenges and giving her a profound sense of herself as a person. This carries over into her book publicity strategy, where she looked for activities compatible with how she sees the world. It was an important idea that an author’s marketing activities have to be true to them as a person, in order to feel authentic (and doable). Otherwise, they can be awkward and unpersuasive.

This leads naturally to the notion that the author and the publicist need to develop a strong, mutually respectful, partnership. There are many ways to publicize a book, and the publicist has to hear it when the author isn’t comfortable with something.

The whole strategy development process for River Woman, River Demon took about nine months to plan and carry out. One of the first tasks was to cast a wide net for blurbs from other authors that then could be used to garner media publicity. During downtime, as the book was getting ready for market, Jenn made it a point to respond “yes” to as many requests for blurbs or other assistance from other authors as she could. Giving other writers uplift, she believes, not only makes her feel good, but in the long run will be of benefit to the larger writing community, herself included.

She recommends teaming up with other authors for publicity—doing readings together, interviewing each other, and so on. Authors working with smaller publishers may have a somewhat easier time making connections with their “sibs.”

Jenn also invested in an outside publicist, interviewing a great many, which resulted in some free consultations, even though she was up-front about her budgetary constraints. Even staying within budget, this extra help was useful. Jenn and Isabella talked about the importance of identifying all the different sets of contacts Jenn has. She is a novelist, but she’s also a poet, and those connections in the poetry world have led to some unpredictable good results and cross-promotions. “You don’t know who all of your readers are, and ultimately, they may connect.” I’ve certainly found that in promoting Architect of Courage. Reviews, help, invitations end up coming from all sorts of wonderful places!

Related
I describe my promotion strategy for not driving myself crazy right here.

Book Clubs are Authors’ Friends

So far, three library book clubs and one “unaffiliated” club in three states have decided to read my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, and give their members a chance to ask me questions about it. The first one of these occurred last week, when my “home” club—the mystery book club at Princeton Public Library—read the book.

This is one of those activities that Zoom has made much more doable! The group not only includes ten or so members from the Princeton area, but one of us has moved to Maine, one is here now but for some months was based in Richmond, Virginia, and I think one or two of us are Florida snowbirds.

Group leader Gayle Stratton and I agreed that, in the interest of candor, the group would have about 45 minutes to discuss the book before I joined the call for the second half of our meeting. That apparently was an unnecessary precaution, because it seems they were unanimous in reporting they enjoyed the book! Their questions covered plot, intent, research strategies, publishing, favorite characters—a whole array of issues.

In promoting the novel through interviews and book events, I’ve found I most enjoy the q&a. It’s always fun to see how different people interpret the same things. It’s a challenge authors frequently face. They have to walk the fine line between explaining too much and explaining too little. Although I work hard to make the text clear, questions still come up. In general, I’m a big believer in trusting the reader. When I’m reading, I hate the feeling I’m being spoon-fed. If an author tells the character’s dog died, she doesn’t need to tell me the character stayed in bed all day because she is sad. I know why she did that.

Just after Labor Day, I spent two days at the Library of Virginia genealogizing, and saw a big poster for its book group. The club was planning to discuss SA Cosby and Razorblade Tears on September 14. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of Razorblade Tears and its predecessor, Blacktop Wasteland, both of which delve into what Cosby has called “the holy trinity of Southern fiction—race, class, and sex.”

This was an opportunity not to be missed! Another Zoom success, I thought; I could call in from New Jersey. Disappointingly, he wasn’t on the call, so I missed my opportunity to ask whether part of his process is reading his books out loud. His dialog is so spot-on perfect, I figured he must do that. Then his publisher hires the genius narrator Adam Lazarre-White for the audio versions (highly recommended). I’ll just have to wait for another chance to ask Cosby my question.

If your book club reads fiction—be in touch!

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love!

Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart
(art: wikimedia.org)

Friends and family members can be incredibly patient when they ask an author in their circle solicitous and innocent-sounding questions—like “How’s the book coming?”—and are met with blank looks, or, worse, groans and sighs.

Most authors today—OK, James Patterson’s an exception, and so’s JK Rowling—find that reaching “The End” is just the beginning of their work. Now they have to let the world know about it.  

If you have a sense of how much time and effort authors invest in their books, maybe you’ve wondered “What can I do? How can I help?” Yes, indeed, there are things you can do that will help! And, whatever you find time to do, you can be sure it will be greatly appreciated!

Ten ways you can help promote an author or book you admire:

  1. Buy the books! The author may have written it with readers like you in mind.
  2. Don’t be too quick to pass around a book; instead, encourage others to buy it. Amazon, or book stores, and the author’s publisher keep most of the price of the book. If a book sells for $16, the author receives $2 to $4.
  3. Remember, books make great gifts! Maybe a friend or family member needs a thank-you or has a special day coming up.
  4. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of book marketing. So, tell people about a book you’ve loved.
  5. What you say about the book in an Amazon or Barnes & Noble review will influence other would-be purchasers. No need for cringy flashbacks to high school book reports. Just say the two or three things you’d tell a good friend who asked, “Read any good books lately?”
  6. Share a few words about what you’re reading on social media—GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
  7. If you enjoyed a book, your book club might too! Many authors are willing to participate in book club discussions in person or by Zoom, etc.
  8. You can “follow” your favorite authors on Amazon. Search for one of their books, click on the author’s name, and their author page will come up.
  9. If your author has a newsletter, sign up! Author newsletters often include interviews, reviews, and favorites.
  10. An author’s blog and website are another way to keep track of their new releases and to learn more about them.

Many thanks, and happy reading!

Staying Afloat in the Sea of Competition

If you read the advice to authors about what they need to do to promote their books (since publishers don’t do that anymore—you cynics will say, “along with proofreading”), the number of tasks can seem like a mountain too high to climb. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, TikTok, email newsletter, book tour, readings, special events, blog tour, web sites, in-store promotions, yada-yada-yada. Platform! It’s exhausting to think about.

As publication day for my mystery-thriller approached, I decided to do what I can reasonably do and not regret the hundreds of tasks I’ll never get to. I’ve had my own website and blog for a decade. I promote my posts on Facebook and Twitter. Those are activities I knew I could continue. I could also revive my quarterly email newsletter.

Another multi-year investment has been tracking various associations of crime writers—the meetings of Killer Nashville, Mystery Writers of America, our local New Jersey get-together Deadly Ink, the rich resources of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers. Of course, in many of these interactions, I mostly meet other writers, not necessarily future readers. (They all have their own books to promote!) But if the workshops and the rubbing of elbows with my fellow authors helps me write a better book, that’s all to the good. And their advice and support and collegiality is invaluable. I can continue all that, gladly.

My daughter says I have many tribes—my writing tribe, my genealogy tribe, my theater tribe, my ballroom dance tribe (you weren’t expecting that one, were you!), my women’s club, my tribe from the World of Work, and more. Fifty-five delegates from these tribes came together June 8 for Architect of Courage’s launch party. Certainly, I’m capable of a party!

I also employed the tried-and-true problem-solver: throw money at it. I bought a few targeted ads and signed up for a Partners in Crime Tour of blogs, which has arranged showcases and reviews for me with fifteen book-related blogs. I purchased Atticus (text formatting) and Canva (graphics) software to create ads and flyers that I’ve distributed. Learning how to use both programs plus ConvertKit (email newsletter software) in the same week was a bit of process overload. But I can use those new skills again.

I’ve been Pennsylvania. Members of the writing group that met around my dining table for almost fifteen years (until covid) gave readings of our work twice a year, so I’ve had a lot of practice. So this was also quite doable. Two book groups I’ve connected with have put my novel on their agenda.

The list of possible promotion activities is pretty much endless, and I’ll continue to pick and choose the ones that (for me) are both doable and fun. Ultimately, whether the book will survive in the rough waters of the Sea of Competition will depend on its appeal, but that ship has sailed.

Movie Titles as Mood Creators

Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)

Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.

A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”

In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.

Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!

Book Title = Sales?

Maybe you’ve wrestled a fair bit with choosing a title for your new book. Now comes Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly to tell you it actually matters for your book’s marketing.

Milliot describes an online study conducted last fall by the Codex Group, involving nearly 4000 book buyers and more than 50 new and forthcoming titles. The study examined whether a book’s presentation encouraged prospective readers to browse, as measured by the number of clicks the books’ “read more” buttons received.

As valuable as such information should be to authors, the study has a number of features that limit the interpretation of its results. I’d like to know more about those 4000 readers—gender and age breakdown, genre preferences, are they regular online purchasers?, and so on.

All 10 of the most actively browsed books have women protagonists, several involve children, marital relationships, and female friendships. Were the 50 books tested skewed in this direction, or is it that people who like that type of book are more curious about them? It’s worth noting that, even the best-ranked books received no more than one in four “read more” clicks.

Plowing on, here’s the bad news—or good news if you’re published by Amazon. Eight of the top 10 books receiving clicks were from Amazon Publishing—a data point that would be more impressive if we knew what proportion of the 50 were published by Amazon. Still, five of these highly-rated Amazon titles were among last year’s 11 top-selling ebooks. An attractive cover meant more than taking a deeper look, it meant readers clicked the “buy now” button too.

This suggests Amazon is doing something right, and that may by particularly important for you if you’re a new author, as were some of the authors among the top 10, if you don’t have a pre-existing fan-base, if you’re experimenting with a new genre, or if you write in the genre (women’s fiction) whose readers responded most strongly in this research.

So, how does Amazon do it? For two of the three most popular books in this test, participants said it was the book’s title, not the graphics, that drew them in. Hunh. I’d find this more persuasive if they tested titles alone, on a blank cover, and Milliot’s article doesn’t suggest they did that. It’s hard to separate the effect of a title from the overall—and often more memorable—artwork behind it. Reading the list of titles of the top 10 books makes this finding even more surprising. The most frequently browsed book, for example, was After, pictured (though I can’t be sure this is the version people in the test saw). Without the photograph, the title wouldn’t carry much meaning.

Maybe After succeeded because Amazon tries hard to ensure that title and cover art reinforce each other. (To illustrate, see “Together, they signal readers about the book’s contents and help them know whether they’d like it.

There’s a lot riding on these choices. Everything—art, title, cover copy—is part of your story’s package. Make good choices!

Yesterday’s post provided a few things to think about when choosing the book title that will make an interesting and lasting impression.

Photo (top): Annette G for Pixabay

Will People Pick Up My Book?

We writers are ever in search of a search of a formula that will make our books leap into prospective readers’ hands, rather than languish untouched on the long, slow slide to the remainder bin. If only readers gave it a chance, they’d love it! Right? Would some of the magic leap out when they picked it up?

Watch book store patrons browse the tables a while and the old saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” appears definitely wrong. Certain books attract. And they aren’t necessarily books with a lot of publicity or a best-selling author’s name. Something about them draws people in.

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of cover art and how it’s not something amateurs can attempt at home. We’ve all seen the covers of self-pubbed books that look like misguided collage projects or more likely ones that are just . . . not . . . right. While we recognize covers we like from an artistic perspective, does the art lead to further perusal of the book and—ahem—buying it? Publishers assume so. (Here’s Tim Kreider’s amusing take on the author-publisher dynamic in book cover design from the New Yorker.)

Two recent blog posts talk about another important aspect of your book’s exterior—the very first words of yours that readers will see: your book’s title.

In Writer Unboxed, Nancy Johnson riffs entertainingly on this subject. In coming up for a title for her own debut book, she heard the advice to “keep it short.” One-word titles can convey a lot; Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a perfect summation of her best-seller. Ditto Tara Westover’s Educated, which, in addition, vividly illustrates the importance of the interplay of title and art. What at first looks like a pencil-shaving is a lone girl standing on a mountain, the heroine of the piece.  

Short, punchy titles are presumably easy to remember. Tell that to Delia Owens. One of Johnson’s favorite titles is Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Unforgettable. And, much better than a too-short title that doesn’t convey any extra substrate of meaning. Look up some one-word titles (Guardian, Broken, Alien) on Amazon and see how many competitors there are. As a result, what Johnson concludes about title length is, like so many other rules for writers,“it depends.”

As you know, titles of creative works can’t be copyrighted, so it can be hard to come up with something unique. Appropriating The Talented Mr. Ripley would raise eyebrows. If several other books already share your planned title, you want to think about the company you’ll be keeping (and how far down your book may appear in Amazon’s listing of similar titles). Unwary buyers will be annoyed if they intend to order your romantic suspense and get a slasher story instead.

Tomorrow: A study of the link between title and sales.

Book Promotion Trends: 2019

Diana Urban and BookBub has compiled a helpful analysis of book promotion trends based on the panel discussions and presentations at this year’s BookExpo 2019. If you have a book coming out in the next year or so, one or more of these six trends may either help or frustrate you. In either case, be prepared!

1. Publishers start sending out advance reading copies of big debut books at least a year before publication. This is one reason you hear that incessant drumbeat for a few books and others launch with a whisper.

2. Publishers are using display ads on platforms that let them carefully target the relevant audience for these big debuts, and these, too, start six months ahead. Those splashy ads you see in The New Yorker are usually for established authors—that is, your next book. BookBub’s further thoughts on target marketing are here.

3. Publicists are trying to enhance the ARC package with personalized notes to potential reviewers and librarians, fancy packaging, etc. It can’t hurt to suggest some ideas of your own, or if you’re mailing those copies yourself, to do more than stuff them into a jiffy-bag. I mean, we’re creative, right?

4. She provides a helpful list of how to organize a publicity campaign, and when to do what, starting at least six months out. If you need more detailed advice on anything in this list, you may be able to find it in the Tips or Resources sections of Build Book Buzz, an excellent book promotion “how-to” website from my friend Sandra Beckwith.

5. Reinforcing point two was the advice to focus on niche marketing by finding out what your target audience is reading (anything free) and where they go online, so that your choices of media and marketing messages hit their sweet spot.

6. Tips on how to collaborate with indie bookstores covered the importance of building relationships with them early; how to use events not just to promote your book, but with the mindset of connecting with readers; and how to support the bookstore after your event. More tips on working with indie bookstores are here.

Onward!

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.