New Authors’ Wishful Thinking


(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 . . .

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.

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!”

The Blacklist: Under Covers

TV, NBC, Blacklist, James Spader, magazine cover

(photo: AP/NBC)

Since the ads on network television drive me crazy, it’s ironic that ads have persuaded me to watch the second-season premiere of The Blacklist, Monday, September 22 on NBC. If you’ve watched the show, you know it’s an American crime drama starring James Spader, Megan Boone, Ryan Eggold, and Harry Lennix. The premise is that Spader, a high-profile fugitive—Raymond “Red” Reddington—emerges from the shadows to make a deal with the FBI. He’ll help them capture a series of hard-to-nab global criminals, but only if they let him use a young profiler (Megan Boone) “fresh out of Quantico” to help.

The show last season received pretty strong positive reviews from the critics, and in a recent Chicago Tribune interview about the upcoming twists, Spader said, “once you start taking all those backroads, the backroads become much more interesting than the destination.” Spader pursues those intriguing backroads with his characteristic intensity—which led Rolling Stone to call him “the strangest man on TV.”

But what about those ads? The first one I noticed was the inside back cover of this month’s Wired, which showed Spader in a typical neon-drenched Wired explosion, with mock-cover headlines like “Get with the Program: Red’s Shocking Next Move” and “On the List, Off the Grid: Tracking the Criminals Still at Large.” Clever. Then I spotted a fake cover in the 9/8 issue of The New Yorker, drawn by popular cover artist Mark Ulriksen (who drew the recent Derek Jeter cover), and you may have seen similar cover spoofs in GQ, Rolling Stone, Time and six other magazines. Spader’s undercover under covers. Ok, I’ll watch once, anyway. (Did. Not an immediate fan.)

Indie-Author Book Promotion Spending Lags



A recent survey of a mix of self-published authors, reported by Dana Beth Weinberg, suggests the extent to which individual authors are outsourcing some of the tasks that in the good ol’ days, were done by their publisher. There’s a range of those tasks, and some authors do a few of them on their own, and some authors engage several people to accomplish the whole shebang. Recently, some formal book-publishing “teams” have been developed, and they can be expensive and low-performing (see the recent update on the class action lawsuit against Penguin-Random House’s company, “Author Solutions, Inc.,” a costly team service many authors complain under-performs.)

The 2014 survey was conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest and received information from almost 2,200 self-published and hybrid (both self- and traditionally-published) authors about their most recent self-publishing experience. Just under half of these authors obtained outside help. Apparently believing you can judge a book by its cover, most often they hired a cover artist (35% percent); and 20-25% obtained help with formatting, print on demand, and copy editing. Amazingly, since book sales is the biggest problem for self-published authors, only 11% got help with marketing and promotion!

Only 112 of the 1,900 authors who reported their earnings (net or gross? article doesn’t say) made $10,000 or more from this recent book, and there is a definite trend line between spending more on services and higher earnings. However, most of the authors had a median expense of $0, and earned less than $1,000 on their book. Even among the highest-earning group, only 20 percent of authors spent on marketing and promotion. Something wrong here. And it may be in part that authors feel competent to look at a book cover and say whether they think it’s good or not, but not to assess a marketing campaign that isn’t working.

Personal Branding Pitfalls


(photo: Derek Gavey)

Say you’re a Hollywood icon, but business has been a little slow. You need a new brand, an new image. Business cards! Italian designer Behancē has ideas for you! From Nemo’s Sushi Bar, to Rosemary’s Babysitting, they can repackage your celluloid skills into whole new career paths, suggests a Wired article by Angela Watercutter. (Her name itself could be a brand, in whole.)

Branding, like any other good idea taken to extremes, lends itself to parody, and no branch of it more so than the dubious activity of personal branding, with “people turning themselves into web superstars in their niches.” The pro-branding author of this hilarious web post provides personal branding stories for seven individuals. The post confirms that I’m out of the branding zeitgeist because, regrettably, I have never heard of any of them (have you??). Take, for example, Erika Napolitano, about whom the blogger says, “Anybody that refers to her followers as ‘bitches’ deserves my immediate respect.” It’s great to see Americans haven’t lost their ability to laugh at themselves. At least I hope that’s what’s going on.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Working Both Sides of the Brain

 Saturday’s “business side of writing” workshop reiterated the familiar disheartening theme that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts, people who love to sit alone at their computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the common reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that to succeed he also needs to take up needlepoint.

One of the presenters, Bob Mayer, pointed out today’s writers must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (mostly self-published) in the United States is between 600,000 and 1,000,000 a year. It takes a lot of effort to have any book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

Only two hardcover fiction books have been on the current New York Times list of best-sellers for more than 16 weeks (alas, and my snobbery is showing, one is by Dan Brown, but the other is Gone Girl, a super read).  Eleven of the 15 have been on the list less than three months. Remember when books were on the best-seller list for a year or more? Those were the horse-and-buggy days of book marketing, as gone as the girl is.

Our second coach, the estimable Jen Talty, pointed out the flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—people who don’t ask, “So when is your book coming out?” when they learn the first draft (of probably 15) is done. What she advised writers to do is to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Talty and Mayer have their own publishing partners enterprise, Cool Gus Publishing, capitalizing on opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference between the two is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, traditional publishers’ efforts to promote it go from minimal to nonexistent, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book will likely head up, too. Writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well are finding new revenues.

The publishing mountain gets steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. Perhaps that’s because, as Mayer said, and contrary to the common expression, “Storytelling is the oldest profession.”

A Book AND Its Cover

What makes you pick up a new release from the tables at the front of Barnes & Noble? You might recognize the title, or the author, or it might just be the cover. Some books cry out to be investigated further. A good cover design captures the feel of the novel and the browser’s eye with equal facility. Years later, just seeing the leafy jungle cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude brings back the whole story.

The New York Times has published its annual “15 best” compilation of covers (slide show). I’d need to know more about some of the books to know whether the covers really nailed it, but I must say the amazingly simple cover for the reissue of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying certainly does. It’s fearless and would certainly have failed a censor’s scrutiny, if there were such a post as Defender of Dust Jacket Decorum.

The ability to capture the essence of a book is very different from the generic approaches typically used in genre fiction. The shootouts, dark alleys, and steamy sex on these covers, although possibly eye-catching, could pretty much be used on any number of Western, mystery, and romance novels. (A quick and clever blog post on the latter can be found here.)

In the Times compilation, see whether you like the covers for F – Poems by Franz Wright and Middle C by William H. Gass as much as I did. I’m tired of the chalkboard writing style of The Art of Sleeping Alone, first noticed last year on The Fault in Our Stars. If you look at the B&N tables just from a design perspective, you can spot trends and copycats. Book jacket design, like everything else designy, has fashions and fads. Amazon’s blurb for Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design, calls the parade of covers for the publisher’s various book lines, which began marching forth in 1935, to be “a constantly evolving part of Anglo-American culture and design history.” Another intriguing book on the topic is Alan Powers’s Front Cover. Powers also has assembled a collection of children’s book covers and their many influential illustrators.

Book covers are designed to appeal to specific readers, which creates an interesting gender dilemma. Check that B&N table and ask yourself, is this a book for men or women or both? Women writers are concerned their books receive the “pretty” treatment, which means men are very unlikely to read them. More on this issue here—and be sure to check out this post’s coverflip slides, which show how covers of popular books might have been presented had the authors been the other gender. Eye-opening.

Notable covers on books I read this year included the one for Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. The blue version (top), which I have (or had, since I seem to have made the mistake of lending it out), suggests the massing and subtle movement of butterflies in the trees, the phenomenon that leveraged the story’s action. I much prefer it to the more literal treatment given the Kindle edition (middle) or, least imaginative of all, the UK edition (bottom).

Another gem was the cover for Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which gives a pretty darn accurate assessment of how that particular meal went. A linen tablecloth can do only so much.

My take on both these books can be found in the Reading . . . section of this website, with The Dinner in the audio list.

The Changing Publishing Scene

Writers—and some readers, too—are worried about the massive shifts in the publishing industry, including whether it will be possible to make a living as a serious writer for very much longer, not that it was ever very easy, and what making authorhood impossible means for the diversity of ideas in the cultural marketplace.

My professional organization, Sisters in Crime (it’s worth joining just to be able to say that!), recently released a new report on the state of publishing, based on expert interviews with 15 individuals involved, in various ways, in the industry. They asked about books in general and mysteries/suspense/thrillers in particular. The experts they talked to echoed the rather gloomy predictions heard for the last couple of years regarding the challenges the industry faces.

Given the difficulty new writers have being published, many are advised to go-it-alone. But “understand the risks,” one prominent agent said. Yes, it’s easy to self-publish with today’s technology, but publishing does not necessarily lead to sales and income for the writer. Because about 300,000 print titles and an almost uncountable number of ebooks are published each year—think of it as a thousand new books a day—the necessity for and burden of promotion and marketing are enormous. Accomplishing this shifts the emphasis entirely onto the self in self-publishing.

The few self-published books that have achieved financial success have encouraged many more writers to try to follow in those footsteps, creating such a rising level of background noise level, even excellent books go unnoticed.

The implications of the rise of e-books has yet to sort itself out. And, because of a number of economic pressures on publishers, the bar for new authors is constantly being raised. Worse, publishers aren’t interested in mid-list authors—“they want bestsellers.” Authors want to write bestsellers, too, but most won’t. The Great Gatsby sold poorly when it was first published in 1925, but now it is one of the most highly-ranked English-language novels of the 20th century (second-highest in the Modern Library’s list after Ulysses.) As of today it ranks #10 in Amazon’s bestsellers’ list, 4th among novels. For authors whose publishers aren’t banking on returns 88 years into the future, the emphasis on bestsellers is a problem.

The one bright spot for writers of mysteries is that the genre retains its popularity in this fast-changing environment. Mysteries account for 24 percent of ebook sales, though only 15 percent of the dollars, which means their prices are discounted compared to other books. Mysteries are 21 percent of library ebook collections and 24 percent of their print collections. And “cozy mysteries,” that less-sex-and-gore subgenre perfected by Agatha Christie and still practiced by many authors today are actually increasing in popularity.

Exploring Further:

“The Slow Death of the American Author” – Scott Turow’s recent, widely circulated lamentation in the New York Times

Sisters in Crime – membership organization promoting the professional development and advancement of women crime writers

The Modern Library’s lists of 100 best novels; one list selected by its board and one by readers

Cozy Mysteries Unlimited – website for cozy fans

Is It Contagious?

Are you trying to promote an idea, a behavior change, a product—say, your new book? Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, describes why things go viral. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, Berger illustrates his pared-down principles with real-life examples and embeds in them the results of behavioral research. The book is based on marketing lectures he gives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and the cover design  is brilliant.

So, why do things go viral? “People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them,” Berger says, and word-of-mouth is dramatically more effective in motivating someone to buy your idea or product or service—your “it”—than any paid ad. If you present your it in a way that makes people want to talk about it, you’ve increased your chances of success many-fold. But what kinds of messages make someone want to share?

Messages that become contagious have at least some of these common elements, Berger says:

  • Social currency:  people feel cool—like insiders—when they know about it. Think how people feel about the small perks of frequent flyer status. (I’m right there.)
  • Triggers: The message has many triggers—things in the environment that remind people of it.
  • Emotion: think of the canned Facebook posts—pictures and sayings that made people sad or mad or smile. (Positive emotions evoke more shares, BTW.)
  • Public: “Making behavior more observable makes them easier to imitate,” which is why stores print their names on the shopping bags they give you. And people re-use their bags from Bloomingdale’s and Tiffany’s. Both instantly recognizable.
  • Practical value: People like to help others. Thus, “the six best ways to make your message contagious.” Or, as Berger sums it up: news you can use.
  • Stories: Bring it home.

Every one of us is trying to “sell” something. We may want to persuade people about the good works of our favorite charity so they will donate, we may want to promote a public health message on gun safety, we may be in the actual selling business—real estate, securities, lipstick. In my case, I want you to visit my website (and you have!). Berger has a persuasive chapter on each of the six elements that will help you analyze your messages and create more effective ones.

If you’ve read about the tipping point and stickiness, some of this will sound familiar, but if you haven’t read these books lately, Contagious is full of useful reminders.