Writers Need Both Sides of Their Brains!

The business side of writing requires that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to gear up the analytical left side of their brains to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts. We love to sit alone at our computers and create worlds.

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

Writers are generally aware they must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (including self-published) in the United States is 4,000,000 a year. Yours is one of them. It takes a lot of effort to have that book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

There’s a (marketing) flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—you know, people who don’t ask, “So when is yo(of a dozen or more) is done. We should be trying 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.

Book groups, e-newsletters, and now TikTok are among the ways to reach some readers, but are they the right ones for your book? Are you comfortable with them? I like book groups, I like the Q & A, and the participants often buy the book, unless the club is sponsored by a library. TikTok’s audience skews too young for my books (half of their users under age 30), but would be perfect for another author.

I like participating in book fairs. They’re fun, but I’ve learned the hard way they aren’t a very efficient way to sell (my) books, though children’s authors seem to do better. And have a lower price-point. At book fairs, I do fall prey to that tendency to hang out with other writers. As we sit or stand there, hoping to catch the eye of a potential customer, whom do we talk to? Each other, of course.

Despite the hurdles, today’s authors have marketing opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, their efforts to promote it go from almost nothing to nothing at all, 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/s may very well creep upward too. This can be a boon to writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well, simply because they didn’t get a big enough jolt in visibility.

The publishing mountain continues to get steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. And at least one side of our brains. But, like climbing any mountain, you do it one step at a time.

Debut Authors’ Struggles

It turns out that the thrill and satisfaction of a rocket launch is rarely replicated in the launch of books by debut authors.The Bookseller, a London-based magazine about the book industry, reports on a survey of debut authors regarding their publishing experience. These findings may strike a chord with debut authors everywhere. More than half of the survey respondents said the ordeal negatively affected their mental health. Less than a quarter described an overall positive experience.

Most of the 108 respondents (61%) wrote adult fiction, and 19% wrote non-fiction. About half used an independent (that is, small) publisher, while almost half (48%) were published by one of the four majors. It seems to have made no difference which type of publisher an author used, as the negative effects on mental health were between 44 and 47% for the two groups. Statistically, the two percentages were probably about equal, especially given the rather small number of authors in the survey.

Perhaps dissatisfied authors were more likely to respond to a survey like this, but at least they also identified specific problems that publishers might be able to address. Chief among them were lack of support, guidance, and “clear and professional communication from their publisher.” Often authors didn’t know whom they should take a problem to. Googling staff directories is hardly ideal. Said one author, “it felt like a parent/child relationship with a lot of gaslighting and fake conversations”; and another, “infantilizing,” “opaque answers wrapped in praise and flattery.”

Still, there were bright spots. Comments from authors who reported a positive experience judged it a “great collaboration” (suggesting effective communication in that instance) or a good relationship (ditto).

About half of the debut authors organized their own launch events, though in one apparently unusual case, the publisher offered to pay part of the cost. Again, authors expected more support—public speaking training perhaps, and more information about events they were booked to speak at.

In many cases, support simply disappeared after publication of the debut or dwindled with each subsequent book. A few authors reported they were dropped without explanation (another example of poor communication). These longer-term problems may be heightened by significant staff turnover at publishing houses. Authors who have good, responsive agents may be able to get help from them on problems of sustainability and continuity too.

All told, not a pretty picture.

Oldest Female Debut Novelist Tells All

Guest Post by Bobbie Jean Huff

I was twelve when I wrote my first novel. It was four pages long, and in it Martha, the butt of bullying by her eighth grade classmates, graduates top of her class. Not much else happens, but with the novel’s completion I had accomplished a major life goal.

Nearly sixty years later I started another novel. For two years I basically lived in the quiet room of the Ottawa Library, and then another year in the Princeton Library, ignoring cracks from my sons about posthumous publication. That novel was published a year ago.

Writing it, I discovered, was actually the easy part of the publishing process. The next step was finding an agent.

I’d been warned by my editor. She told me that as an older author I might have trouble finding an agent. She knew a Canadian agent who prided himself on never taking on a debut novelist over the age of 45.

The reasoning behind this: first novels typically don’t sell—or so I was told. If a novelist is to succeed, it’s usually the second or third book that pushes them over that hill.

In view of all this, I thought it best to hide my age. My Twitter profile pictured an older lady, her white hair done in a braid. My name was beneath it. My Facebook profile showed that same lady holding a newborn who was clearly a grandchild—or worse.

I needed to get younger, and fast, so I called my niece and suggested lunch. A few days later, if you checked my profile pictures, you would have seen a young woman with her blond hair piled on top of her head with a purple claw clip.

And so, the younger me proceeded to search for an agent. This took time: multiple query letters, various extracts from my novel (fifty pages to this one, the first chapter to another, the full manuscript to another). Persuading an agent to even take a look at your finished manuscript is nearly impossible for a debut author, whatever her age. You might as well send it to www.themoon.com

But an agent did respond. The upside of the pandemic: she suggested a phone call instead of a meeting, and courtesy of contemporary hearing aid technology, phone calls to my phone go directly to my ears (providing I remember to charge the hearing aids each night).

People say I have a young voice. When the agent said, “Tell me about yourself,” I told her that I moved down from Canada to New Jersey a few years before, to be near my four sons. And that when I was in Ottawa, I had written and published essays and poems and short stories. Also, I said, I played church organ. Then I quickly changed the subject to the writing I was currently doing.

Here’s some of what I left out: My sons are all over forty, I have five grandchildren, and some of my organ playing has been for the funerals of close friends.

I signed with her. There then followed a month-long nerve-wracking process: submission of the novel to publishers, the offer, the negotiation of a contract, the unbelievably lengthy period of time that passed before signing, and then, yikes; a request from the publisher for a photograph!

No photo, no publication? I panicked. Then I recalled an author photo I had seen years before—was it Margaret Atwood’s? That picture featured a lone hand holding a pen. I contemplated doing that, but then decided no, I was tired of all this. I’d send the damn photo, but before that I’d do The Big Reveal. I called my agent and said, timidly, “There’s something you need to know.” And then I told her, fully expecting that as soon as those two awful words—seventy-four—were out of my mouth, she would gracefully bring the conversation to a close and I’d never hear from her or the publisher again.

That night I called my third son. “Of course they knew your age,” he said. “They only had to type your name into Google.” I tried it and discovered he was right. Google even knew my birth date. But superstitiously I waited until publication day to replace the photos of my niece with pictures of the old lady with the white braid.

British novelist Martin Amis was once quoted as saying, “Octogenarian novelists on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see [them] disintegrating before your eyes as they move past 70.” (It should be said that Amis’ most recent novel, Inside Story, was published in 2020 when he was 72.)

Then there was Simone de Beauvoir: “A novel is the least suitable form of literature for the elderly writer, because they risk simply repeating things and are past imagining new possibilities.”

When The Ones We Keep was published last year, it occurred to me that at 76 I might be the oldest traditionally published female debut novelist. I’ve spent some time searching “oldest debut female novelists” and the same names keep popping up: Laura Ingalls Wilder, 65 when she published the first book of her Little House series, Mary Wesley, 70 when she published Jumping the Queue, and Harriet Doerr, 74 when Stones for Ibarra came out. Then there is Delia Owens, whom everyone thinks is the oldest female first novelist. But Delia was only 69 when she published When the Crawdads Sing. Compared to me, Delia was just a puppy.

Now, once again, I am searching for an agent and a publisher. By the time The Ones We Keep was published, I had another novel ready to go. My agent loved it and submitted it to my publisher. Early indications were good, and I was told that the editorial staff were over the moon about it. But the sigh of relief I heaved was premature. To everyone’s shock, Sales and Marketing gave it the thumbs-down.

I was crushed.

That rejected novel has now been paused. My agent told me that, based on its rejection, another publisher would only wonder why my own publisher didn’t want it. Instead, I have a third “slim” novel (aka novella) ready to go. My job now is to find a publisher who will like it enough to take the risk of publishing an “older” author. If I succeed in finding that publisher, all well and good (and I will continue the sequel I’ve already started to The Ones We Keep).  But if I don’t? I will never know whether it’s because I am, as de Beauvoir put it, “past imagining new possibilities,” or just, according to Amis, “no bloody good.”

Regardless, I no longer try to hide my age, which is now 77. After all, anyone looking at my book jacket can figure that one out.

Bobbie Jean Huff’s essay, originally published in Bloom, has created a stir in the Author’s Guild community, whose members have set up a pair of meetings to discuss it further. Good job, Bobbie!

How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Book Sightings

What makes a good book cover? An important questions because, as we all know, people are going to judge our book by the cover before they even pick it up. The old admonition not to do that is for naught.

While you might think your cover should be “unique” and “uniquely you,” marketing consultants say no to that. They say it should look the same as the cover of the books the reader typically chooses. Comfortably familiar. This must be the reason we see so many thriller covers with silhouettes of women walking alone at night, often into the woods. (Who does that? First of all, you’d ruin your shoes.) Here are the covers I’ve liked best far this year (and one outstanding cover from 2020). Maybe the best advice is, “if it works, it works,” in which case none of the other rules count.

Play the Red Queen – From the moment I saw this cover, I knew I had to read the book. It is part of a growing number of books with a graphic cover rather than a photograph, it looks interesting, it has action, and I liked the mesmerizing pattern. I felt the same way about The Aosawa Murders. Loved both.

Absentees and Infinite – both of these covers work very well with the book title, subtly and graphically reinforcing it, which is helpful on those extremely rare occasions when you can’t quite remember something. And they use the popular cool teal color scheme. Haven’t read either book. Any good?

Blacktop Wasteland – the derelict cars, the relentless daylight, the Black man seen, but not actually in the picture. Symbolically powerful. And the white type works both with the light sky and the darker car bodies. This is the cover of the audio version, so the format’s more square. (Another great book!)

Hotel Cartagena – Orenda Books has given Simone Buchholz’s police thrillers similar black night, neon-infused covers that are jazzy and unmistakable (so much for looking like everything else). A good fit with her lively protagonist.

Educated – This cover is a triumph of metaphor. The book describes a girl’s struggle to use education to pull herself up from the dominance and isolation oof her survivalist Idaho family. Look like a #2 pencil to you? The scatterings of black “graphite shavings” are her, standing on the mountain of obstacles she’s overcome.

The Short of It

On the Writer Unboxed blog last week, publishing guru Porter Anderson speculated about reasons the changeover from the old year to the year always seems to generate news about short-form fiction. Perhaps, he suggests, the end/beginning of a year is a time writers have short fiction on the mind, intending to try out ideas they might spend the rest of the year working up into a larger project—that is, a book. Maybe so.

I went the other direction. To reduce the word-count of a novel, I cut way back on secondary characters’ stories. I liked these guys, but . . . These cutting-room floor episodes became three short stories, all of them now published. While possibly a commendable exercise in prose recycling, there were unanticipated pitfalls. First, they had to be real stories, not “excerpts.” That was relatively easy. Second, once those stories were out there, I had to take them into account when I made further changes to the novel itself. Probably not one reader in a million (should I have that many) would go back, find those stories and object to any discrepancies. Of course, that one would have an active online presence and a snarky temperament.

Anderson cites four international developments bearing on the status of short fiction:
1. A new independent publisher in France (L’Ourse brune) focusing on short stories written in French. Formidable!
2. Later this week, London’s Costa Short Story Awards will reveal the voting public’s favorite among three unpublished short stories.
3. The 16th BBC National Short Story Award program opened for submissions last week; cash prizes to be announced in early October
4. Spain’s Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize consists of cash, an artist’s residency in Umbria or the Writers’ House of Georgia, plus publication opportunities and more.

There’s (fairly recent) U.S. news in the world of short fiction, as well. You’ll remember that the long-running annual Best American Mystery Story anthology has moved from the purview of its founding editor, Otto Penzler, to the guiding hand of author and editor Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay), starting with next fall’s edition. It will have new title, too: The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Penzler’s Mysterious Press reportedly will launch a competing anthology this fall: The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year. The attendant kerfuffle was covered by J. Kingston Pierce in The Rap Sheet.

Finally, the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology, previously published by Level Best Books, will henceforth be published by Crime Spell Books, with Susan Oleksiw, Ang Pompano, and Leslie Wheeler as editors. Write on!

Photo: Pexel for Pixabay

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.