We’re Having a Twitter Party!

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Great news! Penguin (@ReadPenguin) has chosen my latest mystery, A DANGEROUS FICTION, to be its book of the month, which entails two book chats on Twitter. It’s just come out in paperback, which also brings the ebook price down, so it’s an auspicious time for the book to be featured.

Here’s the announement from Penguin:

“Every month we’ll be inviting our @PenguinUSA Twitter followers to join us in reading and discussing a book selected by the staff here at Penguin. We’ll be checking in on Twitter periodically throughout the month, letting followers know where we are in the book, and opening the forum for discussion (but please, no spoilers!). We invite users to ask questions about the book as they read, and to look out for tweets about when we’ll be dedicating time for “mini book club meetings” during the course of the month.

Be sure you use #readpenguin when you tweet.”

Naturally this good news fills me with anxiety. What if they throw this party and nobody comes? If you Tweet, I hope you’ll jump in. First chat’s on Sept. 9 from 3-4PM ET. Please mark your calendars! The book’s a murder mystery set in publishing world, so highly cathartic for the peons in that cosmos (that would be us writers.) Here’s an excerpt. Hope to see you there!

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A Talk with J.A. Jance

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We met under the happiest of circumstance. The celebrated  J. A. Jance had read A DANGEROUS FICTION and enjoyed it enough to agree for the first time in many years to write a blurb. I wrote to thank her, and a pleasant exchange followed. We stayed in touch. Recently we had an email exchange in which Judith shared some very important lessons about making one’s living as a writer: building a brand, as it’s called these days. I found it extraordinarily useful and relevant; I think any writer, published, self-published or hybrid, can learn a lot from it. With her kind permission, I am sharing that conversation with you below.

J. A. Jance had mentioned in a previous email that she was embarking on a book tour.

“Book tour?” I answered wistfully. “Do publishers still do that?” The Penguin paperback edition of A DANGEROUS FICTION had just come out, and with the help of a kind and diligent Penguin publicist, I’d been doing some modest online promotion, but nothing strenuous, mostly from the comfort of my office.

Jance “Yes,”  J. A. Jance replied, “three weeks on the road.  This morning I’m home, sitting on my own back porch in the Seattle area and trying to keep the damned heron from poaching my goldfish.

I cut my teeth in the lowly world of “original paperbacks” where mysteries supposedly had a 90 day shelf-life.  I’m happy to report that my first novel, Until Proven Guilty, is still in print 29 years later!!!  The guys, local old hands at writing and all of them male, took me to the woodshed and  told me to jump ship with Avon and go with someone who would pay me some “real” money.  Fortunately, I disregarded that advice and stayed put.  As for them?  They’ve all lost their early books through . . . well . . . jumping ship.

When that first book was due to come out, I was so elated.  Remember, I hail from humble pie Bisbee, Arizona.  I was being published by a NY publisher.  When I called my editor and asked when the book publishing party would be, he nearly choked on his coffee.  Party?  What party???  So we threw a party ourselves, and my agent–my agent then and my agent now–my sister and I, a grand opening party complete with a visiting llama who peed in the elevator on his way up to the party room.  (The building manager was NOT happy!)

My inquiries about a tour were met with similar derision, so my agent–that same agent–set up 30 signings for me.  THIRTY!!  I went all over hell and gone in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona–ON MY OWN NICKEL–signing books at any B. Dalton or Waldenbooks that would give me a table and let me hawk books inside or outside the store.  Because I didn’t know how much the first two on-sale weeks mattered, I WENT ON VACATION!!! before those signings started.  In the long run, it turns out that was the right thing to do. Avon printed 30,000 copies of UPG and shipped most of them.  Then when orders for the signings started coming in, the book was OUT OF PRINT!  That caused something of a stir.  How could an original paperback from an unknown writer in Nowheresville, USA, be garnering that kind of sales?  As far as New York was  concerned, that second printing came like a bolt out of the blue!

And then the second book came out.  Back then and even now, I do two books a year.  When the second book came out, we went back to those same stores–Washington, Oregon, Arizona–and did the same thing.  Only this time, I could sell two books at the same time–the first and the second–instead of just one. That strategy worked up to and including book number four.  I write series books, and I always told new readers that of course they should start with number one.  All during that time, I was doing free (but you must have books for sale) events for libraries, civic groups–Rotary or Kiwanis anyone?–book clubs, and ladies auxiliary luncheons.  Give me an audience and let me talk to them.

My first nine books were all original paperback and was looked down on with almost the same disrespect as e-books receive now.  There was no publisher paid tour.  My husband had a sales job and,whenever possible, I went along for the ride and set up signings coming and going.  He did his job during the day and during the week and helped with the signings evenings and weekends.  He doesn’t write, but he’s my partner, and none of this would be possible without him.  By the way, our first date as the “llama peeing” grand opening party for the first book.  Now I say that “I write the books and he writes the checks” because he handles the business end of the business.

In college, I was excluded from a Creative Writing program because, as the professor told me, I was a girl.  ”Girls become teachers or nurese; Boys become writers.”  That’s a direct quote by the way, engraved on my psyche and the reason a fromer professor of Creative Writing is the crazed killer in my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter.

I taught school for a few years, worked as a school librarian, and then spent ten years in the life insurance business.  For that first party, we invited everyone in my Rolodex–called them on the phone and invited them.  For the next book the grand opening party was at a local restaurant rather than in our building.  That restaurant, the Doghouse, is long gone now, but before every grand opening we called the people in the Rolodex and that became The Doghouse List.  What was once primarily a phone list has now morphed into an e-mail list with 14,411 names on it as of now.

In the last few years, the publicists in New York have done only the bare minimum as far as setting up tours.  They go to the places that are easy for them–in other words, they call the places that they have on file and book signings there without any regard about who and where my fans are based.  The note I sent to you–asking for a physical location–is one of several thousand I’ve sent out in the past few days.  Time spent waiting in airports, riding on planes, and living in no known time zone–is not creative time, but I’ve turned it into useful time by getting physical locations on literally hundreds of people for whom I previously had only e-mail addresses.  That way I’ll be able to SEND OUT ANNOUNCEMENTS INVITING THEM TO SPECIFIC EVENTS!  And that makes my list a more effective marketing tool.

After last year’s tour disaster, I took things in hand and booked the first seventeen events of this tour–local events–my own damned self!  Worked like a dog that first week, taking my show on the road and doing two to three events a day–30 minutes of Q and A before the actual starting time.  The Q and A is my warm up act.  (I’m sorry, I can’t help but roll my eyes at “Where do you get your ideas?”  Grrr!  That one drives me nuts.  Do they think I go out hunting ideas with a butterfly net?)  Then I do an hour long presentation and close with a Janis Ian song–At Seventeen most often.  The presentation is followed by a signing.  Two hours in all.  No intermission.  I don’t read at signings.  I talk at signings.  I tell about where the ideas for that book came from.  I tell about my own origins and history.  I tell stories people tell me about reading my books–most of which have come in through e-mails that I ALWAYS ANSWER MYSELF!  But the thing about doing local events?  As I learned in those early years, those numerious signings were in my neck of the woods,  but if reporting stores are doing the selling, those sales count and numbers, even regional numbers, rule.  By the way, if you’re not comfortable doing public speaking, you need to get that way fast.  I took the Dale Carnegie course first and then spent a year in Toastmasters.

All this is to say, Barbara, go out and find your own fans–in libraries or wherever.  (Ann Rule and I used to be known as the queens of drug store and grocery store openings.  If the stores wanted us, we went.)  Make sure the various venues have SOMEONE THERE TO SELL THE BOOK.  I do NOT sell books out of the back of my car at events, and neither should you.  Collect names.  Get those early readers to become loyal readers.

My first ICD sales rep, Holly Turner, who sold paperbacks to the wholesalers–back in the old days when there were LOTS of wholesalers and no Amazon–told me once, “One personal contact is worth ten readers.”  I believe that’s true.  In this digital day and age, when we send out notices in advance of books going on sale, people have come to regard those letters as personal notes from me.  They are points of contact.  After the announcements go out, I spend days responding to the replies, but those people hear from me.  They are my PEOPLE, and they make my life possible.

So here’s a whole tankful of unsolicited advice. All of which is meant to say, don’t let the turkeys get you down.  Don’t just grumble.  Do something.  Do events.  Get people in your corner.  I still encounter people who say, “I met you the first time selling books on a card table outside a Waldenbooks in wherever.”  Fifty plus books later, those people are still reading my books.  And that counts!

JAJ

REMAINS OF INNOCENCEThat’s it. I trust you’ll agree with me that J. A. Jance is a class act, not only talented but extremely hard-working and as loyal to her fans as they are to her.  I appreciate her willingness to share the lessons she’s learned along the way. She has a new book out in her Joanna Brady series, by the way, and it’s wonderful: REMAINS OF INNOCENCE.

 

 

For lots more writing and publishing interviews and advice, subscribe to this blog through the links above and to the right. And here are a few links to previous interviews:

 

Writer Diana Gabaldon

 Writer Lorraine Bartlett

 Literary agent Gail Hochman

 Viking Editor Tara Singh

 Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci

 Book publicist Brian Feinblum

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Why I Signed the New York Times Letter

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On Sunday, August 10, an open letter to readers signed by over 900 writers appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times. The letter does not take sides in the merits of the business dispute between Amazon and Hachette, but rather protests the collateral damage done to Hachette writers by Amazon’s tactics.

I was one of the signatories.

I signed the letter for a few reasons: First, out of empathy for the writers whose books recently came out or are about to come out with Hachette. Writers only get one chance to launch a book, and if the largest distributor in the country refuses to carry or discourages readers from ordering it, those lost sales will never be made up. So many things can go wrong during the publishing process, and they so often do, that any writer who’s been around for a while must empathize with those unlucky writers. (Or so you’d think…but I’ll get to that later.)

Second, because as a writer myself, I object to writers being used as cannon fodder. Self-serving, no doubt, but there you go.

And third, because what are the odds of me ever again being on the same list as Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver and James Patterson?

Kidding. I didn’t know who else was signing the letter when I added my name to it, though I was pleased when it came out to see that many writers with far more to lose than I were willing to append their names.

But I signed the letter with a heavy heart, because the reader in me loves Amazon. I love the company’s customer service and efficiency. I barely have time to think of a book before it is displayed before me, accessible at a click. Obscure backlist books by writers I love? No problem; if Amazon doesn’t have it, they’ll tell me who does. Endless bargain bins, daily specials, and unlimited bookshelf space in my Kindle: what’s not to love? I’m not alone in this. Lots of publishing people who consider Amazon the great Satan read submissions on their Kindles.

As a writer, though, Amazon scares me. I fear that in its relentless quest for low prices and ever-greater market share, it’s morphing into Walmart. It has also taken out whole sectors of the publishing eco-structure. First it discounted most brick and mortar bookstores out of existence. Then it took a shot at publishers themselves. The plan was to siphon off a cadre of best-selling writers, cutting publishers out by offering writers a much larger share of the profits. But the increased e-book revenue came at the expense of print book sales, as brick-and-mortar bookstores refused to carry Amazon’s books. A few writers went over to Amazon, supplemented by several best-selling self-published writers, including some of those currently spearheading the pro-Amazon campaign I talk about below. But on the whole, the attempt to cut out publishers fell flat.

There is, of course, one sector of writers that has been greatly helped by Amazon. The company has been hospitable to self-published authors from the very beginning. They do self-published writers the service (and readers, I would argue, the disservice) of not distinguishing in their listings between published and self-published books. Over 7000 of these writers have weighed into the dispute with their own petition, a pro-Amazon screed denouncing Hachette and “New York Publishing.” I’d like to quote and comment on just a few lines from that long petition:

“New York Publishing once controlled the book industry. They decided which stories you were allowed to read.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Can’t you just see that committee of old white men locked in an airless board room, making their decisions about what you can or cannot read? It’s a good story, if you like dystopian fantasy. In fact, commercial publishing is made up of separate and competing businesses, including the so-called Big Five but also many smaller houses. Each of them is striving to do what all businesses strive to do: make a profit. Each buys the books it believes will be profitable. Each turns down books they deem commercially nonviable for their company. Because there is far more supply than demand, they are extremely picky about what they choose to publish. That is their business and their right.

One might argue that it’s also Amazon’s business and right to do whatever it can to maximize its market share and improve profits. It’s the nature of businesses to expand if they can; it’s what shareholders demand. The big chains Amazon crushed got where they were by gobbling up smaller chains. These are reasonable arguments to have. But point of the letter I signed is not to adjudicate the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, only to protest tactics that scapegoat writers.

 “The establishment media and many big name, multi-millionaire writers are out in full force to spread this propaganda.”

This is also a favorite theme in the comment sections of many articles on the dispute, and it’s both revealing and absurd. Of the 900 or so writers who signed that open letter, maybe a dozen are household names in literate households. Of those, several are millionaires. But the vast majority of writers are working stiffs like me, who earn less from writing then they would have from almost every other field of endeavor they might have chosen.

Marie AntoinetteThis is really one of the saddest parts of this dispute is the pitting of writers against one another. Everywhere you look you see writers bashing writers, or lecturing them on their true interests, which is about as much fun as being buttonholed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Amazon has democratized publishing,” wrote one typical commenter, while Big Publishing and its lackey house-writers fight to uphold an outdated, elitist model. Go ahead and picture Marie Antoinette gouging on cake while the people starve; you’re meant to.

Hachette writers have a direct interest in this matter. Commercially published writers do as well, since Hachette is only the first to take on what will undoubtedly be an issue of contention with all the other major publishers. But why would thousands of writers jump into a dispute in which they have no part, taking sides against their fellow writers?

I think the advent of self-publishing is on the whole a force for the good. Many I know have revived careers by reissuing backlist books, while others have launched their careers through self-publishing. It’s a great thing that writers now have options. Nevertheless, some self-published writers, despite impressive gains in market share, harbor enormous resentment against the trade publishing houses who declined to buy their work. They feel they are regarded as second-class citizens in the literary world, and when the opportunity presents to pile onto an embattled publisher, they seize it. This animus spills over to the “privileged” writers who do publish with those houses. Sympathy for Hachette’s unlucky writers? Let them eat cake, those writers scoff. They’re all rich anyway.

I wish! But let’s not go into that again. It’s a little-known but well-established fact that writers, when they meet, spend most of their time discussing, not literature, but money, which comes from having too little of it. Poets are the worst, because they make the least. What helps is the sense that we’re all in it together.

Something to think about.

Here are some good posts if you want to learn more about the Amazon-Hachette battle and what it means for writers.

Mike Shatzkin

N.Y. Times

Jake Kerr

 

Some book news to share: The ebook of A DANGEROUS FICTION is now just $7.99, and the paperback’s available as well, in stores and online. The launch of the paperback is drawing some renewed attention from critics, as well. This terrific review just came out from Joe Meyer of CT News. If you haven’t read it yet, summer’s awasting.

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A DANGEROUS FICTION is out in Penguin paperback!

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Dear Friends,

As you know, this blog generally focuses on the business and craft of writing, but this time I have some important personal news to share: As of today, A DANGEROUS FICTION is out in paperback!

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Seeing the Penguin imprint on my book is particularly meaningful for me. Many years ago, before Amazon was even a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye, I lived in Ein Gedi, a nature preserve near the Dead Sea. It is one of the most pristine, beautiful places on earth, but it had one huge drawback: the closest bookstore was hours away in Beersheva. Once a month or so, I’d hitch a ride to the city and head straight for that bookstore, where I scooped up every novel I could find with the orange Penguin logo. I might not have known the author, but for me, the imprint itself was a guarantee of quality. I’m quite proud that A DANGEROUS FICTION will bear that logo.

Publishing, as readers of A DANGEROUS FICTION know, is murder. You might think that once a writer has broken into print, it’s easy sailing. Not so much. Without the support of loyal readers and the opportunity to find new readers, writers cannot exist (i.e. publish, which is existence for a writer.) Because I think of you all as my cadre, I’m turning to you for help in launching the paperback edition of A DANGEROUS FICTION. Help me make this one a success, and there will be more to come in the series of Jo Donovan mysteries.

How can I help, you ask? A few things can make a huge difference, with number one being the most impactful.

  1. alex eating bookIf you can, buy a copy today. Sales on launch day in particular are tremendously important in positioning a book to succeed. If you already own A DANGEROUS FICTION, consider buying a copy or two for friends who love mysteries, via Amazon, B&N, or a brick and mortar bookstore near you.
  2. If you belong to a book club, online or in person, consider recommending A DANGEROUS FICTION. Viking put together this very useful reader’s guide for book clubs. If your book club does choose the book, let me know and I’ll do my best to drop in via Skype for your discussion.
  3. 20130821_130753_1Talk about the book to friends who read, both in real life and online via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums or other social media. Publishers always claim that word of mouth is what sells fiction; with your help, I’d love to prove them right.
  4. Review the book on Amazon and/or Goodreads. These reviews directly influence readers’ choices.
  5. Take pictures of the book, in the wild or in captivity, the more imaginative the better. Post them online and send me a copy 1012440_10200362644900845_1675904216_nand I’ll share them as well. As a small thank you, I will choose one (U.S.) photo at random; the sender will receive a personally autographed copy of A DANGEROUS FICTION or another of my books.  [Insert book pix)

Please understand that I’m not asking anyone to do all these things. I know you all have busy lives that, strangely enough, don’t revolve around me. But if you can do any of the things on this list, you’ll be helping more than you can imagine.

Thank you!

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WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

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Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

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New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

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outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.

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For more on this subject, see this post.

For additional, sporadic outpourings from this brain, subscribe to this blog through the links to the right. 

 

 

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Diversity in Books

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A group of authors concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s literature launched a campaign on social media recently to raise awareness and influence decision-makers in the publishing industry. On Twitter, their  hashtag,#WeNeedDiverseBooks, trended for several days. They had a big presence on Tumblr as well (http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/), where numerous contributors posted pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why we need diverse books. I encourage you to visit it; many of the entries are moving and thought-provoking.

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The State of Diversity in Publishing

There’s no doubt that minorities of all kind are underrepresented both as writers and characters in children’s literature and fiction in general. The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracks the number of books about and/or by people of color published in the US. In 2013, out of approximately 5000 children’s books published, only 93 were about black people, 69 about Asians, 57 about Latinos, and 34 about Native Americans.  (If there is a similar survey of LGBT characters, I don’t know of it, but I think we can safely assume the results would be similar.)  These numbers were substantially worse than the results 10 years ago.

Publishing has contracted in general, but it seems as if a disproportionate number of the voices forced out were minority writers. American publishing lags behind the other arts and media in its representation of this country’s diversity. Not so long ago it was taken for granted that all political TV pundits were white males; this is far from the case now. Racial and gender diversity is the norm on television dramas and comedies; shows that lack diversity (“Girls”) are singled out for criticism. Music has long transcended class and racial boundaries. And yet publishing still skews overwhelmingly white.

When I first started working in publishing, many years ago, the industry was progressive in that it employed many women in senior positions; but the only black employees I ever met worked in the mailroom. It was a big deal when Random House hired a black editor in 1979. Most opening positions were filled by Ivy League graduates from families who could subsidize their offspring’s pittance of a wage. When you walked through the editorial and executive floors, the faces you saw were overwhelmingly if not exclusively white.

 

If that were still the situation in publishing, it might explain the paucity of books by and about people of color; but it is no longer true. A great many young editors still seem to come from the Ivy leagues, but those schools themselves have become more diverse. Why, then, have books become less so?

Publishing Economics 101

The answer, I believe, lies in a basic understanding of the economics of the industry. Publishing is a profit-oriented business, even though the profits tend to be relatively small compared to other industries. All the large houses are owned by corporations. Publishers of imprints are judged by their bottom line; consequently they judge their editors the same way. An editor whose books do not make money will not thrive in commercial publishing. As for literary agents, having been one for many years, I can tell you how they think. They ask themselves two questions about everything they read: Do I love it? Can I sell it? If the answer to the second question is no, the answer to the first is irrelevant.

kite runnerAs long as editors believe that books by and about LGBT and non-white people will appeal only to “niche readerships,” that belief will factor into their decisions and those of their publishing boards. The best way to dissuade them of this belief is by proving it wrong. Awards are nice, but nothing garners respect like sales figures that exceed expectations. Books about people of color that break through to wide popular readership — books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner — probably open more doors for other diverse writers than anything else could. But the odds of such breakthroughs shrink to insignificance when so few diverse books are published to begin with.

Remedying this situation will take concerted action by publishers, writers and readers. But before I get into that, I want to take a step back and talk about the goal itself. What is diversity in fiction?

What Diversity Is and Isn’t

Let me start with a true story. Years ago, I wrote a novel called A Heartbeat Away, a modern adaptation of my favorite book in the world, Pride and Prejudice. The novel was set primarily in a large inner-city ER, secondarily in a number of jazz clubs. The two main characters were black, and many of the secondary characters were black or Latino. When the book was finished, my agent sent it to my long-time editor at one of the Big Six publishers, who called me a few days later to tell me I had just written the best book of my career.

Heartbeat AwayI expected that an offer would follow soon. In fact, six weeks passed before we had any further response. It came in the form of another call from my editor. She said she had shown the book to others in the company, who all agreed it was a first-class novel. Some, however, wondered whether I, as a white writer, should have been the one to write it. There had been some debate, but eventually they had agreed to publish.

I was astonished. If they had said the characters were unconvincing, that I had failed in that way, I could have accepted it. But to say in one breath that I had succeeded in creating true and affecting characters, and in the next that I did not have the right to create such characters, seemed to me a total misunderstanding of what fiction does and how it works – and this from publishing people.

The characters in that book were black or Hispanic because they had to be for the story I wanted to tell. For a long time I had been looking for a modern setting with the extreme class stratification of Jane Austen’s world. One day, a very long day spent with a sick child in a grim Brooklyn emergency room, I found that highly stratified microcosm. I spent some time in the cafeteria and noticed that the groups at various tables were segregated by rank, not race. Doctors sat with doctors, nurses with nurses, aides with aides. There were doctors of many races and ethnicities, but on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, the employees were almost all black. Since my story, based on Pride and Prejudice, was about a love affair that crossed class boundaries, I chose as my protagonist a woman whose housekeeping job put her on the bottom of the ladder. Her lover was at the top: the director of the Emergency Department. Given the novel’s setting, the housekeeper pretty much had to be black, which meant her lover must also be black. If he weren’t, the novel would come to be about the crossing of racial boundaries as opposed to class boundaries, which was my interest.

I didn’t want to be published halfheartedly or apologetically, so we took the book away and sold it to Morrow. It came out to wonderful reviews, was optioned by MGM, and published in five languages, so my story had a happy ending. Not so for a writer friend of mine, who wrote a wonderful folkloric novel set in what seemed to be but was never identified as a Native American village. She submitted to multiple literary agents, a number of whom liked the book very much but told her that they didn’t believe publishers would buy a book about Native Americans written by a white woman.

Does diversity refer only to the race or sexual orientation of the author? Must that race or gender identification match that of the book’s subject? Should writers restrict themselves to their own race, class, nationality, religion and gender?

I understand the objections of some Native American writers to those who “appropriate” a culture that is not theirs. When that culture is distorted in the resulting work, the distortion itself is legitimate ground for criticism. But I disagree with the concept of appropriation, because it implies an ownership that does not exist. This is, of course, an old, ongoing argument. When William Styron published Sophie’s Choice, many people criticized him for “appropriating” the Holocaust – as if anyone could own that.

children readingOne of the goals of diverse fiction is to allow all readers, especially young ones, to find people like themselves in books. But another is to allow readers to experience lives very different from their own, to see through the eyes of characters different from themselves. Diverse fiction expands the reader’s world, dissolves barriers and promotes empathy. Stories transcend boundaries in their origins as well as in their effect on readers. Writers are most fairly judged on how well they succeed, not on what they attempt.

The Remedy

Publishers, writers and readers all have a role to play in creating a more diverse pool of literature.

Publishers are the ultimate gatekeepers, which to my mind imposes a positive obligation to seek out and publish diverse literature, instead of taking refuge in notions like “niche readerships.” Designations like that can result in lowered expectations and consequently less support.

rainbow-157845_640Writers need to broaden their spectrum. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean stick to your own backyard. It means doing what actors do: finding a commonality with diverse characters and working outward from that common core. Of course, writers need to populate their stories with characters appropriate to the plot and setting;  I’m just saying they shouldn’t automatically default to the writer’s own race and gender. If you have a group of kids in the story, why not put one in a wheelchair? Why not mix it up a bit racially? Why not give one of the characters two Dads instead of a Mom and a Dad? That level of diversification can in itself be effective; and it needn’t be the focus of the story unless the writer wants it to be.

Readers need to seek out and support excellent diverse books, and by support I mean buy, review, discuss and recommend. Reading endless variations of genre books may be comforting, but it’s mac and cheese for the soul. We need to challenge ourselves more. Ursula Le Guin once said that, “First sentences are doors to worlds.” Readers are adventurers by nature. With so many worlds to explore, why limit ourselves to Planet Vanilla?

Posted in Diversity, How we read, Mainstream publishing, the writing life | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Insider Tips from a Publicity Pro: Positioning Books for Success

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I’m delighted to welcome to In Cold Ink Brian Feinblum of Media Connect, a major book publicity firm with a tent large enough to include Al Gore and Dick Cheney on its client list—so you know that’s got to be a huge tent. Amazon Publishing and the Penguin Group are on the list, too, along with writers as diverse as Maya Angelou and Jackie Collins. It was great to have the opportunity to pick the brains of a real publicity expert. I learned a lot from this interview; I think you will, too.

 Brian, tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on book promotion and author publicity?

Brian FeinblumI am the chief marketing officer for Media Connect , the nation’s leading book publicity firm. I have been here 15 years and the firm has helped thousands of authors over the past 50+ years. I love working with authors and helping them to grow their brand and have their voices heard. When I graduated from college 25 years ago as an English major I planned on being a journalist but ended up staying in book publishing. I like working in PR and working with the media from the other side.  I can’t see promoting too many other industries. I love books because they represent ideas and values. Books make the world go – from entertainment and literacy to recording history and sometimes creating it. I value words and the language. Other than writing scripts for the adult entertainment industry (any offers out there?), I can’t think of a better field to be in.

Once, at a publishing dinner, I heard one publisher declare that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded agreement. Do you know? In your experience, what sort of promotion or venue moves the sales needle significantly?

There is no magic formula, but there are things that are logical and make sense. For instance, where possible, diversify your media portfolio, just as you would your finances. Don’t just work at social media and ignore the opportunities with radio, print or TV. Further, most authors/publisher need to start their campaigns on time (four months before a book’s release) and to do things prior to that, such as building a social media platform, creating a Web site, and lining up distribution. Too often, people sabotage their potential success by missing deadlines and ignoring the way the media asks that you interact with it.

Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity strategy, and if so, how?

No. How people buy a book doesn’t matter for the sake of getting media coverage, although I personally support printed books and physical bookstores because they bring about a richer reading experience and develop a community. More important than who sells books is who publishes them. The consolidating of major publishers into just five owners poses a threat in terms of the diversity of voices being published and the lack of competition for authors looking to sell their books to a publisher.

Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity firm?

homeless manFirst, don’t mortgage your house just because you believe in your book. They say don’t gamble money you can’t afford to lose, when it comes to casinos or investing.  Same with book publicity. But you do need to spend some money, take some risks, and be willing to support your financial commitment by also dedicating your time to the process. No matter how much is being spent it needs to be well spent, meaning an author should have a plan customized to meet his or her needs, desires and goals – and it should be a plan that a publicist believes will be successful. For instance, I would recommend online media and radio to novelists but would never, ever recommend pursuing national TV unless it was an unusual circumstance.

I realize there are many levels of service available from a company like yours, so this is not a simple question, but I’ll ask it anyway. What should writers expect to pay for publicity campaigns? A range is fine.

Authors should be ready to pay between $3000 – $5000 per month for a PR campaign, one that lasts 3 -6 months, BUT one can’t buy PR like a commodity. What one publicist does for the same amount of money another charges may not be apples to apples, either in the scope of the campaign or the results. I like to target a campaign that makes sense for an author, rather than ask the author to simply pay a set fee for services that aren’t relevant to that particular author.

Given that most writers have limited budgets and could not afford professional representation on a long-term basis, at what stage of the publishing process should writers bring publicists on board? 

Time can be a friend to writers or a cancer. The more advance notice you have to prep and lay groundwork, the better. For instance, to set up speaking engagements could mean you need to work six-nine months in advance. To contact book reviewers at major publications, you need to send advance review copies four months prior to publication date. Writers should consult publicists early and ask them what they can do for them, how much they’d charge, and what are their plans to make them a success. Then the author should figure out what they can do vs a publicist. For instance, authors don’t need to pay someone to do social media for them – they should do it themselves (but some may need coaching and consultation). Authors should use publicists for things that seem most foreign or difficult for them to do, or things that are time-consuming or where the success is based on media relationships and knowledge that authors just wouldn’t have.

Do you represent both published and self-published writers? Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media?

Oh yes, I represent a lot of self-published authors, accounting for maybe 40% of my client base. Most mainstream media is warming up to self-published books and the barriers to acceptance are the lowest they have been. But standard, old guard book reviewers at newspapers and magazines still hold prejudice against them. Online media and radio don’t care who the publisher is. Major TV looks and takes it into consideration but the medium is more personality-driven than publisher-driven. If a person with great credentials and/or a great story has something to say, that will dictate whether TV interviews the author.

blink1One of the books on your firm’s long list of best-selling campaigns was Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. When that book came out, it seemed to be everywhere: TV, NPR, print media features. It was a very successful campaign for a high-concept nonfiction book. I’m wondering what an agency such as yours can do for literary fiction or genre writers who aren’t great fodder for the “ Good Morning America” circuit.

Yes, we have worked with all kinds of authors and genres over the years and there is room for good literary fiction. Certainly with online media and NPR or targeted radio interviews, one can get the word out. TV is not likely and some select print is possible.

I often hear from writers who have self-published first novels, put them out on Amazon, and sold nothing beyond a few copies to friends and relatives. Would you advise such writers to invest in a professional publicity campaign?

It depends on the author’s goal. People don’t just utilize a publicist to sell books. Writers need PR to brand themselves, build their media resume, get a positive message out there, come off as an expert or build a case for a literary agent to agree to represent them. Some books sell few copies because they aren’t promoted well. Others suffer from poor distribution. Some books are well-written but the cover is ugly and the price is worse. Some books are published that never should be – the topic is limited, the book is done poorly, oversaturation for the genre, or the author lacks qualifications for penning the book.

A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Yes, this is an important area to focus on. First, look at the reputation of the people you are dealing with. How big are they? Too many promoters are one or two-people shops and although some can do a fine job, many are taxed, spending just as much time looking for business as they do in executing it. They have no depth or backup plan should they get sick, go on vacation, or hit a rut with the media. A bigger firm, such as Media Connect, has many resources and works as a team, rather than a solo act. Authors should ask who will they work with, how will things be communicated, how often will they receive an update, and what results are to be expected, though not guaranteed. Look at their Web site or social media – what tone do they give off? Do you like the person you are talking to? What success do they have for books like their book? Is the author being asked smart questions about them and their book or is the publicist just sweet-talking them and lavishing praise without even knowing much about them? I think if the publicist expresses a sincere passion for your work or your topic, that goes a long way in determining who to work with.

What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

They don’t get started soon enough to plan and execute a PR campaign. They don’t invest in promotions, thinking a publisher will do everything. They put too much weight in one thing and don’t spread out their approach. Some spend unwisely on advertising, which rarely pays off for authors. They let fear, laziness, ego and being cheap get in the way of executing a comprehensive, timely and targeted campaign. They don’t fully understand that media begets media and that grass roots campaigns are good ways to establish media exposure. Authors are blinded when it comes to looking at their credentials or how they can be positioned to the media. They also don’t always work well with their publicists, such as not being available for calls, failing to provide things a publicist asks for, or forgetting to provide all of the information and resources necessary for a publicist to successfully promote them.

What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Start by reading my blog, www.BookMarketingBuzzBlog.blogspot.com . Ok, shameless plug, but I think my 1100+ posts over three years on the topics that concern authors and book PR and marketing should help them a lot. Next, think of everything you do as a long-term event. Books may come and go but a writing career is constantly in flux. You build on everything you do. Don’t think something is too small to do to promote or market your book. Don’t let your ego convince you the book will sell itself without you doing everything possible to position it for success. Don’t focus on competing authors and get jealous or critical over what they do – worry about yourself and take care of business. Stop day dreaming and drawing up plans – get to work and day in and day out build up your social media platform and then find a way to collaborate with a publicist to help grow your brand and take you to the next level.

Thanks, Brian. Lots of great advice here–well worth a “shameless plug” or two!

In fact, I’ll follow that advice and your example by mentioning that my latest book,  A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking Press), was called “required reading” by the New York Post, and “an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end” by NPR.  Though I am, admittedly, prejudiced, I’d be curious to read any book endorsed by that unlikely pair.  It’s a thriller set in the high-stakes NYC publishing world, and if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll give it a read.

Posted in Marketing, Publicity, Self-publishing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer

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Writers with children often complain about the difficulty of combining these two particular endeavors. It’s not easy, but I am here to tell you, my fellow writers, that it can be done. I raised two sons while writing eight novels. True, I could have written 15 without the kids, but I consider that a fair trade-off.

It won’t happen by itself, though. Children are sneaky buggers and will consume all of your time if you let them. If you’re serious about writing, you need to create conditions in which writing is possible. Fortunately, a few simple rules and equipment are all you need. I’ve compiled a little list. I hope it will help.

Things You Need

A Room of One’s Own. If you have not yet read the Virginia Wolfe essay of that title, do so at once. Then designate a room in your home as your writing space. Doesn’t matter what sort of room, as long as it has a door. I knew a writer with 10 children and a tiny house; she worked in her garden shed.

lockChildproof Your Space. By childproof, I don’t mean make it safe for kids. I mean make it impossible for them to get in. Not just a door, but a lockable door.

A Dog. I recommend a German Shepherd – not the American-bred shepherds with the sweet disposition of cocker spaniels, but a European-bred dog with plenty of protective drive. My late, lamented Maya understood and enforced the sanctity of my writing space. She was a sweetheart of a dog, but anyone who entered my office while I was working was greeted with a ferocious volley of barks. She never bit; she only persuaded.

German Shepherd Military Working Dog

A Helpful Partner. Not essential, but highly desirable. Someone has to pick up the slack.

Early Education. When my children were toddlers, I taught them to recite two things: their address and the following mantra.

Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”

The one time my younger son burst in on me, he actually was covered in blood. It was his brother’s, not his own. Basketball accident. Sweat suits aside, the great advantage to working at home is that you’re actually there when you’re needed.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt kids to be independent. It might even help.

angelic childrenGood Kids. You can’t supervise children and write at the same time. Therefore, it’s helpful to have good kids. Of course, good or bad, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that kids will cut into your writing time. For one thing, they like to eat. For another, they tend to take up activities. I drove half the circumference of the earth conveying mine to practices, games, meetings, friends’ homes and various activities. But when I wasn’t being Taxidriver Mom, Dr. Mom, Chef Mom, or World’s Most Embarrassing Cheerleader Mom, when I was working, the mantra applied.

Duct Tape. In case all else fails.

Orneriness. There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no, and not just to your kids.

It’s easy once you get the hang of it. “Could you run the bake sale for the PTA?” “No, I’m working.” “Would you mind watching Cindy for the afternoon?” “Sorry, I’m working.” “Come take a dip in the pool.” Okay, that one I give into.

 

 

Posted in the writing life, Writers, Writing tips | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Caveat Emptor

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I’ve worn many hats, and with the exception of one ancient riding helmet, they all relate to publishing. I’ve been an editor (Fawcett Books), a literary agent, and a teacher of writing, in addition to writing my own books. Having sucked up that much experience, I am now an inveterate giver of advice.

I encourage my students and editing clients to stay in touch, and many do. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard some wonderful news from them, and also some worrisome news.

The good news first:

DSC_6046 Janie Chodosh’s first novel, DEATH SPIRAL, was published by Poisoned Pencil Press, a new YA imprint of Poisoned Pen. She tells how it happened in this guest post.

Jenny Elliott was a student in one of my Next Level workshops, so I got to see her novel, SAVE ME, in its infancy. It was a gutsy, controvJenny Elliottersial novel in which the central romance is between a student and teacher. This made some of the other writers in the workshop uncomfortable, but Jenny, though wide open to constructive critique, was determined that this was the heart of the story she wanted to tell. That passion, and a lot of hard work, won her a contract with Swoon Reads, a new imprint of McMillan Children’s Publishing Group. SAVE ME will be coming out in January 2015.

PreciousbonesMika Ashley-Hollinger’s wonderful novel PRECIOUS BONES, published by Delacorte, was featured by the Scholastic book club. Although it’s marketed toward younger readers, PRECIOUS BONES is a book for all ages to enjoy, and if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a serious treat.

The most recent bit of news I’ve heard is not yet for public consumption, but I will say that another talented, diligent former student has had some interesting offers lately. Can’t wait to share that one with you!

Of course, not all of my students go on to publish commercially. Some choose to self-publish, and recently I heard from several of them as well. Those were the worrisome messages.

Readers of this blog know my opinion that in most cases, publishing commercially is a better choice than self-publishing for emerging fiction writers. But not everyone has that choice, and some writers are unwilling to jump through the hoops required to gain an agent and a trade publishing deal. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, so long as it really is self-publishing. By that I mean that while the writer may contract for specific services from various providers — editing, cover design, formatting, for example — the writer retains control of the book and is the publisher. Companies who will publish for you, for a fee, are known in the industry as vanity or subsidy publishers, although they will never call themselves that.

The trouble is, many writers cannot tell the difference between companies that offer services to self publishers, as opposed to vanity publishers. It’s not their fault; vanity publishers do all they can to obscure the distinction. Many of them call it a “new model” publishing. In the world of large commercial publishers, writers invest their time and talent to write a book, which either sells or does not sell. That’s the risk they take. If the book does sell, they get a nonrefundable advance on royalties and the services of top professional editors, designers, production, marketing and sales people. They don’t pay for those services. The publisher invests its own money, taking on some risk of its own and putting its money where its mouth is. The publisher has much to gain if the book sells well, and something to lose if it doesn’t.

In the world of vanity publishing, writers invest their time and talent in writing a book, then pay someone to publish it, doubling down on their investment. If the book sells, the publisher profits from each copy sold, but the publisher takes no risk and makes no investment in the book. All costs are covered by the writer, and the publisher builds in a hefty profit as well. Nice business model…for the vanity publisher. Not so nice for the writer.

Instead of publishing themselves, naïve writers often sign on with vanity publishers that offer a full package of services, supposedly akin to what a commercial publisher would provide its authors: editing, design, production and distribution. Marketing and PR are on the menu as well, for additional fees, naturally. Writers often sign on for minimal packages — production, distribution — that cost several hundred dollars; but once that deal is inked, the hard sell begins. What’s the point of publishing a book, writers are asked, if you don’t support it with marketing and PR? And the publisher just happens to have a handy dandy (and thoroughly useless) marketing package to offer for a few hundred or thousand dollars more.

Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

One of the largest vanity publishers revealed that its average customer spends $5000. Very few writers would sign on for that amount of money; the vanity publishers’ trick is to get them to commit to an inexpensive package and then upsell them.

This is exactly what happened to a former student of mine who chose to self-publish his book with iUniverse, a subsidiary of Author Solutions, which was purchased by Pearson and is now owned by the Penguin Publishing group. When his book was published and failed to sell, as most self-published books do, he was convinced by the company to buy a marketing package for over $1000. This produced no results at all. A short while later, the writer was contacted by another iUniverse salesman who offered him the opportunity to display his book at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He’d been told that his book was “specially selected” by the company’s editors for display because of its quality, and because of that he would be charged only $900 for the privilege.

meteorKnowing that I was a literary agent for many years, the writer contacted me to ask my opinion. Now, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair every year for eight or nine years and I know it pretty well. The purpose of the book fair is for publishers and literary agents to sell translation rights of upcoming books. No one really looks at printed books—they’re far too busy interacting with colleagues and making deals for the upcoming books on next year’s lists. I doubt whether in the entire history of the book fair anyone has actually plucked a book off a shelf of a vanity press and said, “Hmmm, I think I’ll buy the rights to this one.” Writers have a better shot at being hit by a meteor than selling a book in that way, and of course the vanity publishers know that. They profit, not on book or rights sales, but on the hopes and dreams of writers who simply want to be read.

The salesman also told my writer that since the company now belonged to the Penguin group, their books were virtually indistinguishable to buyers. That would be news to esteemed imprints like Random House and Viking, who do not edit, sell, promote or market those books.

I told him what I thought. He’s not going ahead with the offer from iUniverse. I hope he spends that thousand dollars on a wonderful vacation instead.

Just a few days later I got a Facebook message from another former student. She’d had no luck querying agents and had decided on self-publishing. But the company she picked, Xlibris, is notorious for the same practices detailed above, and no wonder, since the two companies are both owned by Author Solutions. In this case the writer decided to go ahead anyway. I hope I have at least forearmed her against attempts, sure to follow, to sell her useless promotional and marketing services.

This month, the law firm Giskan, Solotaroff, Anderson & Stewart filed suit against Authors Solutions, their various imprints and their corporate owners for fraudulent practices, including “selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.” They’re acting on behalf of three aggrieved writers but are seeking class action status and have asked other clients of Authors Solutions and their many imprints, which include iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, Trafford, Palibrio and many others, to contact them. It will be interesting to see how that goes. Meanwhile, I hope that Authors Solutions corporate owners take a good hard look at some of their practices.

whack a moleBut really, trying to knock down these predatory companies is like playing whack a mole. No sooner do you knock one down then another Springs up in its place. As long as there is money to be made from writers’ fervent desire to publish their work, there will be unscrupulous people determined to profit from them. Writers have got to look out for themselves. Here are a few basic ways to do that:

RESEARCH

Learn everything you can about any company you consider before you contact them. That means going much deeper than just looking at their website and reading their promises. Look at their books as well: order at least one printed and one e-book from the company and see how professionally they are produced. Contact several of their writers and ask them about the experience. That’s easy to do; writers are very accessible these days. Go into detail. How did their publisher deal with problems that arise during the publishing process? Are they accessible and responsive? Do they pay royalties in a timely fashion? Ask about sales numbers, if the writers are willing to share that information. If they’re not, that’s an answer in itself.

Check the company’s distribution and sales record. What distributors carry their books? (Don’t ask the company; look for yourself.) How many (if any) books have they had on the Kindle bestseller list? If the answer is few or none, ask yourself what they are doing for you that you couldn’t do for yourself.

man reading contractCheck complaints about the company. There are industry watch people who keep a close eye on these sort of predatory companies; take advantage of their hard work. The Absolute Write forum, Predators & Editors, and Writers Beware  are good places to start.

GET IT IN WRITING

It sounds obvious, but the salespeople from these predatory companies are experts in creating a sense of urgency. Don’t ever pay anyone anything without a contract in hand, and make sure you vet that contract carefully, or pay a professional to do it.

REVERSION

Any contract you sign should be time-limited. Even if the company you’re working with is a perfectly legit small publisher and not a vanity press, small publishers often go out of business, and writers can have a hell of a time regaining the right to their work.

 

If you’ve ever worked with any of these imprints, or if you have useful experience to share or questions to ask, I invite you to comment and join in the discussion.

And please do subscribe to the blog via links to the right for all sorts of useful stuff about writing and publishing.

If you’re interested in more information about my online writing workshops, drop me a line at next[dot]level[dot]workshop[at]gmail[dot]com.

One final note: I wanted to share this wonderful blog post by Professor Emeritus Mary Sisney, in which she compares my work to that of…actually, I’m embarrassed to say. You’ll have to read it yourself to believe it.

Posted in Mainstream publishing, Scams, Self-publishing, Vanity publishers, Writers beware | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments