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.

 

Posted in Craft, How we read, Reading, Reviews, Writers, Writing, Writing tips | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

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.

brain

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. 

 

 

Posted in How we read, Neuroscience, Writers | Tagged , | 12 Comments

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.

diversity

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.

office workers

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 , | 13 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

An Overnight Success In Four Years

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 It’s been a while since my last post, due to a combination of issues. I had a “quick, easy” medical procedure that turned out to be quick and easy for the doctor, while carving a month out of my life.

sick person

Since recovering, I’ve been immersed in the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION, which exerts a strong gravitational pull.

But I’m back now, with one of my favorite sort of posts. As some of you may know, I offer this evaluation service to writers who want thorough, stringent feedback on the openings to their novels. The cost is minimal, and I don’t advertise the service for fear of being swamped, but word gets around; I probably evaluate 18 to 20 novel openings each year. When Janie Chodosh’s pages came in, I sat up and took notice, big time. The writing was polished and accomplished, and the pages did just about everything one wants in the opening to a novel, including making me care about the protagonist and want to read more.

Janie and I ended up working together on an edit of the full book, a YA thriller called DEATH SPIRAL. It’s the first in a series about Faith Flores, a Philadelphia teenager who, when the story opens, is reeling from the recent death of her heroin-addicted mother. By the time we finished, I knew she had a very strong prospect in hand; so it was no surprise, but a very great pleasure, when Janie informed me that her book had sold. The offer came from The Poisoned Pencil, a new YA imprint created by the venerable Poison Pen Press, and it will be out on April 1—no fooling! I recommend the book whole-heartedly, and PW gave it a splendid review as well.

Janie was kind enough to share her publishing adventure with readers of this blog, many of whom are also aspiring writers. I’ll let you read it for yourselves, and I hope you’ll notice one salient aspect of her journey. She didn’t dash the book off in a month or two, then rush to put it out on Kindle. Instead, she worked it, revised it, workshopped it, submitted it to a stringent editorial review (that would be me), and revised some more. That, ladies and gents, is how it’s done if you’re serious about getting published.

And now, without further ado, here’s Janie’s account:

 

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             April 2013 and I’m in a hotel room in Hawaii, four flights up, overlooking the Pacific—a brief siesta after a day of snorkeling and exploring with my family. My daughter and stepson are happily checked out in front of cable, (a novel experience, not having TV at home), and neither one is whining about seconds on ice cream or who gets to pick the show. My husband and I are relaxed. All is quiet, and I do the unthinkable: check my email.

I am not normally a compulsive email checker, but three days before we left for Hawaii the main water line at the top of our driveway burst and flooded our home (another story entirely). So being in touch with the mainland was somewhat of a necessity: Had the driveway been grated? Had all the furniture been put in storage? Had the remediation crew gotten in…

I scroll through various spam, junk, non-important, and not interesting emails, causally pressing delete as I go. Not a word from the contractor about drywall or mold. I’m about to turn off my phone when something catches my attention. The words ‘Poisoned Pencil Press’ (the young adult imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press, one of the largest independent publishers of mysteries in the world) are in my inbox. My finger lingers over the trashcan icon. Two months ago I’d submitted the manuscript for my YA mystery to the Poisoned Pencil. I am in no mood to ruin the day with a rejection.

Again, something catches my eye. The usual rejection, shown in the first line of the email goes something like this: ‘thank you, but…’  This email starts with thank you, however, there is no ‘but.’ In fact, after ‘thank you’ I see the word ‘loved.’ Loved? This does not sound like a rejection.

I open the email to find something akin to the following: Dear Janie. I loved your manuscript and would be thrilled to publish it.

I scream. I jump up and down. I shout my husband’s name. He wakes from his nap, notes my enthusiasm, and groggily says, “What, the house didn’t really flood?” (I picture time-lapse animation in reverse, the water going back up the hill.)

“No. Better! The editor at The Poisoned Pencil Press loves my book and wants to publish it!”

index The acceptance of my manuscript did not happen overnight. I started writing my young adult novel, Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery, four years before landing a publisher.  I must’ve written three thousand pages of notes, revisions, edits, scribbles, thoughts, and scratches. I diligently listened to the generous feedback offered to me by my writing group peers. I asked anyone who’d ever read a book if they’d be willing read my manuscript and comment. I worked with Barbara Rogan and absorbed her every suggestion. (Her feedback was some of the best I received, and I don’t just say this because I am writing on her blog!)

Eventually I got to the place where I trusted my story and I became more protective of my work. At this stage if I asked for feedback, I was specific on what I was looking for. I learned to trust my work, to stand behind a scene or a passage even when someone else had a critique. Then I started to submit. After a handful of rejections, I got the contract with The Poisoned Pencil, and despite four years of hard work, my editing was far from done.

I started working with Ellen Larson, the editor of the press. We talked about the characters in the story as if they were real people. She “got” and loved what I was doing. She showed me where in the story I could expand, where I could go deeper, what I could cut, and what I could develop. We went through three rounds of edits together. Even when, on the last round of edits, she said something along the lines of, “You’re going to hate me” (referring to all her markups) my reaction was just opposite. What Ellen gave me was the most valuable thing a writer could ask for: someone who believes in what you’re doing and wants to push you to make it better.

I am now working on the second book in the series, though I am taking a different approach to getting the task done. I want book two on the shelves before readers have totally forgotten about Faith Flores, the protagonist. In order to accomplish this goal, I cannot take four years and three thousand more pages of musings, notes, and scribbles. These days I go for mileage. I try to tap into the part of my brain that doesn’t edit every word and just get the plot on the page. Once I’m confident the plot works, the clues are in place, Faith has encountered sufficient obstacles and overcome them in her own particular way, then I will obsess, edit, ask for feedback, and turn my baby over to the gifted eyes of my editor.

 

Thanks, Janie, and congratulations! For lots more publishing stories, writing tips, and interviews with industry figures, subscribe to this blog via the link on the right.

 

Posted in Craft, Interviews, Mainstream publishing, Submitting, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

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In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.

     

    Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Better yet, read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

Posted in Digital publishers, Hybrid authors, Mainstream publishing, Marketing, Self-publishing, Series, Submitting, Writers beware | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

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An interesting study about publishing and writers recently came out, and one thing is clear: writers are not a happy lot.

The study, called the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Study, is based on responses from 9,210 aspiring, published and self-published writers to a survey conducted in the fall of 2013. The lead researcher was Dana Beth Weinberg, professor of sociology at Queens College in NYC. You can download the report in full from Digital World for a mere $295; if that seems a bit steep, you can get the gist of the results from Digital Book World’s post and this one by Dr. Weinberger herself.

A survey based on responses from over 9000 writers sounds quite impressive; however, the numbers are deceptive. The majority of responders are aspiring writers who have not published in any form; most have not yet completed a draft of a book. Their opinions on the advantages of publishing versus self-publishing are not informed by experience and I couldn’t see the relevance of including them in the study, unless (a cynical thought – put it down to my having the world’s worst cold) it is to increase the likelihood of their buying the complete $295 report. Among the others, 1636 were self-published, 774 were published commercially, and 598 were hybrid authors– that is, writers whose work is both published and self-published. Respondents were recruited through notifications from Writer’s Digest about the survey, which accounts for the preponderance of unpublished writers: the magazine is geared to aspiring rather than published writers.

The author of the report herself calls it unscientific, since it is based on voluntary responses rather than a random sample. Nevertheless, the results were interesting. A few things popped out at me.

discontented writer1. Writers are discontented lot. I said that before. It bears repeating. My advice to aspiring fiction writers is and has always been that if they can imagine themselves happy doing anything else, they should do it. Almost nobody makes a living from writing; and those who write well enough to be published commercially could generally make more money doing almost anything else. Of course, if you are independently wealthy, money need not be a factor. But writing is frustrating and difficult in many ways, not just monetarily. The world is not clamoring for new writers.

For those who cannot imagine themselves doing anything else but writing, despite the difficulties and lack of clamor: welcome to the fold, and the best of Irish luck to us all!

2. Unless you’re one of a small group of perennial best-selling writers or you write salable stuff incredibly fast, the money is absurd. This is true for both trade-published and self-published writers, although trade-published writers make more on average. According to the survey’s data, the median income for unpublished writers is under $5000, with a significant number earning nothing at all. Commercially published writers had a median income between $5000 and $10,000. On the higher end of the scale, the differences  are even more stark. Only 1.8% of self-published writers report an annual income of over $100,000, compared to 8.8% of trade-published writers and 13.2% of hybrid writers.

One advantage of this report is that it refutes the exaggerated claims of many self-publishing advocates. The trope I hear most often among aspiring writers is that publishing with a commercial house is confers prestige, but the real money is in self-publishing. According to the figures in this study, the percentage of writers who earned over $100,000 last year is five times greater among published than self-published writers.

3. If you must write, it pays to be a hybrid writer. Hybrid authors did best on the median income scale, between $15,000 and $20,000. They also scored highest in satisfactionhybrid with many aspects of their career. They were the most likely to be happy with their book’s pricing (44.4% compared to 24% among traditionally published writers) and most likely to be satisfied with sales figures: 9.7% compared to 8.2% among commercially published writers and 4.6% among self-published writers. This tallies with an earlier study conducted by Taleist magazine that showed hybrid writers outselling exclusively self-published writers by a large margin.

Still, it’s clear that even among hybrid writers, 90% are disappointed with their sales. Of course any number can be disappointing if your expectations were higher. In the case of self-published writers, I fear that many of them drank the Kool-Aid dispensed so liberally by self-publishing zealots with get-rich-quick promises. The truth is, it’s very hard for unknown writers to get noticed and to sell books in any quantities, even with the might of a Random House or Simon & Schuster behind them; and it’s far harder for do-it-yourselfers. But published writers, too, are disappointed with their sales; only 8.2 reported themselves “very satisfied” with sales, and 10.4% said they were happy with their publishers overall marketing and promotion of the book.

In fairness to publishers, I will interject that based on my years as a literary agent, there is never enough marketing from the writer’s point of view. However much the publisher does, writers tend to focus on what they haven’t done.

4. Across the board, writers still prefer commercial to self-publishing. That preference emerges clearly in this study. Only 35% of self-published writers would prefer to self-publish their next book; among hybrid authors, who’ve tried both methods, 30% would self-publish by choice. Among published writers, the figure is 7.5%, indicating that despite their dissatisfaction with the industry, the vast majority would still choose it over self-publishing.

 

For more on the hybrid route, see this eye-opening interview with bestselling author Lorraine Bartlett. Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Or read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

 

 

Posted in Digital publishers, Hybrid authors, Mainstream publishing, Self-publishing, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

An Experiment in Genre

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When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I got a job as a copywriter with Fawcett Books, one of the top three paperback houses of the time. They published several lines of romances that sold very well and paid well, too, for what seemed to me not too  much effort–much less effort than waiting tables at night, as I did to supplement my meager publishing pay. From childhood I’d been determined to become a writer, not of pulp but of the sort of novels I myself admired. But I knew that writers need either a private income or a day job. Lacking the former, I would need the latter–and what better day job for a writer than writing? I had a college buddy who also worked at Fawcett; we talked it over and decided to experiment by writing a paperback romance on spec. We had an obvious “in” with the editor; if we produced a novel up to her standards, we knew she’d buy it.

Romance novelWe read a few of the bestselling romances, analyzed the formula, and set about constructing one of our own, hashing out a plot, then writing alternate chapters.  But it was harder going than we’d expected, largely because neither of us had any real interest in the genre. And after a few weeks, our experiment came to an abrupt end when my writing buddy’s wife decided she didn’t like the idea of us collaborating.

I tell you this story by way of introducing my guest today, C.S. Lakin, indie author of 14 novels and conductor of a far more successful writing experiment.  A short while ago, I ran across a fascinating blog post about an experiment she did to test the importance of genre in marketing self-published fiction.  Her results surprised me; I think they surprised a lot of longtime writers.  As a former agent, I was particularly pleased to see a path for writers to support themselves and more by taking smart advantage of the opportunities in the self-pub market. What she did should replicable, too, by writers who are good, fast, and savvy, which makes it all the more interesting. Here is her own account of that experiment.

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

 CS-LakinWriters who love to write fiction often eschew the idea of crafting a novel or novella solely to target a specific audience—especially if the primary goal is to sell a lot of books in order to make money. To many, putting money-making or the goal to top the best-seller lists ahead of writing “genuinely” or “from the heart” is a sellout, a compromise. It shows lack of scruples or integrity. It paints the writer as a cheap, spineless hack just out to make a buck. At least, that’s how some purists feel.

Aren’t we novelists supposed to be holding up the flame of truth and quality to shine in the world? Isn’t writing to a specific best-selling genre a sacrifice of quality and an affront to our muse? Good questions.

For years (decades) I wrote novels based on ideas I was passionate about. I created stories with deep, rich themes, and spent endless hours honing my craft in order to write the best, most compelling books I could.

And I wrote many of them, in numerous genres, but always honoring the purist’s oath, which might go something like “First, do not compromise.” I felt if I were to compromise my integrity by writing something just to sell big, I would bring shame to myself and my writing profession.

 “It’s Fine for Other Writers to Sellout . . .”

 Sure, I knew plenty of wonderful writers who wrote just to make money. They sometimes wrote books or magazine articles they didn’t like in order to get those checks and pay their bills. They had families to support. I didn’t judge them. In fact, I wholeheartedly supported what they were doing.

 But it wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books that meant something, that moved hearts, that changed lives. And I’m glad I spent those twenty-plus years writing beautiful novels that indeed did mean something, move hearts, and change lives. I’m very proud of those books.

 What Did I Do Wrong?

 But they’ve never really made me any money. Why? At first I thought it was just bad luck. And then bad marketing. I did everything my successful friends said to do. I build a huge online presence and engaged in social media. I paid for publicists and marketers and did blog tours.

 But even though I spent a fortune in time and money, nothing paid off. I joined the hundreds of thousands of authors who lament they just can’t get discovered. My novels won awards and got terrific reviews, but they didn’t sell.

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

 I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself, so spent two years contacting successful indie authors, inviting them to share their stories on my blog Live Write Thrive, asked them endless questions. Finally the truth glared at me in the face.

 What truth? That genre matters. I had to admit that although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books were a bit experimental and couldn’t be easily categorized.

 With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. Some do make that break into best-sellerdom, but not many. When I took a look at my author friends who were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat, I paid close attention to what genre they were writing in. And that revealed the key.

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

 I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

 What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

 But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

 So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion [NOTE: this was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released

 So, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

 My Results

 Lakin's ExperimentThe novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top-ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

 In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

 My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

 One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

 I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

 My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

 I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted statistics showing that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

 You Don’t Have to “Sellout” to “Sell Big”

 I don’t think writers should “sellout” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. And it does feel nice to be able to pay the bills. Surely there is some big-selling genre you can tailor your writing to and even find enjoyment in the process.

 Barbara here again, with a special bonus. As I read Susanne’s guest post, a few questions presented themselves.  I posed them to her, and her answers are below.

Q:  Your genre for the experimental novel was an historical one. How much research did you have to invest to write this book?

A: I spent a couple of long weeks doing the research. I’d never written a historical before and the thought intimidated me, since I really dislike seeing historical errors in manuscripts or novels and know the author has a burden to be as accurate as possible. But since I had lived on the Front Range for a few years, I had a personal feel and experience of the locale at least. I contacted the curator of the Greeley Museum and was given a five-page list of bibliography that I drew from. I ordered a dozen or so books on the history of the town and region and took a lot of notes. I really had a lot of fun doing this and asked a lot of questions.

Q: As you had little or no platform and no publisher working for you on the experimental novel, how do you think so many readers discovered and continue to discover your book? (The more specific you can be on this point, the happier I’ll be. “Buzz” alone, though surely a factor,  doesn’t edify.)

detectiveA: I don’t think buzz really had much to do with it, if at all. The author I modeled after said she, as well as the other authors she knows who write in this subgenre, put her book out and it went right to the top of the genre charts and sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first year. She didn’t do any marketing or promotion. As I said in my post, there is a supply and demand at work, so I’m assuming readers of this genre go online and search for new books. I do believe, though the best way to be discovered on Amazon is for your book to come up in the top twenty (best to be in the top six so it shows at the top) when search words are typed in. I was careful to put in a lot of keywords in my product page and choose the keywords that readers would use to search for a book like this. Contrary to what Amazon recommends, I feel putting in the genres as keywords is crucial. Readers looking for a historical western romance are going to type those words in the search bar, not words like Colorado or horse vet or something obscure. Amazon feels people search by interests and would type in “strong female lead” or “grief.” To prove my point, before I even sold one book, the book came up on the top ten in lists (for the genres Western and historical Westerns) under new releases tab on the first day. I’m sure if readers were online looking for a new historical western and clicked on new releases, that’s how they found my book. The key is to be up at the top of the lists. The author I mentioned kept her book at 99 cents the whole year, never raising the price. Back a couple of years ago many thought that was the way to go, modeling after Amanda Hocking’s success. I notice usually all but about three on the top twenty of these genres on any given day are priced between 99 cents and 2.99. So that’s something for me to consider. I’ve sold nearly 4,000 copies in six weeks at 3.99. I did put the book on sale last week for a promo at 1.99 to see what would happen and the book jumped back up the lists. So I have to decide if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies to say I have a best seller or whether I want to make more money and sell less. I haven’t decided yet. I know I got off topic here, but feel the whole trick to selling is to be noticed, and this is the way you get noticed.

3. You say that you’ve invested a lot of time in building a platform for your other books with disappointing results; yet the book tailored to a carefully chosen genre sold extremely well without any platform. Given that time is a writer’s capital, what value do you now place on platform-building for writers?

I think platform is essential. Being a writer is all about connecting to your fans and readers. I don’t know whether extreme effort to blog and promote a book will pay off in terms of sales compared to the time spent, but to me the marketing and promo is important along with social networking. But I hear a lot of authors say similar things that I’ve said—that they’ve tried everything to promote their book and they are not getting sales. In contrast, many of my clients releasing good first-time novels in the big-selling genres often sell big right out the gate with no name or platform. I like the idea that I can write a book and get good sales right away while I continue to build a reputation. I do believe that writing book after (great) book is the way to keep sales going and draw in new readers. That is advice I’ve heard for years from every quarter. And really, if someone wants to be a writer, they should keep writing.

Susanne, thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. Readers, your reactions?

  Bio: C. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript

 Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!

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