Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Oh, baby! How we’re wired for stories

It's books for Max, not TV

I spent the weekend with a brilliant and beautiful baby. His parents (once brilliant and beautiful babies themselves) don’t let him watch television, since screen-watching delays cognitive development in children under the age of two.

But I’m significantly older, and while Max wasn’t looking, I learned a few things over the weekend about babies (and the rest of us) from a Sixty Minutes segment featuring research on babies, ages three to six months, that proved how deeply, and in what ways, we’re wired for stories.

In the studies, babies watched puppet shows—and boy, were they captivated. There were bad guys and good guys, puppy puppets, some dressed in red, some in blue. There were acts of kindness and mean behavior. There was vengeance.

Here, what I learned from the diaper brigade:

  • Everybody loves a hero. At the ripe old age of three months, babies favored good guy (who helped a puppet open a box) over the bad guy (who bounced the puppet off the box). The writer’s takeaway: Remember Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat? We like characters with redemptive qualities.
  • We like moral justice. Babies liked to see bad guys get the what-for, favoring the puppets that punished the meanies. The writer’s takeaway: When justice is at stake, readers respond.
  • We like people who are like us. Babies who favored Cheerios over other snacks repeatedly chose puppets who demonstrated the same preference. The writer’s takeaway: Those relatable characters you’re always hearing about? Those roots run deep.
  • Social learning overrides our natural selfishness. Presented with tokens they could either keep or share, young children kept all they could. But at about age ten, they began keeping fewer tokens for themselves and leaving more for others, even for people they’d never met. The writer’s takeaway: In every culture, stories are part of our social learning, nudging us to transcend what comes naturally.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Annual "Ode to a Dead Salmon" bad writing contest accepting entries July 23 - Aug. 5

Summer's in full swing, the fish are running, and you know what that means: the hugely popular "Ode to a Dead Salmon" bad writing contest is back for its fourth season. Take a look at last year's finalists, sharpen your pencils and follow that smell. We want your best worst writing, submitted to runningfoxbooks@gmail.com between July 23 and August 5, 2013.

The idea for the contest, which began in 2010, came from a 49 Writers interview with Alaska's former Writer Laureate Nancy Lord, who said that in her early years of writing she realized that she needed to get beyond mining the same myths - 'odes to dead salmon,' poet John Haines once called them. This year, the good folks at 49 Writers have bequeathed the Ode to a Dead Salmon bad writing contest to us at Running Fox Books. We think it's a perfect fit. Our office is in Alaska, and we like to think we have a nose for bad writing, since it's what we've set out to conquer with a venture that aggregates quality books.

In past years, the Ode to a Dead Salmon contest has attracted bad writing from all over the world. No matter how stinky, every submission gets its day in the sun, posted here for the world to enjoy. And our rotten winners have gotten some great press, including a write-up in Alaska Magazine.
So it's time to do it all over again. We want your best tongue-in-cheek "Ode to a Dead Salmon" bad writing, poetry or prose, fiction or non. We'll publish all entries at our Ode to a Dead Salmon webpage so the world can read them, and we'll post the finalists here, with links from the Running Fox website and all the usual social media places. And yes, there's a prize: the winner receives a Ray Troll t-shirt of their choice. But the main goal, of course, is to have fun.

The rules:

1. We reserve the right to exclude entries deemed unfit for posting. (But if you don't receive an email confirmation of your submission, do let us know at runningfoxbooks@gmail.com.)
2. We need your real name and real email address. If you want your entry to be posted under a pseudonym or left anonymous, make that clear in your email.
3. No more than three entries per person.
4. No more than 800 words per entry (shorter is just fine with us: limerick, haiku, opening lines). 
5. Entries must be your own original work.
6. You keep the copyright, of course, but by entering you're giving us permission to post.
7. This is our contest. We make the rules (that's the beauty of blogging, folks), and the rules may change as we see fit. We'll let you know if they do.
8. We accept only Word documents or submissions embedded in the email text. Submissions MUST be single spaced, Times New Roman, with NO paragraph indentations; instead of indenting, please space between paragraphs. If the formatting is not correct, your submission will not be considered.
9. All entries must be emailed to runningfoxbooks@gmail.com by midnight on August 5, 2013. Finalists will be posted on August 12, and voting ends August 19, with official recognition of the winner on August 22..

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Publishing: One size doesn’t fit all

The big boys just keep getting bigger.

Earlier this month, the Random House-Penguin merger was completed. (No, the new house is not called Random Penguin, though we wish it were.) According to the New York Times, “The combined companies will control more than 25 percent of the book business, with more than 10,000 employees, 250 independent publishing imprints and about $3.9 billion in annual revenues.”

That’s big. And isn’t it every writer’s dream to be published by one of the Bigs?

I’ve been fortunate to have published with houses of all sizes, including Penguin (before it was Random), so I’m speaking from experience when I say that bigger is not always better. More of my books—substantially more—have reached readers through smaller publishers. With a dozen books under my belt, I now pay a lot more attention to which houses are the best fit for which books.

At the other end of the scale from the Bigs is the Lone Wolf, the author who’s releasing books on her own. The Lone Wolf enjoys the control of every aspect of publication—creation, production, promotion, distribution—but she faces some daunting numbers. Some three million books came out in 2012. That pencils out at about 9000 books coming out every day. Of the annual total, 318,000 were released by traditional publishers. The rest—upwards of 2.5 million—came from independent authors, publishing their own work. That means small is really small, as in very tough to get noticed.

But what if some of those independent or hybrid authors banded together to create a curated showcase for their work? Before I launched my first indie book, a re-release of a novel that had been traditionally published, I talked with a few author friends about the idea of an authors’ cooperative in which affiliates, each publishing at least some titles independently, could aggregate their books.

The result was Running Fox Books, where I publish some of my own work (some I still publish with other houses), but also showcase the good work of authors I know and trust. Running Fox and its affiliates are dedicated to high-quality books with strong commercial literary appeal, written by spirited, independent authors who care about language and the shared pleasure of a good book. I’m proud to have authors David Marusek, Ned Rozell, and Howard Weaver on board for the launch.

Setting up Running Fox took some time. That investment will continue each time I update the website or send out a press release or a newsletter. Some would say those hours be spent on my own books. But I’m pretty good at making sure I spend a good chunk of each day on creative projects. I’m also a big believer in giving back where you can, and thinking beyond yourself.

It’s not all about big. Cooperative ventures like Running Fox offer viable alternatives for authors. "I believe this is one of the savviest business models in publishing today," says publicist Julie Schoerke of JKS Communications. “This is a smart business move for top-notch authors on a number of levels."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Make a Book: It Takes a Team

The lonely writer: isolated dreamer, secret spinner of stories.

If that’s you, don’t get used to it. Sooner or later, regardless of whether you publish traditionally or independently, it takes a team to make a book. By taking a good, hard look at the team behind every successful book, you can figure out what combination of cash, time, and effort you’ll need to invest in order for your book to find its readers.

Here, a brief look at the skills, availability, and costs of the people who make books happen, including tips for indie authors on how to build their own teams.

  • Beta readers: To help make your manuscript better. Skill set: Smart, fast, objective. Labor pool: writing groups, acquaintances who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings, online critique/exchange sites. Cost: a mention in the acknowledgments, an Advance Reading Copy of the book, the favor returned if your beta readers are also writers. DIY tip: Cultivate objectivity, but recognize that it’s the rare writer who can see all the flaws in her manuscript.
  • Researcher:  To help you add depth and veracity. Skill set: patience, expertise, detail-oriented, investigative skills. Labor pool: librarians, friends and family who like hunting down facts, experts discovered online. Cost: a mention in the acknowledgements. DIY tip: Even fiction writers often need research.
  • Developmental Editors: To improve the structure, content, and style of your book. Skill set: well-read, experienced, able to see a project from fresh perspectives, a keen reader’s eye. Labor pool: in traditional publishing, this team includes your agent (though not all agents do developmental editing), your acquiring editor, and editorial assistants. Cost: Agents generally get 15% of royalties. The editorial staff is paid by the publisher, who generally holds back 80-90% of the gross sales to cover this and other expenses. If you’re hiring your own developmental editor, expect to pay $45 - $50 per hour. DIY tip: Beta readers can help both before and after the professional makes her suggestions. Check out this advice on hiring a developmental editor.
  • Fact-checker: To help you avoid factual errors that would discredit your work. Skill set: same as for Research. Labor pool: To a lesser extent than in the past, the traditional publisher’s editorial team handles fact-checking. Cost: as with other editing. DIY tip: If you want your developmental editor to also check facts, be sure to specify this in your agreement. As an alternative, hire someone who helped with the research. Beta-readers may also be good at checking facts.
  • Copy Editor and Proofreader: To make sure your manuscript is technically perfect. Skill set: impeccable knowledge of grammar, mechanics, and spelling; uses appropriate style manual for the type of book you’re writing. Labor pool: In traditional publishing, copyeditors and proofreaders are part of the publisher’s editorial team. The author is part of the process, checking and approving copyediting in the manuscript, and proofing the galleys. Cost: In traditional publishing, covered by the publisher’s margin. If you’re hiring your own, expect to pay by the page (usual $1+ per page) or by the hour (starting at around $35 per hour). DIY tip: Copyediting comes after you’ve completed the changes prompted by the developmental editing. Proofreading comes after the copyediting.
  • Book designer: Includes design of interior, covers (front and back) and jacket copy. Skill set: experienced in graphic design and book marketing. Labor pool: Traditional publishers have designers on staff and also hire artists on independent contracts. Costs: If not taken from the traditional publisher’s margin, figure $750 and up for design services. The more editions (e-book, softcover, hardcover with dust jacket), the more you should expect to pay. DIY tip: Check portfolios and references of potential designers; investigate experiences of other authors. In theory, you can do your own design, but unless you’re a professional, the results will be amateurish.
  • Publicists and Marketing Professionals: Create a marketing plan for a successful launch, beginning before publication; may include book tours, virtual book tours, social media campaigns, media appearances, interviews, distribution of ARCs (Advance Reading Copies), press releases, literary festivals, book trailers, contests, events, reviews, advertisements, and anything else that generates buzz. Also write advertising copy, including book blurbs and sell sheets. Skill set: someone who knows your book and its audience (and how to reach them) Labor pool: Traditional publishers have publicists on staff, but because publicity budgets vary widely from book to book, many traditionally published authors also hire their own publicists. Even traditionally published authors are expected to do a good portion of their own online publicity. Costs: Vary widely, depending on services, but you’re likely looking at a minimum of a few thousand dollars to hire a publicist. DIY tip: Nagging people to buy your book is counter-productive. Marketing requires strategy, time, and expertise.
  • Distributors: Changing rapidly with e-books and print-on-demand technology; still, you need to make sure readers are able to easily find and access your books. Stores have limited shelf space. Skill set: connections; knowledge of best markets for your book. Labor pool: Traditional publishers use distributors, who get a cut of the sales. Costs: In traditional publishing, a discount of at least 40% (often it’s 50%) is assumed for distribution, along with a margin for no-cost returns. DIY tip: Don’t expect booksellers to stock your book unless you can prove market and offer competitive terms through reliable, easy-access distributors like Baker & Taylor or Ingram (and just because your book is available from one of these distributors doesn’t mean booksellers will order it.)
  • Salespeople: To help ensure your book reaches readers. Skill set: relationships with the people who actually buy books. Labor pool: For traditional publishers, sales representatives cultivate connections with booksellers and big box stores, promoting the publisher’s top titles (the ones in which the publisher has decided to invest the most money). Independent authors rely on friends and fans, as well as their own efforts, to hand sell books. Independent booksellers will hand sell books that they love. Costs: Built into the price of the book. DIY tip: Even if you’re traditionally published, don’t underestimate the power of friends and fans in getting your book noticed. Be kind to independent booksellers, and understand that they can’t hand sell every book (see Nagging, above).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Should You Get Books for Free?

"One of the first things I associate with the reading of books is the struggle I waged to obtain them,” Henry Miller once said. “Not to own them, mind you, but to lay hands on them."

These days, Miller’s lament seems as antiquated as the pantaloon. With the advent of internet shopping and digital media, laying your hands on a book has never been easier (or cheaper), as long as you’re flexible regarding the form of the book.

Free books have been around for a long time—in libraries, and in ARCs, advance reading copies delivered to a small target audience (mostly reviewers). As print book review opportunities have fallen away, NetGalley has stepped in with digital ARCs to be downloaded by a wider market of online reviewers.

Another fresh trend in free books (and recycling) is BookCrossing.com, where you share books and watch where they travel. It starts with sticking a book identifier inside a book and leaving it in a public place for someone to pick up. As your book makes the rounds from owner to owner, you can track it online, provided its new readers log in to tell where it was found. As of now, there are over 850,000 active BookCrossers who have collectively registered almost seven million books that are traveling around 130 countries. For writers, BookCrossings is a way of sharing their books with readers they’ll never meet—random, untargeted ARCs, if you will—not an especially efficient way of generating interest in your book, though an interesting one.

By far the largest trend is the free (or greatly reduced) e-book. Each day, thousands and thousands of books are available for free across all digital platforms. These aren’t just classics that have entered the public domain because their copyrights have expired, but brand new books by authors who hope that by making their books free for a few days, readers will download them, fall in love with their work, and become fans for life, going on to buy book after book by the same author, and advising their friends to do the same.
Compared to the pervasive piracy in the digital music industry, this “system” has the advantage at least of the author determining when and where her books will be free (though book piracy is also a problem).

Is there downside to all this free, easy access to books? Ss a friend of mine in the publishing industry speculates, is there now a parallel universe in which the primary criteria for choosing a book is that it’s either free or dirt cheap? For readers, are free books even worth downloading? For writers, how much can we (or should we) offer for free?

A few thoughts on navigating the world of free books:

  • Free books are trending fast: there are a whopping five million global Google searches each month of the term “books for free.”
  • There are dozens and dozens of newsletters, blogs, and boards that feature free e-books. My favorite is BookBub, which delivers daily deals to readers targeted to the type of books they prefer. The deals are curated, meaning that not every book is selected, and while authors and publishers have to pay for their books to be included, there’s a nice up-front breakdown of what to expect in click-throughs and downloads.
  • Readers who prefer real paper can enter Goodreads and blog-tour giveaways to win free copies of their favorite books. For writers and publishers, giveaways mean more exposure for your titles at a relatively small cost.
  • When it comes to offering free e-books, writers should think hard about the extent to which the “field of dreams” set-up will work for them. Best case scenario: you have a huge, active fan base who’ll be motivated to download your free book and encourage their friends to do the same, and you’ll be savvy enough to tap that base again and again when you’ve got a new book to share with readers. Spreading the word beyond your fan base requires a lot of work—you'll likely spend hours getting listings in the dozens of newsletters, boards, and blogs that feature book deals. Will your efforts translate to sales? Maybe. Maybe not. Worst case: your book gets only a few downloads, or it gets downloaded but not read, or readers browse a few pages and leave scathing reviews.
  • Get your books free. Get them cheap. But honor their creators. It’s not that readers owe writers anything (it’s our own crazy choice to do what we do), but everyone benefits if they now and then support the writers they love. Five ways to do this:
    • Support your local library.
    • If you attend a free literary event, buy a book by the featured author. (Consider it your price of admission.)
    • Recommend books to your friends. Talk, post, and tweet about them.
    • Bloggers write for free. Thank them by leaving a comment now and then, or by signing up for their RSS feed, or by sharing their links with your social media contacts.
    • The number one way to pay it forward to a writer (besides buying her books): Rate and review what you read on Amazon and Goodreads. Because reader reviews figure so hugely into the metrics of which books get attention, there are places all over the internet where unscrupulous authors can pay people to fill their book pages with high ratings and good reviews.  Amazon is trying to crack down on this practice, but the schemers always stay one step ahead. Your honest, unsolicited rating and review is among the best ways you can support the work of honest writers—especially if you’ve been enjoying their work for free.