Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Writer’s Gratitude: Six Reasons to Give Thanks

If you write to publish, you know it’s not easy. To create a book that shines can take years. For it to get noticed among the thousands of titles published each day is no small challenge, either.

Even so, I wouldn’t want to do anything else, and I’ll bet you wouldn’t either.

Here, six reasons for writers to be thankful during this season of gratitude:

  • Technology: I’ve been at this so long that the first two books I worked on were written when typewriters with self-correcting ribbons were as good as it got. We may grumble about glitches in our word processing programs and about the distractions of the internet, but the tools we have at our disposal today are nothing short of amazing.
  • Options: Freedom. Control. Connecting directly with readers. The possibility of earning a living wage from our work as writers. With the digital revolution and the increasing validation of independent publishing, we enjoy more options than ever. The choices can be dizzying, and with freedom comes increased responsibility, but we’ve come a long way, baby.
  • Community: True, we writers have our quirks. We tend to be introverts. We function in parallel worlds: the one beneath our feet, and the one we’re spinning in our heads. But all in all, we support one another. We share resources. We cooperate. And even we’re a tiny bit envious, we celebrate one another’s achievements.
  • Masters: The books you can’t wait to read. The authors whose wisdom astounds, whose capacity for story appears boundless, whose facility with language leaves us breathless. To enjoy such inspiration is a privilege almost beyond compare.
  • Language: So many words. So many ways to arrange them. A writer’s palette is like no other. In every line we write, the gift of language reveals itself. The supply is never depleted, and our delight in the capacities of language grows in tandem with out proficiency.
  • Mystery: Writing is a recursive process of discovery. The process may be difficult, but it’s never dull. Where our thoughts come from, how they appear on the page, which new ways a story will turn—these mysteries keep our work fresh and exciting. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Market Your Book: Six Components of a Successful Book Launch

You’ve written your book. You’ve gathered responses from first readers. If you haven’t proven your chops as a developmental editor, you’ve found one to work with. You’ve revised, several times. If you’re not a good line editor, you’ve brought one to your project.

Now you’re ready to publish. You submit and submit and submit until your project is signed with a publisher, or you bypass submission in favor of independent publishing, or you finagle a hybrid arrangement, perhaps a print version through traditional channels while you handle the digital versions.

Whew. Your book is about to meet its readers.

Not so fast. To get to this point is a huge accomplishment. But you’re far from finished. You’ve only entered the next phase: promotion and marketing.

In traditional print publishing, book buzz is generated almost entirely around the launch. In order to be deemed a success, a book has to break from the gates with massive orders within the first three to four weeks. Much of how this break happens is pre-determined by the publisher’s marketing budget. Each season, a handful of books are pre-selected as blockbusters, most of them written by authors who’ve gained entrance to the winners’ circle by having been there in the past. The publisher’s resources are aimed at creating launch buzz for these books among reviewers and booksellers. Co-op funds ensure that these pre-destined hits are placed face-out at the front of bookstores. The season’s other new releases receive only minor attention from publicists, and they get only minor buzz.

One of the joys of the digital revolution in publishing is that the launch window doesn’t matter nearly as much. Given the proper attention to word of mouth and online algorithms, a good independently published digital book can gain traction slowly and steadily, with sales spikes benefiting the book at any point in its lifespan.

Still, the launch matters. That’s because key players in the industry—book sellers, reviewers, librarians, and readers—are conditioned for buzz, and buzz happens best when a product is fresh. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, that means the success metrics for your title are zeroed-in on the brief window of the launch. If you’re publishing independently, you’re still going to find the most interest in your book when it’s fresh and new.

I’ve been thinking a lot about launches because I’ve got two of them looming. First up, in February: No Returns, Book One of the Battleband Saga for middle grade readers, released in both print and digital from Running Fox Books, my own press and independent author cooperative. Next up, in September: Cold Spell, literary fiction (for grown-ups), with the print version from the University of Alaska Press and the digital version through Running Fox.

For independent projects, I prefer a launch window of at least three months. With traditional publishers, you’ll have at least several months—more likely a year or two—to gear up for your launch. You can handle a publicist to manage your launch, but be warned: it’s not cheap, and there’s no guarantee you’ll see a return in sales.

Whether you’re publishing traditionally, independently, or within a hybrid arrangement, here are six components of a successful book launch:

  • Groundwork: Only a Trump-like infusion of cash can substitute for good groundwork. You’ve written a book that’s a must-read. It fills a niche in the marketplace. Your approach is unique. Your prose is vibrant and fresh. Your story grips readers. If you’ve published before, your fans love your work and they’re eager for your next book. You and/or your publisher make sure that from cover to cover, your book is professionally produced. Once that’s accomplished, be sure you research whre your book fits in the marketplace, including the top writers and books most like you and yours. Make a sell sheet for your book, one that includes the promotional copy, your author bio, the book’s key words and categories, and ordering information. You’ll use it often.
  • Network: Ideally, you’ve already identified friends and fans through personal and digital networking, and you engage with them actively, and on a regular basis, ideally through an electronic newsletter as well as social media. Before your book launches, expand these networks in a strategic but genuine ways. Genuine. I can’t stress this enough. Blatant self-promotion that’s all about you and your book will backfire. Think value-added. Enrich the lives of your friends and fans in meaningful ways, and they’ll be happy to spread the word about your upcoming book. Even your traditional publisher will expect to tap your network for reviews, blurbs, and media coverage. If you opt for a launch party, you'll invite your network.
  • Web presence: At the minimum, you need an author website. You may also want a website for your book. Unless your book has been selected for blockbuster exposure, don’t expect your publisher to provide these sites for you. You’ll get some web exposure on the publisher’s site, but that’s not going to give you the presence and exposure you’ll get from your own web presence. I’m locked into a Homestead site from way back, but you’ll get a better value from Wordpress with third-party hosting and a GoDaddy domain. If your budget allows, you can hire out building the site, but unless you’ve got an ongoing source of cash, you should maintain your own site so the content stays fresh. For ideas on how to set up your site, look to the top authors and books in your niche. The book’s website should go up early in your launch period so you can link to it in all of your other pre-launch activities. Decide if you want a book trailer or other special features, like a media kit. Depending on how crucial the trailer is for your audience, you can make it yourself using Animoto, or you can hire a professional.
  • Advance Reading Copies: Make sure these get out to readers who’ll follow through with blurbs and reviews, including a few movers and shakers who have a wide reach. Ideally, you want digital files in both mobi and e-pub formats, and some softcover ARCs for those who prefer them. Include a form of the sell-sheet with each ARC. If you’re traditionally published, your publisher will ask for a list of people you’d like to receive ARCs, and they’ll add to that standard review outlets like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. They may also make the book available through NetGalley. On my independent projects, I budget for at least one big review, like Kirkus, and for NetGalley, and for a Goodreads pre-launch giveaway. I also offer digital ARCs for review by request from the book’s website.
  • Tour: Plan a post-launch tour that includes both in-person and digital interfacing with your readers. If you only show up to sign books and pop in on the occasional blog, you’re bound for disappointment. Plan early, and plan strategically. Think of your potential readers, and consider the best venues for connecting with them: book clubs, local organizations, speaking engagements. For the blog tour component, you can hire a service like Goddess Fish to make the arrangements if you don’t have a publicist to do this for you. If you’re doing press releases, they’ll be more effective if they’re in connection with some sort of newsworthy event. With some 9000 books published daily, just the fact that yours has come out isn’t newsworthy beyond the niche groups that have a built-in interest in your work—your alma matter, the small town where you grew up or live now, your non-writing affiliations.
  • Looking forward: It’s easy to get so caught up in promoting your book that you forget the best way to develop an audience of readers is to keep writing great books. No matter what, I devote the best portion of my writing time to actually writing—not emails, not Facebook posts, not tweets, but my next book. I refuse the notion that to be a success, a writer had to spend 80% of her time on marketing. I budget 20% of my time for promotion; the rest goes to the next book, and the next. Post-launch, I use that 20% to plan promotions around discount periods for my titles, and stay active within my network niches.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Writing Women, Writing Men: What’s the difference?

Women’s fiction is a broad category. There’s “book club fiction,” with the literary crossover. There’s chick lit. There’s romance. Pretty much any novel that features female protagonists will acquire the label.

Men’s fiction? Not so much. As a label, it doesn’t exist.

My novel that comes out in September will fall in the category of women’s fiction, of the book club/literary crossover variety. On one hand, this pleases me. It’s the sort of book I like to read. Among my favorite authors are Willa Cather, Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kim Barnes, Annie Proulx, and Marilynne Robinson. While I read and admire many male authors, I especially aspire to write as these women do, with a brilliance of atmosphere, internalized tension, and haunting language, constructing narratives driven more by character than by plot, and with a keen reliance on place.

But as one of my writer friends pointed out, there’s a downside to the label. Based on her experience with her debut novel, she warns that if your work is labeled women’s fiction, it won’t be taken as seriously by reviewers and media outlets as a book that’s outside that category.

Another writer friend, a man, told me he’s not a big believer in gender differences among readers. “A good story should hit universal human notes, not male or female notes,” he said, adding that he was proud that his stories, published in periodicals like Gray’s Sporting Journal aimed primarily at men, had found welcome readers among his female agents and editors. He said he sometimes worried that writers both male and female took shortcuts by playing the gender card.

I agree that good stories should transcend gender, and that playing the gender card can in many instances be bad form. But—and you may call this playing the gender card if you like—from the perspective of a female writer, gender differences in readers are very much real. There's lots of good hard evidence to this effect, from third graders all the way up to the most elite in the New York publishing industry. In grade school, girls will read "boy books," but boys won't read "girl books," the distinction between boy and girl books being defined in the minds of young readers primarily by the gender of the protagonist. And I doubt that anything branded "women's fiction" in the grown-up world of books will find many men among its readers, even though there are plenty of male agents and editors among those who acquire these titles.

The larger discussion involves how few men read novels at all, and how disproportionately women writers are represented within traditional publishing. As NPR reported in “Why women read more than men,” only 20 percent of the readers of fiction are men. Book groups and literary blogs, the piece noted, are made up almost completely of women.

Psychologists posit that women have a greater “emotional range” than men, and therefore more empathy, which makes them more prone to liking fiction. The explanation for this may lie right behind our eyebrows, where our “mirror neurons” are activated by the experiences of others. It appears that women may have more of these neurons then men. Plus from an early age, girls are more verbal and don’t mind sitting for longer periods of time while engaged in a book.

The gender disparity spills over into whose work gets published and reviewed. For proof, take a quick look at “The Count” done by VIDA, an organization that probes the critical perceptions of writing by women. Given these numbers, maybe the category of Women’s Fiction has an upside. It’s at least one way to have a “room of one’s own.” 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

First Pages: Five Mistakes Writers Should Avoid

You know the importance of the first few pages. You’ve been told over and over. If your first few pages don’t captivate agents and editors, they won’t read on. If your book is published, readers won’t buy it unless they love what they read in the sample.

Secretly, you think this is unfair. You’ve got a great story. Lots of twists. Unique characters. Readers can’t tell all that from the first few pages.

Sorry. They can, and they do.

For the wrap-up of my writer’s workshop on voice, I pulled sample chapters from internet postings for my students to critique. I used the top listings that came up when I searched “sample chapter” plus the genre—thriller, in this case, because in the workshop I’ve got a few students writing in and around that genre.

The sample chapters are from authors looking to get noticed. I hope one day they will. But although they’ve taken the time (and money, if they’ve hired a proofreader) to make sure their first pages are free from obvious errors in grammar and punctuation, the samples I pulled showcase problems that will keep them from attracting a publisher or, if they’re independently published, from finding the readership that their creative efforts likely deserve.

Some of these mistakes come from trying too hard to apply writing principles like the hook that are more nuanced than you might think. Fortunately, all of these mistakes correctable.

Pull up your first few pages and see how they measure up against these five common flaws:

  • Clichés: From your first few pages, your readers must decide they trust you as a writer. They want proof that you’re adept and wise and original. A cliché tells them you’re sloppy and lazy and derivative. Frankly, most readers don’t have time for that. A million different directions. Pretty big stretch. Tear welled up. Tortured expression. Ghostly reflection. These are a few of the tired expressions that substitute for original language in the samples I pulled. And on that last one, the ghostly reflection, you do know, don’t you, that it’s a cliché to use a mirror (or any reflection) to show us what your character looks like? Ditto for rhetorical questions. Make it your business to identify clichés and replace them with original phrasing that earns the trust of your readers.
  • Pacing: One misconception about the hook is that you’ll captivate readers by piling up action after action after action in the first few pages: shootouts, bloodshed, that sort of thing. Rarely does this work. There’s nothing wrong with action, but it’s not the same of a hook, and piling it all on at the beginning makes the whole thing seem clichéd.
  • Grounding: In your eagerness to hook the reader, you frontload the narrative like it’s a newspaper article. The big questions are addressed—who, what, when, where, how, and why—but the readers aren’t there, in the narrative, because in all your explaining you’ve neglected the grounding details, those sensory images that make readers feel like they’re part of the story as it unfolds. This problem likely stems at least in part from misinterpreting comments made by early readers who say they want to know more about this or that in the story. What they really mean is that they want to have a reason to care about what’s going on. So don’t tell us Jane Doe is your narrator’s favorite client. Show us Jane Doe in such a compelling, original way that we’re drawn to her the same way your narrator is.
  • Characters: Author Steve Almond says this best: Your readers have to know who to care about, and they have to know what that character cares about. Readers don’t care about characters simply because they materialize on the page. The characters have to touch them in some way. They’re paradoxical. Complicated. Their perspective is unique. They have voice. Once we care about your characters, we’ll care about what they care about—what’s at stake for them. That, too, should be apparent in the first few pages.
  • Dialogue: Dialogue has to be spot on. Every time someone speaks. No exceptions. That means no dialect that makes your character more spoof than person. No blah-blah dialogue, like “Hello, I’m Jane Doe,” or “How is she?” No using dialogue as an expository tool to convey information to the reader that the characters already know.