Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Writing Advice: First Thoughts Aren’t Always Best

First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts. When I taught collage comp, I repeated this mantra again and again.

Creative writers would also do well to heed this simple advice. As proof, I offer two of my forthcoming books, each of which strayed a long ways from my original vision, and each of which is better for the journey.

One is Cold Spell, a novel that probes the conflicting and overlapping desires of a mother and daughter who move north one summer because of the mother’s obsession with a glacier. When I first started drafting the book, it was set in Fairbanks during a cold snap, and it featured a murder and a woman with Alzheimer’s.

The other is Wealth Woman, a nonfiction narrative about Kate Carmack that explores the Klondike gold rush from the perspective of those who were there first, Alaska Natives and the First Nations of the Yukon. Originally, I’d plotted the book as a love story, and then as the interwoven tales of four women, two of them Native and two of them not.

How can you improve on the impulse to run with your first ideas?  Here, five strategies:

  • Choose the best of many. Capture your first thoughts. Then consciously and strategically push past them. Fill a page (or five, or ten) with every twist, turn, and approach you can think of. Don’t evaluate. Brainstorm.

  • Use both sides of your brain. Once we seize on an idea, our left brains try to push straight through from point A to point Z. Don’t allow this. Visual brainstorming strategies like mapping ensure that the right brain, with its links to your subconscious, doesn’t get left out of the process.

  • Wait. Walk, sleep, shower. Repetitive activities and changes in scenery will turn your subconscious loose on the ideas you’re mulling. If you’re going to outline, don’t do it too soon, or at least make a pact with yourself to entertain plenty of changes along the way.

  • When you think you’ve landed on the absolute best approach to your book, write two or three pages using one or more of the angles you plan to discard. This small investment of time and energy will help you be sure you’ve found the right shape and direction for your project.

  • Let go. No angle or direction is sacred. Often your first thoughts are only an opening, a way for you to reach through to the real touch points of your project.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where to Publish: Why Writers Might Want to Think Small

Many years ago, my first novel came out from Lodestar, an imprint of Dutton, a subsidiary of Penguin. Even then, before it merged with Random House, Penguin was one of the Big Boys. The perfect place to land your first publishing contract.

Or not. I loved my editor, but Big Boy Publisher dumped her and her imprint shortly after my novel came out. They failed to put my book in the proper catalog. They could have cared less about marketing it in Alaska, where the story was set, and where we get upwards of a million book-buying visitors a year.

A few years later, a regional press made an offer on another one of my books. I was leery. It seemed like a step down. But the publisher assured me the marketing would be good and the sales would be strong and the book would stay in print.

He was right. Not only is that book—and three others I sold to the same small press—still in print, but they’ve found five times the readers (and generated proportionately that much more in royalties) than my two books that came out with the Big Boys.

More and more, I look to small presses (including my own) not as a last resort but as my first choice. Here, six reasons why: 
  • In general, small presses aren’t chasing “sure thing” celebrity deals. They’ll take more risks both in what they publish and the terms they offer. I placed my forthcoming novel Cold Spell with a small press because they let me keep all except English print rights. That means I’ll produce and market my own digital editions, which I’m convinced will result in more print sales for them. 

  • While free to innovate, small presses tend to be backward-thinking in a way I appreciate: They pay a lot more attention to what’s on the pages of the books they produce than what’s on the pages of their balance sheets. Does that make publishing with them more precarious than with the big boys? Maybe. But I’d rather cast my lot with a small group that cares a great deal about good books than with a large group controlled by corporate concerns that they can’t override. 

  • A small press works like a team. They know and promote their books. After hearing from so many on the staff of the press that’s handling my book, I wouldn’t be surprised to get an email from the custodian saying that he, too, loves my novel. 

  • Though a small press may be as understaffed as a large one, in general I’ve found them more responsive. With the Big Boys, it’s easy to feel shuffled around like you do sometimes when you’re buying a car—like it’s a game in which you’re the pawn being nudged from one person to the next in what ends up being a long way of saying sorry, our hands are tied. 

  • The pressure’s off. Small presses don’t set authors up to fail by setting bars that keep changing and in the end are impossible to reach. Midlist authors—one whose books sell steadily but don’t bust the charts—are just fine with them. And guess what? Books stay in print, so authors sell more than they would with a Big Boy who remainders them sooner rather than later. 

  • Small presses are more agile, adjusting more readily to new paradigms, as with the growing trend of readers connecting directly with authors. 

All well and good, you may say, but I’ll bet she’d jump at a Big Boy deal if one fell in her lap: more money, more marketing, more bragging rights.

Consider, yes.

Jump, no.

I’d weigh everything I’ve said here against the money and the marketing and whatever short-lived fun I’d have saying a particular book was picked up by a Big Boy, and then I’d choose the path was best for that title.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Discoverability: Media Attention for Your Book

Shortly before Christmas, I found an email in my inbox from a reporter for the Globe and Mail, the largest newspaper in Canada. He wanted to know my thoughts on who discovered gold in the Klondike.

In case you’ve missed all the hype about the Klondike fueled by the upcoming Discovery mini-series featuring Game of Thrones star Robert Madden, the Klondike was the largest gold rush in recent history. The question of who first discovered gold there is more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

The reporter asked my opinion because he saw my name on the website for the Dawson City Museum, where I’d spoken in August as part of a pre-publication tour for my forthcoming book Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold. I typed a response that explained what I thought and my sources.

What happened next? A phone interview with the Globe and Mail reporter, followed by an article, and a request to contact him when the book comes out so he can do a follow-up story. Interviews with Canadian Broadcasting Company reporters (CBC is the NPR of Canada), which resulted in a web article and a “live” radio interview with me by phone. (They also asked me to let them know when the book came out.) A reprint in an online paper that gets stories from a CBC news service. A nearly full-page article in the largest newspaper in my state.

Quite the flurry of attention, which made me especially happy for the subject of my book, a Tagish Indian woman whose story was misrepresented in life and after her death.

Here, a few tips for authors on getting and handling media attention: 
  • One thing leads to another. When the ball starts rolling, expect more.
  • A landing page on the web is handy for directing attention even before your book is finished, especially if it’s nonfiction.
  • In the news business, no one likes getting scooped. As soon as I knew the Canadian media were running with the story, I contacted my local paper to find out if they wanted to do a story. They did—and it was more thorough than any of the other coverage.
  • Make it easy. Besides your informative website, be succinct yet thorough in your interview responses—especially important if it’s a radio or television story.
  • As the stories break, make pre-emptive contacts with people your story might impact. In my case, this meant emailing two more experts on my topic whom I’d been meaning to contact anyhow. Both were glad to hear directly from me instead of reading about my book in the papers.
  • Thanks the reporters (privately) for their work, and if there are substantive errors of fact, let them know (politely) for the record. Keep in mind, though, that a news piece can’t capture the whole story (that’s why you’re writing the book), and that their angle on the story might be different from yours. Some headlines credit me with "uncovering" the "true origins" of the gold rush when in fact all I did was find an additional source to go along with those already credited by many, something I tried to make clear in the interviews.
  • As with book reviews, I don’t recommend responding publicly to any comments on the coverage. If people have questions, you’re likely easy enough to find online. And that’s another side benefit of media coverage—mine has yielded new sources as well as readers who want to know when the book will come out (soon, I promised them, soon!).
  • Remember news cycles are short. Just as you’re getting used to opening your inbox to another query, they’ll stop. That’s the nature of news. Grab the links to the stories and post them on your website for posterity.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Publishing 2014: Forecast from the Trenches

I have no crystal ball. I’m not clairvoyant. And I live in Alaska, pretty much as far as a writer can get from the Right Coast publishing industry without needing a passport. So even though I’ve published a few books, I can hardly claim to be in the know when it comes to the publishing industry.

Nevertheless, I try to keep up where I can. And from the trenches, the boots-on-the-ground view is generally clearer. So, from here in my office, where fingers meet the keyboard, I offer my for-what-they’re-worth thoughts on trends in publishing for the coming year. 
  • Amazon rules. I believe the estimates I’ve seen recently about the big retail giant owning some 92% of the digital book market. Love them or hate them: they’re here to stay, and they’re doing a whole lot of things right, especially when it comes to making it easy for writers to find readers and readers to find books. I expect their digital market share will only increase. 
  • The self-publishing stigma will continue to fade. The move toward independent publishing that began with genre fiction will spread to literary, nonfiction, and children’s writers. Forward-thinking agents and editors will continue to be proactive about finding ways they can work with independent and hybrid authors. Head-in-sand positioning will continue among the rest. 
  • Amazon may dominate sales, but it won’t replace indie bookstores. With the trend to think small and buy local, indie bookstore resurgence will continue as long as booksellers remain proactive about changing markets and technologies. That means more Espresso Book Machines like the one I saw at Powells Books last fall. The man running it predicted that within the decade, stores like Powells will stock only used books and brand new releases. Everything else, he said, will come off the machine, which would mean the whole convoluted book distribution and returns model is in its death throes. In response to changing markets, smart indie booksellers will also align themselves with top-notch indie writers. 
  • Authors will continue to connect directly with readers. Those who turn out poor quality work will get discouraged by lack of readers. Those writing good quality books will gain readers. 
  • The author services industry will reach a tipping point. There are only so many ways to wring money out of writers, especially when Amazon makes it so easy to do it yourself. As readers demand the best of authors, cover design, editorial, and proofreading services will continue to flourish. Other brokering-type services, not so much. 
  • The pricing of digital books will continue to be mixed. High prices on ebooks released by traditional publishers, with proportionately little going to authors, will sustain the Big Five for a while longer, but as readers discover exemplary books from independent authors at one-third the price of e-books from traditional publishers (with those authors making more per sale than they would through a traditional contract), the market will shift. There will be fewer free e-books, and increasingly, traditional publishers will figure out that occasional discounts on e-books help sales in the longterm.
  • Small presses will flourish. They’re responsive and able to cut deals that allow hybrid authors to manage their digital rights while the publisher handles the print releases. 
  • Bestselling authors will continue to resist changes in a marketplace that once favored them. Formerly bemoaned as “midlist,” the rest of us who’ve been publishing without hitting NYT bestseller status with every book will continue to enjoy new readership and income as hybrid authors. 
  • Emerging authors will need coaching in both craft and finding their readers. They’ll need to know how to work all channels, from the traditional to the innovative.
How do my predictions measure up with industry insiders? You'll find the forecast from inside here.