Tuesday, April 29, 2014

But How Will They Find Us? Book Marketing and Promotion

If you’ve been publishing for any length of time, either traditionally or independently, you know that there’s little money in books. If money’s your goal, sell real estate (but make sure you’re good at it).

So let’s agree that we’re not in this for the money. Still, we’d like to have readers. How can they find us?

The odds are against a reader simply stumbling upon your book. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and put your book up for sale on all the major platforms and see who notices.

No one.

Simple principles of supply and demand are at work here. Solid figures on titles published are hard to come by, but take two recent numbers from Bowker on US publishing alone—391,000 self-published titles in 2012, and 347,000 traditionally published print books in 2011. Do a little extrapolation and it’s not hard to validate a figure that gets tossed around quite a bit: 3,000 books published per day, worldwide.

And here’s the thing: books no longer go out of print. With e-publishing and print on demand, these books will be around forever. How can your book stand out when it’s competing with a million books this year, two million next year, three million the next year, and so on?

There are some very good reasons why the average book sells only 250 copies, and why most self-published books sell fewer than 150 copies. (For more on the numbers, check out these articles in Forbes, the New York Times, and Out:think)

My point is not to discourage anyone from writing. I believe in the power of the written word and feel privileged to have been a published author for the past seventeen years. My point is that if you want more than 150 readers, you either need to convince a traditional publisher that your book will generate sufficient corporate profits after their substantial costs of production, distribution, and marketing have been met, or you need to enter into this adventure of independent publishing with both eyes open and a strategic plan for building a readership.

This week, I’ll be moderating a panel at a statewide convention on the arts that brings together writers and also musicians to address this question of how our creative work finds its audience. Since their industry imploded/exploded a few years earlier than the shake-up in the book industry, I’m looking forward to discovering what musicians have learned about “discoverability.”

Already, in our planning session, my fellow panelists have offered these helpful thoughts on discoverability, to which I’ll add a few of my own:

·         Christy NaMee Eriksen, an independent artist of the spoken word, reminds us to consider which audience really matters for a particular work. She stresses the importance of accessibility and partnering though grassroots, intentional engagement.
·         Storm Gloor, once involved in music distribution and now a professor who researches how music is (and will be) distributed, notes that artists need to look at their products with the realization that what they sell is not the end-all—there are other products you can sell (workshops, appearances, for instance).
·         Dave Cheezum, independent bookstore owner, reminds authors to remember that they’re part of a brand and also part of an eco-system which, despite the revolution in publishing, still includes hands-on bookselling.
·         When I was selling real estate (good for the bank account, not so much for the soul), the experts used to tell us our product wasn’t a house—the product was us. That’s what branding and platform are all about: you and your relationships with your readers. This is why publishers love celebrity authors—they come with a built-in platform. My guess (since you’re reading this) is that you’re not a celebrity, but you can still build a platform, if you make an effort.
·         Sales breed sales. This is truer than ever in the age of the algorithm. You may sometimes sell at a discount—that’s one of the wonderful freedoms inherent in independent publishing—but if only other discounted books show up in Amazon’s “Customers who bought this book also viewed” section of your book’s page, you haven’t reached your real audience yet. The good news: the success of an indie book isn’t tied to the launch as it is in traditional publishing. If you’re not getting the readers you want, take a hard look at the data and make adjustments where you can.
·         Unless you’ve got large amounts of cash to buy a presence across media platforms, visibility depends on you as a person—a genuine, professional, engaged author, not a book-shouting machine.
·         While your book may not be your end-all, it’s the one thing you control, fully and absolutely, if you’ve opted for independent publishing. It needs to be polished and professional. It needs to offer what other books don’t. It needs to be a book that readers go out of their way to recommend to other readers. “I’m buying several copies for friends,” wrote an author in her recent endorsement of my forthcoming novel. Can you imagine how pleased I was? Your book won’t be universally loved. The odds are stacked against it being a trend-setting surprise. But as sales breed sales, true fans will bring more true fans.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Way In: Where to publish?

Publishing has never been easy. First, there’s writing the beast, be it a poem or a story or an essay or an entire book. A large accomplishment, pouring yourself onto the page. Let’s not lose sight of that.

From there, it used to be that f you wanted readers, you had to find a way into publishing. You might submit to a journal. Query an agent or editor. Work your way through the gates. The odds were small, but writers are a persistent bunch.

With the right combination of craft and talent and luck and possibly connections and definitely perseverance, you were in. You were golden.

Well, okay. It was a start. As any published author will tell you, all sorts of struggles and frustrations are visited on authors after a book is accepted for publication. The advance is too small, which means the publisher likely does little to promote the book. Or the advance is too large, which means the author’s chances of earning out (and getting a decent offer on the next book) are slim. The books aren’t in stores. Or they’re in stores, but not face out, because the publisher hadn’t bought co-op space. The book doesn’t get reviewed. Or it gets reviewed, but the reviews aren’t starred, or glowing, even. The editor leaves the press. The agent turns her interest from the now-midlist author to the hot new talent.

And so on.

For the most part, these difficulties are as troublesome today as they were sixteen years ago, when I started publishing—maybe even more so, as the market shifts and tightens. But now there are options.

Last summer, I met up with bestselling author Dana Stabenow at La Baleine, a little café on Alaska’s Homer Spit, owned by another writer, Kirsten Dixon. I’d read in the paper that through sales of independently published reprints of titles that had previously gone out of print, Dana had earned enough to pay off her mortgage. That’s right: after an agent and thirty books in print and time on the New York Times bestseller list, Dana was reaching more readers on her own, without going through a traditional publisher.

Ever since the first rumblings about the digital revolution in publishing, I’d been telling myself I needed to get my two out-of-print (OP) books back into print. When I met with Dana, I’d finally gotten to one of them—it had been out for precisely ten days. But already I was excited. The process had been easier than I’d expected. There were nice reviews from readers. I could track in real-time how the book was faring, an impossibility with traditional publishing, owing to a complicated system of distribution.

“We have to let authors know,” Dana said. “There’s another way. They have options.”

We came up with the idea for a workshop: “The Pressure is Off: Independent Publishing Options for Writers,” so titled because with the advent of digital publishing and print on demand, the pressure is now off for writers to be traditionally published and to strive for bestseller/blockbuster status.

These days, you can make a good living—maybe even a better living—as a writer who publishes independently. But is it for you? How does a writer decide whether to go the traditional route or strike out on her own? It’s a lot to sort through. In your search for answers, what you find are cheerleaders, authors firmly in one camp or the other.

I should know. If eighteen months ago, you’d told me I’d be leading a workshop on independent publishing options for writers, I’d have laughed you right out the door. I’d been lucky enough to get through the gates, to have not just one book but several published in the traditional way. Self-publishing—well, that was for people who couldn’t get published any other way.

Authors like Dana Stabenow changed the way I think about getting books to readers. One way of publishing is not part and parcel better than the other. Authors need to know their options—not in the form of cheerleading for one camp or the other, but through a reasoned and thorough understanding of what to expect from their adventures in publishing.

Dana will open our workshop with an informal discussion of today’s publishing options. I’ll follow up with resources and strategies for deciding whether independent publishing is the right way in for you. Among the topics we’ll cover: assessment of your goals and expectations; project readiness; digital and print production, distribution, and marketing; budgeting time and money; balancing art and business; and sustaining momentum. You’ll leave knowing whether independent publishing is right for your book, and if it is, you’ll know the basics of how to make it happen.

In the spirit of the workshop, I’m also in the process of assembling a comprehensive guide to publishing, tentatively titled What Every Author Should Know, No Matter How or Where You Publish, to be released later this year. Where to publish is a big decision, and every author needs the facts to make an informed choice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

High Concept: What Agents and Readers Want

If you’ve spent any time at all researching agents, publishers, and submissions guidelines, you’ve no doubt encountered one phrase that appears more than most: high concept.
What does it mean, exactly?

Let’s start with an example that I recently came across in, of all places, the thirty-second thumb-through I give the Costco magazine before I toss it in the trash.

The featured book was Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. According to the article, this novel has “resonated with readers worldwide.” It has also been nominated for one of the biggest literary prizes around, the Man Booker.

Ozeki had completed the fifth draft of this book and was getting ready to send it to her publisher when the 2011 tsunami hit Japan. Perhaps because her father is Japanese, her emotional response to the tsunami was so great that she decided to rewrite the novel yet again. In the new version, the one that not only made it into print but found both readership and acclaim, the sixteen-year-old protagonist decides to end her own life as soon as she finishes documenting the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. In the tsunami, the girl’s journal is swept away. It washes up on the coast of British Columbia, where it is discovered by a woman who becomes a second protagonist, drawn by the tale told in the journal, and concerned about the girl’s threatened suicide.

That’s high concept. Whether you care about suicidal sixteen-year-olds or Buddhist nuns or Japan is irrelevant. The set-up is irresistible: strangers drawn together by circumstance, the proverbial message in a bottle, evocative settings. You care even before you crack the cover. There’s much at stake, both overtly and lurking within the set-up.

You’re hooked.

Here, a few thoughts about the “high concept” premise, to apply to your work:

·         High concept goes beyond a unique topic or situation. Alien armadillos who fight gladiator style on top of skyscrapers—that’s unique, but it’s only high concept if the set-up makes us care about what happens and if readers can sense the story potential in complexities they feel compelled to explore. The premise need not be complicated, but the possibilities should be.
·         Let concepts evolve. (For more on this, see my post on first thoughts.) Be open. Of your premise, ask what else, and what else, and what else.
·         There’s much to be said for a concept that can be articulated in a sentence or two. A publisher’s salesperson or a reader recommending a book to a friend doesn’t have all day to explain. Early in the drafting stage, after I have a strong feel for how my book will unfold, I like to also draft some flap copy—a sentence or two that would entice a reader to buy or borrow my book. I do this for both fiction and non-fiction projects. If this flap copy isn’t irresistible, the concept likely needs to evolve.
·         Books come from where they will. You can’t force or impose a high concept. And keep in mind that, important as it may be, concept alone won’t make a book worthy. Without masterful development, a concept is only a concept.
·         Despite all that’s said here (and elsewhere), not everything you write will be—or needs to be—high concept. Alternative markets and readerships welcome other types of writing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Covers: We Need Your Help!

I'm excited to be working with author David Marusek on an “Alaska Sampler” aimed at expanding reader interest in Alaska-inspired books. The Sampler is an e-book collection of quality work by Alaska authors that we'll give away for free through Kobo and other online vendors. Included will be work from several fine Alaska authors: short stories, essays, excerpts from novels. The idea is to bundle Alaska-themed selections for readers to sample cost-free. 

I can’t wait to announce our author line-up—it’s awesome—but first, we need your help choosing a cover.

David came up with these two cover designs. I like them both. Which do you think is the best fit for this project? Which would convince you to click for a free download?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ready to Publish: The Galleys

From its earliest beginnings—voice, character, concept, scene—your book has grown into itself, from crappy first draft through revisions (lots of them) guided by astute readers and editors who understand what it takes for your book to stand out from the thousands that hit the market daily.

Of course, you’ve proofread. If you’re not a for-hire proofreader yourself, you’ve contracted with a professional proofreader, one who’s good—really good. (Subject for an upcoming post: I’ve noticed of late a rash of author services “professionals” who make basic mistakes in punctuation and grammar in high-traffic spots like their bios and email signatures.)

You place your manuscript, either through an agent or with a small press or with the smallest of small presses, which is to say yourself. Additional rounds of edits and proofing will follow. You’ll play a part in each.

The final round involves galleys, or proofs, which may also be ARCs (pronounced “arks"), which stands for Advance Reading Copies. If your book will be released in both print and digital formats, you should have galleys for both. Print galleys go to reviewers no less than five months in advance of the release date. The authors who’ve offered to endorse (“blurb”) your book will get galleys, too, ideally in whichever format they request.

The galleys also go to you as the author, for final proofing. If you’re under contract with a publisher other than yourself, there will generally be a cease-and-desist clause that limits what you can change at this point. Common language reads like this: “With the exception of errors of spelling, errors of printing, or errors introduced subsequent to the previously edited proof by someone other than yourself, you agree to pay the cost of all alterations to the page proof made by you that are in excess of ten percent of the original cost of composition.”

If you’re indie publishing, of course, you can change as much as you like. But at some point you have to call “uncle” and say you’re done.

The galley stage can be exciting. It’s your last dance with your manuscript before it waltzes into the world. Yes, if you’re both publisher and author, you can make changes after you press “publish.” But if you’ve rushed and pushed out something sloppy, with formatting and other errors, you’ll have earned nothing more than a spot on someone’s “No Read” list, and it’s hard to undo that kind of damage.

The galley stage can also be tedious. You’ve read your book more times than you care to count. And even after all of that (or maybe because of it), you feel a little blind to its flaws. Insecurity creeps in.

This week I’ve been going through the galleys for Cold Spell, a literary novel (for grownups, I always add, since I’ve also written for children). Here, tips for authors when they reach this part of the journey:

·         Though you feel over-familiar with the book, stay alert. No matter how many others have worked to spot them, errors still creep in. Only when proofing for the fourth printing of one of my novels did I notice the phrases “insulted coveralls.” I’m not sure how they became offended, but my character would have done better with coveralls that kept him warm.
·         As a writer, you’re always growing, yes? And you’re already thinking about (and with any luck, drafting) your next book? Then use your galley proofing as a chance to look objectively at your (almost) finished book, as a reader would, with the idea of crafting an even better one the next time around. Note which parts sing. You’ll want to do more of that. Observe your characters. What are there longings? Their struggles? Their conflicts? Their complexities? How does the reader discern all of that? What will keep your readers turning the pages?
·         In a similar way, I consider as I go through the galleys the changes I made based on input from early readers, both to remind myself of how helpful their comments were, and also to remind myself what I didn’t change and why. This sort of thinking—educators call it metacognition—helps strengthen your writing, and it improves your ability to see your work from multiple perspectives.
·         As I go through the galleys, I also think about outtakes—why I removed material, and what, if anything, I might do with it in the future. In revising Cold Spell, I took out several chapters written from the point of view of an older woman. She’s an intriguing character who might appear in other books. One or two of the chapters might be transformed into short stories. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Market Your Book: Working with Booksellers

I’ve written before about finding the right home for each book, and how sometimes a small press makes more sense for a particular project than a big one.

The same follow for distribution. Amazon is the Big Boy of connecting readers and books. But in all the buzz over algorithms and bots and rankings, let’s not forget the importance of independent bookshops, where actual human contact and word-of-mouth work quietly and effectively to connect readers with books they’ll love.

Don’t be that author who shows up with a bunch of books printed on CreateSpace and expects a bookseller to host a signing or take titles on consignment. That’s like showing up at a family-run restaurant with your bag of McDonald’s takeout and demanding a table where you can eat your French fries for free.

To build relationships with independent booksellers, you’ll need to make your books available through vendors other than Amazon. For e-books, that means foregoing KDP Select, or foregoing the program after a 90-day run or two, and uploading your book to https://www.kobo.com/writinglife.

In the same vein, you’ll want to have softcover (or hardcover) editions available from sources besides Amazon’s CreateSpace. Ingram’s Spark (for authors) and Lightning Source (for small presses) are affordable print-on-demand options if you’ve chosen not to warehouse a large inventory of your books. You’ll need an ISBN; these can be bought in batches from Bowker.

For the “tree book” editions, you’ll want to upload bibliographic information to IndieBound, which is maintained by the American Booksellers Association (ABA). My thanks to my fine local bookseller David Cheezum of Fireside Books for providing these instructions for authors:

1) Log in to IndieBound.org using your personal account.  If you don't have an account on IndieBound.org, create one at http://www.indiebound.org/join

2) Search for the 13 Digit ISBN (no spaces or hyphens) of the book to see:

        If it’s already listed in the database (go to 3c)
        if it needs to be added (go to 3a)
        if it's just missing a cover (3b)

3a) For missing books, go to: www.indiebound.org/addabook
3b) For missing cover art, navigate to: www.indiebound.org/addabook/cover
3c) To edit a book description, go to: www.indiebound.org/addabook/ISBN 

4) Enter your data, attach an image, and submit

5) Allow time for approval by someone at ABA.  You will receive an email when your image is approved.  Once approved, it can take up to 24 hours for your book cover to appear in search results and on IndieBound.org.

Once you’ve created indie access for your titles, be sure to link to Indiebound as well as Amazon from your website, newsletters, etc. You can even become an Indiebound Affiliate and receive a referral percentage from the sales generated by your links.

Now you’re ready to connect with indie booksellers in a way that builds positive, long-lasting relationships.