Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Publishing Mistakes I’ve Made (so you don’t have to)

After sixteen years and twelve books traditionally published, plus another year of independent and hybrid publishing (two re-released titles, two originals), you’d think that an author like me would be savvy enough not to make many mistakes.

You’d think.

Sadly, I have so much material for a post like this that I hardly know where to start. It’s not that I’m especially inept. It’s just that this is a business in which there are lots of ways to go wrong—and many of them can’t be foreseen.

Here, in no particular order, are a few things I wish I (and some of my author friends) had known:

·         An agent can be a wonderful person to have on your team, but she should be the right match for you and your book. Sometimes, you’re better off without one.
·         Rarely will your publisher do what you think they should to market your book. Don’t assume they’ve got you covered.
·         People really do judge books by their covers. Of my four independently published books, I’ve done redesigns on two of them.
·         An author who’s relatively well known within her genre won’t necessarily sell well independently based on name recognition alone.
·         If you’re publishing independently, keep your production and promotion budgets in check. Make sure you’re investing in the right places. I recently encountered an author who spent a lot of money on production and had nothing budgeted for proofreading. His book is a mess. If you look beyond bundled author services companies to a la carte services, or use author services companies that work on a percentage basis instead of charging up front, you can minimize production costs and invest instead in making sure you’ve got a quality product that will hold up in the long term.
·         When it comes to promotion, most paid advertising will not deliver enough in sales to pay for itself. I know—advertising is about exposure, not sales—but if you don’t have a gigantic budget that allows you to make a really big splash, online ads here and there are not going to make much of a difference. For the most part, the most effective ways of letting readers know you’re releasing another wonderful book are also the ways that don’t cost anything. The old adage about getting what you pay for simply doesn’t apply to marketing independently published books.
·         The same goes for paid reviews (like Kirkus) that put your book in a “self-published” category. Unless the review is starred or featured, a self-published book is never going to get noticed by book buyers (librarians and booksellers) who pay strong attention to reviews.
·         If you only do what everyone else does, you may get only modest results. When it comes to reaching you audience, think creatively in order to engage with them in unique and unexpected ways.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What Authors Should Know: Point of View

It’s a favorite among critique partners: the gotcha game of point of view. To play, you need only a sharp eye for inadvertent shifts in point of view. Top players earn bonus points by tossing around terms like first person peripheral, first person colloquial, authorial omniscience, limited omniscience, free indirect, and free direct.

But beyond showing off our ability to find where point of view’s not working and to use the terms ascribed to its various forms, there’s much about point of view that can help authors craft intriguing, nuanced prose that will captivate agents, editors, and readers.

You only have to know how it works. Between you and me, it’s not all that important to know what labels apply to various points of view. What matters are the point-of-view techniques you use to strengthen your narrative.

“Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader in order to achieve the emotional, intellectual, and moral responses the author desires,” explains author David Jauss in On Writing Fiction.

“The true rhetorical aim of point of view is to complicate the question, not steer the reader to one answer or another,” notes Catherine Brady Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction. “You have to consider the reader’s take on things in relation to your own and in relation to the perspective character’s and/or the narrator’s, and point of view lets you play these off against each other to shape the stakes and lend texture to dramatic tension.”

Though the topic can be complex, there’s a large pay-off in taking a little time to study and understand point of view. For starters, you might avoid having to re-write a novel, as I did four times with Out of the Wilderness before I got it right.

That’s likely why writers in Juneau asked for the 49 Writers workshop “Perspectives and Viewpoints: Exploring Point of View.” In it, we'll review the basics and terms, from first-person to third-person, objective, subjective, and omniscient, then look closely at what introductory approaches leave out: subtleties of psychic distance, transitioning between points of view, and how point of view creates character. 

If you’re in Juneau, I hope you can join us on Monday, June 2 from 6 to 9 pm as we explore point of view. To register, visit the 49 Writers website.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What Authors Need to Know: Book Disappointments

It has happened to all of us: we buy a book, eagerly anticipating a great read, and discover after the first chapter or two that it’s not one we care to finish. Off it goes to the used bookstore, or to delete-land, if it's an e-book.

While reading is most certainly a matter of taste, those of us who write books hope for many satisfied readers and few disappointments. Here, a few tips for authors to help make sure your satisfied readers outnumber those who trade off your books before they’ve finished reading.

·         While your book description needs to get readers excited about reading what’s inside, make sure your enthusiasm doesn’t result in overreach. Recently, I came upon a newly released book deemed in its description to be a “classic.” That’s a tall order for a brand new author to fill.
·         Likewise, the cover needs to promise what’s best about the book and nothing more. Keep in mind this fundamental of the marketplace: negative news has ten times the reach of positive news. When you disappoint readers, the effects can be far-reaching.
·         Consider your price points. The more we pay, the more value we expect, and the greater our disappointment if the book doesn’t meet our expectations.
·         Readers are often disappointed when an author’s next book doesn’t rise to the level of the previous title. Some of this has to do with branding—in general, readers want to know what they can expect of a particular author, while the author herself might want to expand beyond a particular niche. More often, it has to do with the time the author invests in her work. As agent Susan Golomb points out in a recent interview with Poets & Writers, an author’s first book often results from years and years of crafting and development, while subsequent titles are pumped out every couple of years (unless you’re Donna Tartt). This effect is even more pronounced among authors who independently publish, as the latest “wisdom” says that the best thing you can do to build a readership is to keep pumping out books. In truth, you will only build a following if your books are consistently good.
·         Need it be said? Make sure you book is absolutely the best it can be. That means revision, unbiased beta readers, more revision, attention to macro and micro-editing, proofreading, professional design and formatting—in short, a book that gives you reason to feel proud, and a book that readers will want to keep on their shelves (virtual or otherwise) long after they’ve finished reading.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is Self-Publishing Right for You?

Following my post on “The Way In: Where to Publish,” a reader wrote with questions so well-articulated that I asked if I might answer in a more public forum. Here, our Q & A:

Q: I am so disappointed I can't be there for your self-publishing seminar. I just read your piece on what happened with Dana (Stabenow) after she decided to re-issue her own out-of-print titles. It certainly helped that she had a big name and a built-in following. What I'm curious about are NEW novelists who don't go through gatekeeping but who decide to digitally self-publish (the ones who do actually have their work proofread first!). How do these authors fare financially?

A: According to recent data, it’s true that hybrid authors who have already established a following among readers fare better than authors launching a first title on their own. But keep in mind we’re talking averages here. Some traditionally published authors have no idea who their readers are or how they would reach them through even a basic tool like an e-newsletter. Others, like Dana, have been effectively connecting directly with readers (hers call themselves “Danamanics”) for years.

On the other hand, there certain books from newly published authors that surprise everyone by breaking through the clutter and noise to achieve phenomenal sales. The odds are very much against this, but it does happen, for both self-published and traditionally published books. The difference, of course, is that traditional publishers do their best not only to predict the books that become big hits but also to try to make them hits by throwing lots of money into creating buzz about those titles. Increasingly, however, publishers are less likely to have such confidence (as demonstrated by large marketing budgets) in brand new authors.
Q: Without a built-in audience for your work, self-promoting is a LOT of work, whether you use social media as your main marketing reach or not. It's still tough to get peoples' attentions, and when books aren't reviewed, either, well...

A: Even as the market shifts and fewer publications are doing formal reviews of new books, reviews still matter within the “literary community” — that is, for librarians and booksellers and what we might call, in perhaps a snooty way, “discriminating readers.” For these readers, reviews provide social proof; that is, the book is acknowledged as having merit by “smart” readers who move within their cultural and intellectual circles.

But of course readers choose books for many reasons. The so-called “beach read” is a great example. Even readers who care deeply about the social proof of reading well-reviewed books will choose something lighter and more entertaining in certain contexts in which reader reviews in online venues may play more directly into their choices than reviews in places like Kirkus or Booklist.

All of that being said: yes, it’s tough to get people’s attentions. When if you land a book deal with a traditional publisher, you’re going to be expected to self-promote; in fact, in weighing their publishing options, some authors have chosen the independent route because they understand that, either way, they’ll have to do most of their own marketing. Why not have control of the process while earning substantial more on each sale, these authors reason, which means of course that they need fewer sales to generate the same income.

Q: I have met someone in Europe who recently published her novel on Amazon's self-publishing division (my understanding is that Amazon also has its own imprint and that they have an editorial staff in-place for those who go through the Amazon gatekeeping route, but maybe I'm mistaken about this?)

A: Amazon is a living, breathing animal that’s always prowling new territories and adapting to market changes even as it helps create those changes. As they monitor the market and look for opportunities, they are experimenting with imprints that operate like traditional publishing, with editors and a selection process, but which also have the advantage of working outside some of the usual industry practices, incorporating strategies such as flexible e-book pricing, for instance, and print-on-demand instead of warehousing large numbers of books. Within the traditional industry, Amazon still gets branded as the evil empire, and that may potentially affect whether titles from some of its imprints get featured in bricks-and-mortar stores, but in terms of overall sales, I’m not sure how much that will matter to Amazon’s bottom line.

Q: Do we have marketing info on what genres are selling more than others in self-publishing world? Is it sci-fiction and fantasy? Or romance? Is anyone self-publishing literary fiction, for example?  And what's happening with self-published NONFICTION?  

A: Marketing data from all aspects of publishing, especially traditional, is notoriously hard to come by and difficult to interpret. Within the traditional system of distribution, this is primarily because of returns—there might be high front-end orders of a particular title, but when it doesn’t sell as expected, those “sales” are diminished by a high number of returned books, and the reporting on that comes in long after the launch.

In 2011, when the floodgates opened and the self-publishing stigma began to fade, the change happened first in genre fiction, especially romance, where readers care less about whether a title is reviewed in Publishers Weekly and more about when they can get their hands on the next book by an author they love. Nonfiction in certain categories also does well, especially self-help in various niche markets that are underserved by traditional publishers, who with their aversion to risk equate platform with celebrity status. Oddly, biography does well through independent channels; I’m not sure why.

Literary fiction, which is what I write, has been late to the party—or, if you think of it in another way, literary fiction is an area of self-publishing in which the market is less crowded and therefore offers some unique opportunities for authors who are willing to think outside the traditional boxes. Amazon knows this: they were one of the big sponsors at this year’s AWP, and you’ll also see their Kindle Direct Publishing on the masthead page of The Writer’s Chronicle.

In one sense, the literary community has been self-publishing for years; they just haven’t called it that. Literary journals don’t depend on traditional publishers. For the most part, the writers whose work they publish aren’t concerned about getting paid. And the readers are few – probably on par with the numbers who read the average independently published e-book. Yes, journals have gatekeepers, but other than that, the model is not all that different.

Another sign that writers who deem themselves “literary” are exploring new self-publishing options: an interview (well worth reading) on self-publishing in a recent issue of Poets & Writers.

Q: I know the stigma for self-publishing has greatly diminished but I am still one of those dinosaurs who is holding out and trying to get my manuscript picked up by a brick-and-mortar publisher.  This is also why it may take me 10 more years!

A: It’s true that the stigma associated with self-publishing has diminished, and it will continue to fall away as more authors of truly fine books embrace that option, assisted in some cases by forward-thinking agents like Kristin Nelson who help their clients navigate in both arenas. Within a few years, we may even find that much of this binary thinking about publishing slips away.

I don’t see authors who hold exclusively to the traditional route as “dinosaurs.” There’s a certain validation that comes from getting through the traditional gates. Authors who’ve traditionally published, as Dana and I have, enjoy the psychological advantage of our work having been validated in this way. Authors need to follow the paths best suit them and their books.

Time is certainly one factor to consider. Waiting is important to the creative process. But waiting for someone to decide your book is worth taking a chance on in an increasingly crowded marketplace? For me, that kind of waiting is a source of huge frustration.  

Q: There's this attitude from certain "writers" out there that they can just put what they want up on the Internet so that their friends and family can share in what they're doing as a kind of writing album or something, to say "I have a novel, or I have a book of poetry, and you can buy it cheap on _____."  Meanwhile, other writers are working themselves to death honing their craft, going through the submission and rejection agonies, paying close attention to language, attending writing seminars and degree programs, studying all aspects of structure and storytelling, etc. And they pull their hair out or have nervous breakdowns while they wait, and wait, and wait.

A: The floodgates have opened, that’s for certain. What I see is a distinction between writer and author—and please note, I’m creating my own semantics here; others use the terms differently.

If you’re literate, you can write. And if you have something to say, something to share, and you want your friends and family to be able to read it, go ahead and put it out there on one of the digital platforms. It can cost as little as nothing. But don’t succumb to any delusions that your work will be discovered beyond your own circles.

Authors have a different mindset. For them, writing isn’t a hobby; it’s a way of life. They care deeply about craft and recognize that they’re always learning. They aim for each book to be better than the one before. On the merits of their work, they hope to connect with readers they’ll never meet, though they understand that in today’s market, regardless of how their books enter, they’ll need to be strategic about helping that happen. Are they going to wait and wait and wait for validation? That’s up to them.

Books by all these people, books that are gems and books that are trash, these co-exist in the marketplace, now more than ever. With publishing that’s accessible to all, titles by “writers” will always outnumber titles by “authors.” But readers can tell the difference.