Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Successful Writer

In a recent workshop on publishing, I opened the session with a brief exercise. First, I asked participants to write for a few minutes about the fantasies that all of us have about becoming successful writers: if in five years, each and every one of their writers’ dreams were fulfilled, how would it all look, in terms of income, recognition, their body of work, and how they spent their time (creative vs. production/promotion).

Then I asked them to take a few more minutes to consider each of those areas—income, recognition, body of work, and how they’d be spending time—in terms of what they realistically thought they could achieve within five years.

This exercise takes only a little time, and the results are revealing. Lurking within every writer are fantasies which, for the most part, we shy from acknowledging—the what-ifs and it-could-happens. By bringing these forward, we can learn a lot about what defines success for us: money, fame, awards, the work itself, the creative life.

When we take a moment to examine them, we find that our ideas about what would make us feel successful as writers are often misguided—either internalized from others or skewed toward factors over which we have no control.

After my first two novels came out, both with big New York publishers, I was working sixty-plus hours a week at my day job and struggling to keep writing. But I wanted to eventually make a living as a writer, which led me to think I needed to keep publishing, so I set a goal of having a book a year published (through a traditional publisher; this was back when I would never have considered self-publishing). I came fairly close to my book-a-year goal, but to do it, I ended up doing some travel books on contract—time that in retrospect I wish I’d spent honing my craft. If I’d done the fantasy/reality five-year exercise, I’d have figured out that for me, it’s the work itself and the creative life that matter more than accumulating publishing credits.

That point was brought home this week when an author copy of my forthcoming novel, Cold Spell, arrived in the mail. Compared to my previous thirteen titles, this one feels different. It’s the book I always wanted to write, the one that’s most like the books I love to read, and it’s the result of what I call my DIYMFA (do-it-yourself MFA), in which I worked hard to learn how to write the very best novel I could. Some authors I hugely admire have written beautiful endorsements of it, and early readers have told me that even after they’d finished reading, they couldn’t stop thinking about it. That feels like success.

Would I also like a six-figure advance? A Pulitzer? A National Book Award? Sure. But I can’t control whether I get those or not. And great as they sound, there’s always a downside. For big award-winners, there’s horrible pressure regarding the next book. And even the six-figure advance has its downside—if you don’t believe me, read the interview with Cheryl Strayed in the most recent issue of Scratch (a publication to which you should subscribe if you’re serious about making a living as a writer).

If you don’t think consciously about how success looks for you as a writer, you’re going to be pushed about by comparing yourself with others—sales figures, accolades, book deals, and more. You can end up spending a lot of time and energy chasing your tail around aspects of authorship that don’t matter as much as you might think.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On a Budget: Write Your Book without Going Broke

As I’ve said here before (not that it’s any big revelation), there’s not a lot of money in books. So most of us authors (even big sellers like Jonathan Franzen, I was pleased to learn) go about our lives in a less-than-extravagant way.

Fortunately, you don’t have to break the bank to write books. A few thoughts on where you can cut corners—and where to splurge:

·         I understand that some writers prefer to record their thoughts in beautiful, expensive journals as a way of honoring their work. But my thinking is exactly the opposite—I like to be messy with my ideas, and I don’t want to cling to words that aren’t worthy just because I wrote them on expensive papaer. So I use spiral composition books for all my writing, purchased ten for a dollar at back-to-school sales. In the red ones, I keep my weekly to-do lists, one page per week; in the blue ones, I keep my creative work—quotes, ideas, revision notes, brainstorming; in the purple, my notes on production and promotion. The rest I reserve for specific projects.
·         I’m addicted to writing with certain pens, but I keep my addiction affordable—Uniball 207 signos that I purchase in bulk, for about a dollar a piece.
·         In addition to an external hard drive, I use Dropbox (free) for file backup; I save everything there as a matter of course.
·         To extend the life of my laptop (five years and counting; wish me luck), I use a netbook when I travel.
·         I use Mailchimp (free) for my e-newsletters, and I use PicMonkey (also free; maybe a cousin to Mailchimp?) for certain projects, like audiobook covers.
·         Obviously, a good word processing/spreadsheet/presentation program is essential—and you should learn how to use it. After much resistance, I finally upgraded to Word 365, a subscription service ($99 per year). The time I’ve saved thanks to its enhanced features (not to mention the free tech support) makes me glad I switched. I’m no whiz at Excel, but I know it well enough to save myself all sorts of time by using it to keep track of everything from research material to mailing lists to marketing plans.
·         A book budget is essential—no respectable writer can do without reading, including the work of your friends and colleagues, which you’ll want to buy new. For other titles, I keep a reading list in the back of my creative notebook and pick up them up at Powells (used) and also at the library.
·         For books I bring out independently, I prefer contracting a la carte for the parts I can’t do myself, such as cover design, as opposed to purchasing an author services package. (I love working with Cyrusfiction Productions; Cyrus is professional and affordable.) For print books that aren’t with a publisher, I use Print on Demand through Lightning Source and CreateSpace so that I don’t have to deal with inventory and warehousing.
·         For promotion, I’ve learned that a whole lot of what sells books doesn’t cost a thing, other than some time, which I personally limit to 20% of my overall time for writing, so that my primary focus remains creative.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Promotion: Bundling Works

Because we’re both fans of the same blog, The Business Rusch, my friend David Marusek and I read at the same time a post that mentioned book bundling, and we both had the same idea: let’s make it easy for readers to discover the real Alaska, minus the hype and minus the cost, by creating a free bundled eBook.

So we put the challenge to ten of Alaska’s finest authors: to share unique and intimate prose—some previously published, some brand new—that reaches beyond the usual media stereotypes of Alaska. The resulting collection, the Alaska Sampler 2014, features fiction, memoir, biography, and humor that lay bare a cherished and primal land. Dana Stabenow, Howard Weaver, Don Rearden, and Ned Rozell are among the contributors.

“Our selections range all over the literary landscape,” says Marusek. “As we swerve from adventure to opinion and biography to humor, you’d best keep both hands on the wheel.”

Unique to this ebook is a partnership with brick-and-mortar bookshops in Anchorage, Homer, Palmer, and Skagway; each Sampler selection includes a link to annotated store listings, aiming to get beyond the either-or thinking about books that are downloaded and books that readers hold in their hands.

For those who are thinking of creating their own book bundles, here’s our advice:

·        ·         Approaching authors: For this initial bundle (we plan to do one every year), we approached ten authors whose work would add value to our Alaska-themed bundle. These authors needed to either own the digital rights to their work or be able to get reprint permission from their publishers. They also needed to be forward-thinking in their understanding of our purpose in offering the book for free—that by aggregating high-quality prose, we’d be getting cross-readership, plus the advantages of marketing together.
·         Legalities: We procured signed agreements with all contributors, and we signed agreements with one another, with David as the production person and me as the editorial director. The project is officially housed with Denali Ventures, a sub-S corporation doing business as Running Fox Books.
·         Production: David is a master at graphic design and eBook production, so he handled the cover and the manuscript conversion. We used social media to get input on covers in draft and we used Dropbox for file sharing. We assembled the contributions into a “bible” that we updated as we went along.
·         Partners: We appreciate independent booksellers, and we didn’t want them out of the loop by producing in digital format. So we offered annotated bookshop listings within the book, and we feature our bookshop partners on our webpage and in our newsletter.
·         Timeline: We came up with the idea in March, with the goal of releasing in time for Alaska’s big influx of summer tourists. Next year, we’ll start earlier.
·         Proofing: I proofed the contributions; once assembled into the initial “bible,” they were returned to the authors for their proofing. Then David proofed the entire book, and we did a short beta launch during which our authors re-proofed before our official launch on June 5.
·         Availability: I created a “freebie” page on the Running Fox website so that readers could easily access links for downloading the book in all formats. We made the book free wherever we could (Kobo, Inkbok, Instafreebie) and listed it for 99 cents on Nook and Amazon, with links and side-loading instructions so that readers could load to Nook and Kindle directly from our webpage.
·         Promotion: On launch day, we urged our authors to broadcast to their contacts. We also sent out a press release and an e-newsletter.  Within a few hours, we’d hit #1, #2, and #5 in our Amazon categories. Amazon’s bots took note, and within twenty-four hours, the book became free on Amazon—exactly what we’d hoped for. In the same one-day period, our website received ten times the traffic it normally gets in a week. We’ll continue promoting the Sampler through blogs, social media, and sites that feature free books and/or Alaska-themed material.
·         Follow-through: Together, David and I have so far clocked over 180 hours of work on the Sampler. We believe it’s worth it in terms of exposure and cross-marketing. Collectively and individually, we’ll be tracking the impact of the Sampler on traffic and sales.

Readers can download the Alaska Sampler 2014 for free at www.runningfoxbooks.com, or directly from Amazon and Kobo.

This post also appears at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Authors Should Know: Proofreading Matters

The person who points out to a business owner that an apostrophe is misused on a sign? That’s me: former English teacher, grammar geek. So it’s no surprise that proofreading matters to me. A lot.

Does it matter to anyone else? Absolutely.

Most of us spent at least twelve years in school with teachers who encouraged us to look closely at language in order to understand how it works so we could use it properly. With some, these lessons took greater hold than they did with others, but in a certain sense, that hardly matters. The point is that our mere exposure to matters of punctuation, grammar, and usage make us question anything that looks amiss, even if we can’t quite articulate what’s wrong.

One of the largest complaints I hear from readers of self-published books is the lack of attention to proofreading. I worked with one author who had a particularly compelling story, a real-life adventure that only he could tell. After opting to self-publish, he devoted his entire budget to offset printing and relied on friends to proofread. The result is a professionally bound book with a fine cover and a text that’s nearly unreadable because of the errors.

Within the author services arm of the rapidly expanding self-publishing industry, I’ve found some rather shocking inattention to detail. Two examples:

·         “[Name of company], book publishers, has established a legacy of providing authors opportunities for expression, preserving histories and stories, and bringing joy to readers and writers; and, doing so in an atmosphere of mutual respect and integrity.” What’s wrong here? The semicolon is used incorrectly, and the last item in the series is not structurally parallel with the others.
·         “[Name of author services person] discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories.” Here there’s an error in capitalization (“elementary school” is only capitalized when the entire name of the school is given) and an apostrophe error.

I’d be leery of contracting with either of these individuals for help with my books. Their business is language, yet they don’t care enough to get it right in their promotional materials.

I hope you’re among the authors who respect their readers enough to want to get it right. Here, some thoughts on how to approach proofreading:

·         You don’t have to be a grammar whiz in order to write a great book. I know plenty of great writers who are rough around the edges when it comes to the rules, but their work is brilliant. Know your limitations, learn what you can, and hire out what you can’t do yourself.
·         Get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and use it to look up what you don’t know. You may never understand all the rules, but you’ll eventually get most of them.
·         Don’t proofread too soon. Do your drafting and revisions first, and don’t let worries about mechanics interfere with your creative process.
·         Even when you’re a whiz at proofreading, you won’t catch everything. With work that’s familiar (like the tenth draft of a novel), our minds tend to correct as we read, so we literally don’t see errors. Enlist the help of beta readers to catch errors you might otherwise miss—but don’t expect them to do the work of a professional copy editor.
·         Professionally prepared manuscripts are proofed multiple times by multiple people, including the author. Even then, a mistake or two may slip through. In the fourth edition of one of my novels, I found a sentence about “insulted” instead of “insulated” coveralls - this despite the fact that the book had gone through all the rigors of copyediting and final proofing by professionals at one of the largest publishing companies in the world.
·         Would you embark any other endeavor—quilting, painting, building birdhouses—without learning to use the necessary tools? You may never achieve the expertise of a professional proofreader, but you should still approach language with a healthy curiosity and a desire to learn how it works. And learning the ropes with grammar and punctuation isn’t as tough as you might think. Most of what I learned about language came from a few months of tutoring a disabled veteran using a programmed grammar text.
·         If you’re shopping your manuscript in hopes of it being picked up by a traditional publisher, make it as clean as you can before submitting. Though the publisher has the resources tidy it up before it goes to print, first impressions matter, and few agents and editors have the time or the inclination to read more than a sentence or two of a submission that’s riddled with flaws.
·         If you’re publishing on your own and you’re not a professional proofreader, you should budget for one. The going rate for straight proofing is in the range of $35 to $50 per hour, or $5 per page. As with developmental editors, ask for references. Anyone can call herself a proofreader, and even some English teachers fail to grasp the nuances of language and how it’s used. Ask what you’re getting for the price. If it’s straight, simple proofing for mechanical errors, your manuscript may still have deeper problems at the sentence level: mistakes involving parallel structure, dangling modifiers, pronoun reference, and such. Line edits will address those problems, which can be even more distressing to readers than a misplaced comma or an apostrophe error. ,And never assume that an author services company does proofing; generally, their concern is only production, and in some cases, distribution.