Books, Characterization, Craft, Creative process, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Setting, Technique

The Year of Teaching

Last year, after several years of being asked to consult with other authors and indie publishers, I finally formalized this part of my marketing business into a consultancy called The Indie Navigator. Since then, I’ve been pretty busy making appearances in that incarnation, helping my fellow writers become authors and indie publishers, and helping those indie publishers become better at the business of publishing.

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But I haven’t forgotten the whole reason we’re all doing this: Because we love to write, and want to get our work into the hands of as many readers as possible. So one of the things I made up my mind to do this year is learn more about the technical craft of writing for myself, while I help my fellow authors with marketing, promotion and self-publishing.

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To make that happen, I’ve been busy the first part of this New Year scheduling appearances as the Indie Navigator in venues where I can do both of these at once. I’m excited to announce that I’ll have the chance to do just that coming up in March, when I’ll be teaching two seminars at The Write Stuff annual conference, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.

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I first spoke at this conference back in 2009, and was so impressed by how professional and well-run it was, I joined the writer’s group that hosted it. I’ve been a proud member ever since. GLVWG (pronounced “GLIV-wig”) is a friendly, very active group, large enough to support many helpful and enjoyable activities and resources for its membership, but not so large you feel lost or insignificant. I strongly recommend joining for anyone in the Lehigh Valley area who may be struggling with living the writing life and needs some support. It’s a truly warm, welcoming organization wholly supportive of its members success, whether that be as a part-time amateur poet or a full-time professional author…and anything in between.

Author Mary Shafer speaks at the Cat Writers Association Conference

On Friday, March 21, I’ll be teaching a four-hour seminar from 1:00-5:00 pm, titled “Indie Publishing Intensive: A Quick-Start Guide to Self-Publishing.” The first half will be the “what-to” part – an expansion of my popular seminar, “Identity Crisis: What Is A Publisher, and Should I Become One?” It’s an overview of the book publishing industry, including a brief history of traditional publishing and how that background has shaped our current world of indie publishing. This helps potential indie publishers understand why things evolved the way they have (when so much of it seems not to make sense otherwise). Then it delves deeply into

  • What it really means to BE a book publisher vs. an author
  • Why it’s important to perform a reality-based “gut check” to determine if you have what it takes to be a long-term book publisher
  • The processes and paperwork you need to complete and for the appropriate agencies who can authorize you as legally recognized book publisher in the United States
  • Moving from manuscript to printed, bound book and ebook
  • Getting your book listed with the major online retailers, onto store shelves and into readers’ hands
  • The all-important promotional component

The second half of the session will be the “how-to” element. This seminar, titled “Switching Hats: Moving From Author to Indie Publisher,” gets to the gist of how to go about all the “what-tos” covered in the first half. It’ll cover all the nitty-gritty that’s possible in a single session, supported by a generous Q&A session during which attendees can ask anything they want about the whole indie publishing process.

I’ll also be offering on-the-spot critiques of first pages during the Page Cuts session on Friday evening. Then on Saturday, I’ll be leading a session titled “Narrative Nonfiction: Finding Freedom in Form and Function.” This session will cover the nuts-and-bolts of researching and writing true-life stories with a blend of journalism using fiction techniques in a format popularized by author Sebastian Junger. It’ll be a fast-moving, info-packed seminar on this increasingly popular writing style, now employed across nearly every genre you can imagine.

I hope you can join me, along with my colleagues Kathryn Craft, Phil Giunta, Scott Nicholson and many more, at this always-wonderufl event, this year headlined by keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan, bestselling suspense novelist!

Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan enraptures her audiences.Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan always enraptures her audiences.

Books, Promotion, Tips

Promo Tips for Book Authors

I’ve been in the publishing industry since 1990, with my first book traditionally published by a mid-size Midwestern publisher in 1993. Since I kind of lucked into that first book opportunity, I hadn’t planned on it and had built no support structure for learning how to be a successful first-time author. The Internet was in existence, but I was only online via a 1200-baud dialup modem (remember those?) on AOL, which was pretty much the only game in town at that time. There was no Facebook, no Amazon, no social networks for writers, authors and indie publishers. In short, I had no network and was on my own.

Truth is, that isolation from other authors was probably a blessing in disguise. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I set out to make my first book a success, but neither did I have the influence of what I now know were people who mostly believed the conventional wisdom that first-time authors, unless they’re A-List big names with huge publishers, don’t really stand a chance to succeed. Because I wasn’t infected with that negativity and pessimism, I plowed merrily ahead with learning how to promote myself.

Now, I made a lot of mistakes, but ultimately, I was successful in getting my book to earn out its advance so I ended up getting royalty checks. But still and all, it often would have been nice to have the support of other authors who were also trying, also bucking the trend I didn’t even know existed. It was often a difficult, lonely and sometimes scary time. The great part is that new authors today have more options than they can possibly choose from to develop a strong support network of enthusiastic peers, both new and experienced. We also have some fantastic informational resources I would have killed to have!

Sandra Beckwith, PR ExpertOne of those resources is an excellent website and eNewsletter from Public Relations veteran and author Sandra Beckwith at Build Book Buzz. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me sharing some quick PR tips for the modern author here, which I gleaned from one of her recent newsletters. But for LOTS more excellent, free tips and other helpful author promo info, you really need to check out her site and subscribe to her newsletter. I promise the time you trade for the value you get in reading it will be WAY lopsided in your favor!

So, without further ado, here are some tips for getting national exposure for your book, from Sandra Beckwith (most of the links I added, so if you don’t like them, don’t blame Sandy):

How can you get cross-country, ongoing media exposure? Here are a few suggestions:

 

Author Interview, Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part II

Trailer for Amy Shojai’s thriller Lost and Found. Check out the advance praise at the end! 

 

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, we’re back this week with Part Two of our interview with bestselling author Amy Shojai. Amy’s brought her enormous knowledge of pets and animal behavior to bear on her first novel, Lost and Found. This thriller has a breathtaking premise:  An autism cure will KILL MILLIONS unless a service dog and his trainer find a missing child…in 24 hours. I’ve already read the free excerpt, and that alone was enough to get me into the story. Now I’m getting ready to read the whole book (Full disclosure: Amy has provided me with an advance reader eCopy for review). Can’t wait to dig into it!

But meanwhile, let’s learn more about the author’s writing process and thoughts about this, her first thriller. We left off Part I talking about the book’s characters:

Author Amy ShojaiMe:  Speaking of characters, which do you consider the protagonist of this story: September? Steven? Shadow?

Amy: The main character is September. Shadow is very much the secondary main character.

Me:  And I have to ask: How did you come up with the September character? Is she your alter-ego, and should we expect to see more of her?

Amy:  LOL! I attended the awesome writers conference Thrillerfest this past year and sat in on some terrific seminars presented by bestselling thriller authors. Lee Child commented that in his experience, most protagonists seem to be written as someone better looking, more athletic, taller, thinner, and smarter. Yes, there are parts of September that are similar to me, such as her love of animals and passion for them. But she’s more athletic, taller, thinner, smarter–and younger than me. Oh, and she doesn’t like bling. Pity.

Yes, I do think you’ll see more of September. There are two more books planned at this time.

Me:  As authors, we all have different hopes for each of our books, aside from wanting them to be successful. In your writer’s heart and mind, what does success look like for Lost and Found?

Amy:  Success would be readers enjoying the book, and saying so. It would be having them better understand their dogs’ behavior, realize that cats CAN be trained. And having readers ask…no, demand…to know what happens next.

Me: Yeah, that’ll always be the most excellent reaction from a reader, won’t it? I understand you have a giveaway for Lost and Found on Goodreads.com. Want to share more about that?

Amy:  Thanks for asking! Yes, here’s the link. I will give away three copies of the paperback, and happily autograph the books to the winners–or paw-tograph to their favorite pets. The giveaway runs from September 1 to November 15. Simply follow the link, click “enter to win” and fill in your mailing address. The book releases today on Kindle for those who can’t wait, and will be available in all eBook formats and print shortly thereafter.

Me:  What other events and appearances do you have scheduled to support “Lost and Found?” Anything else you’d like your readers to know about you, your newest book or your career?

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Amy: I’ll be appearing thither and yon on a variety of blogs between now and the first of the year. A book launch and autograph party happens locally in Sherman, Texas in mid-October – date to be determined, because I’m scheduled around a musical play co-written with a friend, that we’re performing earlier that month. And I’ll be speaking at the 20th Anniversary Cat Writers Association Conference the first weekend of November in Los Angeles, and signing books, as well as in Houston the first weekend of January at the Houston Cat Club Cat Show.

Me: Amy, as an author myself, I know what a thrill it is to see and hold your newest book. It never gets old, does it? But I think sometimes readers believe that once we get published, all our books will be bestsellers. If only, right? In reality, we all depend on our readers to support our books by helping us create the buzz they need to get attention. I understand you’ve created an easy-to-follow list of helpful things readers can do to help promote your books. Can we share that here?

Amy:  Sure thing. I appreciate every little bit of support from my readers, and here are a few tips to make it easy for them to help get the word out if they like my books:

READER-ICITY RULES FOR GETTING BOOKS NOTICED

  1. “Like” it (just click the “like” button on the Amazon or Facebook page, for instance).
  2. “Like” the author page. Here’s mine on Amazon.
  3. “Tag” it. These are descriptive words or phrases that help others find the book when they search for it. (On the book page, type TT to open the tag box, highlight the tags and copy into the box, and save).
  4. Read it. Love it. Hate it. Talk about it. Share with friends. Argue about it. Get hissed-off about it. Wag about it. Say it’s GRREEEAAAT! Say it SSSSSUCKS! And then . . . .
  5. Review it (on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, your blog, etc.) ONLY IF YOU REALLY READ IT!

Me:  Great tips! Thanks, Amy, for the interesting interview. And I understand you’ve got a free eCopy of Lost & Found to give away to one lucky reader of this blog — how generous! So, readers, here’s how to enter our giveaway for a FREE EBOOK of AMY SHOJAI’S NEW THRILLER, LOST and FOUND:

  1. Watch the book trailer at the beginning of this post and LISTEN CAREFULLY to the narrator, September, explain her story.
  2. Go to the Contact Form of my blog.
  3. Send me a message with the Subject line: I want to be Lost and Found!
  4. In the message field, tell me something that New York Times bestselling author James Rollins has to say about Lost & Found — it’s in the book trailer.
  5. Of all the correct entries received by midnight on Sunday, September 30, a random name will be pulled from a hat to receive a FREE eCopy of Lost & Found, directly from author Amy Shojai. (Your entry into this contest constitutes your permission for me to share your contact information with Amy.)

So ENTER NOW, and you’ll be one step closer to the edge of your seat with Amy, September and one really smart dog.

 

Books, Craft, Promotion, Publishing Industry

A truly perfect author website

Today I ran across an author website that I think is just excellent, and want to share it with you.

Author Jenna Blum has created a compact little site that’s not minimalist but in no way cluttered; full of personality, yet confidently understated. And that seems to be the perfect showcase for her two novels, which are about deep emotional and psychological subjects that get to the very heart of what it means to be human, to be family.

jennablum.com

But from a marketing standpoint she’s got everything she needs, and it’s all there, easy to find, on the home page: links to

  • her books
  • bio
  • press kit
  • everything a reporter, editor, agent or publisher would want to know
  • And a great photo of Jenna to add that human connection.

As a marketing consultant who gets paid to help authors and other small businesspeople build effective websites, I will be referring lots of future clients to this site as an example of what they want to shoot for. Just really well done.

Authors, if you’re considering building an author site, this would be a good one to pattern on.

Books, Promotion

Creative Book Promotion to Schools, Part 3 – Meeting Curriculum Standards

One of the most effective ways to promote your books to schools is to develop teaching units that can be integrated easily into existing curricula.

Author Barbara Techel and Frankie the Walk 'n Roll Dog
Author Barbara Techel and Frankie the Walk 'n Roll Dog make an in-person classroom visit

Remember: As with most forms of free publicity, schools aren’t interested in promoting your book to  students and their parents. They ARE interested in what valuable content/substance you can add to their existing lessons through your book’s subject. If you remember that your material must work in service to their broader goals of teaching concepts in an interesting way, your material is likely to be favorably received and actually used.

You first need to think about all the ways your book’s subject could fit into the standard disciplines:

  • reading/spelling
  • writing/grammar
  • math
  • science
  • social studies/history
  • physical education
  • art
  • music

Use Your Imagination
This exercise should be pretty easy, especially for fiction writers, since it involves making connections where there previously were none: Think about each separate teaching discipline, then imagine a creative approach you might take to make your content relevant to that segment. Obviously, not all books will fit in all teaching categories, but you may surprise yourself with the connections you can make.

As an example, I’ll use my first self-published book, a narrative nonfiction documentary of a historic weather disaster. Here’s how I can imagine Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955 fitting into several standard disciplines:

Reading/Spelling – Create a unit that uses several excerpts from the book. One will be followed by questions that strengthen readers’ close reading and comprehension skills; one will introduce ten new vocabulary words, asking readers to define them according to their context; another can be mined for spelling words.
Writing/Grammar – Pull an excerpt that discusses a diary kept during the flood. Use that section as the basis of an exercise in writing a diary entry using the 5 Ws. This could be tweaked to be written as the classic journalistic inverted pyramid for older students. Other excerpts could be pulled out to show what kind of research was required to dig up the facts, organize them into a coherent narrative, and fit them into the larger story. Still other dialogue excerpts could be used to show how people often neglect proper grammar when speaking, especially when in a hurry or under duress.
Math – There are all kinds of applied math problems that could be pulled from this narrative: How much does one inch of rainfall covering one acre weigh? What’s the formula to determine the hydraulic force of two feet of water moving at 8 mph? If a river’s level rises beyond flood stage, how far out from the banks will it spread once it’s a foot over flood stage? Story problems: If a breach forms in a canal wall that’s 15 feet thick at its base, 7 feet thick at the top, and 10 feet high, how many sandbags measuring 2 ft. x 3 ft. x 1 ft. will it take to fill it? If six men can each move six sandbags per minute, how long will it take them to fill that gap?
Science – The no-brainer here is environmental science and weather: What conditions are required for a hurricane to form over the Atlantic Ocean? How does one storm continue cycling to produce extreme amounts of rainfall? What causes a hurricane to lose so much power once it’s over land? Why is it a bad idea to straighten a waterway? Could such a devastating flood ever happen again? Why or why not?
Social Studies/History – The social studies angle could deal with how rumors spread in a panicked population; the political ramifications of not enforcing ordinances against building in the flood plain; how the flood changed the way life developed in the river valley regarding location of stores and living space, traffic patterns from washed-out bridges. History could be served simply by pulling a few dramatic excerpts that address local, regional and state history as affected by the flood.
Physical Education – My book contains an account of an amazing helicopter rescue that was only successful because the people being rescued (camp counselors between 17-19 years old) were physically fit and prepared for what they needed to do to help save themselves.
Art – Younger kids could have a project in which they draw pictures of some of the more dramatic scenes from the book, while older kids could create memorials to those who died in the event.
Music – Groups of kids could work together to write lyrics and compose music for a ballad about the Flood of ’55.

Help From On High
If you can’t come up with much, don’t worry. Most state departments of education maintain websites containing their grade level standards for curriculum content in every teaching discipline. They’re pretty detailed insofar as what content is required, and this might help you spark some ideas. These curriculum standards are freely available to anyone willing to take the time to study them. It’s possible to develop lesson plans for teaching units in as many of these disciplines as your book pertains to. It involves some work, but you can develop one unit at a time and adjust it slightly for different grade levels.

It’s quite likely that you’ll find your efforts worthwhile: You never know when your book’s lesson might catch on among teachers, who are famous for both sharing what works and lobbying for official adoption of effective material. It only takes one such scenario for your book to become a mandatory or at least a recommended text for an entire school district, so your investment in development can really pay off.

Once you’ve finished creating your units, one way to make them work hard for you while you’re doing other things is to post them as PDFs in your online newsroom. This makes them available not just for download by grateful teachers looking for fresh material, but also makes them searchable by web crawlers that will help make them discoverable by those very instructors looking for exactly what you’re offering.

Most often, you’ll want to develop for a K-12 grade level, but some books might lend themselves to post-secondary level adoption. These more advanced teaching units should contain tightly focused readings, discussion questions, and an assignment for a 45-minute class period. Including a quiz or related game is optional. Remember to use social media to drive awareness of these offerings.

How-To Help Is On The Way
Ideally, not only will your books make it into classrooms, but so will you! It’s a rare teacher who won’t want to meet the author of a book whose content she’s using in her classroom, and to have the author come speak to her students on that subject.   For more information about making the most of such classroom visits as a marketing and promotional tool, learn about the definitive guide to such activities: Pioneering author Barbara Techel is currently at work on CLASS ACT, the ultimate how-to guide for authors wanting to get in front of audiences in schools and classrooms.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part series and will find it helpful in getting your books into classrooms and beyond.

Benefits of writing, Books, Motivation, Promotion

Book Promotion To Schools – Part 2: Finding the Decisionmakers

Author Mary Shafer teaches elementary students about writing
Here I'm teaching a special writing class to students at the Delaware Township School in New Jersey.

If you’re hoping to promote your book to schools, several good things may happen:

  1. Teachers get interested in using your book as a classroom text that will be required reading for all their students. If they do get enthused about your book, they will talk to each other about it and may start a sales chain reaction: Teachers are the original viral marketers. This will result in direct volume sales to these classrooms.
  2. What happens at one school could create the requirement of your book as a text district-wide, resulting in possible volume sales to several schools.
  3. Your book isn’t required as a text, but it gets used by the teachers as part of their content. More about this later.
  4. Your book may or may not get picked up as a text, but you or your author gets invited to speak to a single classroom, multiple classrooms, or even to an assembly. This usually results in an opportunity to sell your book afterwards.

There’s no guarantee that any of these will occur, but I guarantee that none of them will if you don’t learn the proper way to approach schools about your book.

Understand the Culture
First, understand that academia is all about hierarchy and chain of command. If you don’t know who to approach, you can doom your efforts from the start. So learn how your state’s school districts are set up, and who makes the decisions about textbook buying. It can vary widely, but usually it’s some version of certain texts being required at either state or district level, then some local — whole school or classroom level — control for individual titles.

You could research this on the Web or at your local library, but there’s an easier way: If you have kids in school and a decent rapport with one of their teachers, simply ask. Any teacher who’s been around for more than a year should be able to tell you how this works in your state. Another option is to ask your local public or school librarian. Either one should be familiar with your state’s setup.

Manage Your Expectations
Knowing this protocol won’t help you sell at the statewide level. Unless you’re a fairly large publisher with a dedicated sales staff that knows the ropes, that’s a losing battle if you’re coming from outside the system. But what this knowledge will do is tell you the general attitude about textbooks, and how much leverage you might be able to exert at the local or regional district level. Managing these expectations for your efforts is key to being able to maintain them for any length of time.

Generally, you’re looking at a structure something like this:

State DOE > Regional Administrative Unit (optional for larger districts) > School District > Individual Schools. There will be a school board somewhere along this line, made up of local officials, parents and businesspeople. It may be at the regional (admin unit), local (district) or — in the case of really rural areas — the individual school level. For the small, independent publisher or self-published author (who is also an independent publisher), this board is who you want to make friends with, because ultimately, they will make the decision about whether your book gets exposure in the schools they govern.

Gain Advocates
Yes, you can and absolutely should approach teachers directly with your ideas, because they are going to be your strongest advocate if they believe in the power of your book to help them teach kids. But it’s fairly uncommon for teachers to have the discretion to simply adopt your book as a classroom teaching aid without first running it past at least some kind of content approval committee, if not the school board. It’s not unheard of, but it’s not common.

First Impressions Count
Once you’ve determined who to approach, prepare a professionally produced package to send them. This should include a cover letter attached to a promo kit (your press kit, but slanted specifically to appeal to teachers), and a free reading copy of the book. If you can’t afford to give out that many free copies without knowing it has a good chance of selling more books, at least include a 4 x 6 postcard with some check-offs stating that the teacher wants more information or to request a reading copy (count on it — they will if at all interested) that they can send back to you.

Obviously, the hope is that you’ll be able to sell volumes of your book to classrooms, but it may not work that way. You may only be able to sell copies to the teachers, who will teach from it without requiring students to read it. This is not ideal, but it’s not a bad thing, either. With a teacher  in front of a class talking about your book for almost an hour (and maybe more, if you create a multi-class teaching unit) there are bound to be at least a few kids in each class who go out and buy the book. From there, it can turn into Referral City — the best possible kind of promotion!

Next: Meeting Curriculum Standards

Books, Promotion, Publishing Industry

Creative Book Promotion to Schools, Part 1 – It’s Not Just About Textbooks

Author Mary Shafer Presenting To a Classroom

After you’ve written your book and gotten it published, you have about a year to really make a mark with it in the reader marketplace. Hopefully, you thought about how to promote your book even before you started writing it,  and have built some great marketability into the content and format. But even if you’re coming to book promotion late in the game, all is not lost. There’s plenty to learn and lots of places to begin to make a name for yourself and your work. In the interest of efficiency, it makes sense to put most of your effort into places where you can make volume sales. And there are few such markets as interesting and attractive as the education market.

For self-published authors and other small independent publishers, the school market may at first appear untouchable. It’s a crowded marketplace, with dozens of big-name publishers vying for the volume sales generated when whole schools or entire districts buy a title. Aside from the sometimes questionable tactics used by big publishers to get their textbooks into the schools (deeply discounting or even BOGO pricing one book to make huge sales on another, more profitable title — yes, it happens, and purchases are not always based on what’s most appropriate for any given course), there are all kinds of seen and unseen barriers to entry to this most lucrative selling field. But it’s not impossible to crack, if you set realistic expectations and take the time to understand the way schoolbooks get bought and used.

It’s a fallacy that only textbooks are used for teaching in schools. Remember back to when you were in grades K-12: Remember Scholastic’s Weekly Reader, and the neat books they offered for students to buy? Well, they’re still around, and though the Reader has gone digital (what hasn’t?), kids can still buy Scholastic titles to take home. And those books are often used as integral teaching content in the classroom.

Those titles have going for them instant publisher name recognition among educators, which carries with it a mantle of trust and confidence that their books will be of high quality and appropriate for classroom use. Still, you needn’t be a mammoth, venerated publisher to get your books into students’ hands. Sure, it takes some doing, but even small independent publishers — including self-published authors — can get their books into the hands of classroom readers, if they’re willing to devote the time and energy.

For the purposes of this post series, we’ll assume a high level of quality of the book: Professionally written and edited, illustrated and produced. Something you’d be proud to put in front of anyone, and that you know is well-constructed enough to stand the rigors of rough handling. Of course, if your book is in digital form only, this isn’t a consideration. What would be a consideration, then, would be a high level of interactivity, i.e., your book isn’t just “flat,” but contains enough weblinks, 3D animated illustrations and embedded audio and video to keep modern readers engaged. That’s a whole different post series  in itself, so we’ll deal primarily with p-books rather than e-books for this series.

The key term to remember when fishing for classroom readers is RELEVANCE. Teachers are forever on the lookout for fresh materials that bring concepts they’re teaching in the classroom to real-life applicability. This is particularly true for more abstract concepts that can’t be physically demonstrated, such as loyalty, perseverance, conscience, and many science and math concepts. Since teachers typically revert to storytelling to explain these concepts anyway, why shouldn’t it be your book they use to base this teaching on?

Regardless whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, there are likely several ways you can effectively promote your book to schools and schoolchildren of appropriate ages. This series will explore things you can do to make your book promotable to them, including how to get in front of the eyes of teachers and others who buy books for classroom use.

Come back and visit next week, when we’ll begin a series of actionable, accessible tips you can immediately get to work on to get your books in front of those who buy books for school use, in and out of the classroom.

Books, Motivation, Promotion, Publishing Industry

Author Book Promotion: It was never really optional.

Author Mary Shafer launches second edition of her flood book
Here, I'm addressing attendees at the official launch of the revised second edition of my book, "Devastation on the Delaware."

The biggest difference I notice between a wannabe author and one who’s actually got a book out, or between a successful author (i.e., one who’s making sales and has a good chance for a second book contract) and one who’s struggling to get her/his book into readers’ hands and having to accept that there won’t be another contract offered, is simple: Successful authors understand that they MUST participate fully in the promotion and marketing of their own book to AT LEAST the extent that their publisher does, and likely more. Struggling authors believe that somehow, there’s someone else who can do a better job representing their work than they can.

Though in “olden times” — say, 20 years ago or more — this was a common and even acceptable attitude among most authors, it was never true. Ever. No one has EVER been able to be a more passionate advocate of an author’s work than the author him/herself. And I’ll go so far as to say that if it ever WAS the case, then that person should not have been the author of that book.

Whoever is the most passionate person about the book’s topic should be the one writing about it, or at least hiring a good ghostwriter. But if you feel moved enough by your topic — be it a nonfiction subject or a fictional story — to invest the time and effort it takes to write a book about it, YOU are the one who should be doing the bulk of your book’s promotion.

Why? Because book promotion and marketing is a long-haul effort. It lasts forever. And the only person who’s going to be able to muster the enthusiasm it takes to sustain that effort is the one with enough passion to have written a book about it. Yes, you can hire publicists to help you, and maybe you should. But the messaging must come from you. The right words to the right crowds must originate with you.

Seriously.

Look, I’m a writer and author, too. I KNOW that what brought you to the legal pad, typewriter or computer keyboard to capture your story wasn’t the desire to turn into a marketing guru. I get that. You love your topic and you love to write. You never intended to become a pitch person. But the cold, hard fact is that we all live in a world that’s very different from what it used to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the book publishing world.

The publishing landscape is no longer littered with small, medium and large publishing houses. Much like what’s going on in our economic stratification in the US, the “middle class” is fast disappearing. Basically, in the publishing “boom years” of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, it did look that way. But then a wave of corporate greed led some of the large, well-established houses to go into a frenzy of acquisition. Much like the movie “Wall Street,” these houses often cannibalized the backlists of these mid-sized houses, keeping and exploiting the best-selling titles and authors and essentially abandoning the rest.

During this same process, in an effort to cut costs and increase profitability, many excellent editors and other staff responsible for grooming and supporting authors were fired and never replaced. The editors who stayed on were forced to take on way too much production work, so much of their direct work with authors was forced to fall by the wayside. Many authors found themselves “orphaned” — without the editors they were comfortable working with, who had championed and shaped their work — and many of those ended up falling by the wayside, too. They weren’t offered any more contracts, because their work hadn’t proven to be a cash cow.

And now there are very few true mid-sized publishers left. There are mainly The Big Six — those now behemoth houses that swallowed so many of their smaller brethren in the merger-and-acquisition madness — and the rest of us.

And that reality means every author must be his or her work’s own best advocate. Even if you have a really dedicated agent, all those folks can do is get your foot in the door and try to negotiate the best deal for you regarding compensation. Yes, they can negotiate marketing points, but the truth is, if the publisher doesn’t want to support your work after publication for whatever reason, it’s very difficult if not impossible to force them to do so. So YOU are the one who will be doing it.

Even if your publisher does provide decent promotional support, you still need to be the one out there acting as the face of your book. Your readers don’t want to see and meet your agent, your editor or your publisher. They want to meet and talk with YOU, the person whose work touched them in some way. That has always been true, and it hasn’t changed.

The other reality is that today’s reading public is far more sophisticated, demanding, picky and splintered than it ever was before, especially when you add in the whole e-book phenomenon. If there ever was such a thing as “everyone” where readership is concerned — and I vote “no” on that point — it’s long gone. This means that the old concept of writing your manuscript, turning it in to the publisher, then retiring back to your chair in front of your keyboard is also gone.

Your publisher can’t possibly know your intended reading audience as well as you do. They may not know where these people gather and how to talk with them in the most effective way to charge them up about reading your book. Technology has allowed special interest groups to find each other and stay in touch, which is great. But that means there’s no efficient way of your publisher reaching them all efficiently with the kind of basic campaigns they’re capable of running. So, once again, it’s up to you.

I can hear the arguments now: “But I’m a writer, not a marketer!” “I don’t know anything about promotion!” “I’m a shy, retiring sort…that’s why I chose to be a writer, so I can work alone.” “I thought my publisher was going to take care of that!” And on and on.

Well, I hate to break it to ya, folks, but even back when publishers had budgets big enough to hire hotshot publicity teams, they never did it for any but their A-List authors. Think Stephen King and Ann Rice. If you’re a newbie, you haven’t proven your worth to the publisher yet, so aside from a press release and — if you’re lucky — a book website with a digital press kit, you’re probably on your own.

I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Take a few moments to get over your anger, disillusionment and fear. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’re back in the real world, you know that the success of your book is going to depend almost entirely on you. Yes, you can request help from your publisher, and a good one will do what they can for you. But the truth is, you’re just one of their authors, they likely have very limited staff and budgets, and your book’s publicity isn’t going to get any special treatment.

This isn’t to indict publishers, at least not on the whole. I AM a publisher, so I understand the very real limitations they’re up against. But they should provide at least the bare bones of a marketing plan and some of its major elements for you. Nevertheless, you’re the one whose job it is to flesh it out and work that plan with your own time, presence and energy.

How to do it is the subject of vast — and some very goodbooks in their own right. But right now it’s time for a gut check, authors:

If you’re not willing to invest at LEAST as much energy, effort and enthusiasm into getting your book into readers’ hands — and that’s all that marketing and promotion is about — then why did you bother to write it?

I welcome comments here, or invite you to join the discussion on my Nabble forum.

Books, Craft, Dialog, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Technique

Narrative Nonfiction or “Faction” – What is it?

I had a question yesterday from a writing colleague, whom I met at last year’s annual conference for ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors — if you’re not a member, I encourage you to look into joining. My ASJA network alone is worth the cost of dues).

Anyway, this friend is about to embark on a book proposal about a lesser-known historical figure. There isn’t a lot written about him, and she’s having difficulty locating much reference to this figure in her research. There are no heirs to his estate that she could contact for further elucidating material, though she has  contacted some well-known archives whose staffs should be familiar with him.

Now, this author is an experienced, skilled, detailed nonfiction writer. This story she’s considering writing has plenty of Important and Exciting Plot Points. It’s mundane details of the subject’s day-to-day life that she doesn’t know about–other than the time period in which the story takes place.

Bottom line, she’s overwhelmed with the thought that, although what she’s already learned has been exciting and she’s sure there’s a salable book in it, she may not be able to find enough actual reference material to be able to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about this figure. But she really wants to treat this as nonfiction.

Her question was blunt: Do I make it up?

She’s an ethical writer and is well aware that nonfiction means FACT-based, not made up, so she was not being serious. What is serious is her desire to write a historically accurate account of this fascinating figure. She’s wondering if perhaps she should do most of it as nonfiction, but write a fictionalized version of the story to fill in the missing parts.

What my friend is struggling with is something historical writers have always come up against: How to remain true to historical fact while still painting a complete word picture of a specific time, place and subject, even when there is simply no extant material to verify the smaller details. Enter “creative” or narrative nonfiction.

This type of writing has been with us for some years now, and allows such complete storytelling to take place. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of the format, which of course has been decried by many purists as simple fraud. Essentially, narrative nonfiction uses fictional techniques to make a story come alive. Sometimes this must include the author’s conjecture on what happened in a given situation, because the people who actually experienced the situation are either no longer with us to bear witness, or simply don’t want to talk about the traumatic situation.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger opened that door with his book The Perfect Storm, when he gave us his idea of what it must have been like as Capt. Billy and his crew went down with the Andrea Gail. No one who was there lived to tell about it, so he HAD to make it up. But it was a very small part of the story, and he made very clear in his notes that it was only his conjecture. And readers accepted it. The publisher took a chance with this maverick move, and it paid off — not just for them and for Junger, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities that had heretofore gone unrealized for writers of historical nonfiction.

So now it’s acceptable in this format, if you have enough fact-based stuff, to fill in a few details based on conjecture and logic, as long as the vast majority — like 99% or more — of your story is provably accurate. And you must also explain in an Author’s Note that you have done so. Otherwise you MUST list the book as fiction.

I did this in my book, “Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955.” Because so many of the story’s subjects had either perished in the flood or were no longer with us when I was writing the book 50 years later, I needed to be able to take some license if I were to write it in a readable, engaging style.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

And so I simply let my readers know that if dialogue appeared in quotation marks, it actually came out of the subject’s mouth that way, witnessed by someone verifiable; and if the dialogue appeared in italics without quote marks, it was something I conjectured might have been said. I was clear in my note that I only took license with relatively minor passages, and based my conjecture on what would seem reasonable to most folks to have happened in the given situation.

And you know what? People LIKE this. They’ve actually said things to me about this particular practice, all positive remarks. Now, no one has ever said anything to me about other techniques I use. But they have said things like, “I really like the format. Your book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down!”

When I ask specifically what they liked, they note three things:

  1. The dialogue sounds like real people talking, not stilted, perfect prose. I use sentence fragments and contractions, because people are lazy and want to get their ideas out quickly.
  2. That I did try to imagine what dialogue might have taken place when I didn’t know for sure. As long as they’re aware of which is which, no one feels duped.
  3. I use tactics of good fiction writing: varying story pace, jumping back and forth between characters and scenes to set up easy-to-follow chronological order, giving enough background info to interest readers in characters and make them care what happens to them, and ending each chapter on a cliff-hanger that makes them want to keep reading to find out what happens.

If you’re interested in learning how to write using the narrative nonfiction format, I highly recommend Junger’s book and mine. I can also recommend three others that just happen to also be weather-related, because that’s what I read, as excellent examples of this type of format:

As to whether you should or shouldn’t engage in narrative nonfiction writing, I really do think it’s a matter of how much you’re comfortable fictionalizing. If you’re a purist, don’t even try — it’s not worth the internal struggle you’ll continue to have with yourself. But if you’re open to new approaches, here’s an online link that should help you learn more:

The Reading Experience – Forget Fiction (July 26, 2010)

And here are some books on the subject, both by Peter Rubie.

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events

Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction

I hope you learn something that will pique your interest in tackling this flexible approach to historical nonfiction.

Books, Craft, Genres, Promotion

Rebirth of a Nonfiction Success – The Revised Edition

Well, after a month-and-a-half of Book Production Hell, I finally sent the final files to the printer yesterday for the revised second edition of my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. And all I can say is, “WHEW!”

Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition
Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition


Compared to the initial 3 years of research, interviewing and writing for the first edition, this was nothing. Yet 45 days with no break — no days off, no weekends — is an endurance slog no matter how you look at it. This was a rather small update — I added 40 pages of new material including new stories, maps and photos — to an existing 456-page book. That brings this puppy in at just under 500 pages now, a hefty tome you wouldn’t want to drop on your head from a high shelf, for sure. Not to mention the additional shipping weight and larger mailers it will require.

Still, I opted to keep the retail price at $19.95 — that magic number for all TV product offers, for those who pay attention to such things. But my reasons are that in this day of a contracting print book market and shrinking leisure time in which to read them, I wanted to keep my book attractively priced. That, and I’m aware that most of my primary readership — people who live in the Delaware River Valley — are just like me: middle-class Americans struggling to maintain a decent quality of life on shrinking incomes in a crappy economy. Yet another reason not to raise the price.

But that’s really a publishing issue, not so much that of an author. What I want to talk about here are the concerns any author might have when considering updating a nonfiction work. What do you think about when you want to update an existing book, and how do you decide when it’s the right time to do an updated edition?

For me, and this work in particular, it was kind of a no-brainer. Devastation is a documentary treatment of an historic weather disaster. I first published it in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the event. The entire first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 42 days — probably a reflection of the fact that it came out just a month after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast of the US, and hurricane-caused flooding was on everyone’s mind. That was a serendipitous stroke of timing I couldn’t have planned, and as tragic as it was for the Gulf, it was absolutely awesome for this book’s sales.

It went on to sell another 2,500 copies over the next five years, giving it a sales average of 1,000 copies a year. Given that most small press books sell less than 1,000 copies total, I am of course pleased and flattered that so many people find my work interesting enough to fork over $20 for. Initially, the book was supposed to have been published by another publisher, and the estimate was to sell that many in the first year. Had that happened, it would have officially qualified as a bestseller in small, independent press parlance.

However, short of having taken off work for that entire year (after having already taken so much time off to write it) to do nothing but promote it, I’m not sure I could have done anything more than I did to make that happen. I spent nearly every evening and almost all my weekends either sending out promo messages or making appearances on behalf of the book for the first year, about 75% of that effort the second year, and leveled off at about 50% of that effort in the remaining few years until now, mostly because I had another new book of my own and a couple of our other authors’ works to promote, as well (The danger of being both author and publisher).

During that time, as the book sold and awareness of it grew, I was contacted by more and morepeople with their own stories and pictures of the flood to share. Always, my first reaction would be (to myself, of course), “Where the heck were you when I was desperately seeking information about this in the first place?” But that kind of attitude is unhelpful, so I simply listened and followed up with gratitude for these people who felt that what I was doing with the book was of value, and who wanted to add to that value.

As I reached the four-year mark after the original publication, I realized it was time for an update. Enough folks had written in to correct me — usually gently, but sometimes not so much — on errors I had made in the original manuscript. Nothing hideous, mostly embarrassing things like geographical errors due to my less-than-stellar ability to read maps or names that were close but not exact. But it was enough all together to make the responsible historian in me wish to correct the errors in the interest of making the book as accurate an historical document as possible. Plus, there were some clarifications and enhancements of existing stories, and a few new stories whose addition I felt would add to the narrative.

As for timing, I realized that August 18 of this year would be the 55th anniversary of the ’55 flood — in essence, a Golden Anniversary. What better PR hook to hang all our promotion on? So I set that as our pub date, and backtracked the production schedule off of it.

So, for the past year I have been gathering all the new material, clarifying stories, getting photo permissions and doing a few new phone interviews. And in mid-June, as I returned from a ten-day road trip that served to both give me some time away from this office and to allow me the relaxation necessary to face the endurance race ahead of me, I started in on the actual work of updating the manuscript. We also launched a cover contest to allow the public to vote on three possible designs, which was a fun and very informative exercise that — happily — ended up confirming our own choice by an overwhelming margin.

Devastation on the Delaware 2nd Edition Cover
This is the cover for the new edition.
By mid-July, we were ready to start into production on the new layout. My poor designer had to endure many changes, as her layout process ended up coinciding with my last-minute writing changes because our production timeline had been inadvertently telescoped by other work I had to do in order to keep paying the bills. But she was a real trouper and got ‘er done. Between the two of us, and a VERY professional and excellent indexer who produced incredible work and delivered EARLY, we managed to pull it off on time.

Of course, if I had only been the author and not the publisher as well, this schedule would have been very different. Automatically add at least 6 months to a year to the whole process. Just another reason to be glad to be an indy publisher/author. And this time, we’re going the POD (print on demand) route. After all, I’ve already saturated my primary market of local and regional readers with the first edition. Few of them will pop for the second edition, too, so I’ll have to seek new readers. It took me five years to empty our warehouse of the original edition’s 5,000 copies, so it stands to reason I don’t want to be sitting on that much inventory again. The higher per-unit price will even out in my not having to pay to warehouse, ship and inventory that large run, not to mention carrying the large debt for its printing.

So now, with writing and production behind me, it’s on to the third and most critical step of the publishing process: promotion. Thanks to a fast, talented and affordable web developer — Caryn Newton of Lantern Glow Design — I’ve been able to streamline this process to include both traditional and online elements, and I get better at its implementation with every new book we do.

Just thought a window into one author’s updated edition process might be enlightening.