Monday, April 25, 2011

Whatever it Takes: Wait, what does it Take?

Something happened to me last week that ruffled my feathers for a good long time. In fact, it had me so flustered I couldn’t avoid venting about it to fellow writers. Last week, a reader took issue with the way in which I was promoting my story on a very popular web site I happen to be a member of. Until this happened, she’d been a faithful fan who always commented on how much she enjoyed my story. Because she found my promotional efforts too aggressive, she withdrew her support of my work, which translates to withdrawing her support of me. I took the time to explain to her why I was promoting the story in the manner I was, but she wasn’t satisfied with my explanation. In her mind, I’d stepped over the line in an effort to achieve success. At that point, I graciously bowed out of the discussion on the grounds that we’d agree to disagree. All the while, I was gnashing my teeth at this affront. To be fair, I do tend to take things quite personally when it comes to my writing, but this left me a little more irritated than I let on to her. It wasn’t her disdain of my tactics that I took issue with. It was something else she said that left a sour taste in my mouth. It was something along these lines: I know exactly what it takes for writers today to be successful

No, you don’t, and I’ll tell you why. No one really does, especially not new writers who have yet to have a legitimate publishing credit to their names. Side note, yes I hear how catty I sound, but I warned you this issue really chapped my hide. I suppose I could’ve launched into a heated debate with her about what it really takes, but I knew instantly this was going to be a topic for my next blog post. So, what does it take?

I hate to tell you folks, but having a great story isn’t enough. It’s a key element to success. A great story will increase your chances of getting a reputable literary agent with the power to get your work in front of top notch publishing companies and make that sale on your behalf. Notice that I said it will only increase your chances. I didn’t say it would guarantee an offer of representation. The truth is that it won’t. Agents are inundated with submissions. Before they even see your great story, you better have a killer query letter with a polished list of qualifications. At the very least, you should have a writing credit under your belt. Because guess what? Even that very fine query letter has a good chance of being tossed aside by the agent’s assistant if you’re not an experienced writer. Now, that’s not to say no agents will take new writers. Some will, but even the use of the word some is inflated. It’s more like a few will take unpublished, unproven entities. It’s their livelihood. Can you blame them for being cautious?

If you think your killer query and great story are enough, think again. There’s one more, very important, thing you need as an emerging writer when submitting to prospective agents. You need a solid marketing plan. Long gone are the days when publishing houses expended a lot of capital to promote their writers. The bigger houses may still be able to do this, but you’ll notice it’s only being done for their top grossing authors with a proven track record of success. They’re not going to give a new author that kind of budget, if they give her one at all. Instead, they want to see what you’re willing to do to promote your story. And if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t draft a one paragraph document that says you’ll ask friends and family to buy a copy of your book. Don’t get me wrong, you can include something along those lines as part of your overall marketing plan, but you need to have a solid plan that shows you have a good grasp on your target audience and how to get them to let loose their purse strings to buy your book.

In case you’re wondering, good reviews alone are also not enough to generate book sales. You can have one reviewer call your book “a must have for every shelf” and another reviewer say your book was one she “couldn’t put down”, and that’s great for your ego. However, that’s just a small step down the long path of promotion. You can’t rely on good reviews alone to entice new readers to purchase your book, no matter where those reviews are posted. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the money to hire a publicist to do all the work for you, then you need to be willing and able to get out there and pedal your product.

As I near the end of this rant, I suppose now would be a good time to assure everyone that I’m in no means trying to discourage new writers from giving it a shot. On the contrary, I’m trying to educate them. I want every writer I come in contact with going into this experience with their eyes wide open. If they can do that, I think it will help them to succeed earlier or better or both. At the very least, it might help them to keep things in perspective.

So, the moral of the story? A great story doesn’t do you any good if no one knows about it. If it’s not illegal or immoral then I’ll do whatever it takes to get my work noticed. For every self-righteous reader I lose with this approach, I’m more likely to gain another more understanding version in its place.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Protecting a Dream

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I can’t tell you that I knew the exact moment I made this decision or even that it’s something I just always knew. I just recall wanting this at some point in my childhood. I liked writing, and I liked the joy my words brought to other people. It’s taken me a long time to make that dream a reality, and it’s a dream that’s forever evolving.

The reason why this childhood dream returned to me so late in life isn’t at all educational and is a topic perhaps best left for another time. However, I do believe a tiny bit of history is in order. I’ve spent nearly ten years honing my skills as an aspiring professional writer, and I must say I’ve become quite good at it. Always the bridesmaid, I suppose.

When I set out on this adventure, I had no idea how complicated the publication process was. Words like query letter and synopsis didn’t mean anything to me. Like most writers, I was a reader so I did the most logical thing I could to learn the best way to achieve success. I bought a book and boned up on how to write a killer query and an effective synopsis. With all this knowledge in hand, I set out to find an agent. Being as green as I was, I didn’t realize there were less than scrupulous characters out there preying on the ignorance of novice writers. I assumed knowing the mechanics of queries and synopses and the like was enough. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After almost a year of trying and failing to snag an agent, I finally got that offer of representation. It followed the standard course so nothing seemed amiss.  By the standard course, I mean that after sending the query, the agent asked for a sample and synopsis. After taking twelve weeks or so to read that, she asked for the completed story.  Finally, after reading the completed story, she contacted me with the offer of representation. Not only was I over the top with my elation, but I was brimming with ignorance. Having accepted my limitations on such matters, I asked a lawyer to review the contract my agent sent. He did so, but it turns out he was versed solely in property law and didn’t recognize any inherent flaws in the contract. I likewise missed signs that in hindsight were glaring signs of a scam.  While this knowledge came too late for me, it wasn’t in vain. I was able to write an article published in Writer’s Journal magazine which instructed fledgling writers how to appropriately research potential publishers and agents to avoid suffering the same fate.

I’m sad to say, this past week, I was reminded again how many scam artists still lurk in the shadows.  As I’ve mentioned before, I participate in an online writer’s web site where hundreds of stories are uploaded daily.  Like me, these writers are looking for an audience for their work, hoping to get discovered and longing for publication. When a fellow writer announced she’d submitted a story to a publisher, I crossed my fingers for her. Less than two weeks later, she announced the publisher accepted her work. Though my scam radar started pinging, I was distracted by the demands of my own life and failed to follow through on this. Just a few days later, another fellow writer contacted me begging me to alert the other writer to some disturbing things he’d uncovered in his research. Naturally, this prompted me to do my own research.  If I’m going to put my name to something, I want to be confident I’m giving accurate information. Unfortunately, the information was accurate. I hated to do it, but I contacted this writer to advise her of our findings and explain how she could verify this information on her own. I was relieved she was accepting of the advice and surprised by how grateful she was. I was also saddened at having to do this in the first place. How dare these monsters try to crush our dreams?

Better yet, how dare we let them? I say we need to arm ourselves. As I’ve already written an article on this and given up its rights, I can’t reprint that article here.  However, I will gladly share my copy of that article as well as any hints, tips and tricks to keep my fellow writers from falling victim to these lowlifes. I’m not difficult to find. Just check out my web site and you’ll find a link to my email address. I’ve got a Face Book account, and I use my real name. You can even find me on Twitter. I just wish I didn’t have to do this. Then again, I guess if that were the case, we’d be living in a perfect world.

Monday, April 11, 2011

One Last Thing About Signs

On two different occasions I’ve talked about the possibility of the existence of signs and how they could relate to my writing career as a whole.  Before moving away from the topic, there’s another, more tangible, sign I want to discuss—a sign of the times.
Last week, I received a sales report from the publisher. It’s a very nice excel based spread sheet that outlines all of my sales for the prior month. Imagine my dismay to learn for the fourth month in a row, I haven’t sold one book. That’s particularly disheartening when I have four titles available to purchase. I try to assuage my sorrow by telling myself the lack of sales isn’t due to a lack of talent. After all, my books get great reviews. Not just from my friends and family but from independent reviewers as well. The more I think about this, the more theories I devise and the more I realize I’m one hundred percent on the money with regard to this.

In case you haven’t noticed, brick and mortar book stores are becoming a thing of the past. I’m not just talking about the mom and pop stores either. Even the industry giants, such as my beloved Borders, aren’t immune to a downturn in profits that forces them to close their doors. So, what’s the cause of this and how does it relate to my loss of sales? With the advent of devices such as the Kindle, the traditional book is being replaced by an e-book and consumers are embracing it. E-readers offer a variety of conveniences. The consumer doesn’t have to brave lines at the bookstore or wait out shipping if she’s ordered on line. She can shop in her pajamas and have the title delivered instantly, but that’s not even the best part. The best part, perhaps the biggest motivating factor of all, is the cost of e-books versus paper books. Most books are substantially cheaper when purchased through an e-reader. I recently read an article in which self-publishers claim to be raking in the sales because they’re offering they’re books for ninety-nine cents per title. Ninety-nine cents? I don’t know what kind of royalties you can net from that, but it’s a price that fully supports the theory of why traditional book sales are falling by the wayside.

Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s because I’m a kinesthetic learner, but I prefer a real book to an e-book. I want to hold it and feel those pages in my hands. I want to pick it up and put it down at my leisure, which I suppose you can do with e-readers. And if I get lucky enough to get a signed copy, I’m not sure how the author can sign my Kindle version of her story.

It’s not just the e-readers honing in on the book business. There are numerous You Tube like web sites where authors, both published and unpublished, can upload their work. Readers have unlimited and free access to these stories. Let me just say, I belong to one of these, and I absolutely love it. This site has allowed me to gain more exposure for my work, which I hope will one day translate into sales of other titles.

E-readers and free book sharing web sites aside, there’s another and more difficult reality facing us all. Our country is in a recession and has been for quite some time. Financial experts say we’re on an upswing, but that’s difficult to digest when gas prices in the United States are upwards of four dollars a gallon and a head of lettuce is two dollars. I’m going to date myself when I admit this, but I can recall when gas was ninety-nine cents a gallon, and I thought that was high. And wasn’t it just last summer I was paying one dollar and twenty-nine cents for a head of lettuce and complaining that was too much? Oh, what I’d give for those prices now. It’s no wonder ninety-nine cent e-books and book sharing web sites are flourishing. Readers need an affordable way to meet this entertainment need.

So my sales are down? The cost of everything from gasoline to lettuce has more than doubled. Desperate times call for desperate measures. When it’s a choice between spending fifteen dollars on a book or ninety-nine cents on a book, it’s a no brainer.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the book sharing web site where I gain new fans each day. I’ll be grateful I’ve got some medium to explore my talent and reach the readers. Most of all, I’ll recognize this lack of sales for what it is—a sign of the times. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Sign of Things to Come: Part Two

Not too long ago, I shared with you my failure to make the quarter final round of this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards.  If you recall, the key to advancing in the contest hinged on my ability to convince the judges in three hundred words or less that my novel was worth a look.  They weren’t even going to look at it if I couldn’t summarize the entire novel and demonstrate that I understood my target audience in this paltry word count. Given that I’ve bemoaned this in prior posts, I think it’s best if we move on.

The point of this stroll down a not so fond memory lane is simply to remind you that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t make the quarter finals, and it left me pondering whether that failure was a sign of things to come. I contemplated the notion that my inability to advance in the competition could perhaps be a sign of things to come. Of course, these weren’t good things. Instead, it was the worst case scenario of never breaking the glass plane and achieving mainstream success. Ultimately, I decided I was happier taking control of my own destiny and not putting stock in supposed signs. Now I find myself asking if that can work in the reverse. Let me explain.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I recently revved up my social networking skills and became an active member of Wattpad. For those of you who don’t recall, it’s an on line writers web site that’s been called “the You Tube of ebooks”.  There, I’ve shared my latest novel, which wasn’t the same novel I entered in the Amazon contest, and I’ve found a measure of success. I’ve garnered a number of positive reviews as well as the fans to go along with it. Wattpad often hosts contests for their members, both writers and readers. I happened to be trolling the site one day when I discovered one such contest. It was a young adult novel contest consisting of three rounds. In round one, writers are invited to post at least the first thirty pages of their YA novel by March 30, 2011.  Those who earned the most votes were then reviewed by staff and would be invited to post the next thirty pages by the end of April. Those who do well in that round are then asked to post the remainder of their novel by the end of May with the winner to be announced in June. The prize is five hundred dollars. The sum didn’t interest me as much as the exposure. Some of the top literary agents in the business are participating as judges, which means if I do well enough, my work is in their hands. That sets my pipe dreams in motion. Maybe one of them will love my work and the reviews it’s getting and contact me and offer to represent me. If viral videos can allow the unknown artist to be discovered in the music business, why can’t this contest allow the same thing for an undiscovered author?

With that in mind, I entered the contest and set about advertising my novel. I wanted to show the judges that it could be marketable and successful. Either I accomplished that or they liked my work or both because I’ve advanced to round two. On hearing the news, I was overjoyed. I still am, but it left me asking that same question with a twist.

Is this a sign of things to come? If I accept that it is, does that mean I accept that bad signs exist as well? Am I allowed to pick and choose the signs I heed, or must I either accept or dismiss them in their entirety? Having given this much thought, I’ve decided I’m much happier with the notion that success is mine to make. I want to believe when I succeed or fail it’s based on tangible factors and not the mystical notion of signs. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if advancing in this latest competition was a sign of many good things to come?