Monday, April 18, 2011

How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book

I love Penny Sansevieri’s newsletters because just as one gest a bit slack about things along comes another gem from the Author Marketing Experts. Here’s Penny’s advice on  …

How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book
When it comes to publishing, there is a certain recipe for success. And while nothing is guaranteed, there are significant activities which must happen in order for your book to have a chance at success. I often speak of promotion, websites, and gathering a social media footprint. Today we're taking a look at the equally important back-end issues. Now, I can't guarantee if you follow this that you'll come out leading the charge with the most perfect book, but you'll certainly be close. Writers never intentionally write a bad book, or a book that's not marketable. We do our best, and we often hope for the best. But in a world full of clutter, you have to do more than that. You have to step out to succeed, and you have to learn the ropes of your market and the publishing industry. Here are 11 points for you to consider:

1) How big is the market for your book? Before you launch headlong into a campaign or even write your book, be sure you know the market for it really well. Often, I find that authors don't take the time to study their market. This is important because you need to know first and foremost if there is a market for your book. I know this might sound odd, but hear me out. Some years back I worked as a literary agent and was being pitched by this super-talented author. He'd written a book on why good men fall for bad or mean women. He was proud of this book, saying there was no other book like it on the market and further, that he'd written it for men. There are two problems with this:

First, that there is no other book like it on the market. If there isn't a book like it on the market, there might be a reason why. It's not that there are no new ideas, but most of the models that work consist of books that fit a certain, existing market. Second problem: a self-help book written for men. No offense guys, but women buy 97% of all self-help out there. If you're writing a good book with a great topic but for the wrong audience, that's a problem. Know the market.

Go to bookstores and talk to booksellers, they can be the best source of information for you. Ask them if they have a book on your topic and then have them point you in the direction of where those books are shelved so you can see for yourself what the competitive space looks like. If there isn't a book on your topic, see if you can find out why. Ask a professional you trust. This could be your bookseller, or it could be a marketing professional. You'll save yourself thousands of dollars by doing this. Regarding my talented author with a book written for the wrong market, once we repositioned him it was fine. It took little effort but saved him countless hours, dollars, and frustration.

2) What will you call it? When we worked with author Marci Shimoff, she told us that she spent two long weeks agonizing over the title of her book: Happy for No Reason. Marci was featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret, and had done extensive speaking events worldwide. Why would she agonize over the title of a book? Because the title (and the cover) are the most important elements of your book. People will judge a book by its cover and title, you can be certain of that. If you're debating on a title, or even if you've settled on one, do not take chances. Find a professional who can give you important feedback. If a title is unappealing, too confusing, or too tied to branding that isn't clear or benefit-driven, you could lose sales. Remember: the title of your book isn't for you; it's for your reader. Make it matter to them.

3) Don't fall in love with your own ideas. This is a big one. It's great to love your work; in fact, you should love it. You should be passionate about it. But don't love it so much that you aren't open to feedback. Feedback is critical to any successful book launch campaign. Further, if you aren't open to feedback, you might miss some advice that could save your book and you from spending thousands of dollars pushing something that isn't quite ready for the mainstream - or worse, a book that's missed its mark only slightly. Be open to feedback and then seek that feedback from professionals you trust and respect.

4) Do you know how to compete with major publishers? If you're self-publishing your book, or even trying to find a major NY publisher for your book, why would this matter? Because, as much as some folks like to say that NY publishers are doing it wrong, they are still the driving force behind the industry. Knowing when they typically release a majority of their titles and what their strengths and weaknesses are is important. Why? Because you need to understand what the competitive landscape looks like. It's important to note, for example, that major publishers don't generally publish to the niches. Why is that? Because they are focused (and must focus) on bigger areas: celebrity titles, trends, etc. Even the things (like the Snooki book) that might turn our stomachs. In an upcoming piece, I will spend some time discussing how NY Publishers work, as well as how you might compete with some of these giants.

5) What's the "look" of your work? I'm speaking specifically about branding and book cover design. I would never trust my book cover to anyone less than a professional designer. Why? Because there are certain things you don't want to leave to chance. This is another reason why you don't want to get too close to your work. You might love a book cover that's totally wrong for your book. Now, don't misunderstand me. You should love your final cover, absolutely. But don't love something that many professionals advise against. This could mean trouble. Further, you should do your research. Look at other covers; see what appeals to you and what does not. Make sure the cover is simple and powerful in design. If you have a brand aligned with your business, make sure there's a synergy between them. Also, your cover shouldn't be too complicated. If you have to explain the cover (or book title) you need to keep searching for a simpler message. Remember: you aren't going to be able to be everywhere and speak to every consumer interested in your book about what the cover or title means. It should pique their interest without confusing them.

6) What other titles are competing with you? Knowing your competitive space is not only important, it's mandatory. As I mentioned in #1, you want to identify your market and know that there's an audience for your book. Once you do, however, you'll want to get to know that market even better. You should read most (if not all) of the top books in your category (to the degree that time allows, of course). You should know the authors who write them and if possible, network with them via email, their blogs or (if you're lucky) in person. Why is this crucial? Two reasons: The first is that you want to know what other titles are out there because your book needs to somehow align with the market. Also, what happens if you do research and find that there's another book exactly like yours? Glad you found out now, aren't you? Now you can change your book slightly to support a similar, but unique, message. Second, networking with other like-minded authors is always a win-win. It's great if you can get to know them, share information, helpful tips, maybe even some upcoming networking events. Knowing your "neighbors" in publishing is never a wasted effort.

7) Who is your target audience and how will you reach them? Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? If you aren't sure, now is the time to find out. Specifically, you want to make sure there's an audience for your book and you want to know how to reach them. By reaching them I mean selling to them. If you're unsure, a professional can help you identify this. The reason you want to do this early on is so that if needed, you can incorporate elements into your book that matter to your reader and make it more appealing to your audience. Identifying your target market and how you will access them is important because this could help you align with them before your book comes out. Let's say that your audience is heavily into associations. This could be a great outlet for you to market to and even, if you're so inclined, to position yourself as a speaker. If you've written fiction, this is important as well. Key associations in your market can be very helpful to your success both through promotion and networking. Authors have a tendency to isolate themselves. Yes, I know this is a stereotypical way of describing an author, but let's face it, between writing, research, and promotion we're clocking a lot of computer hours at our desk. It's important to allocate some time to step out of your comfort zone and get to know the audience you are writing for.

8) How will someone buy your book? You might say: Duh - in bookstores and on Amazon. Well, maybe and maybe not. As I mentioned in #4, bookstore shelf space is often occupied by books published through major houses, therefore getting space on these shelves can be difficult. Your local store or stores may stock you, but that's never certain until the book comes out. I recommend that you offer your book on your website and if you aren't interested in shipping and fulfillment then link to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever online e-tailer you feel most comfortable with.

Additionally, consider other outlets for selling your book such as: associations, gift shops, catalogs, specialty stores, etc. Why do you need to know this information so far in advance? For planning first and foremost. You want to plan your sales strategy early. If you're going after specialty shops, gift shops, or catalogs you'll need to target them early enough so the book can run through their internal acquisitions process. How will you sell them a book that hasn't been published yet? Print galleys (advanced review copies, also called, ARCs) that you can distribute. Even if the book is only 80% complete, meaning that it's written but in the editing phase, as long as you have a near-final cover you are good to go. Galleys tend to be 80% close to the final book. They should be bound and look like the final book but should indicate on the cover (top or bottom) that it's an advanced reading copy.

9) What's the best time to launch? Timing is everything, especially in publishing. Fall is always a big time for book releases. Publishers tend to publish their biggest titles in the Fall, making this sometimes a rough time to launch. Rough, but not impossible. If you're launching in the Fall you will need to start your efforts early. And speaking of that - when will you start marketing your book? As soon as you have the title and branding complete. Start early, often I recommend six to eight months prior to the book launch.

Remember, it's the long runway of promotion so there's a lot to do before you can take off. Starting well before the book comes out will help you gain significant traction by the time the launch arrives. So, back to your perfect launch time. If you're planning this far out, you should be able to align your book with a target date that supports the subject matter if appropriate. A mom-focused title on Mother's Day, a relationship book on Valentine's day, etc. Remember, it's much easier to sell something to someone who is already interested in it. Selling a topic that aligns with a commemorative date, holiday, or anniversary will make your marketing road a bit easier.

10) What's the unique message? How will you differentiate yourself from the competition? Your book is not the field of dreams; readers won't beat a path to your door just because you wrote it. Remember that you must be different. You must be unique. It's critical to identify your unique marketing message and, as well, identify your elevator pitch. What's your elevator pitch? It's a short, concise message that will help sell your book. It's short, benefit-driven, intriguing, and all about the reader.

11) It's not about you. The biggest and most important message in all of this is that despite the hours that you've toiled writing your book, at the end of the day it's not about you. It's about your reader, and moreover, it's about what your book can do for the reader. If you keep this in mind as you move through the process of writing and publishing your book, you will have a title that will attract readership and help your writing career gain momentum.

Many of us forget this important note. I mean, let's face it: Writing is a very personal experience. Whatever you're writing about, whether it's your life or how to lead a better life, it's all personal. We love our work and we want others to love it, too. Remember your book is your resume and this book is inviting readers into your world. Likely you would never invite a reader to your home, but if you did I doubt that you'd invite them into a messy house, right? Then why launch a "messy" book? Get it edited, vet the content, and get a cover that speaks to the reader. If you can step away from your own book in an objective way, you'll be head and shoulders ahead of most writers who stay too close and too tied to their work. Passion is great, except when it prevents you from making good decisions.

Now that I've given you several ways to succeed, how do you align yourself with professionals you trust? First, do your homework. Read their websites, blogs and newsletters if they have one. If they purport to be social media experts, make sure you take a look at their social media footprint. I've had companies pitch me who say they are experts at social media yet they have no Facebook Page or Twitter account. That doesn't seem very "expert" to me. References are always good to have as well. In fact, the more you can ask others who have been successful for the names of people they trust the quicker it will be for you to find people who have a good track record.

If you hire someone, make sure they can work hourly for you. You just want an opinion, perhaps some brainstorming time. You likely don't need a package, just an hour, maybe two. You don't need to spend your marketing budget on this process, but whatever you do spend can potentially save you a lot once the book hits the market.

Succeeding isn't always about getting to the starting line on time. Often, it's about all the work you do to get to the starting line and then, hopefully, to a successful finish. Our books are often an extension of ourselves, our businesses, and our personalities. But success requires more than just a good book. It requires a lot of sweat equity up front, and while it may seem like a hefty price for a book that hasn't even launched, I can guarantee you this: The more you do now, the more you'll save and succeed in the end. Good luck!

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free e-zine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques.

Thanks for the great advice, Penny! If any readers have more gems to add, please feel free to comment.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Charm of Cranford

Cranford is one of the better-known novels of the 19th century English writer Elizabeth Gaskell. It was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words, which was edited by Charles Dickens. The fictional town of Cranford is closely modelled on Knutsford in Cheshire, which Mrs. Gaskell knew well. The book has little in the way of plot and is more a series of episodes in the lives of Mary Smith and her friends, Miss Matty and Miss Deborah, two spinster sisters.

But what is it about Cranford and its deceptively simple tales of country life that makes the work so appealing? It has been aptly described as ‘a piece of exquisite social painting’ … ‘tender’ and ‘delicate.’ Narrated by Mary Smith, a friend of Miss Matty and frequent visitor to Cranford, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of the inhabitants of Cranford are woven together seamlessly to create a tapestry portraying timeless emotions and choices.

The petty social bickering, cold shouldering and jockeying for importance in the village’s pecking order are outlined in a humorous yet pointed way—the author loves her characters, with all their faults, and is tolerant of their foibles while holding them up to gentle ridicule. In every community there is an arbiter of good taste, a setter of trends, a leader of public opinion, a foolish gossip, and all the other social whimsies that make up this colourful collection of characters. It is not easy to keep secrets in this closed environment, and as Mary Smith remarks, “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident ….” Yet, despite the squabbles and occasional ‘no speaks,’ the ladies of Cranford would rather die than see one of their own fall by the wayside. It is this community spirit that inspires Miss Matty’s friends to decide to donate a portion of their annual income to sustain their beloved friend when an investment goes sour.

As a different kind of history book and one that very possibly the author did not set out to write as such, Cranford is actually an analysis of an early Victorian country town. The inhabitants are shaken and disturbed by inevitable changes such as industrialization, the advent of the railway, and other events that force an inescapable transition into an increasingly modern world.

The appeal of Cranford cannot be better described than in the popularity of the BBC drama series. The teleplay by Heidi Thomas was adapted from three novellas by Elizabeth Gaskell published between 1849 and 1858: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison's Confessions. (The Last Generation in England was also used as a source.)

A gentle, charming read, Cranford has much more to offer the discerning reader than a unassuming look at country life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How to Write Really Bad Fiction and Enjoy the Benefits of Rapid Rejection

As a writer I am always looking for articles to help me improve my writing. I happened upon an absolutely hilarious article by Hank Quense. His advice is given the other way around… but it works!

Hank: "I'm an author of five books and over forty short stories along with a number of fiction writing articles. From my experience, I've learned a number important lessons and I want to pass them onto others. One important lesson involves getting a book published; it changes your life. No longer can you sit in your office and spend your time writing more fiction. Once you become a published author, you also become the book's marketing manager and its sales manager, a terrifying situation if you're not prepared for it."

To protect others from the trauma of this situation, I've put together a list of fiction writing techniques that will guarantee non-publication. Following them will ensure a rapid reply from editors who will use a preprinted form or a terse email. This rapid reply will allow you to maximize the rejections you receive in a given period of time.

Here is the list in no particular order:

Always use adverbs! Lots and lots of adverbs. One of your writing objectives should be to use an adverb to modify at least fifty percent of your verbs. And don't forget about using them in dialog tags. Why show the reader a woman shredding a paper tissue? Make it easy on the poor readers. Tell them the woman is nervous. Thus, "He's making me so fidgety," she said nervously.

A naked noun is evil! Adjectives exist to be used. Their primary purpose is to modify a noun, so make use of this most excellent writing technique. Load up your nouns with modifiers so the reader will have no doubts about the noun. “The skinny, ugly guy wore a hideous, ripped t-shirt, dirty, baggy pants and shredded sneakers.” Here's an even better example of clever adjective usage: “The scrawny boy used his undersized biceps to try to pick up the clumsy weight and place it in the old-fashioned truck before the foul-mouthed old man became aware of his clever trickery.” Get the idea? Remember, a naked noun is e-v-i-l!

Use conversation. Don't limit yourself to dialog. Conversation is the stuff of life. Don't allow your characters to be stuck inside the story by restricting them to dialog that moves the story forward. Make your characters more life-like by letting them engage in idle conversation just like real people do.

“ How you doing?”
‘I'm cool. What’s up?”
“I'm good. Couldn’t be better. Watching the Yankees tonight?”
“Who they playing? . . . Yada, yada, yada.”
This stuff doesn't move the story along like dialog does, but it shows the characters are just as boring as real folk.

Motivation is overdone. To properly show motivation requires a lot of creativity, time and words. It is much better to skip over that part and get right into the action. So what if the guy disarming the ticking bomb is only doing it because his shift doesn't end for two hours and he doesn't have anything better to do. The character doesn't have any motivation, but who cares; it keeps the story moving and doesn't slow it down with a lot of words explaining the motivation.

Don't worry about Point of View rules. POV is perhaps the most technical of all aspects of writing and handling it correctly is time consuming and requires advanced planning. Who needs all that extra work when there is another scene to write or another crisis to defuse? Most of the readers will figure it out and sort of follow the story.

The fine art of the -ing word. It's wise to develop writing habits such as peppering the page with –ing words. This technique will give your writing a pleasing sing-song effect. “Opening the door and running down the corridor while waving her hand, she tried shouting, calling attention to her life-threatening situation.” Doesn't that sentence make you want to hum along from all the –ing words?

Use empty words. Very, really, ever, still, just and others are words with no meaning but they do fill up sentences and make them look more impressive. Fiction writing is filled with opportunities to use these words and titillate the readers. With a bit of imagination, you can also use these words to punctuate the sentence.

Why bother with multiple-dimensional characters? Flat characters work just as well. Flat characters can fight, love and die just as well as the more complicated ones, but take considerably less work. The simple approach gives you more time to write still more stories.

Character Voice. This attribute allows the reader to identify the characters from their dialog “voices.” What nonsense. That's what names are for. Just use the names in all the lines of dialog and the readers will be able to keep the characters straight.

Keep this list near your keyboard and refer to it frequently. Within a short time, your friends and family will be impressed by the huge stack of rejection notices you've accumulated. A side benefit is that your family will know you're really doing something in your office. Right now, they probably think you're goofing off and playing computer game. If you chose to ignore this excellent advice, there are alternatives listed in my book, Build a Better Story. Be advised that following the advice in Build a Better Story can significantly increase the response time from editors.

By Hank Quense © 2011 Originally published by March 2011

Award-winning author Hank Quense lives in Bergenfield, NJ with his wife Pat. They have two daughters and five grandchildren. He writes humorous fantasy and sci-fi stories. On occasion, he also writes an article on fiction writing or book marketing but says that writing nonfiction is like work while writing fiction is fun. He refuses to write serious genre fiction saying there is enough of that on the front page of any daily newspaper and on the evening TV news.

I am looking forward to reviewing Hank’s latest work Zaftan Entrepreneurs. In it, an alien mining ship discovers a planet that holds promise to be a mining bonanza. Unfortunately, it is inhabited by humans, dwarfs, elves and other races and they object to the mining expeditions. Sounds like a whole lot of fun. Watch this space.

Find out more about Hank on his website.