Monday, October 27, 2014

Writers Are Word Dancers

My wife and I love competition. Because there aren’t many sports that a couple can engage in fully clothed, we chose competition sport dancing. Sport dancing, or DanceSport, is an international sport much like soccer is international.

Like any sport, DanceSport requires coaching, training, dedication, and practice to compete successfully. There many levels of competition in divisional categories based on whether a couple is amateur or professional, just like there are many levels of writing based on whether you are an amateur or a professional.

In addition to dancing, I also write novels, and sometimes I can’t help but compare potential success in writing to potential success on the dance floor. After all, each has its share of winners and losers. As mentioned above, as a dancer I must be coached and trained to be successful.  Is this true in writing?  Of course it is.  Having worked in nearly all facets of the publishing industry, I’ve always found this to be the case. However, I find that many writers feel they can compete with no training at all. Yes, almost everyone can write just like almost everyone can dance. However, everything changes when you go from just writing to wanting to be a published author, just like everything changes when you step off the social dance floor and onto the competitive dance floor.

For example, presentation becomes not only important, but vital. Step on the competition dance floor in jeans, and you’re not going to get a lot of the judges’ positive attention and that will distract them from getting the full impact of your dancing. The same goes for a manuscript. A sloppy manuscript is fine for your personal read-throughs, but when you decide to ask a reader to buy your work, your book needs to be polished so that it doesn’t distract from the story or readers will never buy another one of your books.

Also, even at the lowest levels of dance competition, the interpretation of the music is key. Just going through the patterns is not enough, even if they are technically perfect. If there’s not emotion, no connection with the music, there’s nothing for the audience to connect with. The same goes for your book--story is everything. If you have no real story, nothing your readers can connect to and enjoy, then you don’t have a book.

In dance, we practice and practice and practice to compete for anywhere from 5-20 minutes, depending on the competition. In publishing, books that take months to write and revise often only get about the same amount of time to wow the reader. Each requires a great deal of effort with little time to impress the intended audience, so the stakes become incredibly high.

Writers for years complained about gatekeepers who they felt were standing in their way and preventing them from being successful authors.  But as with dancers, writers also have those who judge their performance and it’s not just agents and editors anymore.  Even now that most gates are wide open, the indie author is still being held accountable by the same gatekeeper who has always judged them—the reader.

When you decide to go to the next level, whether in dancing or writing or something similar, you have to be prepared to understand, first of all, that competition is fierce, that there different levels and requirements, and ultimately, success of performance is directly proportional to how much time and effort is spent in preparation of the final product and its presentation.  And, as it is with competitive dancing, performance is everything.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Attributing Success--Or Not

I’ve been in many heated discussions with author’s groups covering many different subjects. However, when the subject of marketing came up, as it always does, the mood turns sour.  Each time I mention that authors must market to succeed, board groupies get very upset.  Most seem to feel an author’s only job is to write and it’s always the publisher’s job to do all the marketing. However, this isn’t and has never been the case in the long history of publishing.

Of course authors should write, but also it’s also in an author’s best interest to get his or her author name and books in front of as many potential readers as possible. Even though a publisher edits and publishes a book, it’s still the author’s book and every author should want to make sure his or her book is successful.

Even suggesting writers must market always opens a fire-storm of protest from the writer board side of the argument. This is because most new authors will trust their fellow supposedly knowledgeable authors who are notorious for giving out bad advice. The tactic board jockeys always use is to make anyone who opposes their argument look stupid by ganging up, misquoting and bullying any opposition into silence.

That an author is going to market his or he book is the expectation of all publishers. To back up this point, here is a quote from Jenny Bent, owner of the Bent Agency and formerly an agent with the Trident Media Group, one of the largest literary agencies in the world. This is from a paper she wrote in 2002 and is entitled, What to Expect When You’re Published?

Q: How much marketing and publicity can I expect from my publisher? Can we put something in the contract about this? And just was is my agent’s role in publishing my book?

A: I don’t know any authors, and this includes multi-published authors with million dollar deals, that are happy with the amount of publicity and marketing they receive from their publisher. Please be prepared to do as much as you possibly can in terms of your own publicity and marketing. Hiring your own publicist is always a good idea, and if handled correctly, will be welcomed by your publisher. If you look at the New York Times bestseller list, at least half of the writers on it will have worked or are still working with independent publicists. The big names in  particular always use an outside publicist in addition to the publicity their publishers provides…

Nothing has changed. Ms. Bent is not alone in saying this. Here is a list of others who go even further in insisting that authors must market to be successful.

Do Authors Really Need to Promote Their Own Books?

Many more articles can be found that also back up the idea that if an author doesn’t market they will not sell many books. You might also ask board jockeys who advocate it’s the publisher’s job to market your book where they got this information and how successful they are using those tactics. Also, don’t take their word for their successes. Always check out their sales ranking on Amazon.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Can You Tell Your Story In One Sentence?

I was asked recently why I became a publisher.  I talked and talked and talked as I watched eyes glaze over. In my enthusiasm about a job I love, I never realized I was boring the hell out of everyone.

When someone asks you about your book, do you notice the polite smiles and glazed over eyes, or do you do, as I did, keep on talking; trying to cram years of joy into what should be a one minute conversation. 

Since I’ve bored enough people with my story, let’s talk about writing instead. I can do this because I love both. Also, I’ve listened to about a thousand people try to cram a 90,000 word novel into a 10 minute pitch session at writer’s conferences.

Okay Mr. Big, tell me how I can tell people about my book and not bore people to tears? The answers not easy but let me try without boring you too.

Do you know what you’ve written?  No, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence, but that’s the reason most of us can’t tell our story in a moment or two.  We know, of course we know, but can we tell anyone else?  
Actually, you should be able to express your book or profession, in one sentence.  Can’t be done you say.  Not easy I say, but it can and must be done.

To begin, write a chapter by chapter outline. What’s that and how do I write one of those things? It’s done by breaking each chapter into one paragraph. Go through your story and write down only the important stuff. Stick to only what’s moving the story forward.  Remember, only one paragraph and that’s it. No cheating.
Now you have maybe 30 paragraphs—a couple of pages instead of 350. What’s neat about this is you as faults in your writing pop right out as you’re doing this exercise.   

Next break each paragraph down into one sentence—one sentence that expresses only the importance of that paragraph. Said another way, could the story have survived without that one important factor.
There are now less than 30 sentences. Why? Because, as has happened with almost everyone, he or she has found a chapter, or more, that did nothing to promote their story. Those sentences that are left, with a little work, can become your novel’s synopsis.

You now have less than one page that expresses your whole novel.  Now you can easily reduce this small amount of writing into one paragraph. If you don’t include how the story ends, you have what’s known as your jacket blurb.

Now comes the part I always like: You can now see clearly what’s going on in your story. You can now express what your story is about in one paragraph and, with a little concentration, that one sentence you’re looking for should pop right out. You have in front of you just over a minute of conversation that expresses your entire novel, so tell whoever asks, “What’s your novel about?” that one sentence you’ve now found, then follow it up with your blurb.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

One Plus One Doesn’t Always Equal Two

I like talking to authors, or potential authors. However, many authors, if you asked them why they are writing their book, will answer, “Well, to be published.”

They say this like, “Isn’t it obvious? Why else would I be writing?”  Most don’t actually say it, but you can read it in their eyes, in the tilt of their head, or they smile with that faraway look in their eyes.

Okay, I’ll buy that this is good destination, but why are you really writing? I know that you think you’ve already told me, but is getting published really your purpose?

Let me put it another way: Is your purpose to make money or just be published? Do you want to be published by a major publishing house, a smaller house, or are you going to self-publish? If your purpose is to make money, do you understand how that’s done?

Sorry to confuse, but these are things that many of us don’t think about as we struggle with plot, point-of-view problems, character, location and all those other issues that take so much of our time. We really don’t have time to think of where we want to be published and what that looks like.  Maybe we just want someone to read what we write.  Maybe money isn’t an issue. If this is true, what does that model look like? Maybe now’s the time to figure out why we started writing in the first place. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Those Were the Days My Friend...

While patrolling J. A. Konrath’s blog, I clicked a link that took me back to when he was just starting out in publishing, circa 2004.

What was great about this older post was it revealed how much things have changed in our publishing world since 2004. Kindle, iPad, Nook, Kobo Readers—none were in vogue in 2004. Amazon, at that time, did not rule the book-buying world and it was assumed that self-publishing digitally was something losers did.

 Successful authors, back then, were published by the majors and were still signing their print books in big box bookstores.  Borders Books and Barnes and Noble were still king.   

To show how different things were then, Joe mentions doing book signings at Waldenbooks in his post.  A kind of the sign of the times thing is that K-mart was booming, and because of that it had enough capital to buy Waldenbooks. All went well with this until a few years later when everything changed.

Not only was ink and paper expensive, but publishing’s whole business model was becoming unwieldy. Many blame the shift on Amazon and its Kindle E-reader, but Apple was also poised to introduce the iPad, so one or the other would have fostered needed change. Whichever it was, the beginning of the end for big box bookstores was inevitable. Although some have survived, Waldenbooks and Borders did not.

 On July 18, 2011, Borders Group filed for liquidation to close all of its remaining Waldenbooks and other stores. Liquidation commenced on July 22, 2011.

Change is difficult. Many in this new world of publishing still deny that anything has changed. Take a trip to the writer boards and you’ll see many there who still believe that book signings are the way to go. Many there still believe that July 2011 never happened. Probably many still believe authors still do signings at Waldenbooks or Borders.  Change is hard, especially when change happens so fast.  

Although the world of publishing has undergone dramatic change in these past 10 years, there is still good news. What I also pulled from Joe Konrath’s historical post are these few simple truths that will never change, including:

“Invest in your writing career as if it were stock. Investing in yourself and your writing does (2)  things:

(1) It compounds your publisher's efforts in establishing your brand.

(2) It shows your publisher that you're willing to invest your own time and money into building a career.

The single most important thing an author must do is to make sure their publisher is happy. That means earning out your advance, being gracious and easy to work with, and making an effort to promote and market your author name as well as your wonderful book(s).

Some promotional opportunities are ads, reviews, library talks, conferences, conventions, internet marketing, snail mail campaigns and website contests. Also, meeting your reader fan face to face can make the difference.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and authors need to find better ways to sell their books, or else they won't last long in this business.

Learn all you can about publishing. Not only from the outside, but from the inside as well.

You're a consumer, as well as a writer. What makes you buy a book? Figure that out, and concentrate your efforts on reproducing that effect for other consumers.” – J. A. Konrath

This was a great post. Thank you, Joe Konrath, for this trip down memory lane.

Contracts: When to Sign on the Dotted Line

What we at Martin Brown Publishers, and most other publishers, offer authors a standard, boiler-plate contract. What boiler-plate means, in general, is a document that assumes to covers a basic agreement between both the author and the publisher.  A boiler-plate document is like a restaurant that offers burgers a certain way. If you want your burger dressed differently, then you have to specify what you want, or don’t want, on it.

What we assume when we send out a contract is that the receiving author is an adult and is a publishing professional. This assumption assumes that the author will come back to us with a list of changes or additions the author feels he or she can, or cannot, agree to in a contractual agreement between us. At this point, negotiation should begin. Unfortunately, in most cases what we receive is a signed agreement.

Negotiations do not begin after the contract is signed. Once a contract is signed, it’s called an agreement.

Everyone ALWAYS has the right to negotiate any and all contracts. No one has a gun to your head. Negotiation is expected and is a very standard procedure. If a publisher says they won’t negotiate, then, at that point, it’s up to the individual to ask him or herself if this is a company he or she wants to work with.

A contract is a legal instrument governing BOTH parties mentioned in the contract. Contracts, not word of mouth statements, protect BOTH parties and therefore are invaluable if questions or disputes arise at a later date. Therefore, it is vital that a contract be in place. It is also vital that there be COMPLETE understanding of what’s inside this vital instrument.  

The main crux of any contract, literary or otherwise, is to explain what each party is responsible for and must do, or not do, to comply with clauses contained in the contract. It’s that simple. If you don’t understand something, ask questions. If you still don’t understand, get help.

A word used again and again in contract is understanding, so if you don’t understand, ask questions. The word NEGOTIATE is also important. NEGOTIATE until there is complete UNDERSTANDING. If you don’t understand something, DO NOT sign the contract. If you still don’t understand, get legal advice. After you sign, in many cases, it’s too late to say you didn’t read or understand this or that particular clause and so this particular publisher is not recommended because he or she has a bad or unfair contact. No contract you made legal should be called a bad contract.

Contracts are agreements between two adults.  Contracts are not for children, even if some adults act like them. Always read and understand, FULLY, any and everything you affix your signature to.  Your signature says you agree with the terms and conditions within the contract. That means you agree with every word in front of your signature.  So it’s vital that you understand every word in your contractual agreement.