Monday, March 29, 2010

Glorious review and giveaway

It begins in 1910, in Georgia, when Easter Bartlett’s family is splintered by an act of racist violence that eventually leads to her leaving. She makes her way through a world that changes rapidly in some ways and stays the same in others, but one constant remains – her writing. Until even that is taken away.

I thought I would enjoy Bernice L. McFadden’s novel Glorious more than I actually did. A vivid background and a disadvantaged writer for a heroine drew me in, as did the gripping prologue. That’s told in a series of “if” paragraphs : if the black man hadn’t won the public fight, there wouldn’t have been so much ill-feeling towards the black community; if Easter’s father hadn’t bet on that man, he wouldn’t have had the money to buy his daughters new dresses, and so on.

It draws both the family and the reader inexorably deeper. And since I’m the kind of person who does a lot of if-onlying after tragedies, I could identify.

But the rest of the book doesn’t live up to that start. Easter leaves what remains of her family and goes to work for a rich white woman who nurtures her love of books, but she’s forced to leave again. She joins a traveling vaudeville act, waiting on one of the star performers, an older woman called Rain.

Then she leaves and works as a schoolteacher before a scandal puts an end to that. Then she leaves for first Virginia and then New York. It gives the book an episodic feeling with no overarching plot to bind everything together.

There wasn’t one thing she owned that hadn’t belonged to someone before her, not a thread of clothing or a pair of shoes… But her stories didn’t belong to anyone else.

Easter’s writing might have been that plot – if I had read any of it. One problem with making the protagonist a writer is that the readers will expect to see some evidence of the craft, especially if the protagonist is described as producing “beautiful” or “glorious” fiction. Stephen King does this with Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half and Paul Sheldon in Misery, but I only read one line written by Easter in this novel.

Time is a tireless bird with silver feathers and broad wings.

It wasn’t enough. Each time I was told how good Easter’s writing was, it emphasized the fact that I wasn’t being shown that.

As for Easter as a character, she often reacts to the shocking incidents she sees rather than being active, though for other readers, that may contribute to the novel’s realism. She also tended to be overshadowed by other, more colorful and sometimes actual people such as Langston Hughes.

Plus, the name “Easter” reminded me of the heroine’s mother in Alex Haley’s Queen, and Rain was a bit like Shug Avery in The Color Purple. Both are older, sexually experienced women who are fond of the heroines despite their very different characters and lifestyles.

In summary, this book has an ambitious theme – what happens to a dream deferred, and to the holder of such a dream? For me, the story didn't quite live up to the theme, but other readers might enjoy it.

Bernice McFadden generously sent me a copy of Glorious to review, and if you'd like a chance to read this book, she's also giving away two autographed copies. If you live in the USA, Canada or UK, you're eligible... just leave a comment to this post with your email address.

The giveaway will end on April 15, 2010, and I'll randomly pick two winners and email them. Thanks for reading, and good luck! (ETA : Original date was April 12, contest extended for three days, ends tomorrow)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Five pitfalls in promotion

1. Not testing the market

An author once told me that her vanity-published book, which was about a certain disorder, would sell tens of thousands of copies in its first year because it was the only one of its kind. An Amazon search showed that the disorder was common enough for dozens of other books, including a Dummies guide.

2. Having too many websites

Create multiple blogs, at a minimum twelve or more, each on separate themes.
Derek Armstrong, Kunati Book Publishers (now defunct)

I was surprised to read this – how could any writer keep up with so many blogs, providing unique content for each? I’ve got my hands full enough with one blog. Then again, Kunati is no longer in operation, so…

Two or three websites, maintained and updated regularly, give a better impression than six or more. Quality rather than quantity counts here.

3. Contributing articles to unknown websites

Writer Beware recently had a guest blog about whether or not it’s productive for writers to contribute articles to content mills - a website with a large number of articles from freelancers, who tend to be paid poorly for their efforts.

I’m not sure whether this is a good way for writers to gain recognition for their books (this article suggests it could be) but I am sure that there’s something worse than a content mill. That’s a website which doesn’t pay writers at all and which can’t be easily found on a Google search. Here’s an example.

What does the writer get out of it? If all a writer wants is the satisfaction of seeing his or her work on a website, that’s fine. But there are better options and sites out there.

4. Not having a goal

Don’t do anything without knowing why you’re doing it and whether it's likely to work.

Don’t start a blog because a blog is expected of you. Blogs are time-consuming and if you don’t enjoy writing them, that will show.

Don’t make bookmarks, personalized coffee mugs or anything else just because that’s what other writers do. The profit of any such promotion should cover its expense.

5. Not having distribution

The writer makes people aware of the book, and the publisher sells it. Demand and supply. Yesterday I saw the website of XoXo Publishing, which has e-books that aren’t even on Amazon (but which does have marketing and promotional packages for sale to authors).

If a publisher isn’t selling to readers, then it’s selling to authors. And that will eventually defeat any promotional efforts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Newbie's Guide to Publishing

Your website, and everything you do on the net, isn’t about what you have to sell. It’s about what you have to offer.
J. A. Konrath

One thing you become experienced with, when browsing the websites of vanity presses, are the promotional efforts of writers. The writers generally work alone at this, since the press has already made money from them and doesn’t need to do anything further. As a result, many of the writers are both hardworking and creative in their marketing.

What I rarely saw from these sites, though, was an indication of whether or not their efforts worked. I like reading about promotion, but I also like reading about results. That’s often the only way to be sure about whether a particular method will work with your own book.

J. A. Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, a free ebook, is quite different. While it has numerous ideas on increasing readership and sales, those are backed up with numbers, statistics, facts and figures – and the fact that Konrath has tried nearly everything he suggests. He’s a tireless self-promoter.

Maybe a little too much so. When I picked up a recent book of his from the library, I was surprised at how many pages the acknowledgements list took up, and his method of naming characters after booksellers who helped increase sales just wouldn’t work for me. I’m also not certain whether it's a good idea to have a friend create a Wikipedia page for you, even after you're published.

But on the whole, this ebook is one I’d recommend to any writer. It helps that Konrath’s efforts are backed up by a publisher, of course, but he comes across as consistently on the ball, aware of new developments in the publishing industry, checking and calculating the effects of promotional activities, and aware of what doesn’t work – such as mass mailings. He also offers detailed advice on handselling books (complete with sample conversations for those of us who might be a bit shy at doing so).

Konrath’s style is quick and breezy, with short paragraphs, so it’s an easy read. I learned quite a bit from this book, such as how books are remaindered. I don’t agree with the events on his wish list - such as eliminating offset printing and going with POD only – but I do agree that more people, especially writers wishing to improve sales, should know about the business of selling books.

In short, it’s not just about promotion, it’s about well-thought-out and effective promotion. And as the man himself said, it’s about what you have to offer.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guest blog : The skinny on fat promo

It's easy for writers to become overwhelmed by the amount of promotional tactics out there. Even if we stay away from the blimps and bribes, there are still so many things we can try. Which of them are efficient and effective... and still give us time to keep writing?

Today I'm hosting a guest post from author Maria Zannini, who suggests several ways to promote books, especially online, and does so from experience. Take it away, Maria.


by Maria Zannini

Promo is scary stuff. I know. I used to be in advertising. We've been known to sleep with Marketing a time or two.

We of the advertising persuasion don't like to talk about that much.

It wasn't pretty.

When it comes to books, especially a debut book, you'll find yourself mired with options on how to promote it. There is no one right way. What I'm going to reveal is what worked for me, a writer on a budget and with limited time.

I want you to remember two things.

1. You don't have to do it all.
2. And you can promote your book on very little money.

The key to good promo is consistency and content. The more you can do on your own, the less expensive the experience.

I vote for less poor. And here's how I do it.

1. Start with a marketing plan.
2. Decide how much cash you can invest into marketing.
3. Build a marketing calendar around your venues.
4. Write the next book.

The Marketing Plan

If you check out Killer Campaigns on my blog, you'll see 40 posts on promotional outlets that are either free or nearly free depending on your level of expertise. Pull out ten good ones that you think you can handle on your own.

For example, for my promo I chose a web site, blogging, business cards, reviews, interviews, linking, email signature, guest blogging, podcasts, and volunteering. These are the things I thought I could do well without donating a limb. (Limbs are hard to replace.)

Web site: The very first thing I built was the web site, and I did it myself, teaching myself Dreamweaver and creating something that looks professional and unique. As my husband likes to say, sometimes even a blind pig gets lucky. Sadly, you will have to wait another month to see it due to…ahem…me forgetting to renew my domain name. It'll be back though, bigger and better than before.

Blogging: The blog came second. I am comfortable blogging and I use that as my main platform for communication. Unlike many authors, I chose to immerse myself in only a couple of networking venues. I decided it was better to do a couple of things well than spread myself too thinly. Blogging fits my schedule (and my personality) perfectly.

Business cards: I'm a graphic designer by trade, so I have a leg up on most people. But here's a tip. Don’t get too fancy or include too much information. I used the cover of Touch Of Fire for one business card with nothing more than my web site, blog and email address. I want people to remember me. When they go into a bookstore, I want them to hand the seller my card and say, "I'm looking for this."

Reviews: Choose your review sites carefully. Read their past reviews as a guide to the quality of their reviewers.

Interviews: Same goes for interviews. You want to be known, and you are often judged by the company you keep. Choose sites with a strong following of people who love to read.

Linking: I love linking! Regardless whether you blog, send an email or post on a forum, link well and link often. It will raise your ranking on Google.

Email Sig: Passive advertising at its best. Never send an email without an added line listing your book, blog or web site.

Guest blogging: Every guest post should be unique. Never repeat yourself.

Podcasts: This was amazingly fun and not as painful as I thought it would be. It was also different from the normal online stuff.

Volunteer: Nothing gets you on the inside track faster or deeper than volunteering. Planning on going to a conference? Offer to help out for a few hours. You'll be amazed at how much that builds your network, and for doing nothing more than putting out chairs or manning a booth. Talk to people and exchange information. It's a goldmine.

Now that you know what you'd like to accomplish in a marketing year, decide how much it's going to cost you. Any of you who follow me know I am the Original Frugalista. I don't buy anything unless it pays me back in dividends.

From the list above, I can tell you I spent less than $75 USD the first year. $60 went toward the web site and $15 for business cards. I even got a bonus on the business cards. Somehow the post office crunched the corner of the box and they sent a note to the manufacturer informing them. The company, in turn sent me a brand new batch of cards plus a discount coupon for next time. To top it off, despite the crunching, the original business cards were perfectly fine. How cool is that?

Marketing Calendar
Here is where you start to put everything together. You know what you want to accomplish and you know how much you're going to spend.

The next question is: When is your book coming out?

You'll get varying advice on when to start your promo, but here is the dirty nickel side. You have approximately ONE month to make the bulk of all the monies you'll earn on your book. E-book sales last a bit longer than print books, but the urgency is the same.

You must do the majority of your promo during the first month of the book's debut. If I knew then what I know now, I would have created a blitz and blogged, interviewed or networked in some way EVERY SINGLE DAY of the debut month.

It seems excessive, and it can be, but I can tell you an easy way to showcase yourself without becoming boring.

The answer is content. The reason some authors come off as dull or annoying is because they are saying the same things everywhere they go. So don't do that. If you blog, come up with thirty different topics to talk about. Even if you don't use them all, have thirty posts ready to go. Guest blog widely. Keep your posts upbeat and entertaining, and finally, make sure it somehow relates to your book—without letting it be solely about the book.

Write The Next Book
This is where I tell you to do what I say, not what I do. LOL! Due to some unexpected eye surgeries, my writing was curtailed not long after Touch Of Fire debuted. Oy! You should have heard me sobbing. But sometimes Fate will do that to you. The trick is to get back in the saddle and ride that pony out.

I've given you all my hard-learned lessons in capsule form to keep this post from getting too long, but I'd be happy to answer any specific questions, so fire away.

What sort of promo interests you?


Bio: Maria Zannini is the author of Touch Of Fire, a post apocalyptic story set 1200 years in the future. Aside from writing paranormal romance, she homesteads on six acres of land in the middle of nowhere.

To the west of her roam lions, to the east, the llamas. Hopefully the lions prefer llama-on-the-hoof to gimpy-legged authors. Hmm…llama.

Visit me on my blog.

Or friend me on Goodreads.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Distant Melody

The first thing that caught my eye about this book was the cover, and the airplane on it. I liked the fact that Sarah Sundin’s A Distant Melody was set during World War II, and according to the book description the heroine wasn’t attractive or confident (at least not at the start). So I requested it from Graf-Martin Communications and it turned out to be a pleasant if not perfect read.

Allegra (Allie) Miller, the heiress to a large company, lives a stifled existence with her parents, who have already picked out the man they hope she’ll marry. But on a rare trip away from her family she meets Walt Novak, a pilot home on furlough.

I liked Walt from the moment he thought self-deprecatingly of his “chipmunk cheeks and Novak nose”. He’s also usually tongue-tied shy around women, but Allie turns out to be an exception. At that point, though, a Big Misunderstanding occurs. Allie assumes that a mutual friend told Walt that she’s spoken for, so she doesn’t mention the other man. Walt assumes that she’s single and starts planning their future together.

It’s somewhat believable, since Allie is so sheltered and naïve that it never occurs to her to drop a subtle hint or two, and fortunately it doesn’t last for too long. They decide to be friends, especially since Walt has to go off to war, but Allie promises to pray for him and they’ll both write to each other.

In this age of email and text messages, hardly anyone seems to write letters, but I did that for most of my life and enjoyed it. So I liked reading the letters that span the next several months in Allie’s and Walt’s lives, sometimes arriving too late, sometimes censored and sometimes crossing like the proverbial ships that pass in the night. Those were a sweet and natural development of their relationship. I could see why Allie might pour her heart out in those, and why Walt might treasure them so much.

What I didn’t enjoy were the things that kept them apart. For the first half of this book, there’s Allie’s boyfriend. He’s cynical, greedy, snobbish and a cold fish, each quality contrasted with the warm and morally upright Walt, down to the fact that he smokes but Walt doesn’t touch the noxious weed. Finally, he’s suspected of being a homosexual – because all his other faults weren’t enough, I suppose.

Allie keeps hoping that she can convert him, which was unbelievable. It's one thing for the heroine to be naïve about social etiquette, but how could she know this man for years and still hope to somehow make him a devout Christian? It was much more realistic that her parents approved strongly of him and wanted him to manage the family business.

Anyway, Allie finally realizes that God doesn’t want her to marry this money-grubbing smoking cynical gay snob, so she returns the engagement ring he gave her. I rather like her parents’ reaction to this – they refuse to believe her, send out the wedding invitations anyway and warn her that she’ll be disinherited if she keeps that up.

Meanwhile Walt decides that he can’t keep being the best friend of a soon-to-be-married woman, so he writes to her saying that he has a girlfriend. From then on, what kept them apart were Small Misunderstandings, since character-wise, I couldn’t imagine the two of them ever arguing or even disagreeing about anything.

The romance is interwoven with the progression of the war, which was often more realistic than the love story. Sondin has done her research, and I loved the descriptions of aerial battles – Spitfires, B-24 Liberators, the Luftwaffe, and the actual deaths and maiming of sympathetic characters.

Walt stole a glance from the instruments, his group’s sloppy formation, and the charging Focke-Wulf 190s. Even from twenty thousand feet, he recognized the Eiffel Tower. If he survived, he had something good for his next letters. If not? Well, at least he’d seen Paris before he died.

In conclusion, this book is a good enough read if you can get over the unlikeable boyfriend and misunderstandings, plus the fact that neither of the main characters have serious flaws. I’d recommend it for readers wanting inspirational romance, but the distant melody I kept hearing was the roar of engines, the flow of propwash and the chatter of machine-guns. Wish there had been more of that.

This book is available from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications. It is a trade paperback, $14.99, 423 pages.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Self-publishing: The Christmas Box

The Christmas Box is often held up as an example of how self-published writers can succeed. The author, Richard Paul Evans, published this novel himself, but the popularity of the book led to a advance from Simon & Schuster, and the book hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Plus, this is a novel. Self-publishing is rarely if ever recommended for fiction.

But an interview gives an insight into the phenomenon, the work behind it and his realistic take on self-publishing. It’s a must-read for anyone curious about how he made a success of his book.

Evans did it, as most self-publishing successes do, with a combination of money, hard work, a well-thought-out strategy and a book that people wanted to read. I found this detail especially telling.

If your book does not look as good as a book published by Doubleday, which is who you are competing with, don't bother.

The Christmas Box is sometimes used as an example of what writers can do even without a publisher’s marketing department behind them. The reasoning is that because the author was extremely successful promoting and selling his book on his own, writers can self-publish (or go with a press that offers them no advertising, marketing or distribution) and still enjoy good sales.

But Evans succeeded because

1. His book had a professional-looking cover.

He knew the importance of cover design. Sometimes, self- or vanity-published writers say that the publisher doesn’t matter as much as the story does, that readers don’t check who printed a book before they buy it.

But readers aren’t likely to pick up that book in the first place if it doesn’t have an attractive cover. Commercial publishers are more likely to produce distinctive and competitive covers than either vanity presses or inexperienced self-publishers.

2. He had the funds to print and promote his book.

In the beginning, I put $7,000 into the Utah market. I sold my book for $4.95 and put $1 into promotion for each book I sold. Initially, I hired a local publicist at between $1,000 and $1,500/month.

The figures in that quote jumped out at me, of course, but then I noticed that he hired a “local” publicist and cornered a specific market. In other words, he spent money wisely. He didn’t try to get national recognition right away. He knew that if he could show strong sales in one state, that would be better than poor sales spread over a large region.

3. He was savvy and tireless about marketing.

Without a publisher's marketing department on his side, he had to work even harder. Tours, radio shows, book signings, independent stores… Evans did it all. He’s like the J. A. Konrath of self-publishing. And part of his success may be due to his ability to see it from the booksellers’ perspective, to recognize that they were under no obligation to carry his book unless they saw evidence that it could make money for them.

At the same time he took risks, such as his strategy at the Mountain Plains book show, before his book was at all well-known. I wouldn’t particularly want to be in such a situation, but if I were, hopefully I’d have the guts to pull off what he did.

But despite his success, Evans encouraged writers to submit their work to agents.

In studying self-publishing, you will see both history and the law of chance aren't on your side.

In other words, his book is the exception that proved the rule, though his story is an inspiring one for all writers.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

1001 Ways to Market Your Books

The March theme for my blog is promotion, so we’re starting with this book. With a cover blurb from the authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, 1001 Ways to Market Your Books looks impressive and weighs about as much as my medical dictionary.

The edition I have was printed in 1998, but while the industry and communications in general have progressed a lot since then (my edition refers to “the new voice mail technology”), I decided to review this and see how the author, John Kremer, can help writers.

The Good

There is some useful advice here – for instance, Kremer offers tips on cover design and developing a strong backlist, but most of all on promotion, marketing and advertising. There are innumerable suggestions on these. Everything is backed up with anecdotes of the people who used that particular technique to sell books or become better-known, and there are plenty of statistics as well.

As a result, I wouldn’t call this book very user-friendly, even though the information is broken up into lists and categories. Perhaps the latest edition is more readable, though – maybe even entertaining. With this one, I felt as though I was getting a lot of information pushed at me very fast, and not all of it was relevant.

The Bad

Some of the tips are either unworkable or idiosyncratic: door-to-door selling, for instance, probably doesn’t work unless you’re in a Girl Scout uniform. I’m also not sure how effective it is to leave promotional information in laundromats and grocery stores, but I am sure that booksellers dislike reverse shoplifting.

When he travels, Greg Godek, author of 1001 Ways to be Romantic, places copies in hotel gift shops and other retail locations. He sneaks copies on the shelves and leaves them there.

And if they compete with or cover up books that the store has actually ordered… well, too bad for those authors, I suppose.

If the stores sell the one copy, he knows they’ll order more. (pg 150)

No, they won’t. Firstly, they couldn’t sell the one copy if it wasn’t in their database. Secondly, how does he know the staff don’t check the shelves and remove any material that they find is not appropriate or not ordered? He’s hardly the first author to try this trick.

Some of the examples given are also nonstandard for writers. What Epson did with their first dot matrix printer may not work for a romance novelist with her first novel. Other tips, such as giving seminars or being recommended by newspaper columnists, may be more effective for writers of nonfiction.

A few suggestions are so unworkable that it seems as though Kremer only included them to pad out the book – for instance, hiring blimps, renting out your email list or bribing your children until one of them comes up with a way to get you on a TV show. If you have enough money for blimps, bribes and skywriters, you could just hire publicists instead of leafing through the book.

Well, perhaps not sarcastic publicists.

Call 213-385-0209. That’s the advice that publicist Arielle Ford gives to authors who want to be on Oprah! That’s the Science of Mind prayer line. Some authors swear it works.

And some authors are relieved they found this book at Half Price. Other tactics would simply be difficult or inadvisable to replicate – for instance, the author of The Messengers, a story of angels and reincarnation, apparently “got a testimonial from the angels”. There was also some repetition of stories and advice, to the point where I felt I was sifting through a great deal of chaff to find the wheat.

Like it or not, your efforts as an author will largely determine your book’s failure or success.

Finally, I’m leery of this admonition because I’ve seen it used often as a reason why writers don’t succeed with self- or vanity publishing. There, the model itself can seriously limit a writer’s sales even if the writer works as hard as possible.

So in conclusion, there’s some useful advice in this book, but I can’t fully recommend it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What do writers wear?

A classmate found out that my first novel was being published, looked it up online and was taken aback.

Him : It looks so… racy. You just don’t seem like the kind of person who writes this kind of book.
Me : I don’t?
Him : No. You wear collared shirts.

I also wear cardigans and pressed slacks. For a moment there I wanted to whip off my glasses and let down my hair like the librarians in those old-style romances. That always made them instantly sexy. Unfortunately I have short hair and wear contact lenses, so that wasn’t an option.

Then I considered doing a Superman and pulling open my (collared) shirt to reveal my true colors, hopefully a black lace nothing which would show that I was indeed qualified to write racy novels. But all I had at the time was an old pink cotton set that, while not exactly grannyish, wasn’t too far from maiden aunt either.

Still, once my classmate had recovered from the surprise, he pointed out that other potential readers might be intrigued by the contrast of a nice, proper-looking girl writing a steamy romance. Hey, it’s always the quiet ones.