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Author! Author!

Riding the turbulent waves of the current literary marketplace

December 16th, 2012

Here’s a thought-provoking question for the holiday season, campers: as a reader, how do you decide which books to buy?

I’m particularly interested in the logic behind picking up books by living authors — because, let’s face it, Dickens and Thackeray are not going to benefit much at this late date from your patronage. Are you, for instance, the type of reader whose purchases lean toward authors whose work you have enjoyed in the past? Do you operate mostly upon recommendations from friends?

Or are you a trawler of award lists, seeking out exciting new voices? Maybe you’re an inveterate reader of online reviews. Another popular route is to wait until a series hits the big time, jumping on the bandwagon at book 2 or 3.

Or, perhaps due to the persistent nagging of someone like your humble correspondent, are you among the minuscule minority of aspiring writers that regard keeping up with the current market in your chosen book category as a necessary — nay, indispensible — part of becoming a professional writer, and thus make a point of conscientiously snapping up its new releases? If you’re particularly saintly (or particularly aware of the logical effects of readers’ habits upon publishing decisions), you might even go out of your way to buy new releases by first-time authors, both on general principle and because savvy aspiring writers are aware that the best way to impress editors with the marketability of first books is for a heck of a lot of them to sell.

Or do you pursue the route embraced by a startlingly high percentage of aspiring writers, not buying books by living authors at all?

Seriously, I’m curious. Depending upon which source one favors for statistical analysis, somewhere between a quarter of a million and a million fresh titles come out each year, many of them by first-time authors. And with the explosion of the self-publishing market, the majority of those books will not have a major publisher’s marketing oomph behind them.

It’s not as though any of us have the resources — or the shelf space — to snap up more than a small fraction, after all. So again, I ask you: out of that bewildering array of titles, how do you decide which few will grace your bookshelves?

While that question is already roiling in your brainpan, allow me to add a follow-up: is that decision more or less complicated if the book you’re considering was self-published? If so, how did you even find out about the book in the first place?

And, if your mental processes are not already groaning under the weight of so many rhetorical questions in a row, let’s flip the question on its head: if you were a self-published author — and I know that a hefty percentage of you have at least considered it — how would you go about influencing a reader’s choice to pick up your book, given the vast array currently available to amaze, educate, and delight the reading public?

I sense some of you clutching your aching heads and moaning, “Oh, God — it’s hard enough to write a book; now I have to market it, too?” but honestly, these are not questions that authors, self-published or otherwise, discuss enough in public. Indeed, quite the opposite: we’ve all seen countless interviews in which successful authors talk about their craft as though the question of how to sell it to readers had never once sullied their creative processes, right? Apparently, the instant these authors typed THE END, the Publication Fairy tapped them on their respective shoulders, snatched the manuscripts from their trembling digits, and plopped them on a bookshelf in a well-established chain of stores. From that point, all the authors had to do was sit back and wait for the positive reviews to roll in — accompanied, naturally, by the monetary rewards that good authors deserve.

Come on, admit it: you’ve harbored this fantasy, too. It’s stunningly pervasive. And that’s fascinating, for in the literary world as we have known it in recent years, authors are routinely expected to promote their own books — and not just by showing up to publisher-arranged signings and interviews. Increasingly, they are their own book publicists.

So I ask you once more: how precisely would you go about it?

Yes, this is a heavy question for the holiday season; I would understand completely if you would prefer to slide it delicately to the back burner while you slipped out for an eggnog latté and a cranberry scone. But on the off chance that some of you haven’t noticed, I’ve devoted my blogging life to talking about the kinds of practical authorial issues that writers often actively avoid examining in serious detail. Or, in many cases, issues that aspiring writers did not know would be, if not crucial, then at least important to their books’ success.

Sensing a vicious circle? Published authors often — indeed, usually — struggle for years or even decades to break into print, then equally often find themselves unprepared to promote their books. Yet due to the pervasive belief in the Publication Fairy, it’s actually quite rare for first-time authors to talk about what they had to do to become so, at least in a forum in which an aspiring writer is likely to hear it. So while they are actually out busting their proverbial humps to sell just a few more volumes to a reading public that — spoiler alert — tends to buy books by authors whose work they already know, their fans frequently receive the impression that those authors’ only contribution to the process involved writing the book in the first place.

A significant achievement, of course: I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But certainly not the only one on a savvy modern author’s r?sum?. And certainly not the only one that would be beneficial for aspiring writers to see discussed.

That’s doubly true for writers considering self-publishing, of course. While their counterparts in the traditional publishing world have entire marketing departments to tell them what to do (and, surprisingly often, to change their titles, a perennial complaint of first-time authors), those brave and resourceful souls taking the adventurous leap into self-publishing often do so without a clear idea of what kind of environment is likely to greet their landing, if you catch my drift.

For all of these reasons, I am delighted to bring you a wide-ranging discussion with self-published author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as thoughtful and incisive inveterate commenter Dave. Here’s the blurb for his exciting naval fantasy — yes, you read that book category correctly — Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, available now from Outskirts Press.

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Sounds like quite the rollicking ride, does it not? But quick: on which shelf would you expect to find this in a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

Think that’s a stumper? Try this one on for size: how would you go about reaching the naval adventure and/or fantasy fans eager to read such a story — say, via the Internet? Heck, how would you even find out what sites those readers were already visiting? Or what books they were already reading?

Dave generously agreed to allow me to grill him on these points, as well as many other challenges that frequently come as surprises to traditional and self-published authors alike. Nor is this the first time he has offered his hard-earned insights: as I sincerely hope those of you considering sticking an exploratory toe onto the difficult path of self-publishing will recall, I blandished have last year into guest-blogging about the practical and absorbing task of choosing a press. You may also remember his second place entry for adult fiction in 2010’s Great First Page Made Even Better Competition and first place in the essay category of 2009’s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Heck, he even painted the canvas at the top of this post, providing the genre-nailing image for his book’s cover.

He’s paid his dues, in short, and then some. Let’s hear what he has to say, shall we?

Here, of course, are the promised links to the book and the press, but I sense that some of you may be too much in shock to take full advantage of them. I can still hear the echoes of all of the gasping out there. Am I correct in assuming that one of the greatest benefits those of you considering self-publishing anticipated from it was ever having to pitch your book? Or never being forced to summarize it in a paragraph or two, as queriers must always do?

And am I also correct in assuming that the rest of you gaspers planned upon pursuing traditional publishing, but it never occurred to you that some yahoo of an interviewer would expect you to produce a pitch at a moment’s notice? Or that this obligation would not hover over every conversation an author might have for the rest of her natural life?

Common misconceptions, all — born, I suspect, of that ubiquitous belief in the Publishing Fairy. Published authors are expected to pitch their books all the time, and not only in interviews. Anytime one guest-blogs, for instance, it’s simply good marketing strategy to include an engaging, succinct description; you’d be amazed (I know I am) at how many guest-blogging authors simply expect the blog’s host to read the book and produce a description of it. It’s also not at all uncommon for agents and publishing houses to ask writers to crank out pitch-like summaries for promotional purposes — and had you even considered what you might say at a cocktail party when introducing yourself and your book to a stranger?

Oh, stop blushing. To 99% of first-time authors, “So what is your book about?” seems to come as something of a surprise, to put it mildly. The nearly universal expectation that someone who prefers to express himself in writing would constantly be prepared — indeed, eager — to give a verbal pitch anytime, anywhere often comes as a panic attack-inducing shock.

At least the first time around. Word to the wise: give it some thought in advance.

And you might not want to wait until you have a book in press, either. Aspiring writers often seem rather annoyed by the question, too, if the huge, martyred sigh that typically forms their first response to “Oh? You’re a writer? What do you write?” is any indication.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but hey, it’s my job: from a non-writer’s point of view, this just doesn’t make sense; presumably, you wrote a book because you wanted to communicate. You’re also, one assumes, aware that yours is not — or will not be — the only book available for purchase, as well as cognizant of the fact that books are categorized. So it honestly isn’t all that unreasonable for a bystander to leap to the conclusion that you might want to tell a potential reader what your book is about, at least in general terms.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes. It won’t kill you to make the effort tell that nice person who has expressed interest in your work that you write fantasy, Westerns, books about unusual taxidermy, or what have you. Admittedly, you might find yourself having to explain to some well-meaning soul that whose first response to your saying that you’re writing a novel is “Oh? Fiction or nonfiction?” that novels are fiction, by definition, or that memoirs are always true stories that happened to their authors, but that’s a small price to pay for enchanting a future reader, isn’t it?

Another common misconception about getting a book published: that somebody else is going to do the proofreading. Professional authors are expected to produce clean manuscript copy, period — which is to say: yes, copyeditors do go over manuscripts before they go to press, but ultimately, if a period’s in the wrong place, within the publishing world, it’s ultimately considered the author’s responsibility.

That’s true, incidentally, amongst the reading public as well. Think about how you read published books: if you spot a sentence that does not make sense or an easily-fixable grammatical gaffe, do you find yourself blaming the author or the publishing house? Virtually everyone who notices such things attributes them to the author, alas. Even if you simply made a typo that nobody caught — or if, as is surprisingly common, even if you flagged it in the galleys and it didn’t get fixed in the print file prior to publication — it can harm your reputation.

Had I mentioned that it’s a good idea for everyone, even a writer working with the most conscientious editorial staff at the best publishing house in the world, to read every syllable of a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and whenever possible OUT LOUD? It truly is the best way to catch those little errors.

For a self-published author, proofreading is even more fraught with peril — and that, too, often comes as a great, big surprise. Those mulling this route often assume that self-publishing means being able to skip steps in the publishing process. Remember, though, that virtually everything that happens to a traditionally published book in order to bring it to successful publication needs to happen to a self-published one, too.

The difference is that in the case of the latter, it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure everything gets done. So one of the most important things to know about a press going into the process is how many of those responsibilities it will be willing to cover — and whether it includes them in the base cost of publishing the book, or charges for them on an ? la carte basis.

Ultimately, though, it is the author readers will hold accountable. I broached the issue with Dave.

Scanning for typos and dropped words is not the only purpose of proofing, however. It’s also an excellent idea to sit down and read one’s own manuscript from cover to cover, as it were, before there are covers slapped upon it. Not as a writer looking for places to revise — and as someone who already knows what’s going to happen next in the plot — but as a reader.

Many, many writers, including established ones, find this exceptionally hard to do, especially the first time they try it: they’re too close to the text. The classic fix for this involves — brace yourselves — tossing the manuscript in a drawer for a year or two, then coming back to it with the fresh eyes enabled by time.

I know: brutal. And for most aspiring writers toying with self-publishing as a potentially less time-consuming means to getting their books out there than finding an agent, having the agent shop the book or proposal around (probably after requested revisions, for a first book), waiting until the book gets picked up by a publishing house (possibly after more requested revisions), working with the acquiring editor and marketing department, waiting again until the book climbs to the top of the print queue, and then seeing it hit the shelves, setting their manuscripts aside until they can develop some distance from the text can seem, well, like just another irritating delay.

Is there a realistic alternative? Here, Dave and I explore the issue.

Does the ambient guffawing indicate that some of you caught that itsy-bitsy editing gaffe? You know, the part where I actually say on the tape that we should edit something out? I thought about asking my video editor to revisit this, but frankly, it has educational value: when an author is being interviewed, it’s helpful to know that somebody else will have control of what does and does not end up in the released version. Sometimes, it’s not what one considers one’s finest moments.

Hey, my nose was itchy. It happens to the best of us.

In other news that may astonish you, virtually every writers’ conference in North America features, if not a full-fledged bookstore (run at large conferences, as often as not, by a major bookstore chain, rather than a local indie), then at least a table upon which works by the authors speaking at the conference will be prominently displayed. Typically, the conference-giving organization gets a cut of the cover price, so do expect to be nudged, and not particularly gently, in the shop’s general direction.

And yes, Virginia, it is considered perfectly acceptable to march up to a speaker with a freshly-purchased copy of his book and ask him to sign it for you. It’s encouraged, in fact. I wouldn’t do it in the line for the lunch buffet or while he’s dashing between seminars to, ahem, refresh himself; just before or after a conference event is the preferred moment. Just be your polite, charming self, and you might make a friend.

Hey, snap out of it, daydreamers: you were picturing yourself as the author in that situation, weren’t you? Think you might be happier when that happy time comes if you’ve given some advance cogitation to what you might say in that particular conversation? Like, for instance, a nice intro to a brief summary of your next book?

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly: it never ends. The more successful you are as an author, the more often you will have to talk about your work. See why agents and editors might be just a trifle unsympathetic to aspiring writers’ perennial complaints about the difficulties of coming up with a query or pitch? For a professional writer, it’s all part of the job.

Speaking of the job of being a self-published author, let’s get back to that question of how to let readers know that your book exists — and that it’s a book similar to those they already love. As Dave points out, the first step is often to think locally.

Again, we see the multiplicity of benefits stemming from careful video editing. The important thing to know going in is that we’d just been talking about Dave’s successful attempts to convince brick-and-mortar bookstores to carry his novel. I think you’ll find some of his tactics exceedingly clever — and useful.

That actually was not the end of our discussion of Dave’s wily outreach tactics, but just so you know, many blogging programs place length limits on embedded video. That’s helpful for a self-promoting (in the best sense) author to know prior to pulling together video to post on her book’s website: it’s a great idea to include a media kit page, and an even better idea to embed video that a reviewer, fan, and/or shameless friend can easily lift to use on other sites. The simpler you make it to utilize a clip, the more likely others are to do so — and that’s good for you.

While we’re talking about common-sense book promotion etiquette, it’s also a nice touch to offer such clips to blog hosts if you go on a blog tour. Do make sure, though, that it’s not a chore for the blogger to fetch those clips: you’d be stunned at how frequently an author on a blog tour will say dismissively, “Oh, you want a jpeg of the book cover/an author photo/that great book trailer I made at significant expense? Go to my website; you’ll find it there.”

Why is that a problematic response? As any blogger who regularly hosts authors could tell you, it’s a time-consuming endeavor, all the more so if — and I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but it’s a pervasive phenomenon — the author comes to the blogging process unprepared. Since blogging is generally a volunteer activity, usually, bloggers don’t get anything but reflected glory out of allowing an author to promote a recent or upcoming release on their sites, yet you’d be astonished (at least, I hope you would) at how often authors treat their hosts as though they were being paid by the publishing house for their time.

Or so many bloggers surmise from how blithely a new author will often waste it. It’s far from uncommon, for instance, for authors new to web promotion to expect the host to make the effort to track down absolute promotional necessities such as a link to the book’s Amazon page, an image of the book cover, or even the link to the book’s website. All of these things are both absolutely standard requests and easily e-mailed, yet authors often react as though the bloggers requesting them were demons poking them with pitchforks.

And don’t even get me started on how often first-time authors are flabbergasted at being expected to write a guest blog, as opposed to sitting for an interview. As I hope is apparent in our ongoing encounter, interviewing an author well entails quite a bit of advance preparation: a good interviewer must, for instance, have read the book, something bloggers hosting guests don’t always have time to do. Then, too, if the interview was not filmed, the interviewer must write it up afterward; if it was filmed, the video will need to be edited. Which is why, in case any of you had been worrying that Dave and I would catch our death of cold while chatting outside in our shirtsleeves in December in Seattle: one often sees seasonally-inappropriate apparel in author interviews.

That part’s unavoidable, unless you happen to have had the foresight to bundle yourself into a Christmas sweater for your interview in July. (As you see, I did not.) Being the kind of book-promoting author whose very name sends chills of dread down blogger’s spines when subsequent books come out, however, is quite avoidable: your mother was right; being courteous makes people like you.

So, as it happens, does coming to a blog tour already having assembled a modest press kit. What might it contain, you ask with fear and trepidation? Could you stand my suggesting once again that having a brief book description handy can only work to your advantage? A 1- or 2-paragraph bio is also always appreciated; so is an author photo. (Remember, that’s the shot that’s going to be popping up for years in Google searches: take the time to make sure it’s a nice one.) Include a link to your website, if you have one; if you don’t, start a blog. (Yes, really: you want your readers to be able to find you, right?) And, of course, if you would like folks to buy your book, you might want to include a direct link to — wait for it — an online source where that’s possible.

Do I hear some grumbling? “For heaven’s sake!” authors already kind of miffed about having to go on a blog tour huff, “that’s not my job; my publisher’s publicity department should handle that, right? My job ended when I finished writing the book.”

Actually, it didn’t, from your host’s point of view — or, in all likelihood, from your publisher’s. As I may have mentioned, promoting one’s book is now an absolutely routine part of being an author; no one claims that it’s not an onerous endeavor, but that’s hardly the blogger’s fault. And trust me, any blogger you might want to host a stop your promotional tour will have encountered at least one author who has acted petulant about that.

Trust me, you don’t want to be that author: a blogger excited about your book can be an amazingly powerful asset, both at the time of the release and when your next book comes out. Being the author that’s notoriously easy to help is a reputation you should want to cultivate.

That’s even more in your interest if you are a self-published author, of course. Especially if, like Dave, you are planning a series. Fortunately, he knows his business: even with limited time at his disposal, he’s been investing a hefty chunk of in networking — and started doing so well before the book came out.

The following clip also presents an excellent practical demonstration of why one might perhaps wish to batten down one’s hairdo prior to an interview. When we first began filming, there wasn’t a breath of wind. It just goes to show you: in a book interview, anything can happen. And often does, especially in the frame opening a clip.

Here’s the link to Dave’s LiveJournal page; I would strongly encourage those of you beginning to brainstorm ingenious notions for reaching your target audience to check out how he talks about his writing to potential readers — and to other writers. First-time authors often forget — or don’t realize — that people who write books are also people who buy them, and by truckload; aspiring writers are, after all, among the most dedicated readers out there.

To put it a bit more bluntly: if it’s reasonable to expect that readers already fond of books like yours would be the logical readership for — wait for it — your book, isn’t wouldn’t it follow as night the day that those who write books like yours might be similarly inclined?

If the sheer amount of authorial effort involved in promoting one’s own book is making your head spin, well, you’re gaining an accurate impression. I cannot possibly stress sufficiently how much it will be to your advantage not to be clinging to unrealistic expectations on this point when you have a book coming out. As anyone who has seen a good book garner strong reviews then founder after a few weeks of sales would be only too unhappy to tell you, the overwhelming majority of first-time authors wake up on release day believing that their books will sell well without their having to devote significant time and resources to promoting them.

Even with great reviews — and remember, many print publications have standing policies against reviewing self-published books — authors generally have to put in quite a bit of both time and effort for their books to sell well. Readers can’t buy books unless they know about them, after all.

But let’s face it: in traditional publishing, few advances for first books are large enough to permit the author’s quitting her day job — and in self-publishing, that day job is usually paying for the book to come out. It’s very, very easy for an eager first-time author to drop from exhaustion.

So what’s a time-strapped author to do — and what on earth was I doing when the still shot got snapped? Glad you asked.

I don’t want to engage in too much set-up for the next segment, although it will be our last for the day. Dave and I talked also talked at length about craft and characterization, but for the mental health of my beloved readers, I thought it might be a good idea to wait to allow all of this potentially rather overwhelming array of marketing information to sink in a bit before we moved on.

Also, blame my sense of drama — the first viewers of this interview, new authors all, gasped audibly at an insight that pops out near the beginning of this section. I’m inclined to let it speak for itself, except to say: those of you contemplating writing series might want to bookmark this clip. Every series writer I know has wished that he knew about this sooner.

Surprised to hear that book promotion involves so much bookkeeping? Virtually every first-time author is, to some extent. I’m afraid there’s no way around that, short of hiring an extensive staff, but I can tell you from experience that the better organized your list of whom to contact when your book comes out — you have already started maintaining one, right? — the simpler your life will be in the months before the release. Keep it current.

Why? Well, think about it: will you have the time or energy to be scrambling to find people’s new addresses the day before your first book comes out? Even if you have the stamina of Superman, is that really the way you will want to be celebrating the release?

While you are firmly picturing that joyous-yet-nerve-wracking eventuality, I shall tiptoe away for the day. More of my interview with Dave McChesney follows next time, of course. In the meantime, please share your own book promotion bright ideas and concerns — and, as always, keep up the good work!

8 Responses to “Riding the turbulent waves of the current literary marketplace”

  1. comment number 1 by: Dave McChesney

    Thank you so much for posting this. I know it took a lot of time and effort on your part.

    Members of the Author! Author! community might also want to know that Beyond the Ocean’s Edge: A Stone Island Sea Story is now available on Kindle and Nook.

    Regarding pitching or answering the question, “what’s your book about?” I find that I usually do so two or three times or more at each signing event.


  2. comment number 2 by: Anne

    My pleasure, Dave! If you would like to post the direct links to where readers could buy the Kindle and Nook versions, feel free.

  3. comment number 3 by: Dave McChesney

    Great suggestion, Anne.

    Here are links to the product pages at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The book is available there, both in print and e-versions. (Kindle and Nook)

    The B & N link is super long and hopefully I’ve entered it correctly.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    Yes, both work — I checked. I’ll post them again with the rest of the interview.

  5. comment number 5 by: Dave McChesney

    I checked them as well, as soon as I’d posted the comment. For the longest time I couldn’t get the B & N link to work from my web-site. Finally discovered that I’d left one of a gadzillion digits out. Obviously a call for meticulous proof reading!

  6. comment number 6 by: Anne

    Oh, I hate it when that happens!

  7. comment number 7 by: David Stewart

    Not since technophobic polemicist Christopher Hitchens accidentally took amphetamine and stumbled upon a computer have I seen such a long blog-post. No complaints though – very good stuff. Shame you weren’t paid by the word on this one.

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    Tee hee. There’s a reason blogging is called the insomniac’s medium, David!

    You have a beautifully-designed homepage, by the way — that’s one of the visually best laid-out sites I’ve seen lately.

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