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Milestones

Throughout the course of a career, a writer reaches many milestones. These milestones have a certain order, more or less, and each time one is reached is a cause for celebration.

Today I reached one of those milestones, which got me thinking about the past ones, and the joy I've gotten from them. They include:

Writing my first novel. Few things in life offer the satisfaction of finally writing "The End" when finishing a book. I've written fourteen others since then, and it's still always a thrill for me.

Selling my first short story. The first time I was actually paid for my words, and saw my name in print, felt great. I still get a kick out of this when it happens.

Getting an agent. It's so hard to find an agent, especially a good one. I'm going on seven years now with mine, and I'm still lucky to have her.

Landing my first book deal. This is perhaps the biggest milestone of all. One day I was a normal guy. The next day I was a novelist. I've had subsequent book deals since then, but nothing will ever beat the first one.

Earning out my advance. As of today, my first three books (Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, and Rusty Nail) are officially in the black. My first contract was basketed; a joint accounting clause which stated I wouldn't earn a dime until all three novels earned out the entire advance. Well, now they have. I'm actually earning royalties. And it feels wonderful.

According to my sources, earning out an advance isn't easy. One out of six books published makes money, sometimes quite a bit. One out of six earns out, just breaking even. And four out of six never earn out.

My books are making money, and seem to be on the path to keep making money.

I'd love to attribute this milestone to my tireless efforts at promoting, or the stellar quality of my writing, but in truth it really comes down to luck. Sure, I tried to write good books, and I've certainly worked hard to promote them (as has my publisher.)

But there are also authors who work their butts off and don't earn out, and there are a lot of authors who are wildly successful without doing much promotion at all.

Right now, though, I'm not thinking about hard work or luck. I'm simply happy that, nearing the fourth anniversary of me signing my first three-book deal, I'm actually getting a check, and a decent one at that.

Hopefully, there are other milestones ahead. Besides new books, and new contracts, I'm hoping to one day crack the bestseller lists, sell a movie option, sell more foreign rights, and sell book club rights. And, if I ever reach those milestones, I'm sure more milestones will replace them.

In the meantime, drinks are on me. If you've never seen me before, I'm the guy sitting there with the big-ass grin on his face.

That About Covers It Part 2

When I was sent the cover art for my latest Lt. Jack Daniels novel, Fuzzy Navel, I liked it. The cover designer kept up the theme of the previous four books in the series, which is extremely important when building a brand.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm big on branding. The fact that someone can go into a bookstore and say, "I'm looking for a mystery series but I don't know the author, or the main character, of the titles of any of the books, but I know they're all named after drinks" is not accidental. It's a calculated effort on my part to establish a brand.

Covers sell books. And having a consistent cover style, which can be recognized by fans by sight before they even see the book's title, is smart business.

Hyperion, my publisher, is smart. Not only have they provided my series with attractive, eye-catching covers, but they've also made sure that each new cover fits in with the theme. Here's what they've done so far:




The newest cover for Fuzzy Navel fit within this theme, but I had a four problems with it. Three were issues of consistency, and the fourth was stylistic.


So I emailed my agent and said this:

"I like it, but have a few small problems. The biggest is that my second novel, Bloody Mary, had a blue cover. I'm worried that when future fans see the paperback on the shelf, they'll believe they already read the "blue" book, and miss out buying one or the other. How about purple as the background color?

Also, one of the fun things about my covers is the hidden skull somewhere in the picture. This one doesn't have a skull. Maybe the cover artist can make the cherry into a skull?

Looking back on previous covers, I also noticed that both words of the title are the same length, stretching across the whole cover. In Fuzzy Navel, the second word is shorter.

Finally, and this is purely opinion on my part, I really don't like the gun on the swizzle stick. It looks like a spear gun. Is there any way to turn it into a sniper rifle, which is what the villains in Fuzzy Navel use?"

My agent agreed, and forwarded my note to my editor.

A week passed without a response. Then two weeks. I wondered if I annoyed my publisher with my suggestions. Then I got an email from them with this attached:

So they followed every one of my suggestions, and I think this cover works better. I also feel damn good about my publisher. They actually listened to me, when they could have easily done whatever they wanted to do. Points for them, and I'll remember this when the next contract negotiation takes place.

While many of my peers believe that the only thing you can get out of a publisher is advance money, I remain unconvinced. Call me naive, but I think there's still room for loyalty, mutual respect, and an open exchange of ideas and information between writer and publisher. Ideally, these efforts should compliment each other, and each party should have a similar vision for the book or books, and a plan to make that vision a reality.

A cover is part of that shared vision. If you have problems with a proposed cover, talk to your agent and calmly explain what doesn't work and why. As the song says, you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need...

That About Covers It Part 1

Before we get into the topic of this blog entry, I wanted to say something about the new look. I've finally upgraded my Blogger template, which now makes adding links a snap. Check to see if you're listed in the links. If you're not, contact me and I'll add you.

Also, I'm putting together a list of all the cool folks who reviewed Dirty Martini, to thank them in the acknowledgements of my next book, and to send them free stuff. If you reviewed me, please drop me a line with your name and address. Thanks, big time. You rock.

Now let's talk cover art.

It is well known in the publishing biz that even huge bestselling authors don't get cover approval in their contracts. Usually, there's a clause that says the author has "cover consulting" which means the publisher makes a cover, the author complains that it is absolutely wrong, and the publisher uses it anyway.

This isn't always the case. Sometimes the author makes some suggestions, and the publisher makes the requested changes.

If you hate your cover, there are some things to keep in mind.

1. Remember that your publisher paid someone to create this, usually based on concepts or ideas that orginated in a meeting. That means a lot of people may have had hands in the design. Screaming how much it sucks won't win you any popularity contests.

2. Your agent is your buffer. Use her. Let her express your unhappiness, so you don't come off looking like an ungrateful prick. Don't respond or reply until you've conferred with your agent and decided on a game plan.

3. Make sure you point out the things that you like about the cover. Even if it's the font, or the way all four corners are perfect 90 degree angles. Say something positive before you start criticizing.

4. Explain why the cover doesn't work for you. Break it down, point by point, and go into some detail why it isn't going to have the desired effect on buyers. Save the passion for the conversation with your agent. Be clinical and intelligent.

5. Offer solutions. Easier solutions will be easier to change than complete overhauls. Overhauls take time and more money. Quick fixes are more apt to be obliged.

6. Be grateful, even if they don't listen to anything you say. Your publisher is your most powerful ally. Don't make them an enemy by being a snotty jerk.

That said, I recently got my cover art for Fuzzy Navel.



I have four minor issues with this cover. Three of those issues have to do with continuity, comparing this to my previous covers. One is something I simply don't like, because it looks odd.

Can you spot my four issues? You can click on it to make it bigger and see more detail. The first person to correctly identify all four gets an advance reading copy when they are printed up.

I'll reveal the answers on Monday, and also reveal how my publisher responded to my suggestions.

The Top Ten Signs You're Spending Too Much Time Online

10. Not only do you Google your name daily, but you also Google possible misspellings of your name.

9. Your mood fluctuates with your Amazon ranking.

8. Your main form of communication with your family is email.

7. You have a chamber pot under your desk so you don't miss anything.

6. Your computer keeps crashing because you have seven chat clients simultaneously running 24/7.

5. You've developed a callous on your mouse finger.

4. Your ass has taken on the permanent shape of your desk chair.

3. You forgot you owned a TV.

2. You've "pimped out" your MySpace page.

1. After reading this, you just have to share it with everyone you know.

Looking at POD

I've always believed that POD technology is the future of publishing, but that POD vanity press as a way for authors to succeed on their own has limited value.

For the uninitiated, POD is a way to manufacture books one at a time, using a high-tech copy machine. Traditionally, books have been printed on presses. Presses are expensive, large, and only cost-effective when they're printing many copies of a book.

POD as a technology is a good thing.

But then things become tricky.

Many companies have sprung up over the last decade that use POD technology to create books.
But most of these companies thrive by selling dreams to authors, rather than technology.

Publishing is a difficult business to break into, and this is important, because it means the quality of the work that traditionally sees print meets certain standards and criteria.

POD allows authors to bypass this vetting process. As a result, much of POD's bad reputation is justified. I've read hundreds of POD books (don't ask) and the 99% of them aren't very good.

POD also goes against one of the basic rules of writing: the goal is to get paid, not to pay someone else.

The problems with POD as a business model are twofold:

1. Higher prices for a mostly inferior product. The books aren't professionally edited, vetted, or typeset, the covers are often amateurish, and the books usually cost 20% to 60% more than traditionally published books.

2. Lack of distribution. In order to find readers beyond the author's own scope of influence, the book must be widely available. That means brick and mortar bookstores, drugstores, supermarkets, airports, and so on. POD doesn't get into these venues.

That said, I think that POD has some advantages, and I'm impressed by the rapidly evolving technology.

Traditional publishing, as a business model, is outdated and inefficient. Any company that destroys half of what they produce (based on an average 50% sell through) is wasting a lot of money.

Looking ahead, POD technology will probably be fully embraced by publishers. It's already being used for galleys and ARCs. The lack of warehouse fees and shipping costs, and the elimination of returns, could conceivably make books more affordable, as their costs are already built into the cover price.

Plus, the long tail that many authors fear (their rights never reverting back to them because their book stays in print forever with POD) will result in more book sales over the course of their careers. I've got 5000 books in my personal library. About 90% of them are no longer in print. In order to acquire titles I've been looking for, I buy them used. In most cases, I'd love to get a fresh, new copy, which would in turn make sure the author got paid. POD would allow this to happen.

Authors fearing that they'll never get their rights back need to take a reality pill and realize reselling lapsed rights is a rare exception, not a rule. And if an author suddenly becomes hot, and their out of print backlist is worth money, POD production of backlist titles would undoubtedly increase to meet that demand, ensuring royalties. Plus, backlists can be bought and sold.

That said, I'm speaking of POD as a technology used by large publishers, who will be able to keep the costs down, have a vetting process, and make sure the book is professionally produced.

When the author attempts to do these things for himself, the results don't measure up to traditionally published books. Paying POD presses for extra services such as "editing" or "cover design" sucks more money from the author's pockets, but still often fails to produce error-free, attractive books.

But I'm going to try an experiment, because that's the type of guy I am.

For the past few years, I've had a virtual store on my website, for people who want to buy signed copies of the Jack Daniels books. I also sold back issues of magazines and old anthologies I've been in. (Believe it or not, since 2003 I've sold over fifty stories and articles.) I created the store because I got a lot of emails from fans asking me to offer these things. Over the years I've sold a few hundred items.

Unfortunately, many of those magazines and anthologies I've been in are out of print, so the stories are difficult to find.

I collected my old stories, with the intention of getting them published as an omnibus, but I decided not to try to sell it. My reason is simple. Story collections don't sell as well as novels. If I published a collection, those lower numbers will follow me, resulting in lower bookstore orders for my next novel. I don't want that to happen.

I also get a lot of email about my previously unpublished novels---so much so that I made them available on my website as free ebooks downloads. My unpublished technothrillers ORIGIN and THE LIST have been downloaded over three thousand times. Reader response has been surprising, and many folks have told me how much they enjoyed these books, and asked when they'd be published so they could buy hard copies.

ORIGIN and THE LIST already had their shot with big publishers years ago, and big publishers passed. I'm pretty sure I could approach a smaller press and get them published, but like the aforementioned short story collection, those numbers would follow me. A smaller press means a smaller print run and smaller sales which could result in smaller advance orders for my next Jack Daniels book. So I didn't pursue it.

But then I got to thinking.

There are a few POD companies that function simply as printers. You do your own editing, typesetting, and cover art, then upload it to their site, and a week later they send you a printed book. The books are still overpriced, and they still don't look as good as professionally published books, but this still suits my purpose.

So I've just made three titles available on my website. ORIGIN and THE LIST can now be purchased, along with another unpublished novel I wrote called DISTURB. I've also collected fifty-five of my previously published short stories into an omnibus called 55 PROOF, which will be available this Halloween.

You can buy these books for $16 to $19.

You can also download these books for free. I've made them available as pdf downloads. So if you don't want a bound and signed copy, go ahead print them up yourself. The layout is the same.

Because these books are only distributed through me, and because they have no ISBNs, they are off the publishing grid. I can cater to the requests of my fans, without harming my overall numbers.

Since I don't think that the average fan is savvy about POD, or knows the difference between POD and traditional publishing, I've stated on my website what the difference is.

It will be interesting to see how many people download these books for free compared to how many purchase them. It will also be interesting to see if a midlist mystery author, operating solely from his website, can sell his older, out-of-print (or never in print) work in enough numbers for it to matter.

Your predictions?

Ants and Grasshoppers

Last week I got eighty-five emails from people I've never corresponded with before. Strangers to me. However, I wasn't a stranger to them.

These people found me. They found me, and thought enough of me to write to me. Some wrote to say thanks for my website and blog, which has a lot of info for writers. Some wrote to say they like my books. Some wrote to say they appreciated an article I recently did for Writer's Digest. Some wrote to ask for advice. Some wrote to exchange links, or to tell me they've already linked to me. Some wrote to ask me to be their friends on MySpace, Quechup, or Crimespace.

They found me by searching online, by reading my books or short stories or articles, by following links from other sites, or by having people tell them about me. Google Alerts has also informed me that 27 sites have mentioned me and/or linked to me in the past week, and my website and blog have had over 5000 unique hits since last Sunday.

And what have I done in the past week to garner all of this attention?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Buttkiss. I sat on my ass and reorganized my iTunes library. ID4 tags suck.

Of course, the lesson to be learned here isn't that doing nothing will make people seek you out.

The lesson is that if you work hard establishing a brand and spreading name-recognition, then you don't have to work 24/7, because the machinery is already in place to do it for you.

Consider the old parable of the ant and the grasshopper.

The grasshopper believed that all he had to do was write a good book, and his future was assured.

The ant knew that writing a good book was only the beginning, and he had to make sure people knew about his book by building a brand and spreading name-recognition.

Smart ant.

ESTABLISHING A BRAND

Naturally, your writing is a big part of your brand. What you write is going to attract a certain audience. You should know this audience. You should like this audience. You should be a part of this audience.

But your brand is more than just your writing. It's your personality. Your expertise. Your persona. It's what makes you special, and what makes others want to seek you out.

Remember that no one can look for you if they don't know you exist. So a large part of your brand is aligning yourself with something that people do seek out, so when they look for it they will find you.

What about you and your work is interesting? Unique? Similar? Important to others?

Think about it. Think long and hard. Anyone can find you by Googling you. You need to make them find you when they're looking for something else.

But before you go searching for people, you have to create something that they want.

If all you have to offer is a book, which costs money, it's doubtful you'll ever have a big web presence. A certain number of people on the Internet may be looking for books, but the majority of them are looking for two things: Information and Entertainment.

If your blog is only relevant to a few close friends, and your website is only a big advertisement for your writing, why should strangers bother visiting either, let alone link to you?

Your main goal, if you want people to discover you, is to entertain and inform them.

Your Internet presence isn't about what you have to sell. It's what you have to offer, usually for free.

What are you offering? What on your website will make a surfer stay for longer than ten minutes? What on your blog will make it relevant in five years?

Just being a published writer isn't enough. Nobody cares that you're published. Nobody cares that you have a book for sale.

What do they care about?

Camaraderie. Offer people a place where they can be in touch with you, and with others. There have been close to 300 posts on A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. But there have been almost 10,000 comments. If the users generate the content, they'll return.

Expertise. By consistently putting relevant information on your sites, the search engines will keep ranking you higher and linking to more of your pages. People will also link to you, and recommend you to others. They'll also seek you out for real life appearances, speeches, and signings.

Entertainment. Guess what? Your three sample chapters and two paragraph author bio aren't enough to keep the average surfer interested for more than a few minutes, if they even find your site. And I don't believe that Flash animation, cool music, or games and videos will either.

Give surfers enough information about you and your work, presented in a fun way, to make them like you as well as your writing. Your website isn't an ad. It's not an appetizer either. It should be a fun place to go even if you weren't pimping your books.

This is also important when speaking in front of people. When you are giving a speech, doing a panel, or attending a signing, you are an entertainer. That means you must be entertaining. That means learn how.

Freshness. Make sure you add, update, and change your sites often, so people come back. Make sure you stay in touch with those who get in touch with you. Reward those that keep coming back.

Real Life Relevance. You're a writer, so chances are you're on the Internet constantly. The average person isn't, and doesn't put as much value or importance on it as you do. Give people something they can use offline. A free short story or book they can print up. Audio or podcasts they can download and take with them. Contests to participate in and newsletters to sign up for that result in stuff sent snail mail. An email from an author is nice. A real life handshake and a smile is even better.

SPREADING BRAND-RECOGNITION

Once you've established your brand, the hard part begins. No one is going to magically discover you just because you've got a cool website or a great novel. Sure, some writers get lucky with a huge marketing campaign. The rest of us have to seek out readers in order to make them aware that we exist.

On the Internet

You already know your demographic, and who your readers are, because you've spent a long time thinking about it. Now you need to go out and draw them to you. Here's how.

Find Websites. Look for websites, bulletin boards, Yahoo groups, blogs, listservs, message boards, and forums where people who like your books would visit.

Offer Links. Exchange links with those sites. Or link to them and write about them, so when people are searching for that site they'll find your site.

Participate. Be a human being, not a salesperson. I never seek out MySpace Friends by saying "I'm an author, read my books." I send them invitations and a message saying that I looked at their page and enjoy the same authors they do. After a few back and forth exchanges, 95% of them figure out I'm an author too, and many of them go on to read my books and are glad I contacted them, rather than annoyed at me spamming them.

Remember what people care about: Camaraderie, Entertainment, Expertise, Freshness, and Real Life Relevance. When dealing with people, low key flattery works better than bragging, listening is more attractive than talking, and being likable will sell more books than actively trying to sell books.

Revisit, Revamp, Repeat. Too many writers quit their blog after a year. They don't update their sites. They don't check in with their old web haunts. They don't seek out new haunts. They reach a point and simply stop.

You shouldn't ever stop making your Internet presence larger. And I don't mean commenting on the same six blogs you do every day. I mean searching for new sites and new people, going back to sites you haven't been to in a while, and making sure your sites are worthy of the hits they're getting.

In Real Life

If the Internet is where you're doing all or most of your promotion, you're going to fail. The majority of your readers aren't on the net, and they've never visited your website.

At first, many of your readers will find you accidentally. While browsing in a bookstore, or at the library, or a garage sale. They're looking for a book, and they find yours. You have little control over this. Yet, this is how a lot of books are sold.

Others will find you through articles or reviews written about you in the newspaper. You can spend big bucks on a publicist to get more reviews, or some local radio or TV spots, but I'm not convinced that those are cost-effective for new authors. The same goes with advertising. Does it work? Maybe. Is it worth the cost? For midlist authors, I don't believe so. Spending hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands on media attention and ads isn't as cost-effective as traveling and actually meeting the people you want to reach. Which leads us to:

Meet Your Publisher. The best money you'll ever spend is flying to NY and meeting your editor and the many folks at your publishing house and being charming. We do more for people that we like. Get them to like you.

Meet Fans. At the beginning of your writing career, meet as many readers as possible. This means going to conventions, book fairs, and conferences. Do book signings. Speak at libraries. Shake those hands. It's time consuming, and costly, but a smile and a kind word will get people to pick up your books.

Meet Booksellers. Real life is better than online. Booksellers have influence and power. They can handsell you. They help spread the almighty word-of-mouth that all authors need to succeed.

Sell Stories and Articles. I've got a few hundred thousand books in print. But my name has been in print several million times, thanks to short stories and essays and articles I've sold to magazines and anthologies. By publishing your writing, you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time than anything you can do online. Plus, there's no greater advertisement for an author than a sample of their writing.

Enlist the Media. You don't need a publicist to get you featured in the local paper. You just need to write a press release, making sure it has a hook and enough spin to interest them. You can contact reviewers, and radio stations, and local TV, and do it for free.

Enlist Your Peers. We're not in competition with each other. Someone can buy both my book and your book. So it makes sense to help your fellow writers. Pool information and resources. Trade contacts. Rather than sing your own praises, sing their praises, and they'll probably sing yours in return. I've been invited into many anthologies because I've had a beer with a fellow writer at a conference. When I'm interviewed, I mention their names. Sometimes I interview them. Sometimes they interview me. The more friends you have in this biz, the better off you are.

Of course, in both real life and online, be generous, grateful, amusing, and loyal. You are not a salesperson. You're an ambassador, representing your writing.

ANTS AND GRASSHOPPERS

Going back to the parable, the ant worked hard building a brand and establishing name-recognition, and several things happened.

1. The ant passed a tipping point. In the beginning, he sought out fans, speaking engagements, and media attention. But after a while those things came to him, in greater frequency than he could have imagined.

2. The ant realized the past continued to work for him. Booksellers he met years ago, stories he wrote for old magazines, and blog posts he penned in 2004 continued to send new fans his way.

3. The ant reached a lot of people, and those people talked about him with many others, spreading word-of-mouth and expanding his audience much further than his personal efforts.

4. The ant became a bestseller, then had a three-way with Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

And what of the blissfully ignorant grasshopper who disliked public speaking and believed that all he had to do was write good books?

He attended a single writing convention and complained the whole time, did two booksignings in his home town, and was cut by his publisher for poor sales. Then he died of cancer.

CONCLUSION

1. Figure out who your readers are.
2. Figure out what your readers want.
3. Reach out to your readers.

This will not only help you sell more books than you would otherwise, but keep this up long enough and you'll find that the longer you last, the easier it gets.

Or you can do nothing and die of Kaposi's sarcoma.

The choice is yours.
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