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Speak To Me

As a writer, you're the best representative for your work. That means you're going to be meeting people and talking about your work. A lot.

Since Whiskey Sour was published in 2004, I've spoken to tens of thousands of people in the course of visiting more than 1200 bookstores and attending over a hundred library events, conferences, and conventions.

In most cases, the talk is one-on-one, chatting with a bookseller, fan, or potential fan about my work. I've covered pitching and handselling in previous blog entries.

But in some cases---and these cases are becoming more frequent---I'm speaking to groups of people. This requires a different approach.

If you're like most of the world, you fear public speaking. The very thought of getting in front of a group of twenty, eighty, seven hundred people is enough to induce nausea.

I'm here to say: Get over it, you big baby.

Being asked to speak is a golden opportunity to spread your brand, strengthen your name-recognition, and kick-start the almighty word-of-mouth that we writers all crave. But before I get into the things that you need to keep in mind when speaking in public, let's dispel some of those irrational fears.

Dying in front of a crowd isn't dying in real life. Though having a joke bomb is uncomfortable, and looking out over your intended crowd and seeing people sleeping is a huge kick in the ego, neither of those things is fatal to your lifespan, or even your career. Humiliation isn't that big a deal. You're a grown up, and you need to realize that it isn't necessary for everyone to like you. Who really gives a shit what some stranger in the front row thinks of your speech, your book, or you in general? How is their acceptance going to make you a better person? It isn't.

People want you to do well. This isn't high school, where people are forced to be there. When you speak in front of a crowd, these folks came specifically to hear what you have to say. They're either already fans, or they want some information and/or entertainment. They're rooting for you.

People don't care if you bomb. Have you ever seen a really bad speaker? Have you ever watched someone crash and burn in front of an audience? As a result, did you throw fruit, call them names, or try to physically pull them off the podium? No. You tuned them out. That's all. That's the worst that can happen. If you screw the pooch on stage, people tune you out. You should be used to it. Every time you're in public, people tune you out. Malls, traffic, concerts, events, and everywhere people gather, we ignore each other. People ignoring you while you speak should be no more damaging than people ignoring you on the beach, even though their beach blanket is three feet away from yours.

Now that we've established the worst that can happen is boring a few strangers, here are some ways to make sure you don't bore them, but instead thrill them.

1. Know your audience. I've spoken to third graders, high school kids, high school teachers, college students, grad students, newbie writers, professional writers, library patrons, librarians, booksellers, book clubs, and fans of all types. In each case, they had different expectations of what they wanted from me. In every case, my job was to make sure these expectations were exceeded. If you're unsure what a group's expectations are, ask.

2. Prepare. Once you understand what is expected of you, you need to tailor your speech to their needs. The more of your audience you incorporate in your speech, the better their reaction will be. Then practice practice practice.

3. Act and react. A speech isn't a monologue. It's a dialog, with you doing most of the talking. You need to keep an eye on your audience, and make this an interaction. People tend to dislike being lectured to. But they can be made to feel included by simple things such as eye contact, asking questions, and your responses to their reactions. You aren't talking to an empty room. And audience is an organism that needs care and feeding. DO NOT read directly from your notes, or recite memorized passages. Communication is a two way street.

4. Evolve. If you're a Marx Brothers fan (and you should be) you may have heard that the best bits from some of their most popular movies were refined by performing them in front of audiences. They would change lines from town to town to figure out which got the biggest laugh. As you speak in front of more and more groups, you'll discover what works and what doesn't. Keep what works. Hone what doesn't until it works too.

5. Watch yourself. It's good to encourage feedback at the end of any speech in the form of Q & A, or by simply asking the person who invited you to speak how you did. But chances are you can be lied to, and told you were better than you actually were. If possible, record your performance and watch it later. You'll learn more from that than anything else, by far.


Here are some quickie Dos and Don'ts for public speakers.

DO introduce yourself to members of the audience beforehand. A smile and a handshake helps get them on your side before you go on stage.

DO make sure you stay within the time limit, while still leaving room for questions at the end.

DON'T use speech hesitations like "uh" and "um." It's annoying and unprofessional.

DO use note cards so you keep with your agenda, but don't read from the note cards.

DO thank the audience at the beginning and ending of every speech.

DO stick around after the speech and make yourself available for extra questions, comments, and feedback.

DON'T be a jerk. Ever. Maybe travel was hellish, and you got half the crowd you'd expected, but always remain upbeat, gracious, and professional. One speech leads to another, and even speaking to a crowd of two people can result in future opportunities.

DO dress for success.

DO give your audience a way to get in touch with you after you leave. Mentioning your website is essential.

DON'T oversell your wares. Sure, you want people to buy your books. But this isn't a commercial for them. People want information and entertainment, no ads.

DO have water nearby if your mouth gets dry. But don't drink so much during a long speech that you fill your bladder.

DO ask if a bookseller will be at the event to sell your books. If not, ask if you can bring your own.

Finally, as more speaking engagements are offered to you, you'll find that you have to set some rates. When you're just getting started, at the very least you can still ask to be compensated for travel expenses. As you become sought after, what you charge is up to you. My current rates are between $300 and $2500 per event, depending on proximity and what is expected of me. If you're unsure of what to request, offer to take an average of what they paid their last three speakers. But always make damn sure they get their money's worth.

Stealing

If you've ever stolen anything, raise your hand.

I'm typing one-handed right now.

Yes, I'm a thief. Me and millions of other people worldwide all share the same particular brand of larceny.

We download stuff for free.

Now let's get the legal argument out of the way right now. Copying media, whether it is burning a CD you got from the library, lending your mom your VHS recordings of House, borrowing your friend's Microsoft Office key, or downloading JA Konrath's audiobook version of Bloody Mary on Demonoid.com, all of that is stealing. You do it, you break the law.

Now that we're clear that anything you get for free that normally costs money is stealing, we can (if we desire) approach the moral argument. Is it stealing if there is no actual theft of property?

On one hand, digital media is a bunch of 1s and 0s, which can freely be duplicated and distributed. On the other hand, the originator of the material deserves to be compensated for her efforts.

Morality isn't black and white. Never has been. History has shown that morals are dictated by the majority of any given population at any given time.

Now, in the age of Internet and digital copies, more and more people are sharing data. Movies, video games, computer programs, TV shows, music.

And books.

Books have two main digital formats, e-books and audiobooks. And if you go to the usual places, you will find both formats being shared in substantial, growing numbers.

Chances are, if you're published on audio or as an e-book, you're being stolen.

Usenet is a huge, untrackable source of this piracy, to the tune of 1.8 billion downloads a day. Yeah, I said billion.

Among the top 200 visited websites on the Internet are Rapidshare.com, Megaupload.com, Badongo.com, Mininova.com, Mediafire.com, ThePirateBay.org, ZShare.net, 4Shared.com, IsoHunt.com, Easy-Share.com, Torrentz.com, and FileFactory.com. These are file sharing sites, either using Bit Torrent technology or password-protected file lockers. They're getting millions of hits a day.

Other p2p sites include Kazaa, Limewire, eMule, Gnutella, Kademlia, Megaupload, Overnet, FastTrack, and Ares Galaxy, while other bit torrent sites include BTjunkie, isoHunt, myBittorrent, Torrentz, Suprnova, and Jamendo.

At any given minute, tens of millions of pieces of digital media are being stolen.

And I'm okay with that.

I've long been a proponent of the "give it away for free" school of thought.

I want fans. I find fans in libraries, where 300 people can read my book with me earning no more than the original $3.00 royalty on the hardcover sale. Why wouldn't I want to reach 1000s of people?

"But," the naysayers yell, "you own the copyright. You should be the one to decide who gets your books. I should be allowed make that decision for myself."

Well, go ahead. Make your decision. Then decide what you're going to do when you discover people are stealing your work anyway.

Copyright isn't enforceable in a digital world. Digital media wants to be free. You can object legally, morally, spiritually, however you want to. People are still going to trade and copy your work, and you aren't going to be paid for it.

Changing public opinion isn't an option. People are going to keep sharing files and downloading content for free. No public awareness campaign, stiffer laws, or tougher media encryption is going to change that. People who would never take a grape from a grocery store have no difficulty at all downloading the entire discography of They Might Be Giants on a file sharing network.

So let's take an unofficial poll, to which you can respond anonymously.

What is your definition of stealing, and have you ever stolen digital media?

Talk to me, you thieving little vixens.

Risky Business

Let's talk about risk.

According to the dictionary, risk is the quantifiable likelihood of loss or less than expected returns.

Many activities have some sort of risk associated with them. Travel. Sex. Sports. Even eating, though the risk may be long-term.

If you look up stats on car accidents, or heart attacks, you might wonder why we still speed or eat french fries, because the risk is great.

The answer is that we weigh the benefits of these activities against the risk, and judge them worth doing anyway. So we dive 100mph while eating a gordito, because the odds are in our favor that we won't have a burnout and then v-fib.

Gambling may be the most calculated, and the most honest, risk we expose ourselves to. The rewards and risks, and the odds for both, are all laid out for us.

But our careers, on the other hand, are places where we tend to minimize risk as much as possible. We feel fortunate to be employed, and much of what we do is geared toward making sure we stay employed. Since our families are often tied in with our jobs, we can put up with a lot of crap at work in order to make sure the people we love have enough money, food, clothing, shelter, and XBOX 360 games in order to be happy.

When your job is one that involves a great deal of luck (you knew I'd get to publishing, right?) and you've worked very hard to be published, the last thing you want to do is rock the boat and lose your place in line.

Writers are conditioned to be grateful. We should be grateful---more people make their livings playing major league baseball than writing fiction. But that doesn't mean we should devalue ourselves.

I've always been about making money for my publisher. I feel a writing contract is a partnership, and if one partner is making money, so is the other.

But what if your partner isn't doing all they can, or should, be doing? You're doing your best. Writing good books. Promoting like crazy. Making money. But rather than try to grow, your partner is content with how things are. And your partner assumes that you're content as well, because you're damn lucky to be published in the first place.

I feel this situation is a problem. Perhaps not for all writers. Some may be happy with where they're at, and content to ride the status quo. Other writers, however, feel frustrated and trapped, because leaving their publisher and/or agent to try and go elsewhere involves a great deal of risk.

Is a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush if the bird is crapping all over your wrist?

One of my many core beliefs is that we should die regretting the things we haven't done, not the things we've done. Making a mistake is better than doing nothing at all.

Yes, walking away from an agent or publisher is hard. After all, they believed in you. Gave you a chance. Made you some money. You like them, and they like you. And if you leave them, you may wind up worse off.

But writing is a business, and the most successful business people take risks. That's just the way it goes. You have to be willing to lose big in order to win big.

How do you know it's time to part ways with your business partners? Here are a few signs.

You aren't getting feedback. If your agent/editor doesn't reply to your concerns in a timely, efficient manner, you aren't high on their priority list. Why should they be high on yours?

You're being handled. If you're treated like child, patronized, condescended to, then this isn't a good relationship. Ditto if you're shuffled off to underlings.

You have different plans for your future. This is a big one. If you want to go somewhere, and they want you to go somewhere else, how hard are they going to work to get you where you want to be? Even if you both want to get to the same place, do you agree on how to get there?

You aren't growing. Look inward. Are you doing all you can to grow? Are the people who are supposed to help you to grow actually helping you, or hindering you?

You want more money. Face it, we all want more money. But you can't ask for it politely. You have to demand it, and go elsewhere if you don't get it. But you will never win a negotiation if you aren't willing to walk away. Is your agent willing to play hardball, even if she loses? Is your publisher so committed to your success that they're willing to make a substantial investment in your future?

You aren't happy. This is ultimately the only thing that counts. Playing he said/she said doesn't do anyone any good. You need to take a close look at your professional relationships, weigh the good against the bad, and decide if you want to stick around.

But that's the thing. It's YOUR decision. It's YOUR career. Yes, other people are helping you make money, but you're helping them as well. Your books, both past and future, are a commodity.

Commodities are traded, bought, and sold, all the time. They change hands. Many hands.

Look closely at your career. Is it time for you to change hands too?
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