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Your Tack Hammer

A while ago I did a post on Internet Billboards.

Recently I was talking with a writing buddy, and he asked, "I've on Facebook, now what the hell am I supposed to do with it?"

Like I always do, I made an analogy.

If you're making furniture, one of the tools you'll need is a tack hammer. The average Joe doesn't own a tack hammer, and doesn't need a tack hammer, because it's a specialized tool for a specific job.

Sure, a tack hammer can be probably be used for other applications. But it's used best by someone who understands what it should be used for. Don't buy one if you have no idea why you need it, because if you don't know why you need it, you won't use it properly.

MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and many other billboards, are tack hammers. Specific tools for specific purposes.

And let me be 100% clear here that the specific purpose of billboards isn't to sell books.

Facebook isn't going to get you on the bestseller list. Yet many writers feel they need a Facebook page, so they set one up and then wonder what the hell the point is.

The point of these billboards is twofold.

First, it enlarges your Internet footprint. The more places you are, the more people are likely to find you.

Second, it makes it easier for people to stay connected to you. The more you remain in the forefront of people's minds, the better off your brand is.

As a writer, you are both a spokesperson and a product. Your book is also a product, but effective salesmanship is about selling you as much as it is about selling your book.

The majority of people who buy your book won't know you. But the Internet has shown that the number of people who can know you has increased tremendously.

For the first time in history, the distance between author and reader is a simple mouse click.

It is to a writer's advantage to befriend as many folks as possible, because you are the product as much as your books are.

But just owning the tack hammer doesn't mean you can automatically build furniture.

In order to enlarge your Internet footprint, broaden brand awareness and name recognition, and keep connected with people, you have to put in some time.

As I've said before, people are looking for two things on the net: information and entertainment. Your billboards should provide both.

But social interaction is also a form of entertainment. And it's a powerful one. I know, because it works on me, so I'm sure it works on others.

Last week, I got a Facebook recommendation to befriend Gary Brandner. Gary is a horror writer (he wrote The Howling, among many other great novels) and I have a dozen of his books on my shelf.

I hadn't thought about Mr. Brandner in years, but seeing that recommendation made me befriend him, and that led to me writing him a short email saying how much I enjoyed his work. That led to him kindly responding to my email, which made me feel all happy and fanboyish. So I wrote back, telling him which books of his I owned, asking if I missed any.

Gary mentioned one I missed. I went out and bought it.

All because of Facebook.

I'm sure this happens a lot. Knowing about an author and enjoying his books often leads to sales. But actually hearing directly from an author is even more powerful.

That means you have to do more than just post some pics and stories on your billboards. It means making an effort to communicate and correspond.

Answering messages, leaving comments, replying to email, befriending people, keeping your billboards updated, staying current, initiating contact; these are all effective ways to wield that tack hammer.

So wield away.

The Writer As Spendthrift

There are a lot of people who want to separate a writer from her money.

Let's face it; getting published is a goal for many people, but it's such a difficult goal to attain it borders on being a dream.

Dreams don't normally come true. But people will pay big bucks to keep the dream alive.

This morning I'm teaching a one day class at the College of Dupage called "How to Get Published." (Oddly enough, I'm filling in for another teacher who, to my knowledge, has published very little.)

It's an adult eduction class, only a few hours long, and costs less than fifty bucks.

For the students, it's a good deal. I know a lot about the biz, and am good at sharing what I know.

But I am a notable exception. Many writing teachers have never been published by a major house. Many don't have agents.

Yet every college has writing teachers who are willing to take your money and teach you theory they've never practiced.

The bookshelves are crammed full of books about how to write killer query letters and bestsellers. But I only know a handful out of hundreds that were actually written by bestselling authors.

Pick up a writing magazine, or surf the Internet, and you'll find many things to spend money on besides classes and how-to books.

Freelance editors. Book doctors. Fee charging agents. Vanity presses. Self-publishing. Contests. Seminars. Conferences. Conventions.

Joe's advice: Writers are supposed to make money, not spend money.

Unfortunately, because writing is such a hard business to break into, many feel that if they spend some money on the aforementioned things, they'll better their odds.

In practically all cases, no. And you are not the exception to this rule. Trust me.

Today, my students are going to get their money's worth in the first 30 seconds of class, when I tell them:

DON'T SPEND MONEY ON ANYTHING TO GET PUBLISHED.

I do add that there are a few small exceptions. Taking a writing class or two isn't a waste of money if the teacher is an industry pro. You can learn a lot from industry pros. But many of these pros also have tips on their website that are 100% free.

All writers should own copies of Stephen King's On Writing, David Morrell's Lessons From A Lifetime or Writing, and a few notable others.

Conferences and conventions are a great place to meet agents, editors, and peers, and networking is just as important in this biz as in any other.

But even these exceptions come with warnings.

If you're taking a bunch of writing classes, chances are you're wasting your time and money. You could be writing instead, and joining a writing group will make you a better writer without costing a penny. There is probably a writers group already at your local library, bookstore, or college. Ask. If there isn't one, start one.

Owning too many how-to books means you're spending too much time reading about writing instead of actually writing.

I know many folks with procrastinitis. They cloak themselves in the trappings of all things literary, spends scads of money pursuing their dream, fantasizing about it constantly. Yet they rarely sit their ass in the chair and write.

If you're going to more than two conventions a year and you aren't published yet you're chasing a dream, not a goal.

As for the other things I mentioned:

Don't enter contests you have to pay for. If your story is good enough to win, it's good enough to sell.

Don't ever pay anyone to help you edit, fix, or rewrite your prose. Learn to do it yourself. I don't know a single author published by a major house who had paid help.

Don't pay an agent anything, ever. Agents don't need to have any sort of license or accreditation, and bad ones abound. For a list of good ones, visit www.aar-online.org.

Don't pay to have your work published. Why not? Visit your local bookstore. Look around. None of the authors on those shelves paid to have their books published. If you pay to be published, you won't be on those shelves.

Since I'm fond of analogies, here's a good one:

When you're learning how to walk, you don't take classes. You don't read how-to books. You don't pay experts to help you, or do it for you.

You just keep falling until you learn on your own.

It's the same thing with writing.

I just saved you fifty bucks. Or perhaps a heck of a lot more.

You can show your appreciation by buying a bunch of my books. Because there is one thing that all writers should spend money on, and that's supporting each other. If you're writing fiction, and you haven't read at least a hundred novels, you haven't learned enough about craft to succeed.

And if you're curious as to what other bon mots I'll toss out in class today, here's a list of Joe Konrath quotes on writing, publishing, and marketing, free of charge:

There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.

Before you make the key, study the lock.

People would rather fight to the death to defend their beliefs than sit down quietly and question them.

It's about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell.

You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than landing a publishing deal. But if you really want to get hit by lightning, you can improve your odds.

No one is entitled to anything.

What are the last ten books you bought, and what made you buy them? Use those techniques to sell your books to other people. Do what works on you.

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humility trumps ego.

Praise is like candy. We love it, but it isn't good for us. You can only improve by being told what's wrong.

Your book is your child. You can't recognize its shortcomings, any more than a proud parent can consider their child dumb and ugly.

The experts don't know everything, and they might not know what's right for you.

Fate is a future you didn't try hard enough to change.

Anyone looking for you can find you. Get them to find you when they're looking for something else.

Life gives you wonderful opportunities to conquer fears, learn skills, and master techniques. "I can't" shouldn't be synonymous with "I don't want to."

People seek out two things: information and entertainment. Offer them freely, and they'll find you.

The Internet isn't temporary. What you post today can lead people to you decades from now.

Writing is a profession. Act professional.

Always follow the advice of an editor, even if you don't agree, because then your book becomes our book. A editor will fight harder to champion our book.

No one said it would be fair, fun, or easy. But it is worthwhile.

We're all in the same boat. Start rowing.

If you can quit, quit. If you can't quit, stop complaining--this is what you chose.

There are a lot of things that happen beyond your control. Your goals should be within your control.

Just because something is publishable doesn't mean it will get published.

Write when you can. Finish what your start. Edit what you finish. Submit what you've edited. Repeat.

The most successful people on the planet have one thing in common: nothing can stop them. Don't expect to reach your goals without sacrificing things that are important to you. You can't be both happy and ambitious.

Being your own best advocate is about understanding how people react to you.

Fake confidence, and real confidence follows.

Maybe you can't win. But you sure as hell can try.

It's your name on your book cover. It's your responsibility to sell your book. If it flops, your publisher will still be in business, but you won't.

Always have two hands reaching out. One, for your next goal. The other, to help people get to where you're at.

If you can't be smart or funny, be brief.

If you're not in love with the sound of your own voice, how can you expect anyone else to ever be?

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

And if one of those doesn't get me into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations sometime before I die, when I do die I'm going to haunt the Bartlett family...

How To Get Published

There have been hundreds of books on how to get published. Here's my condensed version:

1. Write When You Can - Find the time to write, even if you have to give up other things to do so. And know who your audience is, and as much about that audience as possible, before you write your first word.

2. Finish What You Start - Turn off your internal editor until you finish that first draft, and get to the ending no matter how much you think it sucks.

3. Edit What You Finish - Rewrite, add, cut, and polish. Then give it to others to read, consider their suggestions, and keep repeating the process until you've got something your peers, and you, consider decent.

Here's a critique sheet to help you out. http://www.jakonrath.com/critsheet.pdf.

4. Submit What You Edit - Since you know your audience, you should know who reps/publishes your type of story. And don't get hung up on writing the perfect query letter. The writing sells the writing, not the query letter. All a query needs is a two sentence description of the book (mention setting, genre, and a bestselling similar work by another author), some praise for the recipient, and a thank you.

5. Repeat

That's all. Now stop sweating the process and go do it.

If you have any questions, put them in the comments section of this thread. Or if you want my undivided attention, visit me in person.

For everyone in the St. Louis MO vicinity, I'll be in town Jan 16 and 17.

Friday, Jan 16 - ST. CHARLES CITY-COUNTY LIBRARY FOUNDATION, MO
Joe will be doing a presentation 7pm - 9pm. Details at http://www.stchlibrary.org.

Saturday, Jan 17 - BIG SLEEP BOOKS, ST. LOUIS
Joe will be doing a signing at this wonderful mystery bookstore, 1pm - 2:30pm. www.bigsleepbooks.com

Feel free to spread the word and come see me. The library event has a cash bar. How cool is that? Naturally, books will be available at both locations, and besides dishing out wisdom I'll be giving away some free cool stuff.

Hope to see some of you there.

Hail, Caesar

The Roman emperors realized that the way to win favor with the public was to give them what they wanted.

On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong. It would seem that kings and dictators who rule with an iron fist would be able to stay in control and get more done through fear.

And yet, every Caesar built grand public buildings and held fabulous spectacles, all to keep their subjects docile by making them happy.

Now here comes the writing analogy.

How often, in your writing, do you write whatever the hell you want to write without any care at all for your audience?

When we start out, we're all 100% self-indulgent. We have huge egos that demand we put our brilliant words on paper. Of course other people will love them as much as we do. Of course they'll sell by the millions.

And then, as we head down the road to publication, we start to learn things. We learn about craft and form, and that narratives have structure and genres. We learn about editing and polishing, and how cutting and adding and getting input from others makes our work better. And eventually, if we make it far enough, we learn about marketing and selling.

We aren't really artists. We're emperors. Because, like those emperors, we start out doing whatever we desire. But we come to realize that if we want to keep being emperors, the key is to sell as much of our work as possible. And that means giving the people what they want.

I've said, ad nauseum, that before you create a key, study the lock. Know who the audience is, and who the buyer is, before you even write the first word of a story.

But if you want to make people happy, and keep them buying your work (or visiting your blog, or downloading your freebies, or entering your contests, or attending your appearances) you have to know more than just the genre and prospective publisher. It's very easy to say, "I'm writing a mystery because a lot of people buy mysteries and a lot of houses publish mysteries so I've figured out the lock before I make the key" and still be way off the mark in terms of success.

So how do you figure out what people want?

Readers of this blog know that people seek two things from writers: information and entertainment. The specific kind of information and entertainment, however, is mostly subjective, and often hard to guess.

So here are some hints.

1. Look Inward. We all start out trying to please ourselves, and this might actually end up being helpful. If you think something is funny, chances are other people do as well. So while you're attempting to please your audience, remember what works on you. What books do you like to read? Why do you enjoy them? What are the last five books you've bought and why?

The more you understand yourself, the better you'll understand others.

2. Look Outward. Read as much as you can. Join a writers group and critique others. Figure out what works, what doesn't, and come up with reasons why.

You shouldn't write in a genre you aren't well-read in. You shouldn't submit a story to a magazine unless you've read several issues cover to cover. Every time you write, you aren't reinventing the wheel. You're simply putting a new spin on the wheel. Figure out how the wheel works, then you can spin it accordingly.

3. Get Feedback. There are a few jokes I tell that NEVER get a laugh, even though I think they're funny.

A story, or a speech, or a blog, isn't a monologue. It is an exchange, and involves at least one other person. Pay attention to how that person responds. With a blog or a speech, you can get feedback quickly. With a story, you have to solicit it.

Seek out peers, and trade manuscripts with them to critique. Pay attention to agents and editors--they're on your side and want to make the story better. Find as many beta readers as you can, and be ready to ask them questions about what is and isn't working.

4. Respect Your Audience. Once you learn who your audience is, and what they want, it is your job to never let them down. Ways to let them down include:
  • Talking down to them
  • Talking over their heads
  • An unsatisfying ending
  • Making your characters do uncharacteristic things
  • Too many coincidences
  • Unfunny humor
  • Poor or confusing structure
  • Unrealistic romance
  • Gratuitous anything
  • Self-indulgence
All writers really need to watch the last one. If you think you may be showing off, or know in your heart that the line/scene you just wrote will never fly, chances are high it will never fly.

Once you fall in love with your own voice, you get bestselleritis. If you're a bestseller, this disease won't do you much harm. You can keep writing long-winded, self-important, unrealistic crap that's a shell of your early work, and because people are creatures of habit they'll keep buying it--although you can expect them to voice their disapproval on Amazon.com.

But if you're a new writer, and you expect people to bend over and accept your writing simply because you think it's good enough--that's a career killer.

In fact, it's wise to never believe your own hype, at any stage of your career.

Ultimately, we're entertainers. We're the people who play sax on street corners for pocket change. The more people we entertain, the more money we get. So remember to take requests...

Becoming Cyber-Effective

It's been said that 50% of all advertising is effective, and the other 50% isn't. But the problem is that no one can guess which 50% is which.

While it's a tidy little axiom that makes excuses for why ad campaigns fail to generate expected results, it's still a little off.

In my last post, I talked about things that writers have no control over, and a few things they do.

One of the things you do have a measure of control over is your Internet presence.

Brand-building and name-recognition are important for authors. Once we sell a novel to a publisher, we have to sell it to readers. If they like the book, they become brand-loyal, and we become an automatic purchase.

For that to happen, readers first have to know a book exists, then they have to read it, and finally, they have to like it enough to buy the next one.

Publishing, as a model, functions very much like an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. There are a certain number of items for consumption, and personal taste and quality dictate which items move the fastest.

Of course the most important aspect--getting on the table in the first place--plays the biggest role. The bigger the quantity, the more restaurants a food appears in, the more it will be consumed.

We writers don't have much control over how big our print runs are, or how wide our distribution is. That wonderful food that buffet-goers might love to devour must be available first. Sadly, most books don't get big print runs and distribution, which limits the amount of people they can reach.

Writers have some control over a book's quality, but who likes the book and wants to keep reading the author is largely subjective, and also beyond a writer's control.

So how can a writer brand themselves when distribution and quality are crapshoots?

They can follow advertising's lead, and discover on their own what people want and what works by conducting studies, comparison, and analyzing data.

Here are some tools and I use and ways I measure my cyber-effectiveness.

What I Want to Know - Do people like my writing?

Tools Used- Email, personal appearances, message boards, blog comments, reviews.

How I Know How I'm Doing - Fan email can be an indicator of how well people are responding to your book. In this day and age, if someone emails you about your writing, this is a huge coup. It isn't like a reader can press a button embedded in a book and immediately contact an author. So those who do this have a compulsion to do so, which implies passion. To read a book and like it so much that one logs onto the Internet, Googles an author, and writes them a personal message, is a powerful indicator of how much that book affected them.

Frequency of email depends on distribution/print run, naturally, but it also can measure a book's effectiveness. Divide your print run by the number of people who contact you.

You can also browse Amazon.com, GoodReads.com, Shelfari.com, and many other sites where readers post reviews. Got a lot of reviews that you didn't directly solicit? Then your book is striking a chord.

If you have any sort of crowd at a signing or appearance, your writing is important to people.

If people are discussing your books in a forum, listserv, Yahoo Group, or message board, that indicates passion, and passion in one person often means passion in many, which indicates you're doing something right.

If I divide my sales by the number of people who somehow reach me or talk about me, I get around ten to fifteen percent feedback.

This is high. But the number is skewed. Much of the feedback comes from people who have read several of my titles, and may contact me/review me after each title. But if you know you've sold ten thousand books, and you've only gotten two hundred people offering feedback, you should know that your writing isn't as effective as it could be.

Remember that being contacted is it's own form of distribution. The more places/easier it is to contact/review you, the more you're going to be contacted/reviewed.

Beside email and this blog, I make it easy for people to find me using the many billboards and social networking sites I've listed in the sidebar. I have a forum, and use polls on my website, and maintain Facebook and MySpace pages, doing all I can to facilitate feedback.

If people aren't contacting you, make it easier for them to do so, and make sure both your writing and persona encourages it.

What I Want to Know - Are people finding me on the net?

Tools Used - Hit counters, download trackers, social networking.

How I Know How I'm Doing - First of all, content is king. People on the Internet are looking for two things, information and entertainment. As a writer, you're uniquely suited to provide both.

The more you provide, the more Googleable you become. The words I'm writing right now will be searchable a decade from now, still drawing people to this post. Some drawn here will read, some readers will seek out my books, some of those people will become fans, and some of those fans will become buyers. It's a trickle down effect, but it works.

You control your content. If you're a blogger, are you blogging about something people are interested in? Timely topics may get hits in the short run, but universal topics tend to keep finding viewers long after they've been posted.

This blog has its share of both timely and universal posts. Newbie writers come here from around the world, as evidenced by my Feedjit Live Traffic Map widget in the sidebar. This widget shows me, at a glance, how universal my posts are.

For a more specific demographic breakdown, I use Statcounter.com, which lets me know who is visiting and how long they stay, among other valuable info. I can see what topics generate the most hits.

My website has many free downloads. By offering books (entertainment) for free, I'm basically like a buffet restaurant that offers free samples--a certain percentage will like the sample, then come in and eat.

I use bfnsoftware.com to track my downloads. People have downloaded about twenty thousand copies of my ebooks since I began tracking. A huge number? No. But these books keep attracting new visitors, and creating new fans, with no real ongoing effort on my part.

Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, among many other social networking sites, allow you to reach out to people, and vice versa. The reason I have a lot of online "friends" on these sites is because I put in the time to find them. The higher your friend count, the more people you can potentially reach with announcements.

But like your website and blog, this is all about content. What you have to offer dictates how many people on these sites will care when you do have an announcement like a signing, new book release, or contest.

If they really like you, you become prominently displayed on their social networking page. This is free advertising, leading others to you.

What I Want to Know - Are people linking to me on the net?

Tools Used - Other blogs and websites, search engine rankings, Google Alerts, link exchanges.

How I Know How I'm Doing - When writers ask me about blogs, or MySpace, or websites, they think these are magic bullets and all they must do is open an account for the traffic to come pouring in and name-recognition to blossom.

Well, no. As I've mentioned many times, you have to give people what they want if you want them to visit, and they want information and entertainment. You also have to make an effort trying to find these people.

If you're just starting out, one thing to do is visit popular sites, contribute information and entertainment, and offer a link back to your site. Say something smart or funny on another person's blog or message board, and people will check your profile, and your site, and if they like what they see they'll bookmark you or link to you.

If you're already established, offer content to other sites for free. Guest blogging, doing interviews, and providing short stories are all ways to spread name-recognition.

One of the ways to judge if people are talking about you (rather than to you) is by using marketleap.com. This free site allows you to check your search engine saturation, and how many other sites link to you.

Technorati.com, Digg.com, Delicious, and other social bookmarking sites allow people to point you out to even more people. Making it easy for folks to bookmark you, link to you, subscribe to your feed, or tell others about you, means more people will find you. Hence the two new widgets you see on the bottom of this post.

I've set up Google Alerts for JA Konrath and Jack Kilborn. This isn't out of vanity. It's so I can see what I'm doing that is important enough for people to mention. If you Google Alert yourself and you don't get any hits for several days, you aren't doing enough online. I average 4 to 10 alerts a day. That's more than many authors, not nearly as many as some. How do I know? You can set up Google Alerts to search for any term, including your peers' names. Marketleap.com allows the same thing.

You should NEVER compare yourself to other authors when it comes to things out of your control: advances, print runs, publicity, awards, reviews, etc. But you can and should see how effective your branding and name-recognition techniques are compared to theirs. Not for bragging rights, but as a learning tool.

I know I've written an effective blog post if a lot of people link to it and comment. The more people who link to you, the more traffic you get. It isn't by chance that both my blog and website have lots of links.

Links not only bring in traffic, they also raise your search engine ranking. Remember that your ultimate goal is to become known to complete strangers. The more places you appear, in person and in cyberspace, the better your chances at being discovered, read, and bought.

Sales are not the only indicator of how well we're doing as writers. They're just one statistic. While sales may be the ultimate goal, and that goal may be influenced by factors beyond your control (like print run, distribution, and publisher marketing dollars), you can and should be influencing the other statistics I mentioned here.

You can write a book, cross your fingers, and hope your publisher pushes it.

You can write a book, cross your fingers, and hope it magically catches on with the public.

Or you can write a book and put in the time to make people aware of your book, which will perhaps influence how well it catches on with the public, and maybe even prompt your publisher into pushing it.

Landing a book deal is luck. Becoming a bestseller is luck. Getting 50,000 hits on Google when someone searches for your name is hard work.

Becoming cyber-effective is within your control. All it takes is time, savvy, and attention to content. And as writers, you should be paying attention to content in the first place.

Control Freak

I've harped on this in other posts, but I don't believe I've devoted a whole post to it.

In a nutshell: Only set goals you can control.

As writers, a lot of things are beyond our control. Getting an agent, selling a book or story, landing on a bestseller list, winning awards--these all rely on varying degrees of luck, right place/right time, and the support and efforts of many other people.

Because of this, writers tend to be let down a lot. When you get a rejection, lose an award, or don't sell as many books as you'd like, it's natural to get depressed.

But you shouldn't get angry, or sad, or offended. Because it makes no sense to get upset over things you don't have control over.

There's a direct correlation between dreams and disappointments. Hope is a four letter word.

Writing is all about putting yourself out there. Chefs cook food to be consumed. We string together words to be read. Having readers is half the equation.

But we really don't have much control over who reads us.

We can search for an agent, search for a publisher, search for readers. But we can't make any of them like our writing.

Because of this, we get rejections, and bad reviews, and unimpressive sales, and the resultant disappointment. This makes it hard to keep on keeping on, when the acceptance we desire is 100% out of our control.

So the secret to happiness in the writing biz is about controlling what you can.

The first thing you have control over is your work. What you write about, and how much time and effort you spend writing it, is all up to you. This is a goal you can reach.

While you can't make an agent or publisher accept your work, you can seek out agents and publishers with queries, at conferences, and through recommendations of other writers. These are all within your power, and attainable goals.

You don't have control over distribution or sales, but you can devote time to branding and seeking out fans. This won't land you on the bestseller list, but every book you help to sell is a goal you had control over.

On this first day of 2009, take a good look at your goals. Which are attainable on your own? And which require luck?

We all need luck. But your goals should be based on your hard work and efforts, not on gambling.

Concentrate on what you can do, and do it to the best of your ability. If luck smiles on you, great. If not, keep at it--unless your goal is to feel sorry for yourself. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy that writers tend to excel at.
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