Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Notes on Self-Publishing

As a reviewer, I'm often asked why we don't review self-published books. There are many reasons; some more straightforward than others. But as a person who always roots for the underdog, listens to self-produced music, and reads plenty of start-up literary magazines, it seems that if anyone would review self-published books it would be me. The easy reason is that my editors wouldn't accept the review. But here are the real reasons:
  • When a publishing house puts out a book, I know it has jumped through a series of hoops. I know it has been read and edited by countless pairs of eyes, hopefully catching mistakes and rewording awkward sentences. When a book is self-published, usually, it is only the eyes of the author that have seen the final product, and this usually leads to mistakes. I know some self-published authors turn to their critique group or significant other or whoever to read the book and give feedback, but many don't. Many just write a book, do maybe one more draft and then put it out there. Too many self-published books read like first drafts and that's not what I signed up to review.

  • The point of reviewing is to promote books, to let readers know what's out there and if it's any good. Self-published books aren't out there. They are not easily accessible. My review may help get the person's name out there, but in order to sell books, the books have to be readily available, preferably in Barnes and Noble or Borders, but Amazon works too.

  • I'm a skeptic and a cynic, so this last reason may just be me. When someone hands over a self-published book, my immediate question (in my head of course) is why the book was self-published. Is the writing bad? Does the plot have holes in it? Did the author try to sell it to a house or get an agent? I am well aware that not all good books sell, let alone get published, but many of the self-published books that have seen, didn't get published for a reason. That is not to say all self-published books are bad books, but like in my first bullet point, if they had gone through the editing process, the editor and author would have worked out the kinks.
As with every rule there are exceptions. And his name is Darren Callahan. I've read two of his books (the latest one is on the way) and one of his screenplays and this guy is a very talented writer. Who's his publisher? Kinko's. Darren prints out his books with a high quality printer and then takes them to Kinko's to get bound. The whole thing cost him five bucks. He sells them on his website for ten. And because he's a marketing genius, he's sold thousands. I won't steal his thunder and talk about his reasons for publishing books the way he does, but I will say I respect his decision.

Basically, my advice for those who weren't able to sell their book: don't self-publish. Keep it in that drawer, write another book, and maybe someday that first novel will reappear on bookshelves everywhere. Because when it comes to marketing and selling a self-published book, unless your Darren Callahan, it is close to impossible.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cracking Under Pressure

Recently, the Chicago Contingent (our writing group) decided to jump on the anthology bandwagon and put out a compilation of our own. At first I was excited, thinking that it's a great way to promote our work and start getting our names out there. But now it's time to start writing...well last week it was time to start writing and although I have millions of novel ideas, I am struggling to find one that works as a short story.

But here's what's been bothering me: I have written plenty of short stories. I have written plenty of freelance articles, on assignment, on subjects I had no previous knowledge of. It would be reasonable to assume that a short story assignment would come as easy. Wrong. Every time I sit down to brainstorm or go to the computer and try to write a few scenes, it's like I get stage fright. I freeze under the pressure.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the problem has to do with order. When I'm writing fiction, I begin with characters, sometimes a scene or a concept. I start exploring and developing the world that I'm writing about and go from there. If the concept and plot don't seem to be enough for a novel length piece, I aim for a short story. As I said in previous posts, I write until the story is finished.

So now we've gone and mixed up the order. I've been assigned a word count and a theme and I have to go from there. It's like my creative brain doesn't understand, unable to function if the process isn't organic.

But I keep brainstorming and ideas are slowly coming. I never miss a deadline so this story will be completed no matter how many times I have to hit myself in the head with my laptop. But I'd love for some people to weigh in, especially novelists who have been asked to write short stories for anthologies. Is it harder to write shorter and for a specific market? How is the process different? Any pearls of wisdom would be greatly appreciated!

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Long And The Short Of It

Remember when you're girlfriend told you size didn't matter? She was lying.

If you want to sell your book, particularly your first book, size does matter. If your book is too short or too long, agents and editors will see it as unmarketable. Not sure how much truth there is to their assumptions. Some of my favorite books are way over 500 pages while others are well under 200. You may ask, "How many words was Catcher in the Rye or The Fountainhead? Those didn't fall between the word count boundaries." And your answer is, when you're J.D. Salinger or Ayn Rand, you can write whatever you want no matter how short or how long. But you're not Salinger and you're not Rand.

But even the boundaries seem to be a bit disputed. Some writers or publishers say a novel should be between 80k and 90k words. Others say they won't accept anything under 100k. One non-fiction writer on Backspace says his contract specifies between 50k and 65k. Another memoirist says his contract specifies 70k. Like everything else in the publishing world, there are no hard and fast rules. To figure out how long your novel should be, look at other books in your genre and look at the publishers. Harlequin romances, I believe, are around 65K while Kensington thrillers are way over 100k. The average P.I. novel seems to be around 80k while thrillers fall around 90k. Literary fiction is all over the place Your best bet is to stay in the middle, aim for an average length as it pertains to your genre.

Let me preface this by saying, I went to art school. Don't hold it against me. I was taught to write where the story takes me and write until the story resolves itself without worrying about plot and manuscript length. I did that for Street Walk and trust me, it doesn't work. My first draft came out to be 67,000 words, way too short for a novel, way too long for a novella. But the second draft was a little longer, and the third even longer, until the sixth draft was of acceptable length (although still a little on the short side). But with each revision, I wasn't just fluffing it up; I was adding description, slowing down action scenes, telling the story so the readers can see it. All that takes words, words I needed to add.

On the flip side, I've never written anything that was too long. Don't know if it's my ADD, laziness, or that I'm just careful with my words. But if you're the type of person that writes too long, try this: go through the book, one page at a time, and omit needless words. Ask yourself at every sentence, what this sentence, what one word, is doing for the overall story? If you don't have an answer, the answer is cut it. Say your hero gets shot. Do we need to see him at the hospital? Is that furthering the overall story? Or could you just summarize it in one line, "After he was discharged..."

The other, and better option, it to write your novel within the proper word count the first time around. Don't worry, it's almost as simple as it sounds. Planning ahead is the first step. I've gone on record time and time again saying how averse I am to outlining. Well, I've been converted. Outlining before you write helps you write better first drafts and therefore, saves time. When you write your outline, make a note of what word count you should have at each turning point. It will help you stay on track and know if you're giving too much or too little description. If you reach the midpoint and you're only at 35,000 words, chances are, you wrote too fast, skimming over important details. If that's not the case, you may need to add another plot line or further develop a secondary character.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where size does matter. And while there are hundreds of exceptions to the word count rules, it's much easier to sell a book if you're not one of them. Save yourself time and energy. Plan ahead. Think about word count as you write instead of waiting until the end (and then having to write five more drafts to get it right!)

Monday, July 16, 2007

News and Updates

Still not fully recovered from Thriller Fest, so I'll keep my recap brief. All in all, it was a successful conference. I met a lot of interesting people, got to catch up with old friends, went out for some delicious meals and even more delicious drinks. I wished the atmosphere was a little more intimate and a little more centralized, but I still had a pretty good time and managed to take a couple pictures:

Author Rebecca Drake at her signing. Who's that handsome fan?

Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey in a rare moment: when they don't have drinks in their hands

Me and Chicago Contingent member, Jamie Freveletti at Hudson's Bar and Books. Great drinks and great cigars...what more do you need?

Sean, Marcus, Tasha Alexander and Jamie Lavish at the cigar bar

And to make the trip even better, two great things were waiting for me when I got home. First was the second edition of my podcast on The Future is Bleak. The second was my new Sun Times article featuring Chicago author, Renee Rosen.

Still want to know more about Thriller Fest? Ask Sarah Weinman, Dave White, David Montgomery, or Robert Gregory Brown.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lost In The Shelves

I love bookstores. That's no surprise. I can wander through them for hours, perusing the shelves, reading back covers, searching for the newest releases. But behind each of those books is an author...and an agent...and an editor and a publisher and a publicist. And what are they all doing? Trying to sell you the book.

When you walk into a bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble, the first thing you see is the shelf of bestsellers. Walk further inside, you get the hardcover and paperback new releases. Then there are the tables and the end caps. It takes a while to get to the general fiction or mystery section, if you make it there at all. Often, by the time I get past the bestseller and new release shelves, I have enough books for my budget and head to the checkout counter without even going to the back shelves.

So what does this mean for mid-list authors without a huge marketing budget? In my mind, it's kind of ridiculous. Michael Chabon and Cormac McCarthy don't need help selling books, so why do they get to be in the front? It seems like there are hundreds of books being released each month; why do some get on the new release shelves while others don't?

If you're an author, you can't leave it up to your publisher to market your book. You have to take matters into your own hands. And while it may seem impossible to lure people past the pretty co-ops to get your book, here are a few things that may remedy the situation:
  • Call it unethical if you want, but I tend to move things around in bookstores. That's right booksellers, I'm the culprit. I'm the one turning my friends' books outwards or putting them on tables were they don't belong. The idea is to get your book noticed, get it to pop off the shelves. So turning them outward, scattering them in numerous sections, placing them at eye level will hopefully get a potential buyer's attention.
  • If you want to do it the ethical way, I have one word for you: schmooze. Booksellers don't just pick books at random to display on the front tables. If you want that honor, you have to finesse the people in power. Set up meetings with booksellers, send them ARCs, send them a muffin basket if you think that would help. Go in to the independent bookstores in your area, introduce yourself as a local author, offer to sign their books. That's a quick and easy way to get into that coveted window display.
  • If you're book still rests on the back shelves, make sure it's easy to find. On your cards or fliers or whatever you're passing out to promote your book, make sure it says which section it's in. Too often, someone will give me their card that says their book is a mystery, but I'll find it in the horror section. By the time I finish looking for the book, I probably picked out a different book to purchase instead. It's like the food commercials: "Now available in your grocer's freezer!" "My new novel, now available in the mystery section!"
  • Above all, for me at least, appearances are what sell books. I go to a lot of readings and when I hear something I like, nine times out of ten I'll go home with their book. For new authors, I know it's extremely difficult to get people to attend signings, which is why you don't go it alone. If you want to do a book signing at a bookstore, team up with another author, one whose writing is similar to yours and, preferably, one who'll draw a crowd. Or, offer to read at an already established event such as Reading Under the Influence or Twilight Tales. That way, you'll have a ready made audience and an opportunity to put your name out there.

Feel free to add more suggestions as I am still a newbie writer and have not had the chance, first hand, to market my book. But the next time you're in a bookstore, take a look around. What do you notice about where books are place and how the store is set up?