Marketing, Writing and Editing

A Writer’s Defense of Public Libraries

Next week (Thursday, to be exact) the library in my hometown will be hosting a book launch and reception for my new novel To Hemlock Run. Refreshments will be served, a door prize will be offered, and my books will be displayed enchantingly somewhere nearby. Of course I speak for a bit. Other than reading a sample passage from the novel, I really haven’t a clue what I might say. Probably some form of gratitude. Probably something about the forty years and counting struggle to become an overnight success.

I’ll figure it out over the next few days.

Now some of you might be wondering why I am holding the event at the library and not at our local (and very good) bookstore. After all, I’m in the business of selling my books, aren’t I? Libraries don’t sell books; they lend them. Right?

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the library approached me and offered to host it; the bookstore didn’t. And this is not surprising because bookstores are less and less willing to put on such events because—unless the author is a major national name—they don’t profit from them. In order to make the expense of labor, advertising, and general disruption worthwhile, they have to sell books. A lot of books.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, fewer people have been coming to these events and fewer of those who do come, actually buy books. The last one I did, a couple of years ago, lasted about an hour and was attended by about twenty people, most of them my friends and family. Unfortunately, most of my friends and family already had copies of the book. I probably sold five or six copies. So out of $90 dollars in gross sales, the bookstore netted $36, against $30 in labor costs and $60 in advertising.

The math just doesn’t work, so I fully understand why they are hesitant to host such events. It’s bad business.

Which leads into the second reason why I’m having this event at the local library: I am more than happy (and proud) to support my local library.

Libraries, particularly libraries in small, rural towns like mine are rapidly becoming the cultural and artistic centers of their communities, especially in modern times when local governments and school districts are too strapped for cash to sponsor such events. Where else, in a small town of 2000 souls can one attend—free of charge—a lecture on the efforts to save the endangered snowy plover; hear a demonstration of various musical instruments from exotic times and cultures; or meet and listen to the work of a published novelist?

Libraries are not just about lending books anymore.

They are also in danger. Libraries across the English-speaking world (I don’t know about other cultures but I assume they are facing the same forces) are being forced to shut down by calls for austerity. Taxpayers are disgruntled. They think they are paying too much and want the government to cut back and libraries are an easy target. More than half the adult population does not read for pleasure. To them the library is a waste of money. Others think everyone has access to everything through ebooks and the internet. To them the library is obsolete.

I think they are all terribly misguided. The library—any library—is neither a waste of money, nor obsolete. True, libraries have had to adapt to the new technology and demographics. Most now, in addition to books, allow you to check out DVD movies and television shows, as well as music CDs, audiobooks, and even ebooks. Some even allow you to check out a tablet.

Most also now have computers available for those who do not have their own at home, as well as wifi, and landline internet access. Many people, for economic reasons, would have no access to online media or services without the library. These same people, for the same reasons, would not read as much as they’d like to were it not for the library; they simply cannot afford to buy that many books.

Still, I hear someone whispering in the back, we’re in the business of selling books. The public library kind of defeats that, doesn’t it? After all, if you sell one book to the library and ten people check it out, that’s only one sale, versus ten. Right?

Right. But I think of it differently. I don’t think of it as nine lost sales. I think of it as ten readers I have recruited—especially if those readers actually like the book. Some of those ten readers can’t afford to buy my book and probably never will. If I was depending on them buying my book, I would never be able to count them as my readers.

Then some of them will be devoted readers who have never read my work before and have heard little about me. Realistically, probably the most challenging part of this writing gig is convincing someone who does not know you, your life, or your philosophy, to shell out $15.00 for your new novel. What if they don’t like it? What if it just isn’t their preferred genre? We’re asking them to take a chance here. We’re asking them to risk their money.

The way I allay their fears, is direct them to our library (which has all my novels) and have them check one out. It’s like the free cheese samples the grocers sometimes hands out. “Try it,” we say. “If you like it, buy the whole block.” The public library is the writer’s “free sample.” I’m not the sort who wants to sell my novel to everyone, whether they’ll like it, or not. I want to sell it to folk who will genuinely enjoy my stories and my style.

I do not write because it will make me rich. (And if that is your plan, I wish you the best of luck, but hope it is not your only motivation. The odds of becoming rich from your writing are approximately the same as winning the lottery. It happens, but not to people we know). I write to be read. And the library is one of the methods I use to do that.

Support your local library.

Marketing, Writing and Editing

Writing: Art Versus Business

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the place art (literary art especially) has in the business world and the power of the market. Because, like it or not, we all live in a system designed by and for business which, for better or worse, view the works we create not as works of art—unique and we hope transcendent—but as just another consumer product. As far as the business world—including all the financial, marketing, and branding machinery it uses—there is no intrinsic difference between the Mona Lisa and a roll of toilet tissue.

Both are products to be marketed and sold to someone.

Yes, writing is a business. So is painting watercolor landscapes, sculpture, music, and film. In each case, someone creates a work and tries to find a receptive market where someone will buy it. To achieve that, the smart artist will research prospective markets, learn the vehicles (media) she can use to reach those markets and then promote (advertise) their work to the best of their ability.

With hard work and some luck, they might be able to scrape a living out of the process. In reality though, very few artists do actually make a living from their chosen art. The success stories are so few and far between as to be the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Why is that? Because art and business are intrinsically different. Because of those differences, the rules of business don’t translate well into the art world. And art doesn’t translate well into the business world.

The primary difference lies in the purpose behind art and the purpose behind business. Art, in whatever its form, is driven by a passion the artist has for the medium and the way he can use it to interpret the world around them. For instance, a poet develops a love for poetry. She studies the masters who have crafter poems before her, practices and learns how to create her own and adopts poetry as the art she uses to interpret the world around her and express her emotion back to that world.

In contrast, the primary purpose behind the businessman is the making of money, of profit. Certainly, the good business person will study the business world just as much as the poet studies poetry, but in a more general way. They might study the financial aspect of business, or the marketing part, or the legal issues, but their commitment is still primarily to the desire to make money. The manner is secondary.

For instance, a man opens a restaurant specializing in hamburgers and fries. He hires good cooks and gives good service. He does okay. But talking to his customers, he notices that many of them would like burritos. Is he so committed to making good burgers that he refuses to add burritos to the menu? Probably not. Because he is not committed to creating and selling burgers. He is committed to making money. If he can do that making hamburgers, fine. If he needs to make burritos as well as hamburgers, then that’s what he will do.

The object of the businessman’s effort is not to sell perfect burgers, it’s to sell whatever the public will buy in order to make a profit.

Substitute the word “poetry” for “hamburgers” and “piano concertos” for “burritos” and you see the difference. Even if the public is clamoring for more piano concertos, the poet doesn’t switch to writing classical music. It isn’t her passion. Poetry is her passion and she will continue to write poetry, whether anyone buys it, or not.

The immediate problem this dichotomy presents is that despite all the study and hard work the poet puts into her craft, she may never sell enough of her poems to pay for having them printed up, much less make a living from them.

This holds true even if the work the artist produces wins contests and accolades from fellow artists, art experts, and scholarly authorities. This is because business is market driven and the market is not terribly smart. The market likes what the market likes. Quality has nothing to do with.

And the market is the only thing the business cares about.

For us writers, this means that publishers don’t care whether you’ve written the most ground-breaking novel of the last hundred years. They care about how many copies you’ll sell. And if they have to make a choice—and they do—they will choose the trashy erotic novel that will sell a million copies, then be quickly forgotten over a masterfully written one that won’t sell every time.

Because business is only concerned with making money.

And Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies will probably outsell 99 percent of all the novels published the same year.

So what do we conclude from this? Primarily, that if you’re hoping to grow rich by writing, especially writing fiction or poetry, you might as well quit right now. Sure, it can happen and I sincerely hope it does. It happened to Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and a handful of others, but they are the exceptions.

If you are going to write, you will be doing it because you love it. You love the form in all its living variations. You love being part of that wide sweep of literary history. You love the process of creating the work. You love seeing your ideas in print and you love the experience of having someone come up to you in a bookstore or coffee shop and tell you how much they loved your work.

It is love that drives you to even attempt to create something like you do. And it is love that is your payment for the work you do. Let that be enough.

Everything else is just business.


The Attention Deficit, Part Two (Or Is This Really What We Want)

Last week, I discussed a few points about the problem artists in general, and writers in particular, have in getting anyone to notice their work. I don’t know whether this is a new problem born of modern, high-tech times, or not. But I know it is a problem for me and anyone else who would like the products of their hard work experienced by a larger slice of the public.

So we have identified the problem: next to no one notices our work when we put it out there in the world. Why is that? Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of the world. It is very, very big with lots of things happening. Our novel, painting, or poetry doesn’t even make a ripple when it is released. People are also very, very busy. In the modern world, a person is bombarded like never before with competing interests all clamoring for a bit of their time.

A third reason for not getting anyone’s attention just could be us.

Us. As in you and me, the creators of the works which are going unnoticed. We could be part of the problem. As in many facets of life, we could be a large part of the problem, our own worst enemy. To find out, we need to ask ourselves some questions. They are often difficult questions, but we need to answer them honestly if we want to get to our desired destination.

(The following was borrowed and adapted from an article by Bryan Hutchinson on the Positive Writer website. Many thanks).

Have you decided that you truly want the world to pay attention to your work?

We have to decide we truly want something before we can attain it. You didn’t write that book because you thought it would be kind of cool to have written a book. You decided you were going to write a book. You worked at it. When you were tired and felt like just camping in front of the television, you turned away and spent that time hunched over the word processor. You decided you were going to do what you needed to do to write a book.

Gaining serious attention for that book is no different. You have to decide you truly want it. Because gaining attention for your art is going to change some things in your life and it’s perfectly acceptable to decide you like your life the way it is. There’s nothing wrong with that. But realize that you have to make the decision.

Are you willing and ready to do the work needed to get that attention?

Gaining attention for your novel or short story collection is going to take some work. (Actually, it’s going to take a lot of work). Millions of people publish every day around the world and most of them capture almost no attention. They haven’t captured yours, have they? This doesn’t mean their work is not good. It could be fantastic. It just means that there is just as much work to do after the work is published as before.

You’ve worked hard perfecting your writing craft and then worked hard at creating a work of art. Now you need to work just as hard to bring it to the world’s attention.

Do you think it’s all about you and your work?

Hate to say this, but it isn’t about you and it isn’t about your work. Not everyone cares about you or what you care about. Only a very few people are going to read your book solely because you wrote it. And you will already know all their names. If you want anyone who doesn’t know you to read your work you are going to have to find good reasons for them to do that and communicate that reason to them. You see, if you want to get some attention from people, it has to be about them. Reading your book has to offer some benefit to them.

So the first thing you have to do is forget about you for the time being and concentrate on your potential readers.

Are you willing to make a difference?

You must be willing to be passionate, willing to make a stand. The world doesn’t pay attention to people who only go halfway, hedge their bets. You must be clear about who you are, what you are writing about and that you truly believe in your work. You must convince them that you truly believe your work is good; you’re not just saying that to get the sale. You must be absolutely ready and willing to make a difference.

The audience doesn’t want to hear from anyone who is not willing to stand for something; they don’t have time for it.

Do you think you and your work deserve the world’s attention?

You’ve worked really hard for five years on this book; you’ve earned the world’s attention, right? Sorry. You no more deserve attention than anyone else. You absolutely do not deserve the attention more than someone who went out and did the work to earn it. The brutal truth is that everyone worked hard on their book and there simply is not enough time to give everyone the same amount of attention.

You have to go out in the world and earn its attention.

Are you afraid of being criticized?

Everyone is afraid of being criticized. It hurts, particularly the occasional, vicious, personal attacks. However, if you create a work that matters and share it with the world, you will receive criticism. It’s inevitable. If you try and hide from the critics, you will be hiding your work from the rest of the world too.

When the hate mail and bad reviews start coming in, welcome them. They are compliments. It means your work mattered enough for them to remark about it. How often do you comment on something that simply doesn’t matter?

Are you riddled with doubt?

Join the club. All artists worth mentioning are filled with doubt. The only people who never doubt themselves are those too blind or ignorant to realize their own limitations. Self-doubt is a good thing.

The only question that’s important here is whether you’re going to let that nagging critical voice in your own head prevent you from achieving your goals.

Okay, now we’ve done some serious soul-searching and decided in our heart-of-hearts that we really want to earn some attention for our writing. It isn’t easy. It involves a skill set every bit as difficult as the craft we had to learn in order to write. Like our writing, it will become a work in progress, much of it learned through trial-and-error. For, as in everything else we do, we often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does.

Next week we’ll examine some concrete steps we can take to earn the attention we want for our writings.


Lessons From a Book Fair (or two)

Some things I have learned from sitting at book fairs over the past few years that help to make them more successful. Or make them less painful anyway.

Bring snacks.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive partner or spouse, you are often alone at the table. When the event runs several hours (as most do) and over the lunch hour (as most do) you can’t go get a burger without potentially missing sales. So bring some simple snacks. Dried fruit, nuts, and power bars work well. Though most fairs provide access to some form of drink, it is a good idea to bring something with you. Again, while you’re off getting a coffee, who’s selling your book?

Dress for the weather (if the event is outdoor)

In July, I attended a fair in Pioneer Square, downtown Portland, Oregon. Portland had been sweltering for weeks under triple digit temperatures, so I dressed lightly and brought plenty of liquid. It rained for the first two hours of the event. It was chilly and my light dress shirt offered virtually no warmth. The same works in the opposite way too. Always bring fluid, hats, and sunscreen. Better to have it and not need it, than stand there shivering.

Be ready to answer “What is your book about?”

It is the most common question you will be asked. So be ready and able to answer it quickly and in a succinct manner. The public doesn’t want a treatise; they want a general guide. The professionals call this an “elevator pitch.” Think of riding an elevator when someone asks what your book is about. It should be no more than a sentence or two, providing the customer with everything they need to know, such as genre, setting, targeted age, and anything that might be objectionable. You need to be honest. If a person doesn’t like scary stories, don’t mislead them into buying your horror novel. Not only is it unprofessional, but you will anger them and they will tell everyone they know about it. Bad career move.

Be ready to explain the differences, if you have more than one book.

If you have more than one title, have an elevator pitch for each. But also have a brief sentence explaining the difference between them. In my particular case, I have a horror/fantasy trilogy, but my newest novel is a fairly mainstream detective/mystery novel.

Learn to Judge genuine interest

Like most retail endeavors, most of the people passing by the table are just browsing. Most of the time, when I’m in a bookstore, I’m browsing too. Unless I’m after a particular title, I’m just wandering through, scanning covers until something catches my interest. If the book seller starts hitting me with a hard sell, they are just going to chase me off. So let the browsers browse. Be friendly, but low key. When someone is interested, they will stop. They will ask questions, or read the blurb on the back cover. Then you can try and persuade them to buy.

Be approachable

The entire point of the book fair is that people can come down and meet the author and even have a conversation with them. You need to make that as easy as possible. Be the guy next door who happens to write, not the prima donna artiste. Even if it’s hard, make the customer believe you’re enjoying meeting them.

Have callback material

However good we are, however appealing our written works might be, almost no one can attend a fair with fifty or a hundred authors and by something from every author. Most cannot even afford to buy every title they find interesting. I know I certainly can’t. That’s why experienced authors have lots of marketing giveaways people can take home: bookmarks, postcards, magnets, stickers. Anything with your name and the title of the book can produce a sale next month, or for Christmas five months later. Make it as easy as possible for them to remember you.

Be willing to talk without a sale

Sometimes people come through a book fair for reasons other than to just buy a new book. Sometimes, they are aspiring writers who are hoping for some encouragement from you, one who is more accomplished. Sometimes, they are just interested in your process. Sometimes, your subject matter. So talk to them. It can be interesting. It passes the time, and it earns you good karma. (And it doesn’t hurt if they go home and tell their friends about this cool writer who was willing to spend fifteen minutes talking with them.)

Be patient

Anyone who has ever worked in any kind of retail trade knows one eternal truth. Customers never arrive in an orderly fashion, spread out over the available hours. They tend to come in waves, punctuated by periods of nearly nothing. The same holds for book fairs. There will be long stretches when no one comes by the table. That is to be expected. Many writers bring a novel along to read, or work on their next project in the down times. Others chat with the folks at the next table. But even if you haven’t sold anything for the first four hours, don’t give up. Don’t leave. That person who might think your book is perfect may not show up until ten minutes before the fair closes down. You need to still be there.

Be professional

This ties in to the patience part of this. You are a professional writer. Part of that means you honestly try to produce the best reading experience for the money you can. But there are other facets to being professional. You need to look professional. You don’t need to be wearing a tux, but you need to have not been wearing the same clothes for a week. You need to have showered and brushed your teeth (believe it or not, I have seen writers who haven’t figured this out). As a professional, you also need to be where you say you are going to be. If you advertise that you’ll be signing books from 11:00 am to 3:00pm, you need to be there and ready to sign books promptly at 11:00 and continue to be there until 3:00 or later. In the same vein, if you tell a book fair organizer that you will participate, participate. If an emergency does come up, contact the organizer and explain. They will understand and appreciate the notice. Those who simply do not show up brand themselves as amateurs and flakes.

Public Appearances are PR

Above all, remember that all public appearances—whether book fairs, signings, or readings—are public relations events. This is the chance for the public to the see the person behind the novel, or poetry, or history. Always keep that in mind and try to be the person you would like to see in your favorite author, if you had a chance to meet them.

Marketing, writing

Writing And the Meaning of Success

41jeDmIOnrL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]So, I’m home again from yet another book fair, this time one in Lincoln City, a five hour drive north of my hometown on the Oregon coast. It was fun. It was interesting. I met lots of interesting people, some of them fellow writers. I networked. Unfortunately, I also caught a head cold, probably because I tend to try and live off of coffee and no sleep during these things. Whatever.

Summer is traditionally the big book promotion season. It’s when most people are taking their vacations and looking for some free-time reading. People are traveling, looking for things to do. It is a perfect time for outdoor fairs and markets, whether they’re farmer’s markets or author/book fairs. The weather makes it possible (book fairs do not do well in rainy or snowy weather.)

Between Deception Island’s release in late May and now, I’ve participated in two of these book/author fairs and two readings where I was the sole or featured author. These events have reached as far south as Healdsburg, California (just north of San Fransisco) and as far north as Portland, Oregon. It’s called the ground game. It’s called getting out there and pitching the book to people.

It’s a lot of work. It cost a bit of time and a good portion of my money. Which brings up a serious and difficult question every published author must sooner or later answer: is the book a success?

Is Deception Island a successful novel? Has the first three months promoting the novel been successful?

Let’s say the novel is not a bestseller and despite my promotional efforts, most people in the English speaking world have never heard of it. Altogether, I estimate I have sold a little less than a hundred copies so far. It’s safe to say I am not growing rich.

So Deception Island is not a success. Or is it?

It seems like a simple question—success, or not—but that is deceptive. It depends on what you—the author—considers success.

Lit Hum @Lit_Hum posted an interesting view on twitter the other day: “We practice art inside capitalism, so it’s difficult to divorce our sense of success from commerce.”

Success is more than numbers on a balance sheet. We are selling books, novels, poetry, not widgets. Financial gain is not the sole gauge of how well we’re doing.

There are many different forms of success.

The simple fact that you exhibited the discipline to write and publish a book is a success. The fact that people who read your book like it is success. The fact that people who read and like your new book go out and buy your previous books is success. The fact that your book wins awards is success. The fact that people within the literary community (bookstores, arts organizations, libraries, etc.) are approaching you now, as often as you’re approaching them, is success. The fact that fellow writers and poets acknowledge and respect your abilities is success. And, of course, selling lots of books, being on the top of the Amazon bestsellers list, and receiving four figure royalty checks, is success.

So, while Deception Island is not yet a financial success, I do consider it and the promotional tour a success because many of the other types of success are happening. Most important in my estimation are the facts that people are liking Deception Island, that fellow writers respect my work, and—for the first time in my writing career—the literary community is beginning to seek me out.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to sell as many copies as I possibly can and I will continue to promote Deception Island as much as my budget will allow. Perhaps, sales will take off in the coming months. Anything is possible. And the Christmas buying season is rapidly approaching.

But the bottom line is that I already consider Deception Island a success. Now I’m working to build something lasting on that success.

That’s my plan anyway.