Marketing, Writing and Editing

8 Questions From A Book Launch

So, I held a “Book launch and reception” at my local public library last Thursday night. It was, by all relevant accounts, a success. More than twenty people attended, only one of whom is related to me. I read a passage from my new novel To Hemlock Run, gave away a gift certificate for our local bookstore, and answered several interesting questions from the audience.

Since I can’t share the homemade cookies, I thought I’d share some of the more interesting questions I was asked.

The passage you read (about sneaking through the night time woods on a deer trail) was so vivid and so realistic, how did you do that?

Well, I carefully chose specific sensory details—mainly of sound, temperature, and wetness—and used those to build the atmosphere. I then used specific incidents such as crossing a small stream and climbing over a fallen tree to add realism and give the reader the illusion of the passage of time.

Informing all of these choices were the memories I have of wandering around the neighborhood forests when I was a young teen. I still remember how those woods we knew as well as our own faces, became a different, alien, world when the sun went down. I tried to convey that faint sense of threat in the passage.

How do you plot out your novels? Do you know how they’re going to end before you start writing?

No. I almost never know how the story will end when I begin. It isn’t the most efficient means of writing a book-length work, but I generally start out with a character and put him (or her) into a problematic situation. Then I start asking questions. How will he react to this situation? Why has this situation occurred? What are the bad guys’ motivations? How do they conflict with the good guy’s intentions and go from there. I usually conceive of the final ending when I’m about three-quarters through the first draft.

Like I said, it isn’t the most efficient method of writing. Many writers work out the plot in an outline before they ever write a line of prose. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I want the first draft to be the first time I write the story. Besides, if a plot twist surprises me, it’s more likely to surprise the reader. Right?

How much do you read, on average?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve averaged fifty novels each year. But this year, I’m trying to slow myself down and read less, but better. I’m trying to alternate reading fun, genre-style novels with classic literature. So I read a Craig Johnson “Walt Longmire” detective novel (which I really enjoyed if you’re keeping track) and then read In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. Right now, I’ve just started Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woof.

Do you like the college prep reading lists?

I think there is a lot of great writing and great thinking in those lists. One could always gain something by read Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. But many of those titles can also be very challenging reads. You really have to work to read and understand James Joyce, Dante, or Chaucer. There’s a danger in making reading so difficult that it is now longer fun. Reading should always be fun. That’s why I’m trying to lighten my load by allowing myself to read some less challenging material.

What are you doing to promote your book?

I’m limited greatly by my budget, but I’m doing the reading tonight and will be at another reading next month. I have a Facebook page for the novel and another for myself and use those, as well as a handful of book-related groups. I am also listed on Goodreads.com and have two ads running, though they haven’t been very effective up to this point.

Next month, I hope to schedule a blog tour, which is the online version of the old book signing tour. For a fee (or a lot of work if you want to set it up yourself) you are set up with a number of book-related blogs. Depending on the blog, they will review the book (also posting the review to Amason and Goodreads), post an interview with the author, or feature a guest post by the author. Whichever they decide, it will increase the book’s visibility and introduce it to people I cannot otherwise reach.

Are you working on a sequel to this novel?

Not actively. Right now, I’m working on a serious of short stories I couldn’t work on over the past year because I was concentrating on writing the novel. But, that being said, I am working ideas about the next novel-length work.

I am also hesitant about diving too deep into a series with the same character. Most authors like series because they take away one of the toughest parts of the job: creating a whole new set of characters with individual tics, problems, and backstories. In a series, the main character (and many of the supporting characters) are already designed, ready to go.

The one problem with a series is, unless it is a murder/police/detective series set in a major city, it starts to stretch disbelief. They really have multiple murders every year in that quiet rural town in Nebraska? I want to avoid that.

How long have you been writing?

In one form or another, since I was in high school. I realized fairly early on that I was easily able to express myself through writing and initially intended to go into journalism as a career, doing my fiction on the side. I first went to University as a journalism student, but quickly realized there was way too much competition for the jobs available. So I turned to English literature and became completely unemployable.

But throughout it all, my long term goal has always been to write fiction: novels and short stories.

So how did you make a living in the mean time?

With whatever I could find. I worked construction for five years in Texas until the oil boom of the eighties crashed. I returned to Oregon and found myself working in restaurants, managing several fast food locations, before switching to full service restaurants, where I worked as a waiter, a cook, and manager.

In 2010, I was able to retire on disability because of deteriorating scoliosis in my back. Since then, I’ve writing as a full-time occupation.

At this point, we needed to wrap things up so the library staff could go home.

It was an interesting, engaging discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nearly as important, because of the flyers the library distributed around town and coverage in the local newspaper many people weren’t in the audience are now aware that I have written a new novel. Perhaps at some point, they will buy a copy.

Oh, I also sold two copies of To Hemlock Run after the event and one copy of Deception Island, the first novel in the Jason Reynolds series. I might have sold more but most of the people at the event already had a copy. They were showing support, which is important.

So, I would say the book launch was a success.

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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.

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Poetry, writing

A Question of Our Time

I am (almost exactly) halfway through the process of going over the initial proofs of my new novel. If you haven’t done this before, it is a very tedious, time-consuming process. Therefore, this week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 9th Annual Port Orford Poet’s Roundup, a day-long series of readings by poets and writers from Oregon’s south coast. It was very good. Each author/poet was given about ten minutes to read and many were very good. I took the opportunity to read a passage from the forthcoming novel.

The day was fun and impressive and the event unofficially marks the beginning of my personal book promotion season. There is only one problem.

No one attended.

Well, not exactly no one, the poets and authors were there, of course. But almost no one who wasn’t scheduled to read from their work attended. As far as the general public was concerned, it never happened. There was zero interest.

I’ve seen this phenomenon before. As an organizer of the South Coast Writers Conference, we have had a great deal of trouble getting more than perfunctory support from the local community. And the local bookstore has given up hosting book signings because, despite numerous posters, notices, and advertising in the local paper, no one ever showed up for them. It wasn’t worth their time or expense.

There seems to be zero local interest in any literary event anyone wants to hold. What I don’t understand is why.

Granted, these days most people aren’t readers, especially of poetry. But some are. It’s a minority, but a sizable minority. Why aren’t they interested in coming to listen to the local authors? Aren’t they a little curious what the writers are working on? Don’t they want to show some support to all the poets’ hard work?

The apparent answer is no. I still haven’t figured out why.

Maybe it has to do with the area I inhabit. It is quite honestly, a scarcely populated rural area. There is an arts community, but the artists are vastly outnumbered by folks fascinated by monster trucks. However, that cannot be the entire explanation, because even the minority interested in the arts don’t come out to these events.

Another possible explanation is that people don’t consider the written word as appropriate performance art. This is possible, though that implies people are disregarding a long, rich history of poets and writers delivering their work verbally, in readings.

Maybe it is a symptom of our modern age and mentality, our need for action and immediate gratification. Maybe the modern person, even the modern reader, does not feel attracted to the thought of sitting for even ten minutes, just listening to someone.

My brother suggested pairing the readings with something more likely to draw the public, like wine tastings. It’s not a bad suggestion, but kind of avoids the underlying question.

Maybe it’s always been this way. I don’t know.

Again, I don’t know. What I do know is how nice it would be if people would celebrate someone publishing their poem like they do scoring a touchdown.

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