Sunday, April 8, 2012

New beginnings: A writer's view


As the French saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, to be fair to the French, Plus ça change, plus c' est la même chose.


So how does that pithy saying relate to readers, writers, and publishers? In my experience, as an author of nine stories under three different publishers, it means this: that all those parts of the writing business that have plagued, frustrated and delighted us at the beginning...well, all these elements are still there, albeit in slightly different forms.


The publishing industry never stops evolving if slowly, slowly, slowly. From an initial few big houses, to the many conglomerates of the 80’s and 90’s, and to the multitude of small publishers we have now, publishing has moved along. From having a handful of books come out a year, to e-publishing and self-publishing every story that is written, the shelves are still filled. The big publishers have been slow to accept electronic changes, but then they were slow to accept Indie publishers, too. Their’s has been a grudging acknowledgement, if not acceptance, that yes, the times they are a’changing.


The PR of the business has gone from the invention of the book tour (by a Harpercollins editor who can’t remember why she thought it was such a great idea) to blog tours online and every single venue in between. As the number of bookstores decline, so do the book signings, which were a mixed blessing, at best, I think—an expenditure of time and money for a very iffy outcome.


Mystery stories themselves have evolved from the traditional to what I call the “themed” series’s with recipes and knitting instructions; from police procedurals and village cozies to dystopian plots and supernatural protagonists. All of these are still labeled mysteries and it’s up to the reader to find the stories that fill their needs.


Distribution is in flux. As online choices grow (even beyond Amazon.com), there are more ways to advertise our book, but, still, no one can say if these increased venues actually create more sales and more readers. With one of my books that had really lovely preorder numbers, I hired a PR person. She had me doing signings and talks everywhere. She advertised. She did it all. Bottom line was there just a few more sales than the original preorder numbers. It was a tremenous amount of work and time spent for little advancement, sales wise.


Ahh, that bottom line. For the fact remains that there is no one foolproof method to get someone to buy a book. I’ve been at panels where an in-your-face author actually hands a book to an inquiring reader and then I’ve watched as this reluctant reader quietly puts the book back down on the pile and sneaks away, bookless. No one has figured out what actually sways the buyer. Agents and editors like to follow trends of “best or better sellers,” but these trends have a short life span. By the time the copycat book is written, generally the hot trend is over. No wonder agents and editors get so frustrated. Perhaps it’s the cover, the back copy, the reviewer’s blurbs or the author’s reputation that cinches the sale. No one knows for certain.


What has stayed the same in our business is that it’s still a whopping 5% of writers who make plenty of money from their work. And often there are the same names, too, year after year. The rest of us count the pennies we make, do our writing, try to advertise our works in various venues, and hope for the best. We don’t know what works to sell, but we might get lucky! To end with another quotation (this from the English poet Alexander Pope) Hope springs eternal, and that’s something all of us writers understand. Maybe this new story we’ve sweated so hard over will be our “breakout” book! Hope is what keeps us doing what we love to do, writing our stories.


Kit

www.kitsloane.net


12 comments:

Patricia Gligor said...

Kit,
I really enjoyed your post.
Sometimes, I wish I could look into a crystal ball to see what the best promotional tactics will be for my novel. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on the subject.
Today, my publisher suggested that I set up a table at a few local church festivals. I like that idea and I'm going to look into it.
As you wrote, hope springs eternal!

William Doonan said...

Kit,

I feel your frustration. Book trailers were the rage recently, but now nearly everyone seems to think they're a waste of time. I think we need a new model for how books are sold. What if there was a clearinghouse website that offered ad space in each and every book sold or e-book downloaded? You could sell the back cover, for example. Then the book can make its money on revenue rather than price, like most newspapers used to. So instead of selling the book for $15.95, which is the retail price for my archaeological mystery - American Caliphate - it might just cost only about a dollar. Any thoughts?

William Doonan
www.themummiesofblogspace9.com

C.K.Crigger said...

Excellent post, Kit, and so true. I know I can't fathom how to promote and sell books. Sometimes what seems to be the best opportunity fizzles like a match in the rain. Sometimes it seems everything I try only ends up costing me more money. And yet...and yet, I can't stop writing my stories.

I hope if anyone ever invents a decent sales model that s/he'll let us all know.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I do best hand selling at festivals and fairs--but also do well when I give a talk at a library or some place similar.

I'm in the middle of a blog tour now, have no idea how if it will results in sale but I've had a lot of fun with it.

This time I wrote something very different for each blog and have a different picture of myself on each one. The blog hosts are varied so it's been fun.

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Kit Sloane said...

As Marilyn's post says, it's really best, in my humble opinion, to do those things for PR that are enjoyable to you. After all, it's our money and time being spent. What works for one is not a size fits all. Trial and error often shows what works for each of us. Wish there was a magic success formula, but there isn't.

K.

BillieJohn said...

This is always a topical subject here! While it is sometimes difficult to see what works, it is always clear that DOING NOTHING rarely works! We have to keep in mind that we are competing for BOTH the reader's discretionary money AND a chunk of his leisure time, two of most people's most precious resources. In uncertain economic times, these are serious concerns.
Of course, when compared to the price of a movie and popcorn or one of those fancy game devices, it seems to me a book offers pretty good value!

But on the topic of "what can we do", I think the answer is plenty! Our world today offers a stunning array of possibilities, and I am totally convinced there is something for everyone, regardless of constraints of time, budget, mobility.

I recently had a discussion with an author who felt his royalty report was totally wrong and I had omitted many sales. I always check the reports carefully when I get this comment, since that possibility always exists. If I made an error I certainly want it to be corrected. In this case, however, I found no error. So, I hopped on to Amazon.com to be sure the listing was showing correctly...it was, but I noticed the author was not set up in Author Central! A free feature from the world's biggest online retailer....and ...nada! Next, I Googled the author...and no posting came up after Oct-Nov 2011...four plus months earlier! The author had no blog, and Blogspot is free!

You get the point, I am sure! The outreach here seemed minimal.

By now I was on a mission, so I went back the the Marketing Questionnaire completed in the beginning of our relationship--just to see what the author was considering at that moment, did it happen? Might it happen? Turns out, this was a very well-done MQ, filled with lots of ideas for promotional activities. However, it seemed to me that they never got "off the page" and "onto the stage".

So, I will wrap up with two thoughts:

1. The MQ should be an active part of your promotional planning. Keep it handy, make notes on it, add this, scratch that.

2. And I cannot say this enough: PLAN OUT A YEAR! Every couple of months, add a couple of months to your plan. If you share these plans with us, all the better. Often we can blend that information into things we are thinking, seeing, opportunities that come our way. And it makes it handy to send out a pitch or a media package with some attractive elements.

Many things have a long ramp up. And I can assure you that OTP is much more likely to be able to help if we have some advance time. OTP is one of a few small presses that has staff dedicated to promotions...take advantage of it!

Yes, promotion can be the eternal challenge...but if we work together, we can be the solution!

Billie Johnson
Publisher

Sunny Frazier said...

Doesn't anybody get it that you have to be a "personality" to attract people who become fans? Writing a good book is simply not enough anymore. As much as some might not like their "art" to be exposed to commercialism, it's a fact of life. Even major actors go on talk shows to stump for their movies. What makes us think we're better than this?

I've also been reading lately something that I think has been in the back of my mind for awhile. Money is hard to make just by writing and selling books. It's a smart author that can use their writing as a springboard to connected activities. Based on my track record as a contest winner, I began lecturing on writing short stories. Because I came up with the Posse idea, I get asked to speak on marketing and promotion. By volunteering to help Billie with acquisitions I now get asked to speak on publishing. All of these side jobs rake in more money than book sales.

Might want to look at the bigger picture and your role in it.

Sunny Frazier said...

Doesn't anybody get it that you have to be a "personality" to attract people who become fans? Writing a good book is simply not enough anymore. As much as some might not like their "art" to be exposed to commercialism, it's a fact of life. Even major actors go on talk shows to stump for their movies. What makes us think we're better than this?

I've also been reading lately something that I think has been in the back of my mind for awhile. Money is hard to make just by writing and selling books. It's a smart author that can use their writing as a springboard to connected activities. Based on my track record as a contest winner, I began lecturing on writing short stories. Because I came up with the Posse idea, I get asked to speak on marketing and promotion. By volunteering to help Billie with acquisitions I now get asked to speak on publishing. All of these side jobs rake in more money than book sales.

Might want to look at the bigger picture and your role in it.

Kit Sloane said...

Actually, Sunny, I've never heard an author complain about "going commercial." It's the time and expense required doing this that I've heard murmurs about. Plus, it'd be something if a good "personality" could attract readers— a sort of commercial magnet—but I still think it's the story that counts in the long run. A lot of good writers are shy. It goes with the territory. We/they do what we can about this apparent flaw. I love doing lectures, but have severe stage fright beforehand. I really think most of us do the best we can.

Sunny Frazier said...

I give lectures and many writers are offended that I talk about marketing and actually making money from writing. They are the ones who want to be "artists."

As for personality being a reason for buying a book, I do it all the time. I hear someone on a panel and love their personality or talk and buy the book, hoping for the same. Or, I like the author as a friend and buy the book, even if I don't like their writing. How can we judge by story without reading it? Most of us buy books because of the cover and the blurbs. Maybe I'm easily swayed, but a good personality will make me part with my money.

Shalanna said...

A salesperson sells herself. That was the big secret we discovered when we attended "The Science of Selling," a seminar paid for by a company I once worked for. First you create your "brand" (you write knitting mysteries or paranormal stories with vampires or funny mysteries), and then you create the "need" for it in your customer, but the way you make your customer like the product is that you charm the customer with YOURSELF if you can. The good feelings that the customer has towards you will transfer toward the brand and toward your product.

Sounds horrible, doesn't it? But we are salesmen when it comes to promoting our books. It's tougher because books are not widgets. We go on panels or booksignings and give talks because we hope that readers will feel connected and want to read something we've produced. A year of touring the countryside to speak and to charm/entertain as many people as you can cannot possibly hurt your sales. "There's no such thing as BAD publicity."

I have to add, though, that we must first be artists. How else can we produce a work that makes a reader think, that teaches and entertains and informs, and that gives insight into some aspect of the eternal human condition? And all while making readers laugh, cry, and share in the emotional arc of whichever character(s) they identify with or are fascinated by. The artist's first job is to write, or else there won't be anything to sell. If the book doesn't measure up or leaves a hollow feeling in the reader, you will lose that repeat business. So it's a delicate balance. Best to be a character like Vonnegut who could write AND speak to adoring crowds.

Yes, it's going to take up your life. But if it's your destiny to teach through your writing and speaking . . . then that's what it's for!