Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Better Than "Used to Be" for Self-Publishers

by Stella Atrium

Last week a self-publisher complained to me that the lag-time between a GoodReads giveaway and posted fan reviews on Amazon was three weeks.  I turned away to hide my smirk.  I supposed it's true that we're so spoiled by the internet, we don't remember how it used to be. 

A decade ago I trusted a small publisher to produce a paperback fantasy novel I wrote. Turns out, he was really a printer masquerading as a publisher with no press release plan or distribution plan.  The weight fell on me to get the word out.

I did research and surfed the web for compatible sites and posted articles about writing and even a "glass bead game" that asked readers to buy the book.  This was before FaceBook in the days of listserv — remember listserv?

I attended sci-fi conventions and traveled to bookstores in the Chicagoland area and staged and attended author appearances.

I begged friends to lend support at my author appearance at the local and famous bookstore where the proprietor could boost my contacts inside the industry.  Except it rained cats-and-dogs that night and I felt sorry for the four friends who did make it to the event, late and drenched.

puzzleMy efforts went nowhere.  It used to be that a self-promoter expended time and treasure and never reached the intended audience. Listed are a few memories that are burned into my mind.

1)    Introvert at Tradeshow — Did you ever see a booth at a trade show inhabited by a painfully shy writer who spoke to three people the whole day?  I have.

2)    Author Appearance with No Fans — Did you ever see an author at Borders seated alone at a table with stacks of her books and a blank expression of defeat? I have.

3)    Retail Marketing to Bookstores — One writer told me he boosted sales by driving up the California coast visiting bookstores for a personal pitch to owners to place 4 books on the shelves of each stop. An E for effort, but the price of gasoline makes this adventure prohibitive — even if the retail stores are still there.  A hit-or-miss method at best.

4)    Book Signings at Conventions — Writers hate this duty and function like turtles out of the shell. I count Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Jordan in this number. Writers often drink to get past the dread, so they function like hungover shell-less turtles at the morning signing, drinking copious amount of water.bags

5)    Regional Conventions — Did you ever attend a regional convention where you negotiated a giveaway of your book as part of the "fan appreciation" bag, only to discover the 80 attendees preferred stories about zombies and were really there to get laid?  I have.

6)    Listings on Industry Websites — These were accomplished using a form with no personal contact and no acceptance of connected blogs or Amazon listings.  Some of these still hover online, static and aging and misleading. convention

7)    Fan Websites — These genre lovers accepted articles and shameless self-promotion to boost traffic by adding your fans.  Except your fans and hers together came to five, including your mother.

8)    Getting into the Pipeline — Used to be... All promotion was accomplished with paperbacks, so each event included shipping a case of forty books to the hotel that hosted the convention, and then shipping them home again. 

9)    Managing Remainders — Did you ever work with a printer who wanted to be certain the check cleared before he shipped the books, even at 40% off?  Did this same printer dump remainders on the market so they hung around for three years at $1.89 sold by resellers on Amazon?  I have. 

10)     Tardy Reviews -- Did you ever find a complimentary review of your novel three years later by a respected reviewer on LibraryThing who must have picked up a remainder book?  Guess what...  that happened to me too!computer

So don't bring your complaints here that GoodReads or Twitter or LibraryThing aren't working for you.  Industry connections today are accomplished without shipping cases of books to neighboring states, and without leaving the house. 

Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wild West Sales for Self-Publishers

by Stella Atrium

Before iTunes, Smashwords and 99¢ eBooks on Kindle, the rule of thumb for a performer who wanted to attract the attention of industry big wigs was to show that he had 1000 loyal fans. We are in the Wild West stage of selling books just now where anything goes and the lowest bidder wins the most traffic.  But traffic and fans aren't the same creature.

supergirlA fan tells friends about his favorite performer (like a review), plays the tunes at parties (like a book chat group), and wears a t-shirt with the band logo (like buying a paperback). A fan RETURNS for more products from the same performer and put down his money at retail prices.

I don't understand free ebooks on Kindle or Smashwords.  The writer spends all her life writing this book at the sacrifice of so many other activities and time with loved ones. Why devalue the product?

Besides, most self-published books on Smashwords are not-ready-for-prime-time first writings. Do you really want to be part of that group?

I'm not convinced Twitter traffic translates to sales, either. I see writers promoting each other, or cross-promoting with reviewers and handlers.  The writer is like a candidate surrounded by members of the press and cannot reach past the loud-talking reporters to find a voter willing to shake hands. store

Maybe the audience we are seeking aren't even among our followers on Twitter.

Years ago I fooled around in non-profit theater in Chicago where attendance was one-quarter house on a good night and theater groups lived for reviews in The Reader and grants from Thorten Foundation. The truth was that no matter how well produced the performance for acting, directing, or set direction — the audience for live theater was sparse, even at low ticket prices. A producer in this arena could not expect to see returns on her investment.

geekThe plethora of giveaways on sites trying to build loyalty (for the site, not for the writer) is similar to non-profit theater in Chicago. Except for a couple break-out sites that facilitate the reading community like GoodReads and LibraryThing, the audience just isn't there.

How does the self-publisher gain those 1000 "loyal fans" for convincing evidence that her writing rises above the pack and is worthy to become a book-of-the-month choice for reading clubs?

Reputation is everything. There are several levels of reputation, though. Listed are 10 types to avoid.

  1. The Situation — Anyone can show his navel and get others to look.  Be sure there's integrity and a reason the fan should return.
  2. Always free — If it's free, that means you couldn't get anybody to buy it. Have a little dignity.
  3. Trading favors — My back doesn't needs scratching. Because you asked, I know you haven't found true fans yet.
  4. Inflated claims — "If you liked Jurassic Park, you're gonna love my self-published book." I always turn away when the writer claims to be like some other writer.
  5. Five-star fan reviews on Amazon — Really? Were they posted by your mother?
  6. Twitter Blanket — the same note every two minutes announcing the launch of your book. Your followers already read the announcement. Nobody else sees it. Who are you talking to?
  7. Begs for reviews or retweets — Be patient, a quality reviewer will find a quality book soon enough. Building brand loyalty only happens over time.
  8. Writer blog tour — Sponsored by another writer in a chat room where only writers sign in.
  9. Salacious claims to increase traffic — Fool me once and "unfollow" is my next gesture.
  10. Purchasing followers — Get real!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Didn’t Make It Past Page Four:  Poor Writerly Choices for 99¢ eBooks

by Stella Atrium

I try to read books recommended by friends on GoodReads, although I’m continuously disappointed with eBooks for 99¢. Since I didn’t spend my lunch money on the book, it’s easier to set down the Kindle Fire and never return to that cover image on the bookshelf.

My genre is fantasy, and I’m forgiving for grammar when the magic or otherworld elements provide surprise; like Robin Hobb and dragon warming stations – too funny! But sometimes I don’t make it to the surprise, or even past page four. 

The reading has to go easy.  This is for fun, right?

1) Who is they, or he?  When I find myself tracking back through a dense description to identify who is speaking or acting, my patience evaporates.  There’s nothing wrong with repeating the character names.  If three characters are in dialogue, use their names!

2) Pronoun agreement counts.  “The soldiers reached for their swords” is correct.  “The hero wondered if their home was still intact” is incorrect.  This error signals that your text did not benefit from a round of proofreading. 

3) Leads in opening scene named Mark, Luke and John.  Name one Tres and another one Jessup.  Additionally, a smoldering look is NOT adequate character description.

4) Too many foreign names. Conversely, don’t hit the reader with the clan loyalties in the first chapter, like a pie in the face.  Dole out the structure of the society in layers like expensive truffles for nibbling.

5) Missing single point of view. The first chapter should be an action scene; readers expect that. Relate this scene from a single point of view, with a single emotive response – like fear or jealousy or expectation.  The other characters can display emotion in chapter two.

6) Physically impossible action. If the jetpack ignites underwater, I accept that.  If the jetpack propels the hero to the surface ahead of his bubble stream, I worry about getting the bends.

7) Clichés, and more clichés.  If you borrow from other writers twice before page four, you just lost me.  Think up your own magic tricks.

8) Sentence Variety.  “The hero entered the bright and warm room, carrying his heavy and dirty sword, looking for the funny and pretty heroine.”  I have a left and right brain headache now.  

9) Preteen with skills beyond her age.  Can a 14-year-old wield an 18-inch sword? Can she ride a horse into battle in full armor and win? 

10) Talking dragons, teenage vampires.  Embrace the next trend, not the previous trend that’s about to burn out (one hopes).

These are red flags that make the reader wonder about investing time in the next chapters of your story.  Respect the reader and don’t expect her to plow through these poor choices, even for 99¢. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Acts Like a Man: Female Leads in Fantasy

by Stella Atrium

I just finished the Tamir series by Lynn Flewelling, including The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Queen's Oracle.  The fantasy series addresses young girls as leaders and warriors, nurtured by hiding her true gender from mentors. The prince/princess has a mother who was murdered, along with female role models who appear to her as long dead relatives.  Living women in the series are cook, nanny, and two warriors also held back from advancement by gender.

The improbability of a 16-year-old girl leading an army into a decisive battle of civil war is glossed over by statements of medieval blood rights to the crown, a thin veneer at best. But, this is fantasy and caters to the age of the audience.

Laura CroftThe idea that a woman succeeds when she acts as a lone wolf feeds into characterization of a female protagonist who thinks like a man and acts like a man, exemplified by the Laura Croft character. She is trained for weapons and hand-to-hand combat.  She has analytical skills and adequate financial resources to put her ideas into action. She is equal to the men in a chase scene or a mono-a-mono contest.

Where are her sisters?  Where are her students or a mentor (besides Daddy) or women of equal strength and ambition? The men in The Tomb Raider stories all travel in groups. Why does she have no support system besides a computer geek who lives (apparently) in the lobby of her mansion?

Amazingly, the movie industry still debates whether the public will attend an action movie with a female lead, and this topic came up again with the Angelina Jolie movie Salt or Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart.

Another classic lone-woman-acts-like-a-man story is the Alien series with Sigourney WeaverSigourney Weaver. She has no kids or support group of women, but she has knowledge of weapons and electronics, and she solves problems the men also try to solve by using similar reasoning. The only true female in that series was the monster that was busy laying eggs where they might mature and expanding its species.

When I ask these questions about how female characters act, I'm often accused of looking at details that are peripheral to the story. The plot is about the actions of the hero to solve the problem presented in the inciting event and gain revenge on the bad guy. Nobody cares how his sister gets the laundry done.  One reviewer told me that nobody cares what the characters wear and I should stop describing wardrobe in detail.  I suppose that's why the men in these stories all dress alike and never get clean.

Indiana Jones' fedora in not an essential element of his character? Jones Junior's leather jacket (homage to The Wild One with a young Marlon Brando) was not a conscience choice?

The sidelines action is all the good stuff, forgotten or edited by the men and now available for us to exploit for unique point of view.

For example, in the movie Beckett, Peter O'Toole plays Henry Plantagenet and Richard Burton plays his chancellor (and archbishop) Beckett. There's a scene where Henry speaks to his wife Eleanor in harsh tones saying her bed was cold. She is depicted as bound by restrictive fashion and relegated to a sewing circle.

However, this wife of Henry is Eleanor of Aquitaine who was Henry's equal in matter of state, finance, property, and war. She was older than him, had more property than him, bore him 8 children, opened schools and hospitals, wrote law where women could own land, saw her kids married to the royal families throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, even in Russia, and was the mother of Richard the Lionhearted who she rescued from prison in Germany when she was 80 years old.  Why are there no movies about this peripheral material?

Eleanor is shown again in The Lion in Winter (played by Katherine Hepburn with Peter O'Toole still doing Henry) where she has spent 10 years in the Tower of London and is still his best sparring partner in matters of state, family, and finance.

Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter is a great example of how a strong woman character makes the male hero look better. When we place the female protagonist stage front-and-center, we may displace the male lead, but we strengthen him as well by providing dimension. If a female character is solving problems about how to manage the kids and live on a budget, the male character has contributed to those questions and must bring his (partial) answer to the theme.

Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defense of (Reference) Books

--By Stella Atrium

I require a handbook for students who are learning to write research papers.  The handbook is in new edition (and the publishers want to make the investment back) so the price is ~$75. Students say to me, "Can't I just find that information online?"

Well, yes and no. Dictionary

I remember my frustration as a kid when my mother tried to introduce me to the dictionary.  I was instructed to look in the area of how I thought the word was spelled. By running my finger down the page where several words were spelled similarly, I could find the one I needed.  The hard lesson opened a whole new world for me.  Look at all these words!

An online dictionary doesn't show all the words, only the one you know how to request.  Peripheral exploration is excluded.

There are quality websites for guiding academic writing (OWL from Purdue University, for example), and sites for building grammar (visit Grammar Girl).  Navigating to each of these sites requires that the student has formed a question and knows how to ask the question to get an appropriate answer. 

The operator words in today's world are find, submit, link, retweet, ask, learn-more, post. Without a focused question, the student doesn't reach the answer and, in the case of building grammar skills, easily gives up the search.
net words

But our whole lives are online, right?  In my neighborhood a four-story building that occupies a half-block stands empty where a Borders once operated.  Across the street a tiny California-style Apple store sells iPads and Kindles at long tables where nobody gets to sit down, not even the workers.  I guess old people are not their primary customers. Students live in the Apple world and don't miss the community where discourse is more than information.

Geek SquadHere's another example.  I took the new Kindle into the university Geek Squad to load wireless access and the email account.  The resident geek looked about twelve (truly wet behind the ears). Because the kindle is new to this service, he didn't know the protocols for completing the operation and started searching the wiki account that serves as a user's manual. 

Except he didn't know the problem, so he couldn't ask the right question to find the answer.

Therein lies the rub. A reference book compiles all the answers on a topic so searching leads to more than the "bit" that allows the user to go to the next screen.

I encourage students to invest in the handbook, keep it next to the computer, open it occasionally, and learn a whole new world of sentence structure, grammar, word usage, research formats, and online presentations.  These issue are compiled into a single source and students can move easily from one section to the next to devour the discipline and check back for a needed refresher not tied to solving an immediate problem. 

My pitch is that the handbook can be used throughout the college experience and becomes a helpmate for improving how the student presents herself using words.  This is a new concept to them. "Do you mean... look in a book more than once?"

It's not about operator words.  It's about worldview.