Tuesday, April 15, 2014

High Concept: What Agents and Readers Want

If you’ve spent any time at all researching agents, publishers, and submissions guidelines, you’ve no doubt encountered one phrase that appears more than most: high concept.
What does it mean, exactly?

Let’s start with an example that I recently came across in, of all places, the thirty-second thumb-through I give the Costco magazine before I toss it in the trash.

The featured book was Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. According to the article, this novel has “resonated with readers worldwide.” It has also been nominated for one of the biggest literary prizes around, the Man Booker.

Ozeki had completed the fifth draft of this book and was getting ready to send it to her publisher when the 2011 tsunami hit Japan. Perhaps because her father is Japanese, her emotional response to the tsunami was so great that she decided to rewrite the novel yet again. In the new version, the one that not only made it into print but found both readership and acclaim, the sixteen-year-old protagonist decides to end her own life as soon as she finishes documenting the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. In the tsunami, the girl’s journal is swept away. It washes up on the coast of British Columbia, where it is discovered by a woman who becomes a second protagonist, drawn by the tale told in the journal, and concerned about the girl’s threatened suicide.

That’s high concept. Whether you care about suicidal sixteen-year-olds or Buddhist nuns or Japan is irrelevant. The set-up is irresistible: strangers drawn together by circumstance, the proverbial message in a bottle, evocative settings. You care even before you crack the cover. There’s much at stake, both overtly and lurking within the set-up.

You’re hooked.

Here, a few thoughts about the “high concept” premise, to apply to your work:

·         High concept goes beyond a unique topic or situation. Alien armadillos who fight gladiator style on top of skyscrapers—that’s unique, but it’s only high concept if the set-up makes us care about what happens and if readers can sense the story potential in complexities they feel compelled to explore. The premise need not be complicated, but the possibilities should be.
·         Let concepts evolve. (For more on this, see my post on first thoughts.) Be open. Of your premise, ask what else, and what else, and what else.
·         There’s much to be said for a concept that can be articulated in a sentence or two. A publisher’s salesperson or a reader recommending a book to a friend doesn’t have all day to explain. Early in the drafting stage, after I have a strong feel for how my book will unfold, I like to also draft some flap copy—a sentence or two that would entice a reader to buy or borrow my book. I do this for both fiction and non-fiction projects. If this flap copy isn’t irresistible, the concept likely needs to evolve.
·         Books come from where they will. You can’t force or impose a high concept. And keep in mind that, important as it may be, concept alone won’t make a book worthy. Without masterful development, a concept is only a concept.
·         Despite all that’s said here (and elsewhere), not everything you write will be—or needs to be—high concept. Alternative markets and readerships welcome other types of writing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Covers: We Need Your Help!

I'm excited to be working with author David Marusek on an “Alaska Sampler” aimed at expanding reader interest in Alaska-inspired books. The Sampler is an e-book collection of quality work by Alaska authors that we'll give away for free through Kobo and other online vendors. Included will be work from several fine Alaska authors: short stories, essays, excerpts from novels. The idea is to bundle Alaska-themed selections for readers to sample cost-free. 

I can’t wait to announce our author line-up—it’s awesome—but first, we need your help choosing a cover.

David came up with these two cover designs. I like them both. Which do you think is the best fit for this project? Which would convince you to click for a free download?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ready to Publish: The Galleys

From its earliest beginnings—voice, character, concept, scene—your book has grown into itself, from crappy first draft through revisions (lots of them) guided by astute readers and editors who understand what it takes for your book to stand out from the thousands that hit the market daily.

Of course, you’ve proofread. If you’re not a for-hire proofreader yourself, you’ve contracted with a professional proofreader, one who’s good—really good. (Subject for an upcoming post: I’ve noticed of late a rash of author services “professionals” who make basic mistakes in punctuation and grammar in high-traffic spots like their bios and email signatures.)

You place your manuscript, either through an agent or with a small press or with the smallest of small presses, which is to say yourself. Additional rounds of edits and proofing will follow. You’ll play a part in each.

The final round involves galleys, or proofs, which may also be ARCs (pronounced “arks"), which stands for Advance Reading Copies. If your book will be released in both print and digital formats, you should have galleys for both. Print galleys go to reviewers no less than five months in advance of the release date. The authors who’ve offered to endorse (“blurb”) your book will get galleys, too, ideally in whichever format they request.

The galleys also go to you as the author, for final proofing. If you’re under contract with a publisher other than yourself, there will generally be a cease-and-desist clause that limits what you can change at this point. Common language reads like this: “With the exception of errors of spelling, errors of printing, or errors introduced subsequent to the previously edited proof by someone other than yourself, you agree to pay the cost of all alterations to the page proof made by you that are in excess of ten percent of the original cost of composition.”

If you’re indie publishing, of course, you can change as much as you like. But at some point you have to call “uncle” and say you’re done.

The galley stage can be exciting. It’s your last dance with your manuscript before it waltzes into the world. Yes, if you’re both publisher and author, you can make changes after you press “publish.” But if you’ve rushed and pushed out something sloppy, with formatting and other errors, you’ll have earned nothing more than a spot on someone’s “No Read” list, and it’s hard to undo that kind of damage.

The galley stage can also be tedious. You’ve read your book more times than you care to count. And even after all of that (or maybe because of it), you feel a little blind to its flaws. Insecurity creeps in.

This week I’ve been going through the galleys for Cold Spell, a literary novel (for grownups, I always add, since I’ve also written for children). Here, tips for authors when they reach this part of the journey:

·         Though you feel over-familiar with the book, stay alert. No matter how many others have worked to spot them, errors still creep in. Only when proofing for the fourth printing of one of my novels did I notice the phrases “insulted coveralls.” I’m not sure how they became offended, but my character would have done better with coveralls that kept him warm.
·         As a writer, you’re always growing, yes? And you’re already thinking about (and with any luck, drafting) your next book? Then use your galley proofing as a chance to look objectively at your (almost) finished book, as a reader would, with the idea of crafting an even better one the next time around. Note which parts sing. You’ll want to do more of that. Observe your characters. What are there longings? Their struggles? Their conflicts? Their complexities? How does the reader discern all of that? What will keep your readers turning the pages?
·         In a similar way, I consider as I go through the galleys the changes I made based on input from early readers, both to remind myself of how helpful their comments were, and also to remind myself what I didn’t change and why. This sort of thinking—educators call it metacognition—helps strengthen your writing, and it improves your ability to see your work from multiple perspectives.
·         As I go through the galleys, I also think about outtakes—why I removed material, and what, if anything, I might do with it in the future. In revising Cold Spell, I took out several chapters written from the point of view of an older woman. She’s an intriguing character who might appear in other books. One or two of the chapters might be transformed into short stories. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Market Your Book: Working with Booksellers

I’ve written before about finding the right home for each book, and how sometimes a small press makes more sense for a particular project than a big one.

The same follow for distribution. Amazon is the Big Boy of connecting readers and books. But in all the buzz over algorithms and bots and rankings, let’s not forget the importance of independent bookshops, where actual human contact and word-of-mouth work quietly and effectively to connect readers with books they’ll love.

Don’t be that author who shows up with a bunch of books printed on CreateSpace and expects a bookseller to host a signing or take titles on consignment. That’s like showing up at a family-run restaurant with your bag of McDonald’s takeout and demanding a table where you can eat your French fries for free.

To build relationships with independent booksellers, you’ll need to make your books available through vendors other than Amazon. For e-books, that means foregoing KDP Select, or foregoing the program after a 90-day run or two, and uploading your book to https://www.kobo.com/writinglife.

In the same vein, you’ll want to have softcover (or hardcover) editions available from sources besides Amazon’s CreateSpace. Ingram’s Spark (for authors) and Lightning Source (for small presses) are affordable print-on-demand options if you’ve chosen not to warehouse a large inventory of your books. You’ll need an ISBN; these can be bought in batches from Bowker.

For the “tree book” editions, you’ll want to upload bibliographic information to IndieBound, which is maintained by the American Booksellers Association (ABA). My thanks to my fine local bookseller David Cheezum of Fireside Books for providing these instructions for authors:

1) Log in to IndieBound.org using your personal account.  If you don't have an account on IndieBound.org, create one at http://www.indiebound.org/join

2) Search for the 13 Digit ISBN (no spaces or hyphens) of the book to see:

        If it’s already listed in the database (go to 3c)
        if it needs to be added (go to 3a)
        if it's just missing a cover (3b)

3a) For missing books, go to: www.indiebound.org/addabook
3b) For missing cover art, navigate to: www.indiebound.org/addabook/cover
3c) To edit a book description, go to: www.indiebound.org/addabook/ISBN 

4) Enter your data, attach an image, and submit

5) Allow time for approval by someone at ABA.  You will receive an email when your image is approved.  Once approved, it can take up to 24 hours for your book cover to appear in search results and on IndieBound.org.

Once you’ve created indie access for your titles, be sure to link to Indiebound as well as Amazon from your website, newsletters, etc. You can even become an Indiebound Affiliate and receive a referral percentage from the sales generated by your links.

Now you’re ready to connect with indie booksellers in a way that builds positive, long-lasting relationships. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Writer’s Income: A Hard Look at the Facts

Source: Hugh Howey, "The 7K Report," authorearnings.com

Recently, I read an Associated Press story about how changes in health care laws have given workers a new sense of freedom, a way out of jobs they’ve stuck with primarily because they feared losing insurance benefits.

Two American workers were held up as examples of this phenomenon. Both plan to leave their day jobs in order to write. One is a 50-year-old IT guy who has spent his free time on a team that’s scripting a start-up web-based comedy series. The other is a 62-year-old nurse who, after quitting her job, plans to move to the West Coast and promote her self-published book by blogging, doing radio interviews, and speaking to groups.

Both writers are pleased that they’ll be able to replace the health insurance provided by their employers with plans priced at $400 to $650 per month. And I agree that’s a good thing. Where I worry is that they may be misinformed about the income they’ll earn as full-time writers.

Let me say first off that I’m all about pursuing your passions. One of the nicest things my son ever said to me was how much he admired me for doing what I truly love­­—making writing my career—even though I could make a lot more money doing something I truly hate.

Still,  no one wants their dream to turn to a nightmare. And one of the fastest ways for that to happen is to count on your dream for paying the bills, only to find that it can’t and it won’t.

After my first novel came out from a big publisher, my editor gave me this advice: Don’t quit your day job. She didn’t mean this as a reflection on my work—the book was doing fine—but rather as a cautionary note. At the time, the average author was making $5000 a year.

I was only a year from retiring; my hope was that I could live on my pension (an admittedly sweet deal that allowed me to retire after twenty years of teaching with full benefits, including medical coverage) and fulfill my dream of writing books. But a couple of royalty statements convinced me that my editor was right: It’s not easy to make a living off book sales.

When there’s a large gap between the life you’re living and the creative passion you hope to fulfill, it’s easy to get caught up in “if onlies.” If only I didn’t have this job, I could write a blog. Do radio interviews. Speak to groups. If only I did those things, which everyone says writers must do to sell books, I’d see a dramatic increase in sales, enough that I could live off the proceeds.


It really doesn’t happen like that.

Live your dream. Live your passion. But if that’s writing books, realize that very few published authors earn a living wage from the proceeds of book sales alone. I’ve never seen a statistic, but given the number of published authors (rising by the minute) and the challenges inherent in both kinds of publishing, indie and traditional, I’d ballpark it at maybe 2 percent.

Passion is among the very best reasons for writing books. But rarely do passion and profit intersect as fully as we wish. Most authors, regardless of how they’re published, either keep their day jobs or supplement their income from book sales with freelancing, pensions, investments, and the link.

At the risk of coming off as a dream-killer, I offer these considerations before you quit your day job:

·         Study the facts. Don’t Google “writer salaries”—what you’ll find are the easiest of writer salaries to report, those whose day jobs (technical writers, grant writers, journalists on payroll) involve writing. Instead, check out Hugh Howey’s recent author earnings report; the Guardian’s 2012 report on the earnings of “DIY” authors; NYT bestselling author Lynn Viehl’sreport on income from her book sales; and Chad Harbach’s recent book MFA vs. NYC—particularly the essays that describe how quickly authors burn through their six-figure advances. Among the interesting stats: only 800 authors earn $10,000 per year on the sales of their genre Kindle titles; half of self-published authors earn less than $500 from sales of their books; proceeds from sales from an NYT bestseller will nudge your family income above poverty level, but not by much.
·         Beware the echo chambers where writers talk up how they saw jumps in sales figures from doing this, that, and the other thing. It’s true that regardless of how you publish, you’ll have to work to promote your books. But promotion will not necessarily yield a significant, sustainable jump in sales. Promotion is mostly about the long haul, the slow building of your fan base and brand. To think that extra time for promotion will launch your slow-moving self-published title into the sort of sales that will allow you to quit your day job isn’t all that different from planning your retirement around winning a lottery—it could happen, but it’s not likely.
·         Recognize that few authors live on the proceeds from book sales alone. Most of us freelance, teach, do paid events, and the like in order to make ends meet. To live our dream, a lot of us forsake what was standard fare from our paycheck days: eating out, shopping, travel. I know published authors who choose to be homeless and who live without running water so they can afford to write.
·         Create a viable business plan based on conservative sales estimates. Consider the underlying economic principle of supply and demand. An estimated three thousand new books are published every day in the US. With e-publishing, few if any will ever go out of print. Awash in choices, what exactly will compel readers to buy your book from among the thousands and thousands of truly fine books flooding the market? Yours is brilliant. Unique. Okay. But a more brilliant, more unique title may well come out. Then what? Make sure you’re ready to launch your Plan B if sales don’t spool out as you’d hoped.
·         Delightful though it may be (there’s no work I prefer to writing), authoring is a tough way to make a living. And that’s if, like most authors, you’ll spin out several books in your lifetime. For a single book to be your ticket to financial freedom is extremely unlikely.

·         More time ≠ more productivity ≠ more sales—not in the direct proportions you’d expect, anyhow. Ask any author who has quit her day job to write.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring brings a Fresh Look (and a free book!)


The first day of spring. Here on Alaska's Hiland Mountain, it dawned with sunshine and fresh snow and a fine view of Mount McKinley.

With change in the air, there's no better time to unveil a fresh cover, or to offer this novel at no cost to all takers, in the Kindle edition.

That's right - to celebrate the changing of the seasons, we're offering A Distant Enemy free of charge, today and tomorrow, March 20 and 21.

About the book: In this remote corner of Alaska, survival’s no game. On the vast, wind-blown tundra, a simple mistake can mean death. But as the old ways slip away, anger pushes fourteen-year-old Joseph into a series of confrontations that pit him against an unforgiving wilderness.

“A gripping story” ~ Kirkus Reviews

Come have a read...it's on us!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Author Tips: How to Get Your Books into Libraries

If as an author your goal is to reach readers, you want your books to be in libraries. In fact, much of what happens in the new digital marketplace is a revamping of what libraries have been offering for ages: no-cost book sampling; a discovery point for readers to find books and authors they love; and book borrowing as one finds it in programs like Amazon Prime.

Librarians help readers discover books, but how do librarians themselves find the books they’ll acquire? Much depends on the type of library and the librarian’s role within the organization. From a session I attended at a recent conference, some general tips for authors and publishers:

·         Via web searches and telephone queries, find out who’s in charge of collection development/acquisitions at the libraries where you’d like to see your books. Invite these librarians to subscribe to your newsletter. (Need we say it? Don’t spam them.)
·         Besides the standard review journals (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal), librarians pay attention to book buzz on social media. They also use search engines to check the general chatter around a particular title.
·         Scheduling library events can be a great way to help librarians become familiar with your book. Keep in mind, though, that a library’s charged with serving the public, not selling your books. Therefore, your event should have a hook that will interest readers. Another suggestion: propose a multi-author event.
·         Check your metadata (everything about the book that’s not content). It must be precise and focused not merely on end readers, but on the people who are trying to get your book into the right places. Even something as simple as an unintended space in your metadata entry could mean your book won’t be found.
·         Make sure your book is entered properly in the Library of Congress. If your release is through a small publisher, the PCN system must be used (larger publishers use one called CIP). The PCN record can only be created before the book is produced. The Library of Congress number generated should then be added to the book’s copyright page. The resulting record is called a MARC record. Librarians can also create a MARC record once a book is released, but the process is cumbersome and errors may happen.
·         If you have other titles, you might also check the Worldcat database to find which libraries have them; these would be most likely to purchase a subsequent title.
·         Overall, the consensus of this panel was that the most effective methods for reaching librarians are the ones that cost only time. Aggregated fliers in which authors and publishers buy ad space are more likely to be overlooked than a newsletter from an author or small press that has cultivated a relationship with a particular librarian.
·         Write a good book. If anything about it is sloppy, it’s unlikely a librarian will want it in her collection.