Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”

December 17, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

What’s New about “Faith Happenings” (a guest blog)

December 12, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

One of the key questions everyone is asking throughout publishing is, “How do consumers find out about books in order make a buying decision?” They used to wander the aisles at bookstores and make that impulse buy. With CBA stores down to about 1000 (from nearly 6500 when I first started as an agent), that’s not happening to any great degree. Some publishers are starting their own direct-to-consumer etail sites. But will a consumer go to 20 different sites to find products? Would you? Will Goodreads or Amazon service the less-than-avid reader to get them to find and buy books? Not likely. Can authors and their friends Tweet, Facebook and blog ENOUGH to find anyone but their own tribes to market to over and over again? Most authors know the answer to that one. All of this is part of the puzzle to create awareness and move books, but will it be enough over time to move the needle on our sales numbers as retail continues to decrease and the noise on the web continues to increase?

Greg Johnson, a friend and colleague of mine for nearly 20 years, has taken a bold move to help authors (traditional and indy), speakers, bloggers… get noticed. He’s started a new “one-stop resource for people of faith” called www.faithhappenings.com. It’s a first-of-its-kind local and national resource. It has area events (speakers, concerts, author events, fundraisers); serving opportunities; area church and ministry listings; camps, schools, family fun, marriage getaways. Basically, Greg says anything that is “soul-, marriage-, parenting- and church-enriching can be on our site.”

It just launched in June, so out of the 454 local websites active, only about 20 have a broad array of local content. But they ALL have national content like books, music, video, etc. How will it help authors, speakers and bloggers? Um, wow. Here’s his list:

  • When people sign up (free to do so), they can select which categories of books (traditional and indie) to get weekly notices about. They have about 70 different book categories people can sign up for so they never miss a new release in a category they’re interested in. Fiction, nonfiction, kids, teens, leaders. The site does the same for for video and music in a dozen or more categories.
  • You can also sign up for events, so if you’re a speaker and you want to be on the local calendar so people in the area know about your event, people have one website to come to in order to find out about you as a speaker, as well as your events. With the loss of announcements in local newspapers, this feature alone will be a huge benefit to a local area.
  • And what about a book signing that no one but an author’s friends ever hear about? Greg’s philosophy is if someone is doing something Kingdom-related for free, they can have his space and membership list for free. That means, he says, ANY author event, like a book signing, reading, ACFW chapter meeting (or the like), or free workshop CAN ALL BE POSTED LOCALLY FOR FREE. It goes on the Area Calendar for that specific area and people can see it at any point (yes, even months out). He has developed this quick and easy template system for people to post their events. If it’s a paid event or an offering taken, there is a small fee ($50). Monthly or yearly low-cost membership-type groups are counted as free.
  • If you are a speaker and want to post yourself locally as someone churches/ministries or women’s/men’s/student groups could call on to speak, then you list yourself and it goes in the “People You Need” section. They also have “regional speakers” who can be listed in several areas within driving distance. The goal: Get more speaking gigs closer to home. There is a small cost for this, but much less than what you would earn from one speaking gig.
  • You can post your backlist books and independently published books in up to 3 different genres. For example: if you are a contemporary romance novelist and your book is on FaithHappenings, everyone who has requested this genre gets an email about it. All books are linked back to etail sites for easy purchase. And books stay on site in up to three genres… forever.
  • FaithHappenings wants to be a clearinghouse for blogs in 15+ different categories. So if you’re a consistent blogger and want to get noticed, this will be a great way to find new readers who may never have heard about you. The site also does a “Featured Blogger” on the home page that runs for 3 days (small fee to be featured).
  • On the Home Page, they are doing “Featured Resources of the Day.” So if your book is an ebook or print special, you can announce it so those who request to get this feature in their inbox will know when your book goes on special.

For those authors/speakers/bloggers who want to post in these areas above, yes, they will bundle services together at a substantial discount. The discounts range from 50% to 70%, with some variables.

The tagline for this site is “Your Complete, Tailored, Faith Resource,” but Greg also describes this new resource as a “Kingdom Christian CitySearch/Craigslist/Google.” The mission is to “To inform, enrich, inspire, and mobilize individual believers/churches and to enhance the unity of the local Christian Community to better serve the people in their local areas and the world.” Obviously, they need to expand into hundreds of other areas if they want to build a brand and make an impact. And they have a plan to do so.

My advice is to check out the site in your local area, check into how to become a member (they are even giving away 20 free music downloads and a free audiobook just for signing up), create a profile, look around and see if you like it. Greg promises the site is a “politics free zone” (he says, “Others have that mission”) and it fits a broad theological group.

While I’m certain the site is not perfect in every way—there are thousands of moving parts in it—this is a bold and needed endeavor as we see an author/publisher’s ability to find readers becoming increasingly difficult. And like any national website, it will get better as time goes on. Greg’s vision is to serve people locally so they will find our books and ministries.

How else can you benefit from this website? Briefly, here is the list Greg gave me:

  1. Become an Affiliate Partner: Authors who put the FaithHappenings widget on the site to help increase membership numbers can earn points that will pay cash or double their value in going against paid items on his site. If you like the site and believe in the mission, this would be worth checking into. More info is listed in the black bar across the bottom of the Home Page. If you have questions, he says to email herringshaw@faithhappenings.com.
  2. Work part-time with FaithHappenings: If you or someone you know is in need of some income, he is hiring commissioned customer service and sales people called “Community Associates” to build membership and present the site to the 35 or so different types of vendors who pay to be on their local site. You’d go to the “Work for us” link at the bottom of the Home Page to see if you’d qualify. Email hofer@faithhappenings.com if you have any questions.
  3. Create Content to PR Your book: They are looking for consistent bloggers and devotional writers in several areas: women, men, pastors, students. They aren’t paying yet for this, but they will trade some of the other above services for content (that you keep ownership of). Again, email Casey if you would like a list of what they are still looking for. They are open to using older content you might have in your archives.

If you have other specific questions, you can email Greg at greg.johnson@faithhappenings.com.

Posted in Current Affairs | 1 Comment »

Thursdays with Amanda: 5 Author Marketing Books That Won’t Disappoint

December 11, 2014 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Need author-y gift ideas for yourself or your friends? How about gifting some marketing help?!

No, I’m not talking about buying your writer friends a phone chat with a publicist or sending them an AdSense gift card. I’m talking about books! Marketing books, to be exact. The kinds of books that every author wants, because they know them to be helpful, but may not want to shell out money for (because come on…if they’re going to choose between the latest novel from their favorite author or a book that tells them how to work harder, the choice is obvious).

Here are five books that I’d recommend gifting to your author friends or yourself:

1. The Extroverted Writer: An Authors Guide to Marketing and Building a Platform by Amanda Luedeke (Currently $8.09 for a print copy from Amazon and $2.99 for digital)

I figured I’d get my book out of the way, since OBVIOUSLY I’m going to include it in this list. But before you brush this off as shameless self-promotion (which it is), take a look at the reviews. I don’t know many of those people. I didn’t solicit their two cents. But feedback has been very positive! I like books that are practical and fun, and that’s what I tried to write.

 

2. The Naked Truth about Self-Publishing by various NYT bestselling authors (Currently $11.11 for a print copy from Amazon and $4.99 for digital)

I haven’t read the whole thing, but from what I have read, I love how chock-full it is of links, ideas, tips, and more. Indie authors are known for sharing everything they know about the business, and this book proves that. While they write with indie authors in mind, most of the content is applicable for any writer.

 

3. The Tricked-Out Toolbox: Promotion and Marketing Tools Every Writer Needs by Tonya Kappes & Melissa Bourbon Ramirez (Currently $13.08 for a print copy from Amazon and $4.99 for digital)

Another book packed with information you can take and use immediately. A bit brief in places that could use more detail and examples, but overall a great resource.

 

4. The Author’s Guide to Marketing: Make a Plan that Attracts More Readers and Sells More Books by Beth Jusino (Currently $11.24 for a print copy from Amazon and $4.99 for digital)

This book has a bit more theory than others on this list, but it has a great section on marketing plans near the back. When I say “great” I mean “Complete with a worksheet and everything!” Beth has been in the industry awhile, as an agent, among other things. So she has a great perspective.

 

5. Connections: Social Media and Networking Techniques for Writers by Edie Melson (Currently $14.99 for a print copy from Amazon and $6.99 for digital)

Another great book with tools you can USE…and its focus is social media!! Many know Edie from her blog, and if you’re familiar with her knack for online marketing, then it follows that this book is worth it. Numerous topics with do’s and don’ts included, Edie really did her best to cover the gamut of social media marketing.

Which of these books do YOU want for Christmas? Or maybe there’s a book you want that I didn’t list? 

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 2 Comments »

Choose Your Own Final Draft: Applying Reader Feedback

December 9, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)

So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!

  • Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
  • Create a plan for whose feedback you’ll apply in which area. For example, if you gave your manuscript to three readers and you know one of them in particular has a gift for dialogue, look at what that reader had to say about your dialogue before you look at anyone else’s dialogue notes, . Obviously, you can get good advice from more than one source, but if you don’t want to spend your life in re-writes, starting with the “expert” advice in a specific category can be a good strategy for making the most of your editing time.
  • When readers give conflicting advice, go with your instincts (within reason). It’s one thing to have had twelve different readers tell you a scene isn’t working, or that your dialogue is unnatural, or that a plot point is unclear, but if one or two readers have an opinion that isn’t shared by another, you probably don’t have to agonize over who’s “right.” Which feedback makes the most sense to you? Which reader seems to know you better as a writer/really “gets” your book? Let your instincts drive editing decisions and be okay with having made the “right for you” decision instead of the “objectively, mathematically right” decision.
  • If a piece of feedback doesn’t make sense to you, and you’ve only gotten it from one source, throw it out. Like I’ve said before, actual problems with your manuscript will probably be caught by more than one quality reader, so feedback you get multiple times probably merits consideration, but even from an intelligent, articulate critique partner, you will occasionally hear a suggestion or a piece of criticism that just doesn’t make sense to you or that you strongly disagree with, and that’s okay. Don’t stress out over it; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to some major flaw in your work or that you’re an arrogant jerk (though you should probably double-check with someone, just to be sure), it just means that something that makes perfect sense to you doesn’t to one individual reader. Guess what? That’s going to happen as many times as the number of people who read your book. Either learn how to be okay with the fact that not everyone will perfectly understand every artistic choice you make, or prepare yourself for an exhausting career.

What strategies have you adopted for deciding when to apply reader feedback? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Ask the Agent: How do I determine page count?

December 8, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I got this question in my in-box: “An agent just requested my novel proposal, and asked about the word count. I told him it’s roughly 150,000 words, but that I’ll be cutting it to perhaps 120,000 by the time I’m done. He asked me how many pages it is… But is there an appropriate way to estimate a book’s size?”
Sure there is. The rule of thumb with most publishers is to average about 300 words per page. So a 100,000-word novel will run about 300 pages. (That’s not exactly true, but it’s a good general guideline.)
That said, let me speak to a couple other things you mentioned…
First, while it could generally be said that most books run between 240 and 300 pages, most NOVELS tend to run toward the longer side. Frankly, nobody is buying 40,000-word novels. The shortest that routinely gets contracted is the category romance, which runs about 55,000 words. Historical romances at Harlequin will run to 75,000 words, but everywhere else they’re longer. Most stand-alone novels run between 80,000 and 95,000 words. And now we’re seeing some publishers produce book that run from 100,000 to 120,000 words.
I frequently get authors sending me 150,000 word novels (they always seem to be scifi & fantasy writers, who must all be longwinded), and once received a 180,000-word tome. Could it get published? Maybe. Occasionally somebody puts out a huge novel on a chunk of dead trees, but it’s rare. My thought? Unless you’re writing for a category publisher, shoot for the 90,000 word mark with your novel. People in a bad economy want value for their money — which means a big, thick book for their cash.
Second, while most books from new authors tend to be shorter, that’s not a hard and fast rule. When I was an associate publisher with Time-Warner, we released Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN, which was a huge book… and, to repeat a story I’ve told before, it was the very first time a book from a debut novelist started out at #1 on the New York Times list. My advice? Instead of thinking “I need to keep it short,” think “I need to write a great book,” then get all the help you can to make it a great book.
Third, remember that most books are still created in signatures – that is, in 16-page blocks of text. (You can see these by looking at the top of any book — a group of pages that are folded together.) That means if you count the pages in the front (the half title, the title page, the copyright page, the acknowledgements page, etc), add the numbered pages of the book, then include any blank pages in the back, they will add up to a multiple of 16. And if there are a bunch of blank pages in the book, the publisher is frustrated because they are paying for pages in a signature they didn’t have to use. In today’s economy I think it’s tough to sell any book short of ten signatures (160 pages). And it’s tough to bind any book longer than twenty signatures (320 pages). If you generally keep your word count between those, you should be okay.
And fourth… the agent asked how many pages it was? Really? Nobody cares anymore how many pages your manuscript is. With a few clicks the editor can bump up the font or increase the leading to make it longer, or she can reduce the margins and shrink the font to make it shorter. Nobody really cares much about page count these days — it’s word count that matters.
By the way, do you know who came up with the notion of the signature? Johannes Gutenberg — the same guy who came up with movable type. He was the one who figured out it was cost-effective to take one large sheet of paper, print pages in various positions, then fold it four times to create a 16-page section of a book. Printers still produce books that way, using 16-page signatures. That’s why every good editor can rattle off the correct page counts — 160, 176, 192, 208, 224, 240, 256, 272, 288, or 304 pages.

Lots of questions have come in to the Ask the Agent section. I’ll get to a bunch of them over the next month!

What questions have you always wanted to ask an agent? 

Posted in The Business of Writing | 1 Comment »

So… what’s up with the Christian Writers Guild?

December 5, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Recently the Christian Writers Guild has been much in the news. I’ve heard rumors about problems and threats; there have been questions about new leadership and new directions; and then we got news that the whole thing was being shut down. It seemed odd, since the Guild was purchased and funded by mega-selling author Jerry Jenkins, who wrote the Left Behind series and sold more than seventy million books — at the time it was the best-selling fiction series in history, later eclipsed by Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and, um, Fifty Shades of Grey (proving that H.L. Mencken was right).

Jerry is not a friend, but he’s certainly a friendly acquaintance (I worked at the agency that represented the Left Behind books), and I knew he had invested his own money into the CWG, and had really built it up. Their annual conference was very good, they were moving into publishing, and for a long time I couldn’t go to speak anywhere without running into writers who had been mentored through their excellent writer training system. So I asked Dr. Dennis Hensley, who is Chairman of the Professional Writing Program at Taylor University, and a longtime insider at CWG, if he could tell me what was happening with them closing up shop. His response follows…
====================================

I have been a close friend and business associate of Jerry B. Jenkins for more than 30 years. During that time I have observed how he and his wife Dianna have anonymously, humbly, and graciously used their personal funds to provide major support for worthy efforts. They have bought automobiles for missionaries, funded college scholarships for needy students, underwritten building projects in third world countries, and provided jobs for writers, editors, and teachers.

A mission close to Jerry’s heart for many years has been to develop a new generation of competent writers who can share the Christian worldview by way of journalism, fiction, social platform outreach, and multi-media communication. To that end Jerry has opened doors on numerous fronts. He bought the Christian Writers Guild from Norm Rohrer 15 years ago and modernized all the correspondence courses for training by way of computerized distance learning. He authorized the creation of new courses, organized a staff of experienced teachers and mentors to work with the online students, and even made arrangements for certain of these courses to qualify for college credits. Additionally, he initiated the annual Writing for the Soul Conference in Colorado Springs, which welcomed participants to hear leading authors and editors give keynote addresses, conduct seminars and workshops, and provide one-on-one manuscript assessment sessions. Furthermore, Jerry took over ownership and management of the annual Christian Writers Market Guide, making sure that freelance writers would have a volume of current marketing information related to magazines, newspapers, online periodicals, and book publishers. And, on top of all this, Jerry himself frequently accepted invitations to speak at writer’s conferences, colleges, universities, retreats, and conventions nationwide, where he would share his knowledge and experience about aspects of professional writing.

In all this, Jerry never made one penny of profit. For a fact, he expended more than three million dollars of personal money just to provide all these various services and opportunities to developing writers. And that does not take into account the hundreds of hours he spent managing CWG and its off-shoot operations, all of which were unpaid ventures for Jerry.

At the start of 2014, Jerry shared with several of his close friends and business associates that he was ready to return to his primary occupation and calling, that of full-time writing. However, it was his hope that the work and mission of Christian Writers Guild would continue. He took on a partner and was indemnified against financial responsibility for new endeavors by CWG, but he granted permission for his name to be used as the new partner segued into total ownership and management.

It is no secret that a host of inquiries and complaints have arisen related to CWG’s management since Jerry stepped out of his leadership role. I am not privy to those specific matters, only to say that I am absolutely confident that Jerry B. Jenkins, himself, has never – never!—shortchanged or cheated anyone. He is honest, fair, and trustworthy in all he does. If anything, he and Dianna are overly generous in their business dealings. Thus, my personal opinion is that any complaints that have arisen regarding problems at CWG in 2014 cannot be laid at Jerry’s feet. Being the exemplary man he is, Jerry has reinserted himself into the business side of the Guild to insure that it is closed with fidelity and honor. He has pledged that all students will be able to complete their courses and all members will get the full benefits of their memberships. To say that this is a magnanimous gesture would be an understatement. Integrity and Jerry B. Jenkins are synonymous in my dictionary.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley

Posted in Current Affairs | 23 Comments »

Thursdays with Amanda: 5 Steps to Create an Author Brand

December 4, 2014 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

literary agentAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The past few Thursdays we’ve been talking about creating an author brand. The main points of the posts have been:

1. Your books are not your brand. YOU are your brand. Your brand infuses your books and not the other way around.

2. You can be the one to determine what your brand is.

3. If you don’t determine your brand, others will do it for you…and you probably won’t like the result (after all, most of us want to be known for more than physical traits such as “blond” or “tall” or “old” or … you get the picture).

We touched on a few of the questions that you need to ask in order to discover what kind of an author brand will work for you, such as:

– What are my hobbies?

– What is my personality? Am I sassy? Contemplative? Old-fashioned? Radical?

– In what areas am I an expert? What are things that I know more of or do better than others?

– What life experiences have I had that stand out?

Once you’ve identified what kind of a brand you want to give yourself, how do you implement it? How do you go from being an author, to a brand?

1. Look your brand. Let’s say that you have skills in refurbishing and decorating vintage pieces. Your fiction always tends to be set in vintage eras (or it focuses on characters who appreciate that style) and so you feel having a vintage brand will carry throughout your career. Now, you could go around living life as normal. OR you could replace your professional wardrobe with vintage clothing, update your online spaces to have clear vintage themes, adopt some vintage phrases, and so on. By doing this you are connecting the dots for your readers, and you’re also making it easy for fans of all things vintage to gravitate toward you.

2. Talk your brand. In the above example I mentioned that someone with a vintage brand could adopt some vintage sayings. But “talking your brand” goes beyond that. In interviews, on panels, and in discussions with readers, you want to drive your brand home. So let’s say your brand is “the MMA pastor.” In interviews and conversations, you don’t want to just talk about your book or your career, you want to talk about MMA! Talk about your favorite matches and share experiences you’ve had in the ring (do MMA matches happen inside a ring??).

3. Expand your brand. Let’s say you’ve started talking and looking the part, but thanks to social media, readers are looking for an experience. There is a huge opportunity to make your brand bigger than you and your career. Instead of always focusing on you and your life and how it ties into your brand, you want to be aware of the lifestyle that is associated with your brand.

There is a very specific lifestyle (a set of likes, dislikes, events, groups, blogs, etc) associated with “vintage.” There’s another lifestyle associated with “MMA.” Let’s say that the brand you’ve given yourself is the “Fashionista author”. There is an entire world of fashion that goes way beyond your books and career and small corner of the Web. You want to be aware of this bigger world and take part in it. You want to share pertinent news about this world with your followers. You want to know what’s going on. And you want to connect with those who are also influencers within that corner of the web. By doing this, you’re expanding your brand into something much greater, and that’s a powerful thing!

4. Develop brand standards. Every company worth its weight has a set of brand standards, which is literally a book or document that details out what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to marketing, logo, communications, etc. These things are usually super detailed, going so far as to identify which fonts can be used on various publications. While you don’t need to go that far, you should have a set of rules for yourself. A system of checks and balances so that you don’t find yourself straying from your brand. Because believe me, when life takes a turn, it’s so easy to start blogging and Tweeting about those personal things when it’s all you can think of. But your audience doesn’t care about those things! So you want to limit the amount of time spent talking about the “randoms” of life or things non associated with your brand and balance that with plenty of content that provides the takeaway your readers are looking for.

5. Have fun with your brand. Your brand should be something that feels comfortable. Natural. And yes, while we talked about changing your look and online approach to better embody your brand, it shouldn’t be a fish-out-of-water experience. Your brand is built from YOU. So it should be fun! And spending time in your brand’s world should in a sense be a natural extension of who you are. So, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be yourself. Be your brand. And it’ll come together!

Any questions?! Let me know!

Posted in Career, Marketing and Platforms | 2 Comments »

Finding Beta Readers

December 2, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wIn last week’s post on knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, one of the strategies I suggested was to solicit feedback wisely and sparingly. Reader Laura asked this question in the comments: “How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know know any serious writers in my ‘real’ life… the local universities don’t offer [many] creative writing classes… I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences… I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.”

Great question, Laura, and thanks for providing the topic for this week’s blog post!

Location, contacts, and limited budget can definitely be some challenges to finding quality beta readers. Not everyone lives in a mecca of artistic fellowship or can spend $400 to attend a conference once a month to meet other writers and writing professionals. So how DOES one find quality beta readers under these conditions? Here are a few ideas.

Local universities— Laura mentioned that the colleges in her area don’t offer a lot of creative writing classes. Even when that’s the case, any community college or liberal arts school has at least a few faculty members who are (hopefully) qualified to give you feedback on your writing, even if they’re not experts in your genre, so even when there isn’t a writing class available for you to enroll in and connect that way with other writers, you can still try to connect with the adjunct or full-time faculty members who teach the literature and composition classes, and you at least know that these readers have a lot of experience in reading and editing. You can usually find contact info for these faculty members on the college’s website, so consider sending a polite email explaining that you’re a writer looking for quality feedback and wondering whether they might be willing to take a look at your writing. If a college you have some connection with (you’re an alumnus, you live nearby, etc.) has a graduate writing program, offer some chapters for use in class, either for discussion or editing practice, and ask if you can sit in on the discussion or receive notes on the class’s feedback.

Published authors— Published authors are very accessible in this day and age– they’re on Twitter, they have an author Facebook page, they have websites and blogs— if you’re not trying to connect with someone who’s major hugely successful (don’t hold your breath waiting for Stephen King to get back to your request to review your manuscript for free), you have a really good chance of being able to connect personally with them, and there’s a good chance that the average published author will be willing to offer some feedback to a reader. If you plan to approach a published author, it’s a good idea to spend some time engaging with them on social media, first– comment on a blog or two, mention them on Twitter, link to their website from your Facebook profile, etc., and then use whatever contact method they specify as their preference (this is usually mentioned on their website) to reach out.  Be specific about why you approached them—what is it about their writing that you admire, why would you value their feedback? Be clear that you’re NOT seeking an endorsement or an introduction to their agent (if they like it enough, they’ll probably offer), simply a more experienced writer’s eye than yours, and be open to alternatives— if they can’t review your chapters but can recommend a friend or another resource, that can be helpful, too.

Writers’ Groups– Laura mentioned that she isn’t part of a local writers’ group and that the online group she was part of was a disappointment. While it’s true that not every group is going to be a good fit (or helpful in any way at all), the beauty of the Internet age is that if there IS a group out there that’s a good fit, you can probably find it if you’re willing to put some time into the search. A Google search of “writers groups” turned up dozens of pages of resources– sites that connect you with local writers in your area, sites that connect you with similar writers online, groups organized by genre, publishing status, area, etc. “Writers’ groups (state or city name here)” will return even more specific results, possibly of local groups with physical meetings you can attend to get a feel for the dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with shopping around, either locally or online, for a writers’ group that’s a good fit– you should feel challenged but not overwhelmed, you should feet like your input and your contributions are respected, and you should feel like the other members of the group have the same amount of motivation as you do.

 

When a quality beta reader says yes, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be clear (and reasonable) about your expectations. Are you looking for feedback on the plot? the writing? the mechanics? Are you expecting an edit, or just some comments/direction? How much of the manuscript would you like them to read? Five chapters? Fifty pages? The full manuscript? Make sure the person you’re asking knows what you’re looking for so they make an informed commitment. If you can’t pay them for their service, or can’t pay much, be up front about it, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Rather than asking for a full edit of a 100,000-word manuscript, ask them to take a look at a shorter selection. If you can pay $50 for a manuscript review, ask them how many pages or how much review time that would buy.
  • Don’t rush them. Everyone is busy, and they’re doing you a favor (if they’re doing it for free or low cost). Don’t expect an immediate reply, and don’t pester them for a response—it’s perfectly all right to follow-up/check if they’ve had your ms for a month, but be patient!
  • Accept their feedback politely. I know letting other people see your writing can be terrifying— you’re sharing something very personal that you’ve worked really hard on, and so every piece of criticism can feel like a personal attack, but your readers are just trying to make your book stronger—at YOUR request, I might add. If you’re confused by a comment, you can ask the reader to clarify, but don’t come back with a defensive response or an argument. You don’t have to agree with them, but you DID ask for their input, so accept it graciously.
  • Say thank you. Even if you can’t pay or can’t pay much, send them a nice thank-you note, and maybe a token like a gift card to let them know you appreciated their time.

I hope that helps, Laura, thanks again for the question! If you have a question on craft or the writing process, I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading!

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Is giving away free books a good strategy?

December 1, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

An author in the UK wrote to ask this: “I see a bunch of books on Amazon selling for almost nothing (and sometimes being given away for nothing). How does an author make money with that sort of thing?” 

And several people have written to ask, “If a used book is selling for a penny online, is anyone making money?” 

A note on giveaway books: You’re not making anything. You are trying to use free giveaways as a means of building a readership. In other words, you’re hoping that having the publisher give away copies of your novel will make them fall in love with your story, your characters, or your voice, and that those readers will go purchase copies of other books that will earn you something. So a giveaway is really a marketing strategy — a bonus, introducing your work to readers.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho used this strategy effectively in the early day of the Kindle, and found thousands willing to download his book. That built a readership that continues to buy his works, and it’s a strategy others have used effectively. BUT it’s not a magic formula. Giving away free books is no guarantee that readers will buy your other works — in fact, there’s a growing sentiment among publishers that readers with kindles often have dozens of free books downloaded that they may never read. The books were simply downloaded because they were free, and “free” is something people like to see. They’ll pick up a free book and let it hang around, though they may or may not ever read it.

The problem is one of value — If you get something for free, does it have any value to you? I see a lot of authors who give away free books on the web but don’t seem to have any sort of strategy to use that to their advantage. More than selling books, I think it’s an ego thing… they like seeing their name on a cover, they want SOMEONE to read their work, so they offer it for free and hope others pick it up and read it.

For a professional author, a free book (or a new book offered at an incredibly low price) is there to serve as a sales strategy: A reader picks up a free short story or novella, is introduced to a character, and then is given an opportunity to purchase more books with that character. Or a reader is offered the first book in a series at a very low price, they like the story, and hopefully purchase the rest of the books in that series. But the economics are tough — you invest a lot of time and money in a book, and you make nothing. You have to take the long view and hope it turns into sales of other products.

By the way, I frequently get asked about all those one-cent used books for sale on Amazon. Obviously, an author is making nothing on the sale of used books, since royalties are only paid on new sales. And if the e-tailer is selling a book for a penny, they’re just dumping it, and hoping to make a bit of income on the inflated $3.99 “shipping and handling” charge.

Have you used free books as a strategy in your writing career? Has it worked well for you? Would love to hear your stories in the “comments” section.

Got a question about writing and publishing? We’re going to be doing our “ask the agent” segment again this month, so send us your questions!

Posted in The Business of Writing | 19 Comments »

Polishing a Manuscript: When to Give it a Rest

November 25, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wI’ve gotten several versions of this question in the past couple of months. This one came from an author at a recent conference: “How long is too long to spend perfecting my novel? My first page and first three chapters, especially? It seems like every time I show them to someone new, I get more suggestions for changes and improvements. At what point should I stop asking for input?”

Great question! Several of them, in fact. Your question actually raises several different issues to consider when polishing a manuscript.

1. You’ve spent too long perfecting a manuscript when you’re not doing anything else to move your writing career forward. I’ve met many writers who have spent years working on a single manuscript, and they generally fall into one of two camps– either they’ve spent those years staring exclusively at that one project, writing and rewriting it and picking it apart and patching it back together, or they’ve spent those years revisiting their idea/novel in between improving their craft by taking classes, attending conferences, writing additional books, soliciting trustworthy feedback, and reading widely.

If you’re not doing any of these things between rewrites, you’re going to hit a plateau pretty quickly in terms of how much you can actually improve with no resources except your own judgment. So if you’ve already re-worked a manuscript a few times and aren’t currently involved in any of these methods of improving your craft, you’re probably at a stopping point in the polishing process. Go ahead and send it out or take it to some conferences and see what the response is.

2. Solicit feedback wisely. You are entirely right when you observe that “every time [you] show [your pages] to someone new, [you] get more suggestions for changes and improvements.” Every person who reads your pages is going to bring a unique combination of education, taste, and experience to the manuscript, and so every set of suggestions is also going to be unique. If you tried to apply every piece of feedback you received from every beta reader, you’d either go crazy or die of old age rewriting your book. So what’s the solution?

  • Choose your beta readers sparingly. Don’t hand out copies of your sample chapters to every classmate in your writing class, don’t post your opening page on your blog and ask the Internet at large for feedback; choose a small set of folks to read your work so that the responses you get are manageable in quantity.
  • Choose your beta readers wisely. Even if your best friend is a fabulous person, her opinion isn’t going to be super valuable if she doesn’t know much about writing, or if she doesn’t usually read in your genre. When choosing your beta readers, look for people who are GOOD writers– ideally, people who are better writers than you are, so you can learn from them. Look for people who regularly read the genre you’re writing– they’re your target audience. And look for people you can trust– you want to know your beta readers well enough to know that they’re not going to plagiarize you or try to sell you expensive editing services you may not need.
  • Look for themes in feedback. Once you start getting suggestions from your beta readers, you’ll still run into conflicting opinions and suggestions and, for some of these, you’ll just have to use your own instincts to decide whether or not to apply them, but if there are legitimate problems/weaknesses with your manuscript, you’ll probably have more than one reader point them out, so give extra consideration to any suggestions you hear from more than one source.

3. A book is never “done.” There is no magic point at which an author discovers the precise combination of nouns and commas and exactly-right adjectives that mean a book is “done.” Even if you get a manuscript to a place where you are really happy with it, I guarantee that if you come back to it in six months there will be things you want to change, sentences you want to rewrite, lines you want to delete. By virtue of simply being alive and interacting with the world on a daily basis, our views and our experiences change, and those changes shape our creative output. The articles you’ll read, the conversations you’ll have, and the places you’ll go in the next week will contribute to your bringing a slightly different viewpoint to your manuscript at the end of the week, and that difference will probably cause you to want to make a change or two.

Does this mean that the original version of the manuscript was “wrong,” or that the new version is superior? Not necessarily. Apart from the typos we catch when we come back to a manuscript after taking a break, many of the changes we make to a manuscript after we’ve already put in our time plotting and writing and polishing it are based on our own shifting perspective and preferences at the time, and don’t hugely affect the story or the quality of the writing. So, if you know you’ve done your part to improve your craft, applied the feedback of some trusted critics, and made some thoughtful rewrites, it’s time to move on– start working on a proposal, get that manuscript out the door to some agents or editors, start writing on the next one– there may be some more rewrites in your manuscript’s future, but let them be prompted by some thoughtful input from an interested editor, or a vast improvement in your novel-writing skills wrought by drafting three more manuscripts. Don’t let ten years go by attempting to create that mythical “perfect” novel.

What about you? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on perfecting a manuscript? How did you decide how much tweaking was “enough?”

Posted in The Writing Craft | 5 Comments »