Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Overcoming Defeat the Write Way

There are some common slogans in writing that are designed to keep aspiring authors motivated. One such adage is "Never stop writing." If you submit some query letters, the waiting can be excruciating. After you find an agent and you've submitted your manuscript, again, the waiting game sucks. Even after a publishing contract is signed, it's often a year before your story gets released. Wait. Wait. Wait.

I was lucky. I got a great literary agent. Her initial impression of my story was that it had "Best Seller" potential. She felt it was unique, frighteningly realistic and timely.

It died today!

A new movie, filled with big name actors, came out this week. Contagion tells the story of a military-altered virus that gets loose and leads to a global crisis. The science in the movie is unrealistic. Dialog is ridiculously dramatic. And, the Hollywood-inspired special effects make the movie little more than an excuse for cheap scare tactics like melodramatic screams and hysterical people. Nevertheless, it has some big name actors and lots of Hollywood hype.

My book tells about a well-planned terrorist attack using, yes, a military-altered virus with lethal impact. My research was exhausting. The terrorist's virus replication laboratory uses real equipment. Tools in my research laboratory are state of the art. Infection rates follow real statistical models. And, everything in my story could REALLY happen. But, my agent says that this new movie suddenly transformed my book from really exciting and unique to "It's already been done."

What do I do now?

Remember at the beginning of this blog, I mentioned the writer's advice of  "Never stop writing"? I followed that advice all while Jihad was making its way through the system. I now have three more manuscripts in the works, and, ironically, I have a new storyline that might fit perfectly into my Jihad book. It will remove the lethal virus and substitute a creative new threat against the US and our allies. I have never seen this threat in a recent movie or book, so my characters, and the Jihad story, are saved. The key to overcoming adversity for a writer truly is to keep on writing. Well, it's getting late and I have some special cloned terrorists to insert into my Jihad story . . . yes, that's a little hint!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing Whores . . . What’s Your Price?

I generally avoid politics in my blogs but could not resist this joke sent to my wife by one of her friends:

“We are all familiar with a Herd of cows, a Flock of chickens, a School of fish and a Gaggle of geese. However, less widely known is a Pride of lions, a Murder of crows (as well as their cousins the rooks and ravens), an Exaltation of doves and, presumably because they look so wise, a Parliament of owls. Now consider a group of Baboons. They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not . . . a Congress! I guess that pretty much explains the things that come out of Washington.”

That said, writers face decisions of a “political” nature when they write. Every story has an audience with identifiable expectations. “Politically correct” expression infringes on freedom of speech. Where does the writer draw the line? Don’t use the “n”-word. Don’t use certain profanity like the “c”-word or the “f”-word. But, what if your character curses like a sailor and uses racial epithets? Or, let’s say you are writing a rape scene; would the rapist address his victim as “maam” or “miss” or would he slug her in the face and call her a . . . you get the idea. What is the writer to do?

I believe writers must “know their target audience” and write accordingly. For example, kids should not be exposed to certain concepts or foul words. What about writing for adults? Should adults be coddled like kids? Should writers produce non-offensive Pablum to placate sensitive readers? Is the writer selling out by softening language or protecting the reader from brutal realities that might fit the story? By resisting temptation to write the story as it NEEDS to be told, we become whores to the market. Here are my personal rules for writing about volatile topics such as politics, religion and sensitive stuff like gay scenes or “PC” subjects:

Rule 1:  Never promote a political agenda. You instantly lose 50% of the buying public. Write for the left—you lose the right. Write for conservatives—you lose the left. Write for fishermen—you lose almost everybody. Most people don’t want to read about fishing and most fishermen don’t read. (just kidding!) Maybe that’s why writers like King stick to horror stories that are equally frightening to both political parties. That way, no book sales are lost to closed minds.

Rule 2:  Never write strictly for men. Why? Many men don’t read unless there’s a centerfold in the publication, (Calm down, I didn't say ALL men.) The corollary to this is that most women DO read. It’s okay to write “for” women, because your potential market doesn’t shrink much. That explains the success of romance novels and sappy stuff like the Bridges of Madison County or Gone with the Wind.

Rule 3:  Ignore rules 1 and 2 if you think you can make a bunch of money selling your story to fans of Hannity, Joy Behar or Billy Graham. Does this make you a writer-whore? Uhhh, yeah, but who cares? The ugly little truth is that ALL writers crave recognition for their work and many will gladly parade around bookstores, or babble in radio interviews, trying to enhance their sales.

So, if writers sell their services to the highest bidder, including years of promoting the book after it hits the market, then I guess the only remaining question is, “How far will you go for fame?” And, don’t deny that you would dress up in a giraffe suit and dance in front of Barnes & Noble, if it meant selling another dozen books. That brings me to my own "price" for success. I will do anything that is not illegal, immoral or totally tasteless to bring attention to my book(s). I recently bought a bagpipe and Scottish kilt. Picture a 300 pound, rugged-looking writer dancing along the sidewalk in front of your favorite bookstore playing Amazing Grace (the only song I know on the bagpipe) over and over. Wouldn't you be at least a little curious? Now, help me make that age-old decision . . . under the kilt? Briefs or commando? What do you think?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Self-publishing Screw-ups

Let's talk about self-publishing. I've done it all. Wrote a book. Handled all my self-editing. Hired a professional freelance copy-editor to "polish" the manuscript. Purchased a cover design program from CoverPro.com. Contracted for professional graphic arts. Negotiated bids for printing, selected the winning contract and worked closely with the printer to "design" the physical book. Along the way, I formed a publishing company, bought ISBN numbers, contracted with a national distribution company, established a publisher contract with Barnes & Noble. Also, purchased a local business license and got a reseller's permit from the California Board of Equalization. Heard enough yet?

Those are the things I did to publish my sci-fi novel, Space Chronicles: The Last Human War. I also made mistakes . . . lots of them . . . mistakes that could have been avoided if I had a good source of guidance along the way. Here are a few of my mistakes that good advice might have prevented:

Mistake #1: Self-publishing. I never sent a single query letter to any literary agent or even a direct submission publisher. Was this a mistake?

Mistake #2: Editing. I hired a freelance copy-editor to do the final edit. That doesn't sound like a bad idea, huh? Well, I "hired" her on a handshake, paid her in advance and established a general timeframe for her to complete the job. I'll give you a hint what happened . . . she gave me a full refund AFTER I had already paid $4,000 for the first 1000 books. How could I have handled this better?

Mistake #3: Rush to print. As soon as my "professional" copy-editor finished her "edit", I simply inserted her suggestions and rushed the book to the printer WITHOUT a final proof reading by yours truly. DUH!

Mistake #4: Cover art. I agreed to a certain basic design with a nationally known graphic artist. We agreed to a price, general specs and the delivery method. Then, he sent me his "contract" and I discovered some outrageous terms. I called him and he became indignant that I would request changes to his contract. We parted company and all that time and effort was wasted. Fortunately, I discovered a young up-and-coming graphics artist (in Denmark) who gave me exactly what I wanted for half the price, but I lost a lot of time and burned a bridge in the process. See the mistakes I made here?

Mistake #5: Constructing a book. My printer seemed wonderfully helpful. He suggested using higher grade paper, saying it would result in a more professional looking book and would have a nice heavy "feel" to it. He also helped me use Adobe In-Design to layout the actual printed pages, including page/book size, bleed, removing "widows and orphans" and properly numbering the table of contents based on final book specs. What went wrong? I listened to the printer! He's selling stuff, not necessarily interested in my bottom line. Everything he said sounded good, so I didn’t question his judgment. Result? The final weight was a full pound per book. Do you know how much it costs to ship 48 books per case to a wholesale distributor? Even the sale of individual copies cost $2.50 per book to ship USPS Media Mail. Also, the extra high quality paper made the book so stiff that the "tightness" of the perfect binding forced a reader to break the spine to be able to open the book comfortably. I’ll bet Marisa or Jo Ann at Literary Powerhouse Consulting would have offered better ideas.

Mistake #6: Website. Rookie mistakes on the website. I was excited about building a website that showed off my awesome graphics. I provided a "free" chapter to attract buyers and added some interesting back-story, trying to draw people into the book. It was a “show” website, not a “selling” website.  Initially, I did not even provide a mechanism for interested people to purchase directly from the publisher. I literally did not ask people to buy it! I figured a good show was all that was needed and the public would beat a path to the bookstore. DUH! Marketing advice would have been especially valuable at this point.

Mistake #7: Free books for promotion. I managed to make a profit on this book, mostly by direct author sales and book signings.  Word-of-mouth created by some "Centers-of-Influence" (people whose opinions influence others' buying decisions) saved the day. You may be wondering, if my promotions led to hundreds of sales, then where is the mistake? Taxes! When I had to report to the Franchise Tax Board the number of books I "distributed", they included promo books and forced me to pay taxes on the free books I gave to Centers-of-Influence. Then, my CPA informed me that special tax rules apply to the publishing industry. I could NOT write off my printing expenses in the year they were incurred. I was forced to write them off only against actual sales each year. I don't know what advice LPC could have given me on this matter, but at least I would not have been surprised when my $4,000 printing deduction was rejected.

Mistake #8: Marketing.  I overcame resistance from Barnes & Noble, when they agreed to carry my book. Whoopee! I thought I could now count on a steady stream of sales. Nope. They only order very small quantities from “small” publishers and toss them into a few test markets. If those first 20 books sell, they’ll order another 30 copies. Big whoop! And they don’t help you market.  There’s a concept called "wallpaper" in bookstores. It means that the only books that get substantial exposure (end-cap displays or "special" displays like the "New Releases" rack) are those from big publishing houses. All the rest of the books in the aisles are known as "wallpaper.” There are ways to overcome this limitation often called “guerilla” marketing techniques. Some of the guerilla marketing ideas are fun; like reverse shoplifting, piggy-back sales or borrowed prestige. Of course, the best way to make bookstore sales is with book-signings. Book-signing events are also an area where LPC can offer ideas to attract more customers/sales. A well-designed and advertised book signing is worth it’s weight in gold. I could have used such advice!

Mistake #9: Liability. My book is still out there. B&N still has some inventory along with a few other places. I recently decided to stop marketing The Last Human War in hope of attracting a traditional publisher that can re-publish and offer the kind of market penetration I need for substantial sales. The problem is those copies in current inventory are a liability that may come back to haunt me. Book stores and wholesale distributors have a contractual right to return any unsold copies for a full refund. That liability requires me to hold a cash “reserve” against unsold returns. Is this a “mistake”? Nope. It’s the way the industry works, but it came as a surprise to me, because I did not have the benefit of advice from a company like LPC to guide my decisions.

So, there you go. I could list more lessons that I learned the hard way, but I think I’ve already shown plenty of completely avoidable mistakes that could have been resolved with proper advice. Fortunately, Literary Powerhouse Consulting offers self-publishing authors such a resource to smooth out the bumps in the publishing road. Don’t learn the expensive way . . . like I did!