Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lazy headline writing

It's no secret that the quality of journalism has declined dramatically in the Internet era--largely because of the constant pressure to add fresh content and get "clicks and eyeballs."

However, taking a moment to clarify the most important part of your article--the headline--is always worthwhile. Here is an example of a lazy headline from an Associated Press story as it appears on Yahoo (incidentally, Yahoo probably has the worst content aggregators and story presentations in the business, although I am not sure Yahoo News counts as journalism).

Penn State figures accused of lying head to court

Maybe I am the dummy, because it took me three reads to make sense of what the story was about, although I have been loosely following the PSU case. "Penn State" is the good opening hook, but "figures" is a double-meaning word, made even worse by the fact that one meaning is a verb and another is a noun. "Penn State figures" could mean "Penn State expects." So you have to go to "figures accused" and that throws a hiccup into the reader's understanding.

Then you get the "lying head." Is the head lying on a pillow? "Figures accused of lying head." Huh?

This isn't an egregious offense to written communication and meaning, but it is an example of how unclear word use and inattentive word order serve as roadblocks. No doubt some people breeze right through and translate it instantly into coherency, but in a world of many content choices, wouldn't you want an inviting doorway?

When I was a carpenter, we had a saying, "Measure twice, cut once." Sounds like good advice for writing, too.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Prime lending library apocalypse

You can't be someone in the indie writing world without stating an opinion on Amazon's Prime lending library, which allows writers millions of readers for very little money. Amazon is asking for exclusivity for those books that indie authors opt into the program, with a $500,000 monthly earmarked for payment, based on number of checkouts.

I don't know why everyone automatically assumes this is a monstrous exploitation of authors. Every single maneuver Amazon does is always met with rampant paranoia in the indie community, the giant lifting its boot-heel. But the reality is that every one of those moves have ended up with more money for more authors than at any time in history.

What if, instead of Amazon pouring champagne on the heads of starving writers, they actually say "This has worked out better than planned and we're upping the outlay to $12 million for 2012"? They didn't go into this without some risk. Why does everyone assume the worst when Amazon single-handedly created the indie market and gave us a huge audience and untold millions of dollars?

And this is inevitable. Publishers should have done it five years ago and then they wouldn't be whining about Amazon. Sure, I am an Amazon homer, but after 15 years of writing, Amazon is the first entity that I felt any sort of true partnership with. Yes, the warm fuzzy of the megacorporation. I'm in.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Publishing manners: Only responds if interested

Dean Wesley Smith, one of the contributors to the freebie manual Write Good or Die, has a post on "But why would you... insult writers like this?"

The post is well worth reading, covering the growing habit of professionals in the publishing industry to not bother responding to queries. Dean rather eloquently points out that they do it because they can.

Previously, writers had no choice, but now the balance of power is shifting away from the middle management and to both ends of the real business--connecting writers and readers. Over the course of my own career, I watched the lack of response happen. In the late 1990s, you could pretty much count on getting a form rejection within three months of your submission. That was when publishers still looked at manuscripts.

After that, publishers started requiring agents, and agents responded to their newfound power by raising their commission from 10 percent to 15 percent. The corporate publishers merged, smaller presses folded, and soon we had the Big Six that we know today, although there are still some established small and specialty presses. All this moved the selection of marketable books into the hands of a very few people, which also caused them to be busier than ever.

The net result was that there were few of them and many, many, many writers. It was actually easier to ignore almost all writers, because they really only needed a few. Even if the 100 best books ever written all showed up at the same time, they'd still only buy five of them. Same with the worst 100 books--they'd still need five.

But that's not an excuse to ignore writers. If a writer spends a year working on a manuscript, even if the story is dog slobber, it deserves a "No, thank you." Of all the ways traditional publishing contributes to its own demise, I can't help but feel the "Only responds if interested" policy is a subtle but revealing detail about where modern publishing has arrived.

Perhaps the decline was inevitable, but it could have been embraced with a little grace, and then perhaps more writers would be saddened at the loss. As it is, we're not even sure it's any loss at all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book bloggers and self-publishing: Room for mutual respect?

(These are my comments on a great discussion among book bloggers at Bookalicious about whether they should accept self-published books for review).

I’d like to weigh in because I dearly love book bloggers and feel you guys are taking on a huge and important role that has been largely abandoned by the mainstream press, and even dedicated publications like PW Weekly have their own masters to obey (it’s now essentially a mouthpiece for the major publishing industry, not for books themselves).

I have been a “published author”–six books, in fact. Some did okay but they all went out of print. I’ve been self-publishing for the last two years. The quality is just as good, and in fact three of the books were previously published and I got my rights back. I feel the books I’ve written since then are even better than the ones that got published. And they are finding more readers. It’s truly a better option for most authors, and means lower ebook prices and more choices for readers.

I don’t undervalue professional input–all writers should use a qualified editor and proofreader, whether they pay for it or trade with peers. Having an agent does not make one a better writer. Having a corporate publisher does not make one a better writer (though a good editor can help any writer). The only difference between a major-press book and your average competent self-published book is luck.

I have worked with many great book bloggers. I did a 90-day blog tour that launched my first Kindle bestseller, and blogs helped immensely. I always read the review policy of bloggers before I query. If you don’t want self-published books or ebooks, I respect your choice. We all have too many books as it is.

But I do believe locking out self-published books, especially in 2011 when publishing is undergoing seismic change, means you miss the opportunity to discover the next wave of great writers, those chosen by readers instead of predetermined by the amount of the advance paid to the author (and let’s not kid ourselves, corporate bestsellers are made and not born, and get all the marketing, and get stacked up high in front of the bookstore, no matter what level of quality they are. That’s not criticism, it’s operating procedure). 

There are couple of ways to deal with the floodgates that you can borrow from the industry. My first agent told me he rejected almost everything based on the query letter. “If it sounds like something I would have written, I reject it,” he said.

If a writer doesn’t read your policy, strike three. If a writer can’t write a decent sentence in a query without a grammatical error, strike three. If the writer can’t clearly communicate and inspire in a brief email, there’s probably little hope for an entire book, so strike three. These simple steps should clear out 95 percent of the pile!

One other suggestion for bloggers, one the industry gave up long ago:responding with a polite “No, thanks.” Once agents and publishers started their “Only responds if interested” policy, it immediately moved them down the scale of considerate people who respect the time and work of others and removed them even further from the people who could help them thrive. “No, thanks” takes about as long as hitting the delete button, and makes everyone sleep better.

I admire book bloggers because you put so much time and passion into what you do, with little return besides free books (and getting a box of new books from a publisher really feels like “getting something,” as opposed to having an ebook mailed to you). But as bookstores close, major publishers weaken in influence, and everyone has a device at their fingertips to consume books, they desperately need guides to help them navigate the ever-growing flood of books.

I don’t think there’s an easy choice, and it remains a personal choice. But there’s an entire, unexplored world out there, and you might be surprised what is waiting for your discovery.

Thanks for all you do bringing readers and writers together.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hello Indie Libraries, Good-bye James Patterson

Penguin pulling ebooks from libraries the week after announcing an exploitative "self-publishing assistance" program. Author's Guild grumbling about ebooks in Amazon Prime library. Publishers continuing to price ebooks at $10 and up.

The funny thing about paradigm shifts, like any trend, is they are more than halfway over before you notice them. In fact, it seems the noticing marks the beginning of the end. Which, incidentally, is why "writing to trend" is a terrible idea.

In this case, we have tradition reeling in the velvet ropes and hoisting the gate to the ivory tower, making its content elitist, overpriced, and inaccessible. Bully for them. A bit of a rah and that. One can't be troubled by the masses when literachuhhh must be preserved at all costs.

And as one door slams closed, a hundred others open. With Amazon rumored to open its Prime lending library to indie authors, the lines are really drawn in the sand. Overdrive allows authors and small publishers to apply for digital library distribution.

And guess who will jump the line? The writers with nothing to lose.

I don't think anyone can make the slightest guess about how all this will turn out. But I make one prediction: readers are soon going to become even more aware of the shell game they've been forced to play, given a small pool of authors. I think readers are going to discover that the indie authors and small-press authors will be the new populist literature, and they will like those books just as much as they ever did "the old guys." Frankly, I think we're in need of fresh blood. The paper bestseller list looks old and weary, the same names and the same sentimentality.

I've always said, "Put me and James Patterson both in brown paper bags, and I like my chances." Not that I am "better" than Patterson, but there's nothing especially special about Patterson besides a monopolistic distribution system that ensures bestsellers. Patterson was the perfect, penultimate achievement of that broken system. And, in a way, that achievement is part of what is helping break it as the tower collapses under its own weight. Ghostwritten corporate product masquerading as art. Nothing personal against Patterson, the man, but publishing a book a week doesn't mean you are a "writer."

I think we deserve better. And now we have better.

All that's left is hiring someone to ghostwrite Patterson's epitaph.

(Need more writer babble? Janice Gable Bashman let me talk about Act 2 of a writing career at her blog today)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Myth of Book Marketing: Be Unconventional

By Scott Nicholson

I've decided to use this blog for my "writing babble" stuff to keep it separate from my regular blog , since very few humans on the planet care about write babble except for writers.

I've been known for my uncoventional views on writing and publishing, which I hold and follow for one reason only: convention is failure. Convention in writing is frustration, rejection, and invisibility. So who needs that?

My own small success is directly attributable to abandoning all the conventional wisdom I'd absorbed over the years. The most veteran writers usually gave the most awful advice (get an agent, write to market, never self-publish). Heck, I even dished out some of that crap myself.

So, with the premise that I am insane and you won't hear this kind of advice anywhere else, proceed at your own risk here. Today's lesson is: book marketing is not book marketing.

The first thing a new indie writer hears is "You have to be on Facebook, you have to Tweet 20 times a day, you need an established platform." Sure, it's helpful if you already have an audience of some sort. But dumping one book out there and pushing and pushing does nothing, because as the brilliant Robin Sullivan points out, "Once you roll the stone up the hill, it's just going to roll back over you."

As an example, let's examine the three biggest indie success stories, the ones conventional wisdom says you should imitate: J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke. What do they have in common, besides luck? (Luck should never be discounted, because it is the biggest factor in any type of success--yes, that's unconventional, but it's true, and a topic for another post). They all came out swinging with multiple titles. Once they got hot, and the Amazon algorithms flooded your shopping window with their titles, it looked like they were successful and the books were selling well, so you better buy one or you're missing out.

Yes, it's that simple. Lots of books and some luck.

(Yes, I know John Locke talks about how he blogged his way to stardom and is happy to sell you a book on how to sell a million copies--even though Amazon algorithms did 99 percent of the selling for him. Yes, I know everyone EXCEPT Joe credits his prior New York paper career for his ebook success, even though he outsold New York this year on his own. Yes, I know people credit book blogs with Amanda Hocking's success, even though 10 blogs with 300 followers does not instantly convert into a million dollars.)

Okay, so we're not those guys. What do we have that we can use, since we're now smart enough and unconventional enough to not try to imitate them?

Go ahead and use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, but not to sell your book. And don't take the other bit of conventional wisdom that "You don't sell your book, you sell yourself and your brand." I take that one step further. Don't sell yourself. Give yourself away.

That means occasional book giveaways, of course, and freebies and bonus features and advice and cool links to things you find interesting. It means engaging in topical issues. (I know some writers who are deathly afraid of politics, religion, and romance--you know, the real stuff running all up and down the core of their books, the stuff people care about the most deeply, but those writers are afraid of offending that one potential customer). Sure, you don't want to be a jerk, but if you have a strong belief, better to lose the one and gain the 100 that agree or at least sympathize. And you'll be giving yourself away. Those who like the taste will eat more and the rest will just drive on down the virtual street.

Be yourself, the person who wrote your books. Write lots of books. Write blog posts and give them away. Answer every email. Respect your critics--even someone who doesn't like your work should be treasured if they take the time to share an opinion. Don't stalk them on the Internet and try to change their minds, or seek some sort of weird Internet revenge (Yes, I've seen this done).

Aside from being yourself, do what the million other indie writers AREN'T ads! Yes, just like a real business. While your constant self-promotion gets annoying, we all know what ads are, and we never blame the advertiser for ads the way we blame people for constant self-promotion. Yes, it doesn't make any sense, but we're unconventional, see? I hate to give specific sites for ads because the best places are overbooked, and prices are increasing, but keep smart and keep your target audience in mind. You're on Facebook, but you don't really want to buy an ad on Facebook. Sure, there are 200 million people there, but they aren't there looking for your book to buy. But Goodreads? Readers. Book blogs? Readers. Newspapers? Don't even think about it. Radio? Stop it.

Here are some crazy things I tried, all of which worked to some degree, although not always in direct proportion to effort or cost: Goodreads giveaways, Librarything giveaways, freebie downloads, Facebook "sharing" contests, "follow me" contests, a 90-day book blog tour, a 10-blog tour on the same day, gift card giveaways, Be My Agent in which I paid book bloggers a percentage of that month's sales, purchased ads, book excerpt swaps, Twitter blitzes, and probably a dozen things that have already slipped my mind, because I use them and move on to the next. I am terribly disorganized. I keep track of things in a little pocket notebook with a pencil.

All of that sounds like more fun to me than tweeting "Buy My Book" 12 times a day to the same tired audience. If it feels like work, it's wrong. And there's another twist--the people that blast nothing but "Buy my book" are people I either unfollow or try to avoid. I don't trust their message. I am not even sure they have a message. Because they're not giving anything away. If that's all they have to say, why in the world would I want to spend an entire book with them?

Of course, the best advertising is already inside your book. Not just the story, but telling the reader about your other books. Trade around. Links will get more and more valuable as the tablet era evolves (we all agree the dedicated ereader only has a few more years of shelf life, right?) And here's the biggest unconventional marketing tip of the day: Instead of reading or following my marketing tips, invent one. Do something that has never been done before.

What do you have that you so desperately need to keep to yourself? Give it away today. Each gift is a building block to your own success and happiness.

(You can buy The Indie Journey--although a lot of it you can read on the Internet for free if you look--and you can download Write Good or Die for free in every market and format. If you'd like to contribute an unconventional writing advice, please email it to graveconditions AT with links embedded and an image or two).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Indie Journey: Writing and Self-Publishing Guide

A collection of essays designed to help you write, produce, and sell more digitial books, with an emphasis on establishing realistic goals and appreciating your opportunities for success. Sections on the digital era, marketing, ebook formatting and cover design, general writing advice, and a philosophical approach to building your indie career. You can pick up The Indie Journey: Secrets To Writing Success for the bargain price of $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.