At Books & Such, we help authors to build careers. From the smallest detail of the next book idea, to the big picture of the writer’s lifelong dreams, we work strategically to help each author reach his or her writing and publishing goals.
It’s conference season and I’ve decided to share one of the best-kept conference secrets.
Here’s the secret: An appointment with an editor or agent is not the best way to connect.
Every time I go to a conference attendees are frantic to get on the appointment schedule. I wish I could convince them it’s not the best way to make an impression. Picture this: you finally get that longed-for appointment with your number one choice agent. Fifteen whole minutes after lunch. You stress about it from the time you get up in the morning. What to wear. What to bring. How to pitch. You go over your elevator pitch at least a dozen times.
You get to the appointment fifteen minutes early. The agent seems to be running late with the appointment ahead of you. Twenty of the worst minutes of your life pass and finally the agent smiles and signals for you to join her.
Just as you get settled someone else sidles up and turns to you, “Please excuse me I just have one thing to ask her and I’ll get out of your way.” Five minutes later the agent finally stands up to usher the clueless interloper away. The next two minutes she apologizes to you and asks if you can hold the fort for just a moment while she makes a quick pit stop.
She comes back and you have exactly one minute left. The next conferee slated to meet with this agent is already seated nearby, looking at his watch.
She says, “Don’t worry about the time. My fault,” and she leaves to explain to the next appointment that she’s running late.
Finally. You are sitting across from her and you go into your spiel. “Picture a deep cavern. Twenty people caught in the—”
She puts her hand on your arm. “Let’s back up. Let’s introduce ourselves first.”
You sputter your name, wondering if barfing on the table would make you memorable. Could this be going any worse?
“And you are writing fiction? Nonfiction?”
See what I mean? Could any setting be less likely to show you at your best?
So then, what’s the secret?
The best way to connect at a conference is in a relaxed, natural setting. One of the reasons I love the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is that we have ten meals with conferees– eight to a table. And that doesn’t count breakfasts. I get to meet with seventy different conferees in a convivial, relaxed setting. We table hosts make it a point to go around the table and get to know each person and gain an insight into who they are and what they are writing. Here’s where I tend to hand out my business cards with an invitation to submit.
Here are a few reasons why this is my preferred setting:
I get to meet the person in context. I see how they connect with others. I see them laugh and joke and encourage new writers. They are not thinking about pitching me but when they tell the table about their project and fellow conferees ask questions, I get a much fuller picture than I could ever get after doing a dozen-plus fifteen-minute appointments in a row.
Often a conferee will sit with a friend. They humbly begin telling us about themselves and the friend breaks in to say the wonderful things the conferee would never say himself. I get a much fuller picture.
The potential client gets to ask me questions and see how I react to others around me. Here’s another secret: this is a two-way street. Over a meal I can also be evaluated. The conferee gets to observe the “normal” me. Is this someone you could trust with your career?
I delight in seeing where God is already at work. I almost never fail to witness what will be lifelong connections between writers at my table. Watching this happening is humbling and a sign of great things to come.
And, besides meals, faculty members are sometimes just sitting around a fire pit or on a bench. Consider this an open invitation to sit down and have a word with them. If they wanted to be alone they’d be holed up in their rooms.
Remember something I’ve said often– it’s no secret– it will probably take more than one meeting to sign on the dotted line. Talk to any of my clients about how our partnership came about. I think you’ll be surprised.
So now, it’s your turn to share about appointments vs. informal meetings. Tell us your stories.
Authors often wonder what marketing materials they can ask their publishing house to create for them. A list of suggestions for new titles appears below for both physical events and online marketing.
Let me add that these are common requests, but every publishing house has a limited budget for every title. If the marketing department says yes to everything you request, you might use up the entire budget in less-than-effective ways. So ask only for those items that would be most useful in the promo opportunities you’re planning on.
You can handsell your book at bookstore signings, speaking events, and at an exhibit booth during a convention. But before people purchase your book, they need to know what it’s about. These tools help to announce the book and draw attention to you, the author.
Fold-up Poster/Tabletop Display
Retractable, floor display posters of your book’s cover, with a quote from an endorser or a review shouts out that something noteworthy is going on. These posters roll into a tube for easy carrying or for mailing ahead of time to an event. Here’s just one sample of what they look. Often the publicist will oversee the design, the copy, and actually buying the poster.
You also can ask the marketing department to supply artwork for a tabletop poster. It doesn’t shout as loud as a floor poster, but it adds an element of professionalism to any table that holds stacks of your book. Here’s a sample.
If you’re doing a signing at a bookstore, having a book launch in any public space, or speaking in a library or museum, provide the staff at the venue with pre-event flyers. The flyers help to build an audience for you. A bookstore could create such a flyer, but how much better to ask the publishing house to do so. The publisher already has assembled promo copy for your book, taglines, endorsements, reviews, and designed the cover. Sometimes all the publisher needs to do is supply a PDF of the flyer. The venue can then print them up in whatever sizes work for them. They might even print posters that can be displayed before and during the event.
Sample Social Media Pre-Event Copy
The publicist can create copy to promote your appearance in a particular venue. Such copy might already be used on the book’s back cover, in the publishing house’s catalog, or for the sales staff. Then it can be adapted to differing lengths and with various audiences in mind. The publicist can indicate where details about time, date, and location of your event can be easily inserted.
You should make this type of request if you’re appearing in more than one place. It’s a bit much to ask a publicist to create this copy for one event. But even if you do have just one event, you probably can provide this copy yourself. You will have previewed some–if not all–the promo copy your publicist writes.
Shelftalkers call attention to a book in a bookstore and are relatively inexpensive. Here are some samples of what shelftalkers look like. Many bookstores create their own shelftalkers, which include a brief review by one of the store’s clerks. But sometimes publishers create a shelftalker that includes the book’s cover image and a tagline or excerpt of an endorsement or a review. Or the publisher might create a shelftalker that includes the book’s cover image and leaves a blank space for a store clerk to write a review.
Shelftalkers keep a book from becoming lost in the lineup of spine-out books. The shelftalker creates visual variation from all the spines. Plus this marketing piece requires that the book either be displayed face out or that multiple copies of it be displayed to match the length of the shelftalker. Shelftalkers make sense if your book is likely to be bought by store chains.
Swag Bag Contributions
Many conferences and conventions (especially those designed for women) give out swag bags to registrants. These bags are loaded with promotional goodies. Often at Christian conventions the “swag” consists of new book releases (if you’re a best-selling author) or some little gadget with a tag that draws a connection between the gadget and a book.
Swag bags are treacherous territory. If the swag item is expensive, it might draw attention to a book, all right. But so many copies of that book must be sold to pay for the swag that the money might be better spent on something less dazzling but more effective. I mean, how many books can/will each registrant promote or buy as a result of the swag? And what item will cause the registrant to volunteer to promote the book?
If the item is cheesy (or a ho-hum), then it will be left in the registrant’s hotel room–or land in the trash can.
Weight also must be considered. You’re asking the registrant to lug your swag to the airport. And she might fear incurring overweight luggage, resulting in your swag never making it home with her.
A meme strikes me as a sort of online shelftalker. They are spontaneously shared by viewers because they are visually stunning, or because the tagline or quote speaks to them. Publicists create memes as a regular part of their jobs and offer them to the author to share. The publishing house also posts the meme. They can be effective ways to spread the word about your book.
Here’s a meme my client Laura Frantz’s publicist created for Laura.
Authors who are gifted gabbers do great when they create a Facebook Live event. Some authors launch their books on Facebook and invite their fans to join them in celebrating and having a conversation with the author.
To make the best use of Facebook Live event, ask your publishing house publicist to do the behind-the-scenes work. He or she can handle putting the questions that are being asked in front of you. Or inserting surprise giveaways into the conversation, etc. Even some of my shy clients have had fun launching their new titles via Facebook Live.
But spontaneity works too. A client of mine waltzed into Target one day for a little shopping and discovered her book being sold there. She whipped out her phone and had a look-at-what-I-just-saw moment with her fans. The joy of the moment made it a wonderful connection. And it helped to get her fans to run on down to their Target to buy the book.
These constitute just a few marketing options that you can take on yourself or ask your publisher to help you with. For the most part, they aren’t expensive investments, but they do constitute meaningful marketing.
This list is by no means all-inconclusive. Many other ideas can generate word-of-mouth sales and momentum for your newest book, trust me.
What ideas have you used or seen used that struck you as effective?
Vinyl is in retrograde, in a good way. Vinyl records are experiencing a resurgence among the hippest, hippiest, (and hippy-est), and among younger generations who find anything vintage fascinating, and who discover that a needle floating across grooves in vinyl produces sound that is, well, groovy.
Can writers glean valuable insights about their writing, submitting, and marketing from A Study in Vinyl?
If the needle of a–hang on for the retro-word–phonograph doesn’t lock into the groove on the vinyl record, it produces noise rather than a pure sound.
The writer’s job is to create a work that makes it easy for the needle (reader) to find the groove, the tone, the reason-for-the-book’s-existence, the musicality that will draw the reader closer rather than tempt the reader to plug his/her ears. And that’s not child’s play. Easy doesn’t mean simple, uncomplicated, or dumbed-down, in this instance. It means that the writer and the story have found the precise “lane” where music replaces distortion.
If you’ve listened to a vinyl recording with a scratch in it, your jaw likely tenses when you think about what happens when the needle hits that scratch, even a scratch that isn’t obvious. The needle skips, hops, or drags its way through the scratch, damaging the needle, damaging to the surface of the record, scraping eardrums, and wrecking the listening experience. A bad enough scratch or the appearance of frequent scratches may be too much for the listener to bear. The record is shelved.
Agents and editors don’t approach a proposal hopping it’s a dud. They open every inquiry with a sense of expectation. Could this be the project I’ve been looking for? The needle of that question is lowered onto the “vinyl” of the submission. Listening stops if the agent or editor:
Checks the vinyl cover. “Wait. This is used. It’s not new. Did the author send me something from the resale shop?” A fresh idea produces a fresh sound, not only pleasing to the ear of an agent or editor, but worth a second listen. Wise writers have done their due diligence to know what’s on the market, what titles have already been snatched up with either great or no success (which colors an agent’s or editor’s perception from word one), and how their unique take adds to rather than muddies the conversation, how its sound resonates and stands out above the noise.
Holds the vinyl to the light. “Not just one scratch, but many.” Scratches like typos, misused words, lack of understanding of publishing terms and the publishing process, and annoying repetition or redundancy feels like a needle skipping in vinyl. The song might have great potential. But the quality of the listening experience falters.
Live performances, vinyl, cassette, CDs, mp3s, Spotify, personalized playlists… Our modern listening options–growing every day–eclipse the handful of choices available to people even a few hundred years ago. True aficionados keep exploring. They scan options online or stand in vintage record shops, flipping through selections, looking for one that will catch their eye and eventually their ear.
That’s our book market too. With the advent of the digital age, we’re no longer limited by shelf space in our libraries, bookstores, or homes. The sea of books has become a universe. Readers have virtually unlimited options. Those are the readers authors try to nab with their “Pick my book. Pick mine” marketing endeavors.
What makes a reader say yes?
Recommendation from a friend who knows what the reader likes, or who wants to challenge the reader to try something different.
A “first song” that pulls the reader to leave the “needle” where it is to listen to one more, then one more.
Reputation. The author (or the musician) consistently produces quality products worth the reader’s or listener’s time and investment.
Whim. Yes, sometimes a book (or vinyl) purchase is made on a whim.
Over what does a writer have control? We sometimes have say regarding the cover of our books, but not always. Writers can encourage people to recommend the book to a friend, but can’t force it. We have no influence over whim. Producing quality is one of our strongest marketing tools. Creating a product worth the reader’s investment is our task.
Scratches? A reader or listener (agent or editor) can only take so much skipping, scritching, and hitches before nerve endings say, “Put it down.”
Yes, some of our favorite books are dog-eared. Our favorite Cat Stevens vinyl looks like a cat used it as a scratching post. But we had to fall in love with the product first.
Is it only me? Or can you see writing tips embedded in vinyl?
I frequently receive questions from writers about whether their novel is a better fit for the Christian market (CBA) or the general market (ABA). The nature of their story, the language, and some of the content might be objectionable to the Christian market. Yet it’s too “Christian” of a story for the mainstream market.
Welcome to the world of CBA publishing. This is the tightrope that many Christian writers walk, especially writers who want to veer outside the sanitized topics that people feel comfortable discussing in church. Anybody who wants to write about the world as it is is faced with these decisions.
I worked with a client on a terrific suspense novel. The Christian message was strong but the violence was disturbing and there were scenes taking place in the sex trade. The faith aspects were too overt for the general market, but the sex & violence made it difficult for the Christian market.
In this case, I have to ask the author a question: What’s more important to you? Keeping the gritty reality of your story, or keeping the undisguised Christian message? The author wanted to convey his Christian message amidst the messy reality of the world. He didn’t want to hide his Christian worldview. He decided to slightly tone down the messy parts, just enough so that it didn’t completely scare editors away, and pitch it in CBA.
A Light Touch
Since I’m the agent, not an in-house editor, I edited just enough so that the content wouldn’t be an immediate dealbreaker for an acquiring editor. When the book is sold, the publishing house edits to their specifications, which varies from house to house.
And in case you’re wondering, my correspondence with any editor interested in acquiring the book would reveal how much they’re anticipating the book needs to be edited. So the author would be able to make an informed decision as to whether to accept an offer from a publisher.
If you are writing a Christian book that contains difficult elements to sell in CBA, you can choose to tone it down, or you can choose to tone down the Christian elements and pitch it in the general market. Or you can leave your book the way you’ve written it and self publish. The one thing that’s pointless and unhelpful is to spend too much time railing about this injustice. It’s just the way it is, even though many of us in the business have tried to change it.
Be aware that some changes may be required for publication, and don’t be married to every single word you’ve written. Understand that the editor’s intent is not to strip your book of it’s uniqueness or its heart, and definitely not to remove your voice. The goal is to make it the best book possible for the specific audience targeted. While edits are often painful, I’ve rarely come across an author who regretted them in the end.
Have you struggled with a book that seems to fall in between ABA and CBA?
Have you ever had one of those days when you were supposed to be writing but you found yourself staring at the screen, whining, “But I don’t feel like writing!”
Let’s explore some ways to eliminate ennui, to beat the blahs, to energize the uninspired and to reignite your passion for writing.
Get back in touch with your love of the craft.
Read one of your favorite books on the craft of writing
Listen to conference tapes.
Read writing blogs.
Have lunch with a fellow writer and ask him/her to remind you why you love to write.
Visit a place that always gets your juices flowing.
Visit the setting of your novel.
Drop into a library just to poke around.
Visit your favorite bookstore, buy a latte, and take up residence in one of their comfy chairs.
Watch a documentary featuring some of your dream settings.
Sit by a stream and write by hand.
Find a coffee shop peopled by creatives.
Take a break.
It does no good to stare at a screen saying, “I don’t feel like writing.” What do you feel like doing?
Maybe what you need is a nap.
Could it be you are merely (a) hungry, (b) thirsty, (c) cranky? Can you address the root cause?
Think about Thoreau’s extended break, On Walden’s Pond. Maybe you need a long walk in the woods.
How about a self-imposed writing fast?
One of my favorite books, A Gift from the Sea came from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s week at the shore. Would a week at seaside cure your writing doldrums?
Sometimes when we don’t feel like writing we’re on a deadline and must use discipline to push through. There are writers who prime the pump by typing gibberish or “blah, blah, blah” until they can get in gear and write.
Perhaps a change of schedule will help you push through. If you don’t feel like writing during your regular writing time can you sleep then and write at three o’clock in the morning? The quiet of that wee hour may allow a fresh writing perspective.
Take time for truth.
Maybe you’re feeling like it’s just not worth it. You’ll never (a) finish the uncontracted book, (b) get an agent, (c) get a contract (d) any number of self-defeating thoughts. Devour stories of writers who never thought they’d make it.
Acknowledge that your feelings (I don’t feel like writing) do not last forever.
Do mindless chores.
Cleaning toilets, washing dishes, sorting laundry– these make writing look like a great alternative.
If you’ve got a huge lawn, by the time you are finished mowing, you’ll probably have several new angles for your book.
Read, Read, Read.
If you read a great book, chances are you will find fresh inspiration.
You may want to analyze the craft– just to see how that author handled something.
If you read a cringeworthy book, it may just be the kind of kick-in-the-pants you need to continue writing your carefully crafted book.
Review past triumphs.
When I hit a writing funk I used to pull out the stack of grade school reader letters, written in pencil on ruled paper, that generally ended with the question, “Do you have a dog?” Remembering my precious young readers was often just the inspiration I needed.
So. . . read any reader mail.
Read all those great reviews.
Relive each of your contest wins and awards.
Bask in the applause for a few moments and then get back to work,
So those are a few of my suggestions. How about you? What can you suggest? What do you do?
What should a writer have in his or her files? With tax time here, I thought this might be helpful.
An author should be able to open up his or her files and find a bunch of information. These files are typically stored in a filing cabinet or scanned in to a computer. PLEASE back up your files remotely and don’t trust that your filing cabinet is fire proof. They aren’t. Even my friends with fireproof safes lost everything in their safes during the California wildfires. The fires were hot and the safes weren’t fireproof enough.
Here’s what I suggest you keep in your filing system:
1) Copies of all of your royalty statements and sales figures.
You should be able to pull these out for each book to get an idea of how well your book is doing, and also you need to include sales figures in future proposals. It’s a good idea to create an Excel chart with title, publisher, date of publication, and the most current number of copies sold.
2) Check stubs or deposit slips (for direct deposits) for all royalty checks.
Believe me, you need these for taxes. You will want to check your 1099s against them and you will also need to note any commissions or expenses (like a bank fee or postage charge) listed on the stubs.
3) Copies of contracts and contract addenda.
Make a copy of your contracts for yourself when you sign them and keep them on file for reference.
4) Copies of marketing plans given to you by the publisher.
Check these frequently to see if there’s something you could be doing to help the publisher get the best results from the marketing they’re doing. For instance, if you know the publisher is running an advertisement with your book featured in a magazine or on a website, invite people to check it out on your Facebook page or blog. Even if your fans don’t go look, you’re still obtaining exposure for your book without directly saying, “Go buy my book.”
5) Copies of professional reviews of your books.
These reviews can be included in future proposals and promotions. A quote from a great review might end up on future book covers. Even if a review is really nasty, keep it, maybe in a different file folder. It’s important to look at bad reviews now and again to learn from them, and you never know what they might mean to you 20 years down the road. Maybe you see it as a nasty review now, but give yourself some distance, and it might become more meaningful.
6) Fan letters that were “gems.”
These letters can provide encouragement and laughs. Author Debbie Macomber has some really cute ones that she shares when she speaks at writers’ conferences. Keep some of your own for days of discouragement.
7) Receipts from business expenses and business travel.
These are also important to keep for taxes. If you make any money from writing in a given year, you can write off all of your writing-related expenses. Plus you can go for a specified number of years developing your craft and submitting projects without earning any money and still write off expenses from your personal taxes. (Talk to a tax accountant to gather the specifics and to see if this still rings true for 2018 after the tax reform.)
Did I miss anything? What do you keep in your files?
Good writing or Olympic Gold Writing? How does a writer move from one to the other?
What’s the difference between a good ice skater and an Olympic gold ice skater? Where are the similarities between the discipline it takes to become an Olympian and what it takes to become an Olympic-quality writer?
Watching the world’s best athletes gather for the Olympics is always entertaining and inspiring. As the camera zeroed in on a petite women’s ice skating champion, I noticed the definition in the muscles of her shoulders. She’d been lifting weights. An Olympic-level skater needs upper body strength in addition to core and leg strength. Muscles don’t retain clear definition without upkeep. Strength training is part of the price a skater pays for reaching a higher level of performance. For writers, that might equate to persistence in learning our craft. Even the best grammarians among us continue to study grammar. Award-winning authors listen to podcasts, read books on plot and character development, and build storytelling muscles.
You know the story. Since the Olympic-bound kid was a toddler, he or she showed up at the rink (with bleary-eyed parents) in the wee hours of pre-dawn to practice. Some athletes of this quality spend four to six hours a day practicing. (No wonder my piano recitals were less than stellar.) They devoted themselves to honing their skills, showing up whether they felt like it or not, saying no to distractions even when it didn’t make them popular. That diligence gets noticed and rewarded. The same is true for those striving to become Olympic Gold writers.
Not settling for less than excellence.
Mastered the triple toe loop? Moving on to the quad. Perfected the spin? Make the revolutions quicker. Technically spot on? Now to work on elegance.
Choosing the right musical accompaniment for their routine.
We watch Olympic skaters and ice dancers and their carefully choreographed routines. Sports commentators add insights about lines and edges and costumes. And the music. Is it right for the skater(s)? Right for their style of skating, appropriate to engage that unique audience? It all matters. All the details matter. As they do for Olympic Gold writers.
Determining to press through nerves or fear.
World class athletes prepare their bodies, their routines, and their minds. They know nerves can paralyze, especially on an ultra-public stage like the Olympics. Nerves or fear can paralyze writers too. Those who press through their fears and uncertainties, who pop back up after falls or rejection, rise above the rest.
Understanding judges’ expectations.
Olympic athletes are well-versed in the requirements of their sport’s discipline. What will cause deductions? How do they perform well enough to earn top scores? What elements are mandatory and which are optional? Writers who understand judges’, publishers’, editors’, agents’, and readers’ expectations move from good to Olympic Gold.
What have you noticed about Olympic athletes and the Olympic games that can apply to writing?
I’m submitting my first non-fiction book proposal, and I am wondering if the absence of a platform dooms a proposal to rejection. I am confident in the quality and the relevance of my book, but I have no platform or marketing experience. How does one address this in a book proposal?
A Writer, Not a Marketer
Dear Not a Marketer,
If your book is targeted at a niche audience, and it’s on a topic on which you are a recognized expert or you are highly credentialed, then a platform isn’t as much of a concern.
But generally with a non-fiction book, you’ll need to show why you’re the right person to author this book, and why potential readers would want to buy your book. Assuming there will be other books on the shelf that are similar in nature to yours, what would make a reader choose yours? That’s what a platform is all about:
Maybe you are the most experienced and/or credentialed author on that subject.
Maybe readers have already read things you’ve written on the topic—on a blog, on Facebook, in a reputable publication.
Maybe readers have heard you on the radio or a podcast, so they already recognize you as someone knowledgeable on the topic.
Perhaps readers attended an event at which you spoke.
What would make readers choose you?
As you can see, it isn’t so much about “publisher requirements,” since these concerns exist even for self-published authors. Readers need a reason to buy your book as opposed to someone else’s.
Think about that as you’re putting together the proposal. If you really have no platform whatsoever, i.e. no reason for people to buy your book, then it’s better to wait a year or two, figure out how to begin engaging with people on your topic (blog, Facebook, Instagram, writing articles for publication, speaking engagements, podcasts) and get started. Then submit your proposal when you have something to show.
Hope that helps!
Does this help your understanding of platform? What’s the hardest part about publishing platform requirements?